- 29 Oct 19
Steve Van Zandt's role in Bruce Springsteen's all-conquering E Street Band has made him one of the most iconic guitarists in rock history. In an in-depth discussion with Pat Carty he talks about his legendary adventures with The Boss as well as his own work as one of the keepers of the rock n' roll flame. Photo: Miguel Ruiz.
Steve Van Zandt is half-an-hour late. I’d have been disappointed if he wasn’t. When he arrives, he presents himself as you would rightly expect: all headscarf, billowing Hawaiian shirt, boots and jewellery. Like a proper rock star in other words. He has more claim to that title than most.
He first met and played with life long pal Bruce Springsteen in the late sixties and went on to co-form the deservedly legendary Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes, producing and writing most of their first three albums, each one a classic of soul flavoured rock n’ roll. The story goes that it was his fresh ears and arranging skills that earned him a spot in The E-Street Band after helping out on the Born To Run album and he stayed on as the Boss’s right-hand man until the 80’s when he went solo. It was during this period of political activism and music making that he formed Artists Against Apartheid, highlighting the South African struggle. Van Zandt returned to Bruce’s side when the E-street band came back together in 1999 and has been there ever since but, thankfully, in the last few years he has found the time to go back to his solo work and that’s what brings him to Dublin, for a show in Vicar Street with his marvellous Disciples Of Soul troupe/R&B extravaganza, promoting his new album Summer Of Sorcery, which is a good place to start. The opening track sings of “harmony, unity, communion”, it sounds like Van Zandt’s musical philosophy.
“Yes” the man they call Miami agrees, “and it’s especially needed right now. In my country, we're on the verge of a civil war and I'm not exaggerating. The world has entered the darkest period in my lifetime, we've had some bad moments, Vietnam, whatever, but this is something different.”
The lights are going out all over...
“It’s a worldwide system failure. I've never seen so much nationalism, fascism, white supremacy, combined with religious extremism”
So music is needed more now than ever?
“I'm not saying it's going to solve everything,” he reasons, “but I feel it's a common ground that gives us a chance to put our differences aside for a moment.”
Things are getting heavy early, so I move back to the album itself. Van Zandt has refered to it as “12 little movies” but with lines like “I’ve a picture of Brian Wilson that I pray to every night”, it must be personal too?
“No,” he laughs, “it really is fictional! I'm not going to do something that's completely contrary to one of my ten personalities, but it's not autobiographical. ‘I Want To Be In Love Again’? I'm a happily married man and that's not really relevant! You’re going to have traces of autobiography through there, even traces of politics, but I mostly wanted to get away from those two things which dominated all five of my solo albums in the eighties.”
The album veers from doo wop to blues to blaxploitation, and all points in between, and looks back to Van Zandt’s youth in the sixties, a period he has referred to as “the renaissance”. He goes almost starry eyed in remembering.
“It was the seminal period of popular music, the essence of everything that's still going on today. What else has resonated for 70 years?”
Hot Press makes the mistake of suggesting that the seventies might also qualify. Van Zandt puts me straight.
“The seventies was the beginning of the fragmentation from what was very much a mono culture. Everybody followed the trends. 1964: The British invasion, 65: folk rock, 66: country rock, 67: psychedelic, 68: blues rock, 69: southern rock. 1970? Boom! The fragmentation took place, you had singer-songwriters over here with the likes of James Taylor, you had heavy metal with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath over there. And everything in the middle, you know what I mean? In the fifties and sixties virtually every important act was unique, and we thought that would last forever, and suddenly, it didn't. Here's Aerosmith - who I love now - but they were a combination of The Yardbirds and The Stones.”
I won’t hear a word said against The ‘Smith! Toys In The Attic? Rocks? They’re great!
“They are great, but it was different from being The Yardbirds or The Stones. It was the beginning of what we have to this day, hybrids, which is fine. I call it a renaissance for one simple reason, it was the period where the greatest art being made was also the most commercial, that's what's unique."
The Beatles and The Stones were selling records.
“That's what I'm saying, the greatest art was the most commercial, that's a renaissance."
It’s the love of this golden period that also drives Van Zandt’s hugely enjoyable radio show on satellite station Sirius XM.
“Yeah, we've got to make sure this music is accessible to future generations, right? So I started my two hour syndicated show, and along comes Sirius XM, two or three years later. They wanted an entire channel and I had three thousand songs of which I was only playing twenty-five of every week, so I already had one. I also introduced a second format, Outlaw Country, as well. You guys are used to it all through Europe, but Sirius satellite is the first time we've ever had national radio.”
The renaissance man work continues with his record label, Wicked Cool, although launching a record label in this day and age might seem foolhardy. There’s the old joke about how you make a million dollars with a record label - you start off with two million.
“That is shockingly accurate!” he says “The word is suicidal!”
The man is on a mission though.
“There are bands that continue to make traditional rock n’ roll records though they have no logical reason to do it anymore. The odds of making a living are beyond a million to one. We've introduced a thousand new bands. I can think of three - The Hives, The White Stripes, and The Rival Sons now - who have managed to make a living. When a new young band plays rock n' roll, it's pure passion, and you’ve got to support that. You make a great record and get it to us, we'll play it.”
The record label isn’t Van Zandt’s only effort to prop up the music he loves so much, he’s also involved with teahrock.org, which is, as its website states, “an arts integration curriculum that uses the history of popular music and culture to help teachers engage students.”
“Basically the last 20 years of my life have been dedicated towards this endangered species called rock n' roll. I just felt we need to do something right now so it remains accessible to future generations. The radio show, the record label and now teachrock.org. I have created a musical history curriculum - there's 150 lessons online right now for free, with all music and video licensed. We’re partners with Scholastic, HBO, and PBS, and we partner with documentary makers as well. We partnered with The Beatles last year for Eight Days A Week, the Ron Howard film. We turn the documentaries into a lesson plan and it goes right into schools. It's the entire history of music from the early 20th century to contemporary times. Hip-hop, country, jazz, you name it.”
With villains like Betsy DeVos holding the reins, education is under fire in America.
“It's part of the overall disaster,” agrees Steve. “I don't talk too much about my own country, I take it out on Brexit! I've been continually criticising that for the last three years. I feel for the people here, it's just pathetic. The UK has followed in the footsteps of America, it's beyond belief!”
Music, as Van Zandt as alluded to, is the panacea for the darkness that encroaches on us all. His Disciples Of Soul are a live act that has to be seen to be believed, musicians capable of dishing out any genre you care to name.
“I require three things: they’ve got to be great on their instrument first of all, they have to have a knowledge of history to handle the ten sub-genres that you named. When I say gimme a Motown beat, a Benny Benjamin lick, a Hal Blaine lick, they have that knowledge. The third thing I really require is no drama whatsoever, I've got enough drama right now just turning on the fucking TV."
He does seem to be enjoying the frontman role again.
“I'm enjoying presenting the band and presenting the music and I'm having fun. I'm about half-way back to being a full-fledged front man, I'm working towards it. But at the same time I don't think it's necessary really, the girls are entertaining, the horns are entertaining, the music’s entertaining, I'm quite comfortable just presenting it and the audiences have been extremely responsive. They've been wonderful.”
The Loyal Lieutenant
And speaking of front men… In his Born To Run biography, Springsteen refers to his friendship with Cvan Zandt as one of the longest and greatest of his life. Van Zandt has said that the difference is that Bruce went the rock route and he was more soul. Is that still how he feels?
“A little bit, but we very much had the same routes, I mean almost identical, but he has a love of folk music and that whole genre”
It’s hard to imagine Van Zandt serenading people around a camp fire
“No, it's not really my thing!” he chuckles. “And the horn section coming out of the woods! That's Bruce territory, but he's extraordinarily versatile, he's very good at virtually any genre he touches and any media he touches - one of the best books, one of the best broadway shows, the best live performances. He's just remarkable. In the beginning it was a philosophical symbiosis, we were best friends, we believed in the same way. Music was our religion, no one took it quite as seriously as we did.”
It was apparently Stevie’s arrangement skills on tracks like ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ that earned him his E-Street spot.
“Yeah, that kind of thing but later on, with Darkness On The Edge Of Town, The River, Born In The USA even, it was very complimentary because I was able to add a certain amount of arrangement to his originality that made things more than a sum of their parts. But he learned a lot of my tricks very quickly so, over the years, my musical contributions lessened because he just absorbed them.”
In the book Springsteen reckons that the guitar part on Born To Run might be Van Zandt’s greatest contribution. Hot Press is tempted to disagree. Van Zandt explains.
“It's a little bit of a joke but you know that story, right?”
The Springsteen nut inside me does a little dance and feigns ignorance in the hope that a major incident in rock n’ roll history is about to be related.
“I've told it so many times!”, Van Zandt half complains, but continues. “His career was in big trouble and he was working on this one song for months. There was no automation with the mix in those days so you got three or four guys moving faders and every time you did a mix of a song, it was different. You never quite hit the lines. They spent months on this, and Bruce invites me up - I'm not in the band yet. 'Come hear my new song'. So I hear it and it's great, and I said I especially like that minor chord change with the riff, it's very Roy Orbison, it's something like The Beatles would do. Bruce says, 'What minor chord?' I said 'The minor chord in the riff' He said 'There ain't no fucking minor chord in the riff!' What had happened was that, after a while, you start to hear what you want to hear, when you're really overdoing it. He was bending a note - Dun, dun, dun dun daaauun - like a Duane Eddy kind of thing, a lot of reverb, you could hear where he was bending from but you never quite heard where he was bending to. So to my ears. I'm hearing Bam, ba dah dah dawwww”
Hot Press realised all this dah, dah, dah stuff was going to be hard to write down, but I wasn’t about to interrupt him.
“It's the minor note as opposed to the major note so finally he heard what I was hearing, told the bad news to the rest of the gang who wanted to kill me, and he basically said I saved his career with that because it was going to come out like that. It was still a great riff with the minor chord but it was a slightly different vibe.”
Van Zandt has every right to claim it so.
“Yeah! It's not the first or the last time I saved his career!” he states, for the record.
Van Zandt has been known to plump for 1980’s The River as the one where they got it right.
“The first one I produced! Bruce had become very prolific, which he hadn't been before. For Born To Run I think he wrote eight and a half songs and eight were on the album, for Darkness he writes fifty, for River he writes fifty, although he started to slow down a bit for Born In The USA. He goes from writing ten songs a year to writing a hundred.”
Van Zandt regularly plays outtakes from these sessions, which would go on to be included on collections like Tracks and The Promise, on the radio show. They obviously mean a lot to him, and he fought to have them included on the original records.
“Yes! Every one was a lost argument! He just heard a certain thing and in the end you lose the argument, but I was completely right! There should have been another album that came out in between Darkness and The River. There was at least two albums for each of those.”
The outtakes point in a more soul and r&b direction than The Boss decided to take.
“I agree. He felt to some extent that it was less unique and he was very disciplined about his place in history and felt he had to maintain that uniqueness. It's perfectly logical way to think, and he was completely wrong! These things are just as much him as the others. I mean, you and I might be able to hear some influences on them, but nobody else would, and so what? But that's how he felt at the time and you can't argue with the man. Tracks, The River outtakes, and the Darkness outtakes are some of my favourite albums.”
Just before the release of Born In The USA, Van Zandt decided it was time for him to move on. The obvious question is what the hell was he thinking?
“It was a moment of insanity” he agrees, with a rueful snort. “It was a foolish move that I've regretted ever since. Certainly financially, but it was more that I had a position of power which I had earned and you should never, ever give up your power-base. I left to talk about serious issues and of course had I stayed I would have been able to accomplish a lot more than I did, but it's a paradox. The question is would I have done the Sun City record had I stayed? Maybe not, so you got to justify leaving on that basis. Would the South African government have fallen eventually? Probably. But we took years off it, without a doubt. People were dying every day, so we saved lives, by leaving the band! You have to justify it that way or else you'd jump off a building!”
Time has caught up with us, and Van Zandt needs to be on the other side of town for a radio broadcast. He graciously signs Hot Press’ copy of The River, and sends this delighted admirer off with a wave and a laugh. Look at him. Rock star.