Is there a better person on Earth to have your back than Steven Van Zandt? In the E Street Band, Van Zandt has long been Bruce Springsteen’s most trusted consigliere, acting as guitarist, on-stage foil, record producer, arranger, and sounding board during some of The Boss’ most iconic periods. Van Zandt was so celebrated in that role that it carried over to his acting career, which is defined by the role of Silvio Dante, right-hand man of Tony Soprano, on The Sopranos.
What’s often forgotten is that Van Zandt, 66, left the E Street Band in 1984 for a career as a solo artist and songwriter/producer for artists such as Lone Justice, Darlene Love, and Nancy Sinatra. During this era Van Zandt wrote and took center stage on the historic benefit song “Sun City,” which spawned one of the most star-studded (and sort of bonkers) music videos ever. But by the mid-’90s, Van Zandt was back in Springsteen’s camp, and their union was fortified in 1999 when the E Street Band reunited for a world tour.
Since then, there’s been little time for solo records between Springsteen tours, TV projects like Lilyhammer, and Van Zandt’s radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage. But last week, Van Zandt finally got around to releasing his sixth LP, Soulfire, which includes new versions of songs that were originally written and produced for other artists.
“I picked the songs that were most meaningful to me and said, ‘I’ll go do an album of my own covers, kind of covering me,'” Van Zandt said in his recent press release. “I ended up making it a reintroduction, really, to myself.”
A gregarious conversationalist and a true scholar of rock history, Van Zandt spoke at length about the art of songwriting, why he feels the rock ‘n’ roll “renaissance” has been over since the mid-’90s, and his gratitude for the endurance of The E Street Band.
The last time you made a solo record was 1999. That was also the year that The Sopranos premiered, and the E Street Band reunited with Bruce Springsteen for a massive tour. Being a cornerstone of two great American institutions is obviously a good thing, but do you regret having to leave your solo career behind?
I do feel bad about that. I’m looking back on it now, I can’t believe 20 years goes by. I said, ‘This is wrong.’ I should not have walked away from that part of my life. It’s a very important part of my life. I just said, ‘Let me make up for lost time. I’ll go back to it. I’ll reintroduce myself and then I’m going to stay with it now.’ I’m not going to leave E Street Band to do it, but maybe we’ll tour every other summer. I’ll tour with the E Street Band and when Bruce doesn’t feel like going out, I’ll go out. Then I’ll continue to do TV in between. That’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes.
You are one of the greatest sidekicks of all-time, whether it’s in the E Street Band or on The Sopranos. But on your own, you don’t get to be Keith Richards, you have to be Mick Jagger. How do you feel about that?
It’s a big difference, man. You’ve got to be legitimately schizophrenic. I’m making that transformation back now and it’s going to take a minute. I’m not going to be the performer I was in the ’80s just like that. I look back at my old shows and videos, [like] Stockholm 1987 or whatever, and I had gotten to be quite a performer and quite a frontman. I’m not that right now. Will I get back to being that? We’ll see.
On Soulfire you perform “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” which you originally wrote and produced for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. It’s one of your most well-known tunes, though I was surprised to learn that it was the first song you ever wrote.
The first song that I ever wrote that I liked, yeah.
Do you consider yourself a natural songwriter, or was it a struggle at first?
I don’t think anybody’s a natural songwriter. Honestly, I think it’s a craft that you learn as you go. I had started writing almost right away, just a year or two after learning how to play. You let your imagination run its course. You’re trying to write songs that way and then one day I just realized I wasn’t happy with what I was coming up with. I said, ‘Let me be a little bit more analytical about this, and go back to the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and start there.’
In my mind, I was going to school. I said, ‘Where does it begin?’ It begins with doo-wop. Soon after doo-wop, traditional R&B starts. I thought the great mentors for me would be Leiber & Stoller, who I’ve modeled my life after in terms of being producers who are songwriters. It starts with them. They worked with the Drifters and Coasters. I said, ‘Let me write a Leiber & Stoller song that would work for the Drifters.’
I tell people when I do my songwriting classes now, this is a great way to actually become a better songwriter: Pretend you’re writing a song for an existing group, rather than trying to right away become your own identity. That’ll happen naturally, but first there’s a craft that has to be learned. The best way to learn that craft I found is to literally try and write a song that would’ve worked with a different artist. In this case it was the Drifters.
You also recorded a new version of another Southside Johnny song, “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town,” that you co-wrote with Springsteen. Did you guys write any other songs together?
No, I’m sorry to say that we didn’t do a lot together. I wish we had. I really don’t know why we didn’t. Everybody’s just busy trying to do their own thing. I said, ‘Why don’t we do a Southside record?’ And Bruce would always contribute. Those first three albums, and even the reunion record we did in the ’90s [1991’s Better Days], Bruce always contributed to that because it was sort of a family. In that case, he just came up with that riff and I wrote pretty much the rest of it.
Was being best friends with perhaps the greatest rock songwriter ever help or hinder your own own writing? It seems intimidating.
It was never intimidating because I was always helping out with the arrangements and contributing to his thing. I think the challenge was when you do write something, making sure you’re not stealing from him. Now a lot of things have been released, but up until recently, there were 100 songs that we all worked on together that had not been released. You got to be a little careful making sure you were doing something that was original. That was the bigger challenge, I think.
No, working with [Springsteen] has been nothing but wonderful. I’ve been happy to contribute to whatever he was doing, but more than that, he’s just so good that he keeps the standards extremely high and those standards come from the way we grew up. We grew up with the Beatles and Rolling Stones and The Who and The Kinks and the greatest songwriters of all-time. Leiber & Stoller and the Brill Building, all those wonderful wonderful songwriters. All the Motown people, man. Every single week there was some fantastic record coming on the radio. Just incredible. We grew up with those standards. He has continued to have those standards, so working with him has helped keep my standards up as well. It’s natural for us. It would be strange for us to do something that was mediocre. We don’t think that way. We’re comparing ourselves to the greatest songwriters ever. We don’t always get there. We don’t always achieve that greatness, but we’re certainly always reaching for it. Always.
I wanted to ask you about a recent quote from your press release: “I have very little interest in the modern world and I’m not in any way conflicted about that. I grew up in a renaissance period, a very lucky time when the greatest music ever made was also the most commercial. We’ll never see that again so for me, there’s only one criteria, which is greatness.” Why do you feel that way?
Because I’ve got ears and eyes. Look around. It’s not even fair to compare, to be honest. Renaissance periods come every couple hundred years. It’s not fair to compare what’s going on now to what we experienced. You can’t keep up that level of quality. The world can’t keep it up. The culture can’t keep it up. It’s incredible, looking back on it now. What we experienced was a miracle. One week, here’s this new guy Marvin Gaye. The next week you hear this new group the Kinks. Then it’s Curtis Mayfield, then there’s the Rolling Stones. Every week, every month — for decade or two.
Whatever’s going on now is going on now, but when it comes to young people, speaking to young people who are coming up in the business or want to be in the business, I say to them it is essential that you go back to the renaissance period and study it and learn from that. Learn from the best. It’s still resonating today. It’s not like we’re in a whole new era. The renaissance is still very much resonating through the culture today and it will until we invent new instruments and become completely electronic in some kind of abstract way.
We’re not there yet. It’s still resonating from the pioneers. It started in the ’50s. It’s getting more and more faint. It’s getting dimmer as every decade goes on, but we’re 60, going towards 70 years now. That’s a long time for something like this to resonate.
But is it really a matter of this bygone era you refer to — basically the classic-rock era of the ’60s and ’70s — having better artists? Could it also be that the media has changed so much since then, often for the worst when it comes to exposing the best contemporary artists to a wide audience?
It’s a combination of things. We could talk all day about this and it’ll be an interesting conversation, but we don’t have really time for it or room for it. Basically, you have this new thing. It’s pretty new. We can trace its roots, but rock ‘n’ roll was a pretty new idea in the ’50s. Of course it came from the big bands being whittled down in the ’40s and all that.
There was a newness to it along with a new species of human beings called teenagers which hadn’t existed before that. Before that, they were adolescents. You had an awkward year or two and then you were an adult. Suddenly there’s this whole new demographic of people called teenagers coming along at the same time as rock ‘n’ roll comes along. Bam! This incredible interchange of energy took place and then you’ve got Chuck Berry. One of the reasons why he’s the most important rock ‘n’ roller of all time is because he then institutionalized [rock music] by talking about teenagers in the songs and giving them their identity. This had never happened before. Of course we had teenagers buying records with Frank Sinatra. You had the teenage craze with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. There were teenage crazes before. But you didn’t really have anybody writing songs about them or talking about their lifestyle. This was new. This was brand new.
Bam! The birth of rock ‘n’ roll takes place and then here comes the British Invasion. It took all that stuff and combined it with Bob Dylan for lyrics that had more relevance. Before you know it, they took that to the next place and it became this incredible renaissance period. That was a circumstantial thing combined with the economy of the time and a lot of things. The whole suburban thing. The highway system that started. The suburban development that started.
You mentioned Chuck Berry. When someone of his stature passes, does he take a piece of rock ‘n’ roll with him?
Up until a few years ago, most of the pioneers who invented rock ‘n’ roll were still walking the earth. It was a miracle they were around that long, considering what has happened, what they gave birth to. The industry that lasted 60 years and they’re still walking around? Little Richard’s still alive. He invented it. Fats Domino is still alive. He invented Little Richard. We are very lucky to have them as long as we have. Although the rock era has been gone since the mid-’90s, we’re back in a pop era now.
It’s like having Jesus and Moses and Buddha hanging around. Or Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven walking around. Same thing to me.
I saw the E Street Band three times last year on The River tour, and it was a very emotional experience for me. Especially seeing you and Bruce share the mic on “Two Hearts” — I just felt so much gratitude that I could still experience this, because our rock heroes suddenly seem more mortal than they once did. I’m wondering: Do these moments feel more special for you, too?
Absolutely. You’re absolutely right. You appreciate it more and more as time goes on. You don’t have that many friends for that length of time, number one. Number two, to continue to be the high quality that we are at for the length of time, you cannot take that for granted. You got to be very thankful and humble about that and believe me, we appreciate it more every year, I think. You’re absolutely right.
It was a very, very big, very important tour. It reminded me how much of a real band we were back then and how different that experience was. I think through the years, very naturally from people coming and going, Bruce had to wander into being more of a solo guy. But doing The River again reminded me and I think everybody just what a real band it was. I think that’s the best tour we’ve done since the original River tour. I really do. It was really meaningful to me and it meant a lot to the fans to see that. Maybe those who missed it the first time around.
As a co-producer, you played a big part in making The River the great album that it is. What are your thoughts on that record now?
It’s just a different type of material on that record. Some of Bruce’s best songs, but also some of Bruce’s best soul songs, which he doesn’t ever do. Unfortunately he takes that part of his talent for granted, which is criminal if you ask me because that part of his thing is my favorite part. It’s what I do full-time, that soul thing. He just does it when he feels like it and he’s just phenomenal at it. He’s one of the greatest white soul singers of all time. “I Wanna Marry You” or “Fade Away” or “Drive All Night” — those real real classic soul songs that he’s so great at.
It was wonderful to do them every single night. We’ll do 10 tours and he might do one of those in a month or two. When it comes to those kind of songs, the older you get, the better they are. They just feel even more meaningful. His craft as a singer, which nobody talks about ever, has just gotten better and better and better.