- 04 Nov 08
Sopranos star and E-Street Band lynchpin Steve Van Zandt is determined to give Irish radio a kick up the FM dial!
“When did the fucking pussies take over?”
That was the question posed by Steve Van Zandt in his keynote address at the 2005 Radio & Records Convention in Cleveland.
The speech he gave that day, a no-bullshit, we’re-all-family-here diatribe against the state of the airwaves, and how the evils of statistics, demographics and marketing have neutered rock ‘n’ roll radio, was nothing less than the mission statement for a crusade he’s been pursuing for almost a decade.
Van Zandt’s celebrated and syndicated Underground Garage show (which premiered on 103.2 Dublin City FM recently), is dedicated to playing the kind of rock ‘n’ roll – from Gene Vincent to the Ronettes to the Ramones to the Von Bondies – that you won’t hear anywhere else on what his Boss termed Radio Nowhere, and is just one part of his revivalist campaign to preserve the values he believes made rock ‘n’ roll great throughout the renaissance era of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The E-Street Band guitarist also espouses dedication to the craft and graft of live performance, the preservation of analogue recordings, the teaching of rock ‘n’ roll in schools, a reappraisal and reaffirmation of the specialist skills of not just musicians, but also writers, engineers, producers and arrangers. Van Zandt believes the brotherhood of Bruce’s ability to hold a crowd for up to four hours is a direct consequence of their barroom education.
“I never really discuss this with Bruce, but I don’t think we’ve changed much mentally, or maybe we’ve just come full circle with it,” Van Zandt says. “I don’t remember ever going on stage in the last 30 years feeling any differently. Every gig’s the first gig, and every gig’s the last gig. But I think our European tour this time was the best we ever were, personally. We may be looking fondly back on those days as that moment.
“It was fun the way we started getting looser and looser and looser through the end of the tour and taking requests at a certain point not only for obscure Bruce Springsteen songs, but we started taking requests, period. Just songs we’ve never played before. With a stadium crowd. I don’t know too many other bands who would attempt that, but we got that loose mentally, so it was really, really a wonderful feeling of a return to the roots.”
Most major touring acts are terrified to change the setlist because the light show and samples are all pre-programmed.
(Laughs) “It’s the one big plus we’ve always had, which is no production. We just never got into it, and for once it paid off. We don’t even tell the lights or sound guy what we’re doing, you just have to sort of figure it out by the middle of the first verse. Why bother?!”
Were there any similarities between playing in a big group like the E-Streeters and being part of The Sopranos ensemble cast?
“Funnily, it became similar when we started to do some live appearances, like photograph and autograph sessions at casinos and things like that. I said to the guys, ‘If you ever wondered what it felt like to be a rock star, you’re seeing it right here.’ We would have ridiculous groups of people. We went to the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida for the final show, and there had to be, I dunno, 10,000 people, we did this huge walk-through from one part of the casino to another, and it was just thousands of people lined up to see us, it was funny. And we had that reaction almost the whole ten years. We had premieres every year for the show that just got bigger and bigger and bigger. They rivalled anybody’s movies. You just never saw that with television before.”
What was his take on the controversial ending of the final episode?
“Well, I happened to have scheduled a radio thing the next morning at my Miami affiliate – my show’s on in 2,000 cities in America, so I always visit my affiliates whenever I can – and it was one a national call-in show, so I heard the most upset human beings that have ever been on the planet for about an hour. So I listened and listened and finally I said, ‘Listen everybody, I appreciate how emotionally engaged you were in the show, now just do me a favour. Go and watch the show again, forget about the ending that you wrote, that you’re disappointed didn’t happen, and just accept the fact that the cat that you’ve loved all these years, David Chase, who broke every rule in the book, wasn’t about to change at the end. He stayed extraordinarily consistent. Appreciate his ending for a minute.’ And by the end of the week the calls had turned mostly positive. But, y’know, it was quite shocking for people. You’d confront them and say, ‘Listen, what did you want to see? The whole family wiped out? What? What is the perfect ending?’ And when they thought about and saw it a second and third time, most people came around.
“One of the things David made a point of was never glamourising it, never romanticising it, so the genius of the writing was making the most boring profession in the world compelling, y’know? To be a modern gangster, it ain’t the Roaring Twenties baby! Sitting around reading the racing form. You can’t trust anybody, there’s no real security, you’re going to be humiliating your family from time to time…”
Sounds suspiciously like being in a rock ‘n’ roll band.
“Yeah, career wise it’s about the same these days!”