Noise

Steven Van Zandt further commits himself to promoting the glory—and legacy—of rock ’n’ roll

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Little Steven, aka Steven Van Zandt
Illustration: Photo by Jo Lopez / Courtesy

Steven Van Zandt has made his name as the lead guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, as Silvio Dante on the widely acclaimed The Sopranos TV show and as the driving force behind the Underground Garage syndicated radio show and satellite radio station.

And now, the man better known as Little Steven is making his mark again, this time as the leader of his own band, The Disciples of Soul. Their current tour, in support of the 2017 album Soulfire, offers teachers free access to both tickets and a pre-show workshop on TeachRock, his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s program to promote the historical study of rock ’n’ roll.

We caught up with Little Steven as he traveled between cities.

I was looking at some setlists. It looks like you're covering your entire career. That was the whole point of Soulfire: to kind of sum up where I’m coming from. Not only reintroducing myself to an audience, but also introducing myself as an artist to a whole lot of people. I focused on that on Soulfire … as a singer, a songwriter, an arranger-producer, as well as a guitar player, of course.

It’s been a very exciting year-and-a-half. We put Soulfire out about a year-and-a-half ago, and just put out the Soulfire Live! CD box, which is pretty much the show you’re going to see with a bunch of extra songs on it [featuring] guests that have been dropping in over the past year. And now we’ve added the teachers’ solidarity part of it.

Tell me about that. We put aside 500-600 [free] tickets for teachers. It doesn’t matter what grade level they teach or [what] discipline they teach. Any teacher can come to the show for free and bring a friend, and if they want to attend the free workshop, we do that at 6 p.m., right after the soundcheck, and talk about our curriculum that my foundation has written up. We went public with it this year, and we’ve already registered 12,000 teachers.

What’s the response been from teachers who attend the show? Oh man, what I didn’t count on is how great an audience teachers are, man. They are like letting lions out of the cages. They don’t go out that much, and once you can get them out, man, they go wild. I’ve been loving that.

What should the audience expect from your show? It’s gonna be fun. People don’t get to see a 15-piece band very often. It’s a big sound. Five horns, three singers—it’s a bigger sound than people are used to. It’s kind of blowing minds, you know?

You and Bruce live and die by rock ’n’ roll. That’s been part of your legend and your friendship. But does it still have the same place in society now? We’re back to being an underground cult, which is where we started in the early ’50s. But it’s a very powerful cult and a very powerful religion for me. We continue to preach that gospel.

I find that when people get in that room—in my case … because I don’t have any hits, they’re just coming because maybe they know me from something else and they’re just curious—we win them over every single time, song by song. Judging by the enthusiasm, obviously rock is not dead. It’s just gone back underground, you know?

Maybe that’s where it belongs. That’s exactly what I say. The fact that we were mainstream for 30 years is probably an anomaly.

When you’re producing younger artists, with the state of the record business now, what are you telling them—just tour, tour, tour? That’s right. Any way they can get on the road, do it, because that’s eventually where they’re going to make their living. The records now are just kind of a ticket to ride. They’re the script for the show, but they ain’t the show anymore … it is touring and how good [the artists] are live that’s going to make the difference.

It’s a challenge, man. We do all we can. We counted the other [day], and we’ve introduced over 1,000 new bands in our 15 years of the Underground Garage. Most of them work during the week and play during the weekends and try and spread their thing around, but it’s tough. It’s really tough.

When you started the Underground Garage in 2003, you couldn’t have imagined it being heard in 200 countries, especially during a time when rock ’n’ roll was horrible. Yeah, man. It was the worst time ever. When I started the radio show I knew every rock ’n’ roll record that was being made in the world. You could follow every single one, because nobody was even bothering to make them. I think that proved a point—if you build it, they will come. Once we got up and running, hundreds of new bands starting popping up, suddenly realizing they could get on the radio.

We’re very proud of the fact that we’re the only ones playing new [rock] music out there, and of course, at the same time, we’re the only ones playing album tracks from The Rolling Stones’ 12 x 5, early Beatles or Who or Kinks or Yardbirds. It’s important to have the old stuff, but it’s just as important to have the new stuff. And people can connect the dots between the two and see who’s coming from who and where people are coming from. We throw in blues and soul and all the roots, so you really have a complete picture in the Underground Garage.

Are there any bands you’d like to see get back together? A lot of them are on the way out, man. There’s not a whole lot left. I’ve always hoped for The Kinks. I know Ray [Davies], and I know Dave [Davies]. They’re just the nicest guys in the world. They’re both fantastic guys. I know the bass player is gone, but the drummer [Mick Avory] is still with us. That could be a wonderful reunion, but they just have never quite gotten along—that brothers thing. There’s a great rock ’n’ roll tradition of that going back to The Everly Brothers.

You’re doing about two hours a night for each concert, correct? Yeah. Something like that.

What’s going on with your fitness between this and the three-and-a-half hour burners you guys are doing with Bruce? How do I get that fit? No matter how you are feeling—you might feel tired or a little bit sick—that music starts, man, and it’s like jumping into the rapids in a little canoe. Zoom! It’s just lifts you up and carries you. It’s amazing, the power of music in that way. There’s no other real explanation. We should have been dying decades ago, but we just keep going.

What’s next? We got more to do. I just finished a new album that’s going to be out in May. … Once I started acting, I just stopped writing. I went on to other things. I had a little anxiety. I was like, “Man, I wonder if I can still write a new album.” I mean, I wrote the score for Lilyhammer for three seasons, which is a little bit different. This past year and a half on the road really put my head back into my music, which I had pretty much abandoned unintentionally. When I called on those old writing muscles that hadn’t been used in a while, they came through.

Does the new album have a theme to it, like the political stuff you were putting out in the ’80s? The double challenge this time was not only writing it, but I didn’t want to write a political album anymore. I did nothing but politics for those five solo albums in the ’80s. And then I intentionally did not do that on Soulfire in order to really emphasize me as a songwriter and a singer for the first time. I wanted the music to come first this time, plus, I think at this point, politics is just redundant. When I was exclusively political … there was all kinds of sneaky sh*t going on behind the scenes that I felt needed to be exposed. Now it’s like everybody knows what’s happening. I felt it’s more useful right now to try and bring people together and try and find some common ground between us, because we’re getting so divided in this country. I want to emphasize those kinds of themes. I’m very, very happy with it.

It’s a good time for the E Street Band as solo artists. You guys are getting to showcase your skills in ways people haven’t seen. That’s right. It’s very good for the band. Then you come back to the band and you’re all stronger and it makes the band stronger. So that’s what I would recommend to every band that has people that want to do solo records or things in between. You don’t have to break up the band to do solo projects. Do both. Do them every other year, whatever. It’s extremely important that young people understand that, because we’ve all made that mistake. Learn from our mistakes.

You’re one of the few rock ’n’ rollers who has had two famous nicknames. How did you go from Miami Steve to Little Steven? (Laughs.) I just felt that Miami was so associated with the E Street Band. It was my character in that movie. That was a character, the role I played in the E Street Band—the party guy, the wild guy, the rock ’n’ roll guy, the first call when you’re having a party, you know? That was my thing. Just kind of wild and loose. I was kind of Dean Martin of the rock ’n’ roll Rat Pack, with Bruce as Frank and Clarence as Sammy Davis on steroids.

When it came time for me to be me, I felt I needed a different identity to start fresh. It’s a different part of my character, a whole different set of characteristics than “Miami” Steve. He was just not that thoughtful of a guy. That was not the role. The role was just good soldier, occasional consigliere, under-boss occasionally, but basically a good solider out there having fun, representing the fun part of the friendship between me and Bruce and all that. Whereas Little Steven, I had to be a little more thoughtful, more political, a very different set of characteristics.

I’ve never seen camaraderie like you and Bruce have onstage. What’s going on there? Well, when we grew up, we saw all these bands having fun. We saw the Beatles movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and we bought it. We took it literally, and we were already friends. So, we go way back to being local guys; we were the two local freaks that reinforced each other’s belief in rock ’n’ roll. We strengthened each other’s resolve when everybody else was laughing at us and considering us borderline criminals, misfits, outcasts. It was an important friendship that we had early on, and it just stayed. It never went away.

And then we ended up playing together and we communicated that friendship to the audience, which is what bands are all about. We didn’t know till later that The Beatles are fighting with each other, The Stones are fighting with each other, The Kinks are fighting with each other, The Who are fighting with each other. They were all killing each other and hating each other. It wasn’t this wonderful friendship that we all thought it was, but we took it literally. We actually were the best friends that they looked like onstage.

When Clarence died, how do you transition from losing such a major presence to the next form of the band? Well, that was a big one. That was a very, very tough period. We had a lot of serious discussions. In the end, we really had to think about it.

[Clarence’s nephew] Jake Clemons was there, which was a miracle. The fact that he was related to Clarence was a happy miracle, but you know, at the same time, we didn’t want to stick him in Clarence’s position over there on that side of the stage. That just felt wrong, so we had a transitional tour where we took out a horn section and we had Jake be part of [it].

It was very important that it happened to be Jake, because [with] anybody else, I think it would have been a problem for audiences to make that transition. Jake made it a lot easier, and we made it even easier by having that horn section and not putting that pressure on Jake to suddenly become the Big Man. That wouldn’t have been fair to him. We wanted to transition that slowly, so we took out the horn section, and it worked very well.

Now, at this point, Jake is very much accepted, and he’s earned his place in the band. We overcame that very tough moment. You can’t replace a Clarence Clemons. You can’t replace [original E Street organist] Dan Federici. So you have to do something different.

You do so much work as a keeper of rock history. Have you ever thought about your place in the history of rock ’n’ roll? Not really. I don’t think I’m going to be remembered at all, to be honest, but I think some of the work I’m doing will carry on. The education thing, I hope will live beyond me. I hope my radio formats live beyond me. They’re extremely important to make sure the music made is accessible for future generations. [The] TeachRock.org curriculum, if we can keep expanding it the way we are now, in the next couple of years, man, we’ll have enough coverage. We’ll be a permanent addition to the school curriculum, doing the same job as the radio formats, making the renaissance accessible to future generations.

We are finding all kids are into music. I just think they need to have a little more information about it to really have that relationship that we had, and that’s why I’m so happy about the vinyl resurgence for the simple reason that there’s credits on those records. Kids are going to be able to see credits for the first time and realize that this stuff doesn’t just fall off trees. In fact, it takes an army of people to make these records.

And that’s what the whole education curriculum is about, too. It talks about the music in-depth. The fact that the kids are interested in music is a big plus, because now you can get their attention. And that’s what the teachers are enjoying about our curriculum. [It’s] the first curriculum that deals with the modern world, that deals with this generation as a different generation. Most of the teaching methodology right now is old school—learn this now and someday you’ll use it, right?

Well, that’s not gonna work with this generation. They’re faster than us. They’re smarter than us. They expect everything to happen right now, so you’ve gotta engage them. And the only thing that we found engages them is music … and even though they don’t have the depth of understanding about it that we did, they do love it, thank goodness. Because that’s the way in. They go in through that music tunnel and we get them and then we start to tell them what’s really behind that music and, man, you got their attention … once a teacher has a student engaged, now they can teach. And that’s the key to this generation.

LITTLE STEVEN AND THE DISCIPLES OF SOUL December 14, 7:30 p.m., $32. House of Blues, 702-632-7600.

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