By Ray Chelstowski
Back in 1982, Steven Van Zandt was known as maybe the best chief petty officer in rock ‘n’ roll. His leadership and technical expertise guided bands like The Asbury Jukes and the E Street Band through tricky waters on the stage and in the studio. This allowed artists like Bruce Springsteen to focus on the creative process and develop what some might argue is his strongest period of output. That guiding hand was most noticeable when it became absent. With Southside’s 1979 release The Jukes and Bruce’s 1987 album Tunnel of Love, the cohesiveness that Steve Van Zandt brought to their music was no longer as apparent — and it only returned when he did too.
So it was a surprise when he decided to distance him from these acts and his “Miami Steve” persona to go solo and become “Little Steven.” As he told the L.A. Times upon the release of his first record, Men Without Women, the decision was driven by a desire to deliver an album infused with his own viewpoint and musical trim. The result was a record that would quickly become a critics’ darling, often ranked among the year’s best. It struck a balance between the rock and soul part he had been long tied to with a political underpinning that had been developing within him for some time.His music from there would move deeper in that direction, again receiving critical praise and replacing commercial success with the ability to inspire and establish real social change.
As his career evolved, what never changed was the commitment he has made to celebrating rock’s rich history and providing forums for up-and-coming acts to build an audience. Last year he returned to the studio and cut his first record in many years, reforming his infamous band, the Disciples of Soul. The tour that followed was focused on taking people “through a history of American rock ‘n’ roll.” The live show is a four-year undergraduate degree in rock ‘n’ roll earned over a two hour stretch. Each song is set up with an introduction that is as academic as it is outright cool. This extraordinary journey is captured on his latest release Soulfire Live (shown below), a 47-track experience that’s almost a great as being there in person.
We got a chance to speak with Steven about the record, his radio platform, the state of rock and who he continues to root passionately for year after year in the Rock Hall nominating sessions.
GOLDMINE: When you were promoting your first solo record, Men Without Women, you told the L.A. Times that it was a gamble given how conservative rock radio was then. How do you feel about radio now?
VAN ZANDT: Well, now it’s gone all the way. It was a challenge in those days. Today it’s over. There’s no radio and if you’re making a rock record there’s literally no format for you. You can find jazz on radio easier than rock ‘n’ roll. So you have to wander into some kind of hybrid where you might get lucky. The wonderful thing about our business is that in the end there’re really no rules. You kind of live your existence in that sort of bizarre “you’re only one hit away from a new life” state. Obviously you can’t depend on it and you learn to not depend on it, and certainly at this point you’ve got to be CRAZY to depend on it. It could happen but you have find another way to make a living without depending on radio, that’s for sure.
The only thing like this is my Sirius channel. For the first time in many years you can have a mass shared experience; that’s possible now. I wanted to reproduce that exact experience making sure that people had access to where something great comes on and people respond to it. We have our “coolest song of the week” every week. We have introduced over 1,000 new bands and you never know which one of them is going to catch on.
GM: Your radio show is more than just clever programming. It’s seems like both a reflection and a vessel of your role as a curator and keeper of the rock flame.
VZ: We make sure that we are very curated on both of my stations. They both are turning people onto new stuff all of the time and tragically it’s the only place where you’re gonna hear new stuff in any kind of rock ‘n’ roll and certainly in the country world unless it fits inside that very tight country format. It’s really the only hope you have, but at least there is hope.
GM: What prompted you to return to the studio and then the road with theDisciples of Soul after so many years?
VZ: It should have occurred to me sooner, but it hadn’t occurred to me at all. I was in London at the end of the E Street tour and this crazy cat Leo Green who’s a promoter over there asked me when I was coming back. I said that me and (wife) Maureen were coming back for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday. He said, “That’s the same week as my blues festival, so why don’t you throw a band together and headline one of the nights. I thought, “I can think of one reason why not, since I haven’t done that in 25 years!” But it just felt like something worth giving a shot. I had done the Darlene Love album the year before and had put this cat Marc Ribler in as her musical director, so when I came home I borrowed him and put a band together. We started rehearsing, and I put a set of some random songs of mine together with some blues things. I figured it would be a good way to do some Electric Flag—nobody ever plays that anymore. Maybe some Paul Butterfield, the stuff he did with horns. Playing those songs for the first time in 25 years was a revelation; I gotta tell ya it was a shock. This stuff is different. It’s not like anything that’s around today. It’s a whole different genre practically, and it has this depth that everyone took for granted when we were growing up. We grew up in a renaissance period and I refer to it that way deliberately. That 1951 to 1971, 20- year period was when the greatest art being made was also the most commercial. And when that happens it’s very rare.
So we did the gig and it felt like an album right away. Bruce had told me he was going to take a year off to do this Broadway thing and I didn’t have a TV show yet so I thought, let me revisit this time of my life.
GM: The live show is a real rock spectacle. There’s so much going on with every song. It’s hard to determine where to look: at you, the horns, the girls. It almost reminds me in form of an early ‘70s Elvis show.
VZ: I had always done that big band thing. I lock in the horns which I did very early with The Jukes. I always heard that sound in terms of those five horns and arranged to it. I had also always used real string which we did on the record (Soulfire). The only thing I didn’t have was harmony. I fell in love with Darlene Love’s background singers so I decided to add that dimension to my thing. That was the only addition to the big sound that made it the biggest you can be. After that you’re literally hiring a 16-piece string section (laughs).
I never really evolved any of my records in terms of staying with that particular sound. All five of my records are completely different musically. This was the first time I stuck to the sound and saw where it could go. I’m really anxious to see where it goes myself.
GM: I spoke with Joe Grushecky about you. He said that as much as you are known for charting horns, your bigger talent is directing drums and percussion.
VZ: Well, I have one of the greatest drummers in the world. My thing about keeping this band together for a year is that you really get a chance to teach them what you know, what you want to do and how you think. These guys are the best session guys in the world and their niche is being flexible and able to adjust to whoever they’re working with. After a year with me and an album or two they are really starting to understand what I like and why I do what I do. I have an absolute different method to what I’m doing and why and you can hear it in the drums and the bass. It takes a really great drummer to be able to do a drum fill the way I like. I built into the show a certain amount of specificity and a certain amount of spontaneity so that everybody in the band gets a chance to express themselves. I know what it’s like being on the other side and I’m a band guy so I think of it both ways and always have.
GM: The Darlene Love album that you produced (at left) contained your song “Among The Believers.” How do you attach your songs to specific singers?
VZ: It’s fun to do that. You can’t do it with every song but I just love those lyrics and they work for her. She’s very conscious of that. I really wanted to make the greatest album of all time with her and I think I succeeded. It’s one of the biggest disappoints of my life that no one heard that record. I called up all of the great writers in the world and they all came through. They all wrote great new songs for her. I wanted to make a record that was up to her standards. It just didn’t sell. But I’m never ever going to say any bad word about Sony because they signed a 73-year-old woman for her debut album. I will give them credit for the rest of my life.
GM: You guys got your start playing endlessly on the Jersey shore, then the entire eastern seaboard. How does someone launch their career today?
VZ: It’s almost impossible. I have been working on it for almost 15 years trying to rebuild an infrastructure that will allow rock bands to make a living. And there’s still a long way to go. I meet with the Hard Rock Cafe every year. They’re still a sponsor of my radio show. I meet with them to try talking them into becoming a network, a circuit for live music because they have the only structure that can do it. They have over 150 cafés hotels and casinos. Out of that there are probably 50 that could have a stage big enough to work. Even if it’s 40 to 50 they need to invest in a PA system, a monitor system and a back line so the musicians can travel from one Hard Rock to another and have a circuit worldwide. I’ve worked on this every single year and I still hope that it’s going to happen. And that would complement my radio show which is where it starts. After that, a TV show needs to follow. All of this would provide a complete infrastructure for the rock world which has been an endangered species for sure.
GM: The Disciples of Soul (DOS) really evolved quickly from an R&B infused outfit into a platform for your politics.
VZ: I started out the very first album with a song that says what I’m going to be doing which is “Lying In A Bed Of Fire.” Much of the rest of that record is me introducing myself as an artist and that had to be more personal. It was a little more autobiographical in this case. Starting off with my manifesto that says this is going to be a political career and it explains why. We had become complacent and weren’t living up to the ideals that we had espoused in the ‘60s. What happened to those promises, what happened to evolution, what happened to revolution? All of that was in that song and in the four albums that followed.
Obviously the ultimate example is “Ohio” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. And there was Jefferson Airplane and Bob Dylan, of course. But mostly people would go to demonstrations and they’d conduct protests but it wasn’t showing up very often in the work. So I thought, let me be extreme about this and do nothing but that in my work.
GM: Sun City, arguably your most political project stands in dark contrast to We Are The World in that every participant was already politically active. That seems to have provided even more fire to each performance.
VZ: Yeah, it had to be because we were doing something that was different. We weren��t getting the biggest artists in the world to do a pop song for a very nice cause. We had assembled people who were already aggressive and outspoken in their work. We were trying to motivate and inspire people to revolution. We weren’t feeding people. We were overthrowing a government! This requires a slightly different type of music. The hip-hop world was still very new at that point and I wanted to include them because it was the first time black artists were really being able to express themselves. I wanted them right next to Miles Davis and David Ruffin and Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne.
GM: You have a large role in the RRHOF. Every year there has been discord over nominees and there probably always will be. But who is the act that hasn’t been nominated that every year gets your own personal appeal?
VZ: Well, we all have people that we feel very strongly about and as much as the Hall of Fame gets criticized, I do feel that we do a really good job. It’s a tough one because these rules, like putting five artists in every year, were set in place in the beginning. We leave that room having voted for 120 artists and really every one of them should be in. I feel really strongly about Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio. I think that they are the greatest rockabilly group of all time. Procol Harum is one of the most extraordinary bands in history. The J. Geils Band is not in yet, which is ridiculous.
The only thing that bugs me is when people don’t show up. It’s so hard to get in. We have 30 to 40 of us in that room and we all submit two to three names each. So you have 80 or so names every year that goes down to five.
GM: When do you head back into the studio? What kind of music will you decide to attack?
VZ: Yes, I’m writing right now and I’m hoping to get some of it done before we go back out on our “teacher appreciation tour” all through the Midwest. We want to get as much of the album done as we can in September, and go back out on the road October, November and December. That will be the end of the Soulfire experience and we will have done, depending upon how you measure it, six to seven tours. I’m going to try to get a TV show going in the winter, mix the album and hopefully take the Disciples back out next summer.