Steven Van Zandt must be joking.
“I’ve got to find a job,” he tells NJ Advance Media, appearing sincere.
But in the same breath the rock icon has just listed all the hats (or headscarves) he wears on a given day: Internet radio host, record label owner, producer, philanthropist, not to mention his own songs — or projects with an old pal named Bruce.
A chameleonic music man who’s held just about every job in the industry over the past 55 years — dating back to his bar-band days in Middletown, where he first met The Boss — Van Zandt says he’s busier than ever, despite being hunkered down in his Greenwich Village home for the past nine months. There are always old records to spin, new albums to polish, a growing music education foundation, called TeachRock, to advise and heaps of long-overdue songs to promote, between his own band (Disciples of Soul) and the legendary E Street Band, who just released with Springsteen the dazzling LP “Letter to You” in October.
And then there’s his Twitter addiction. Social media junkies may already know Little Steven as one of the entertainment industry’s most outspoken political tweeters, who throughout the Trump era has been a vehement and near-daily dissenter of the White House, Capitol Hill and all measures that, in his mind, don’t align with human rights or attempts at national unity.
“We need to keep talking to each other because I’ve never seen the country so divided as now,” Van Zandt, 70, says over the phone. “And I’ve been through some things.”
Since his temporary departure from E Street in 1984, Van Zandt has played a key role in tuning his fellow musicians’ political cognizance. Some of the industry’s most strident voices — Bono, Tom Morello and Eddie Vedder among them — credit Van Zandt’s far-reaching 1985 project “Sun City,” which rallied more than 50 A-list artists to stand against apartheid in South Africa, as their introduction to activism. The influence trickles down; perhaps Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga don’t use their mammoth platforms to promote political messages without Van Zandt laying the framework 35 years ago.
“I fully intended to politicize everybody I knew, and I think I did,” Van Zandt says.
Naturally, Van Zandt has plenty more to say about the nation’s current transition of power, plus the country’s rekindled “Sopranos” obsession, his enduring friendship with Springsteen, the future of the E Street Band and rock and roll at-large.
Here’s our big chat with Little Steven.
Let’s begin as every 2020 conversation has since March: What have you been doing to stay busy while stuck at home?
“At first, it was a lot of things. We wanted to make sure the radio stations (”Underground Garage” and “Outlaw Country”) and all the radio stuff worked. We had most of our people already working from home at SiriusXM, so we just had to convert a few people. And then our education program, Teachrock.org, was already online. But we really sent out a few special versions of it for teachers teaching at home. I produced a record for Marc Ribler, my music director for the last three years with (my band) Disciples of Soul. We did that completely on the phone, from scratch. And I produced a few other singles. Plus I’m doing a lot of executive producing of all the bands on my label. They send me the demos, you know what I mean? So I check out the demos, recordings, mixes and make suggestions. We must have close to 20 artists signed. So that stuff keeps me busy. Also, I’m trying to figure out some kind of podcast. I’ve got to find a job, is what I got to do. So I’m trying to figure that out.”
A few weeks ago, your 1985 protest anthem “Sun City” — which rallied more than 50 A-list artists to stand against apartheid in South Africa — celebrated its 35th anniversary. Does it surprise you that after all this time, America is still fighting such familiar racism, classism and oppression?
“Over the last three years, I’ve gone back and played some of my old songs for the first time. I was like, ‘Man, these songs are still relevant.’ And that is unfortunate. When I wrote “I am a Patriot” and I was thinking, ‘Things cannot get any worse than now.’ And this was 1984. Oh my God, was I wrong.
When I went to South Africa, I didn’t go with a superior or condescending attitude, because I knew we were only a couple of years ahead of them. It was a little bit more exaggerated down there, but I realized I’m down there in 1985 or so, and our civil rights legislation was ’65, only 20 years earlier. Civil Rights was ’64, Voting Rights Act in ’65, which got gutted in 2013 by a very, very strange Supreme Court, which is getting stranger by the moment. So it wasn’t like we fixed our civil rights hundreds of years earlier.
I look at these things and I’ve got to tell you the truth, I’ve been hearing the same problems now for my whole life. Since I’ve been conscious about politics — whatever that’s been, 40 years — and I hear all these kinds of solutions people are talking about but there’s one simple problem we got here: We’re not integrated. We never integrated. … I believe the biggest scam ever perpetrated by the white population on the Black population was convincing them that the Black neighborhood was their idea. I mean, when are we going to invite our Black population and join the rest of us in America? That’s what I want to know.
I mean, we could fix racism in one generation. But we tend to ghetto-ize our immigrants. And that’s the problem. You can’t ghetto-ize immigrants because it becomes its own problem. You’ve got to integrate immigrants when they come. Until that happens, nothing’s going to change.”
When and how did you become so politically conscious?
“It wasn’t until The River Tour in 1980 and ’81. I was completely unconscious until then, politically. I never paid attention to it. (The E Street Band) was in Europe for the first time; we had done a quick tour in ’75, just four shows. But in ’81, we did a really extensive European tour, and this kid (in Germany) came up to me and said, ‘Why are you putting missiles in my country?’ I guess referring to NATO or whatever. And I just laughed it off, but I never forgot it. A couple weeks later I realized, this kid doesn’t see me as a guitar player. He doesn’t see me as a Democrat or Republican or taxi driver or a grocery clerk. He sees me as an American. You’re not really conscious of being an American until you travel. But at that point, I was like, ‘Holy s—. Maybe I am putting missiles in his country.’ If we’re a democracy, which of course we’re really not, I’m responsible for my country’s actions. And I thought, ‘Man, what else am I doing? What else am I guilty of?’
So I started reading books for the first time in my life, and slowly began to realize we’re not the heroes of democracy around the world, and we haven’t been since World War II. And I slowly became obsessed with politics, and that led to me leaving the E Street Band and going on my adventure — which was part artist, part journalist — for all of the ’80s and those five albums I did (1982′s ‘Men Without Women’ to 1999′s ‘Born Again Savage’).”
Do you think there’s a greater expectation now of artists to be politically outspoken?
“That was one of my missions I took on in the ’80s, because it was really not hip to be politically engaged. And I wanted to politicize everybody; I was so extreme. And I became one of the most political artists in the world. For those people who tuned in later (in my career), they may not know that side of me, which is fine. But I was nothing but politics throughout the ’80s, and I fully intended to politicize everybody I knew. And I think I did. You talk to people —Tom Morello, Eddie Vedder, Bono — they usually give credit to ‘Sun City’ for being the first time they became politically engaged. That thing really made an impact.
I was successful in getting people used to the idea of artists being engaged in politics. And it was important in the ’80s, especially, because all the bad stuff was very, very hidden. Now, these last four years it’s a whole different story. And that’s why the last three years, and my last two albums — my new rebirth albums — ‘Soulfire’ and ‘Summer of Sorcery,’ were specifically not political for the first time. I felt, ‘How can I be useful as an artist?’ In the ’80s, I felt it was useful to point things out and shine a light on some of these bad things. But at this point I think my usefulness is trying to bring people together say ‘listen, music is the common ground. We need to keep talking to each other because I’ve never seen the country so divided as now.’
And I’ve been through some things. I’ve been through the Vietnam War. It’s never been divided like this. This is the worst part of what Trump has done, basically dividing this country. … I’m so frustrated and angry about the Democratic party, how incompetent they are at defending their own brand, and letting the opposition brand them as these socialist de-funders of police, which is a complete lie. And that’s why we’re fighting for the Senate.
Jan. 5, 2021 (the U.S. Senate runoff election in Georgia) is a huge moment. Yes, the most important thing was getting Biden and Harris in, but we’re going to watch another eight years of getting nothing done because of Mitch McConnell, who is absolutely satanic. He is the Antichrist. So I’m hoping for a double miracle on Jan. 5 and we can take back the Senate, because that’s the only way we’re going to get anything really done. But not a single statehouse changed, which was extremely disappointing. That’s where the gerrymandering is, and all of that real, local corruption takes place in the local statehouses. And they’ll continue to be just as corrupt because the entire Republican party at this point is corrupt.
As I say that, my father was an ex-Marine, Goldwater Republican. So I know all about what the Republican party was, and what true conservatism was, which began to change with Ronald Reagan and now has become the party of religious extremism, which it wasn’t. ‘Conservative’ does not mean anti-women, anti-science, anti-equality, anti-democracy. They’re making this stuff up as they go along now. We need a Republican party that is functional, and we don’t have one.
The next four years are going to be terrible. (Biden) will do some executive orders, which will be good, but we got too many big things to get fixed right now. We need big fixes, and for that, you need the Senate and the House. We need warriors. We need Stacy Abrams. We don’t need ‘Can’t we all get along?’ right now. We need people who are ready to fight for this country.”
You’ve become very active on Twitter, discussing politics at length and interacting with your 230,000 followers. How much energy goes into your social media usage?
“I was trying to keep politics out of the feed for a long time, because you end up getting in fights with these mindless morons. But at the same time, when somebody asks a question I think is legitimate, I try to give them a legitimate answer, hoping maybe that’ll make them think. Maybe it’ll turn them around a little bit.
Basically, I look at (Twitter) like it’s something I do in between while I’m working. I don’t focus on it, really. I glance at it in between things. I’ll make a few comments and then go back to work. Really, to tell you the truth, it’s more like venting for me. Sometimes I just want to explode. I want to just punch the TV. And I’m just like, ‘Let me just vent for a little bit on Twitter.’ I’ve got to say, it’s kind of a miracle that you can talk directly to the whole world just like that. I’m old enough to appreciate what a miracle that is.”
OK, enough politics. Let’s talk about the terrific new Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band album, “Letter to You.” What was it like recording live and in the room with the rest of the band for the first time in ages?
“It was us getting back to what we used to do. We basically did ‘Darkness (On The Edge of Town),’ ‘The River’ and ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ that way, really. We’re just better at it now. The last three, four, five albums we’ve done since the reunion in ’99, those records were all done differently. They were all done by Bruce demoing things at home because he was coming from his … so, when I left the band, it kind of tipped the balance going from a band consciousness to more of a solo consciousness for him, even “Tunnel of Love” was a solo album in my mind.
So by the time the E Street Band got back together, he still was half in his solo thinking, which led to him demoing the songs. And then he’d bring them in, and then the E Street Band would replace those parts, which is OK. But it’s different. It’s different than getting the actual input from the band, because the band’s very, very good. And they tend to produce themselves and come up with their own parts. And we change the arrangements. We all make suggestions on the arrangements and things like that. And you’re going to make it better. It’s going to be better when you have more people involved than when you have less. That’s just science. And so for the first time since the reunion, we did it the old way. He walked into the room with an acoustic guitar, says, ‘Here’s the song.’ And then we took it from there.
I think you can hear and feel the difference. The main thing is, it’s so much more fun. I think it’s more fun for him, too. But he had to get back into that band frame of mind. Once a band peaks, and that first peak of a band, and most of the guys are making money, they start having families, you start to lose that band thing. So I think it was getting that back for the first time in, what, in 40 years? I mean it’s hard to believe, but for the first time in like 40 years we got that band thing back.
(Recording) went very quick. Some of the old records took forever. This one, I wanted it to last longer, like, ‘Come on Bruce. Don’t you have any more songs? Let’s do some more.’ And luckily, we got it done before this f—ing zombie apocalypse hit, because obviously it would’ve ruined everything. So it turned out good, and it was a joy to make it.”
After 55 years of friendship, with a few rocky times in the middle, what’s your relationship like now with Springsteen?
“It’s really great and pretty much back to how it always was. There were a couple of awkward years there in the middle, but I think we’ve been back to being close friends now for a long time. So it’s really not that different than it was, other than we don’t see each other quite as often in person. Especially now with this crazy thing.”
Do you regret leaving The E Street Band in ’84?
“What I say is a little bit contradictory. The truth is I wish I could’ve done both things at the same time. I wish I never left. And then I wish if I hadn’t left, I would’ve done a lot of the same things that I did when I left. Now the truth of the matter is, would you have done those things? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I think the political stuff, I don’t think I would’ve got as involved with it. I wouldn’t have been making those research trips that I made in South Africa twice, and Nicaragua and Algeria. I was making all of those political trips for the research for my work.
If I had stayed, I don’t think I ever would’ve made a solo album, to tell you the truth. I would’ve maybe continued writing for other people, and maybe producing other people, but I probably wouldn’t have ever really visited the artist part of my identity. So there’s that. And like I say, the whole South Africa thing. Would it have happened? I don’t know. Maybe not. And we played a big role in bringing down that government. Would it have come down inevitably? Probably. But not necessarily. Would Nelson Mandela have died in jail? Very possibly. So I mean, we saved a lot of lives there. You can go back and forth on it for the rest of your life, and believe me I kind of will, and I do, but the answer is I wish I’d never left, and I wish I could’ve done what I did after I left. I wish I could’ve done both things.”
Is it looking like 2022 for the next E Street Band tour, as Springsteen told Rolling Stone?
“It’s hard to say.”
Well, when the band does inevitably return to touring, can it still pull off those marathon four-hour concerts like the ones at MetLife Stadium in 2016?
“First of all, let’s get one thing straight — the band never had four-hour shows in it. That was a bit extreme. And by the end of those four-hour shows, thankfully we only did a few, you couldn’t bend the strings on the guitar anymore. I mean Bruce came to me and says, ‘I can’t bend the strings on my guitar.’ This is at the end of the show. I’m like, ‘Don’t complain to me. Go talk to the boss.’ But our usual three-hour shows, I’d even go as far as three and a half, yes we can do those every day of the week as good or better than ever. Bruce stays in fantastic shape, and hopefully I will get into better shape than I’m in right now (laughs).
Also, I think rock n’ roll in general has completely changed the concept of chronological time. Something bizarre has gone on these last 50 or 60 years. I personally know seven guys in their eighties who are performing. I mean, growing up I didn’t know anybody who lived past their sixties.”
Earlier this year, GQ called “The Sopranos” “the hottest show of 2020,” as millions of viewers binged (or re-binged) the series while in quarantine. Why do you think it holds up so well?
“Two words: David Chase. The writing is among the best in history. What people have forgotten how to do on TV is establish characters. And you got 12 memorable characters in that show, any one of which would hold your interest when they’re on the screen. But that concept is gone. … There’s nothing been quite like it and that makes it timeless, because it’s just kind of its own thing.”
Do you ever go back and watch it?
“I never have, and I’ve got to do that. I’ve never watched the whole thing from beginning to end.”
Between the E Street Band, your own music, radio programs, record label, studio time and foundation, you seem extremely busy. What’s an average day like nowadays?
“I get up and overnight I’ve probably gotten a set of songs from one of my bands at least once a week, whether it’s either in demo, recording or mixed stage. So I’m working on that with them. I’ve got interaction with my education foundation, TeachRock, trying to keep up with what they’re doing. We do a lot of interviews this last year in general, whether it was talking about my last three years — five projects came out of these last three years between “Soulfire,” the Soulfire Live Box Set, the “Lilyhammer” score, the “Rock N Roll Rebel” box set, which had 50 extra tracks, and the “Summer of Sorcery” box set, which is coming in May. And now Letter to You.
So there’s all of that, and I’ve got to keep an eye on both my radio stations. It’s not any one thing, but I’ve been busier than ever. Aside from the circumstance, I must say it’s been nice staying home. I’ve been running around ever since I came back into the business, which was right around the turn of the century there. I’ve been running for the last 20 years. So it’s been actually nice to be home with my wife and my dog. We all should stop a little bit more often. You know what I mean? Just take in life.”
And did I hear you’re the star of a new children’s book, too?
“Yeah, that’s one of things my foundation, TeachRock, is doing. Our intention is to be at every grade level, from kindergarten to college, and that’s how we designed the curriculum. We have over 40,000 teachers registered now. And we even have partner schools who are integrating the arts into every single discipline, and that’s our goal.
I saw it work. The day before we quarantined, we were visiting a partner school south of Los Angeles and it was a thrill to see our curriculum actually functioning and working in that environment, from kindergarten to sixth grade. Every single grade, every kid so enthusiastic about school and the teachers having a ball. It was how school should be.”
“Underground Garage,” your garage-rock-centric radio show, is approaching it’s 1,000th episode. But in the mainstream, virtually no traditional rock bands are breaking through. Is there a future for the genre that’s defined your career?
“Bands will never go away. You’ll never be able to replace a band because it’s the chemistry; the magical chemistry that makes a great band cannot be simulated by one person. Speaking for our own ‘Underground Garage’ radio format, we’ve introduced over 1,000 new bands in 18 years. So believe me, they’re still out there. But it’s hard to break through because rock n’ roll has now been returned to the cult that it was in the mid-’50s. And maybe that’s where we belong.”
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