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Steven Van Zandt Q&A: On New Memoir, ‘The Sopranos’ and the Inside Story of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Studio Sessions
Steven Van Zandt, better known as “Miami Steve” or “Little Steven,” is one of hardest working musicians in the music business and one of its most colorful characters.
A Hall of Fame inductee as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, talented producer (Springsteen, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Ronnie Spector, Gary U.S. Bonds, Darlene Love), acclaimed solo artist, impassioned activist, actor (The Sopranos/Lillyhammer), and seasoned musicologist/radio pioneer (Little Steven’s Underground Garage), he’s now added book author to his lofty list of accomplishments.
Unrequited Infatuations is one of the best rock and roll memoirs in recent memory, resonating with Steven’s conversational voice, offering a bounty of street wise tales of life in the entertainment business that are both hilarious and heartwarming, hard-hitting and eye-opening.
— Backstreets Magazine (@backstreetsmag) October 6, 2021
Rock Cellar: If there was a soundtrack album for this book, what’s the leadoff track that you would have chosen that conveys the story?
Steven Van Zandt: [laughs] Well, I think you gotta start off with “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” because that really was the beginning of me wanting to be actually in the business and do it for a living and took me from being just a fan to something more. But the records before that like “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” might be one that we could start with, because that was my first epiphany.
Rock Cellar: What were the most challenging aspects of doing the book and by contrast, the most rewarding?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, it was challenging just to go back and actually remember exactly what was happening and what you’re feeling at a certain time. But I never look back, really, in my life. I’m not a nostalgic guy, really. And my memory is not what it used to be. You really have to dig deep down and get back there and try and really absorb and be in that moment so you can give an accurate representation of that moment. It was challenging and it was fun to relive the early days, when things were so much more fun and colorful and exciting and every day was going to be better than yesterday and all that optimism and hope that was going on back then. I mean, I’ve never really left that period. You know what I mean?
I’m not nostalgic about it. I just have never left the Sixties, really.
Rock Cellar: Well, that’s good, because it’s a part of your DNA with everything you do, whether it’s the radio show, putting together tours for bands like The Rascals or being a member of the E Street Band or as a solo artist. But when it comes down to music, I always feel there’s three levels of fandom. The first level is someone who’s kind of a take it or leave it person with music–they enjoy it, but they don’t think much about it. Then the second level is someone who takes a pretty active interest. And then there’s the rock and roll zealot who just lives and breathes music and that’s you. When did that first kick in for you?
Steven Van Zandt: I think at that point when the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show in February of ’64, I think that was the big bang of rock and roll for me. And at that point, witnessing a band was a new experience for me. It was really, really exciting. It would communicate directly to my own instincts of being a future band guy, a future ensemble guy, a guy who does want to work with others and collaborate and do something special together.
Rock Cellar: What’s the greatest rock and roll show you saw in the ’60s that just blew your socks off?
Steven Van Zandt: Oh, wow. That’s a tough one because I saw a lot of good ones. But I guess it would have to the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1966 or the Rolling Stones, either at Convention Hall in Asbury or when they played the Academy of Music. That was a real good one too.
Rock Cellar: What were the early jobs you had before you went full time with music?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, I had all kinds of jobs. I was a caddy at a golf course. I worked in the Marina. I worked at a factory and then eventually work on construction on the highway for two seasons doing everything from shoveling blacktop to jack hammering. I had another jobs and it make you appreciate show business, believe me. [Laughs]
Show business is work, but it’s not the drudgery of working on a highway. That’s a whole different kind of work.
Rock Cellar: Growing up, who were your mentors that set you on the course for success?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, there was nobody early on. We weren’t a legitimate business until the ’70s so nobody was encouraging, really. In the Sixties, you had to encourage yourself. You had to find yourself. I mean, I think that why me and Bruce Springsteen bonded so closely almost right from the start was because we were the only other guys that we knew who knew rock and roll was everything.
It was not a weekend thing, not just a hobby, but it was really a lifestyle. And so he would have been the first and I probably would have been the first for him as far as that goes. And then the next person I can think of would have been Steve Popovich, who signed Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Then there’s Frank Barsalona. Frank certainly became a lifelong mentor at that stage of the game. Then later there would be Lance Freed, Alan Freed’s son was greatly encouraging as far as my songwriting and then eventually David Chase with The Sopranos and Ted Sarandos at Netflix. But there wasn’t a whole lot of encouragement in the beginning.
Rock Cellar: Where did you first meet Bruce?
Steven Van Zandt: We met at a Hullabaloo club. There were only about a dozen bands in our area and you knew them all. But I think we became closer when I started running into him in Greenwich Village, which was an unusual thing. It’s only an hour on the bus but I would come up on the weekend and go to Cafe Wha? on a Saturday afternoon to see all the bands because they were like a year ahead of New Jersey.
You know, in those days things were moving very fast and a lot happened in a short time. People can’t quite relate to that. But every three months, something new would happen and every six months there was a major change. You are kind of conscious of trying to stay ahead of the trend or keep up with what’s going on. Things are evolving so fast. So I came up and went to Cafe Wha? and I started running into him there, which was weird. It’s like running into somebody in Paris while you’re on vacation. And then we started coming up together. I think all of that led to us having a very close friendship at that point.
Rock Cellar: There’s a funny aside in the book where one of the bands you and Bruce were in opened for Big Brother and The Holding Company and there was an encounter with their lead singer, Janis Joplin.
Steven Van Zandt: Yeah, we’re backstage and [laughing] it was like the Roadrunner cartoon. And all of a sudden, he comes Bruce running by and I’m like, “Where are you going?” and he’s just like, “I gotta go, I gotta go!” he was definitely scared. And then 10 seconds later, here comes Janis Joplin who had been chasing him and she’s like, “Where he go?” I said, “I don’t know. I think he went that away.” [laughs] That may have been a show we did with Dr. Zoom and The Sonic Boom either at the Hullabaloo or the Sunshine In.
Rock Cellar: So at some point, Bruce went his own way and he was venturing into the singer/songwriter world and you were out there on the road doing the oldies circuit, playing guitar for acts like The Dovells. Looking back, what were some of the most lasting lessons for you and eye-opening moments?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, the most memorable moment for me was catching a Little Richard soundcheck. He was the headliner so he could do whatever he felt like. I think it was at Madison Square Garden, I’m pretty sure. And by that time, a lot of these guys, really hated being called oldies. They hated being on the oldies circuit. They were not happy about life because the British Invasion had come and an unintended consequence put all the heroes out of work and put them out the pasture. And it was bad.
It was ridiculous because a lot of these guys were in their late thirties, early forties and now in the prime of their lives. But if you had three hits when the British Invasion came, then you play those three hits the rest of your life. And for some weird reason, we could analyze this all day long, but basically, that first generation got left out of the rock era, and they got left out of an audience that evolved with them and, for the most part were never able to record again, which is why, as soon as I got into a recording studio, I started bringing back as many as I could. I went on to work with people like Ronnie Spector, Gary U.S. Bonds and Darlene Love, you know, just out of gratitude and also to show people they were still great.
The oldies circuit was made up of obscure hotels, probably cruise ships too, but I didn’t do that. And Las Vegas, which interested me, and the Richard Nader multi-act arena shows. It was an odd combination of things. First time I played Madison Square Garden was on that oldies show. And anyway, they’re all kind of miserable, but I’m having a great time meeting all these guys who were all mythological gods. So at that point in Little Richard’s career, he’s just completely jive. Okay? He’ll sing it song or two and then he stands up on the piano and takes his shirt off and waves it around and has devolved into a circus act because he doesn’t give a fuck anymore.
So one day he just felt like singing and he does like an hourlong soundcheck singing country songs, gospel songs, Rolling Stones songs and he’s singing and has the greatest voice I’ve ever heard. You could hear he still had a great voice, even on his hit records, but the breadth of the emotions that he could communicate were much more than he ever really recorded and i was lucky enough to catch that one moment.
Rock Cellar: You’re an incredible arranger. I especially love your horn arrangements, whether it’s with the Jukes or Springsteen. The first one that really set you on the map was your horn arrangement on Bruce’s Born to Run track “10th Avenue Freeze Out.”
Steven Van Zandt: It was a spontaneous moment. I describe it in the book. I’m just laying on the floor and not digging what I’m hearing. You know, it’s really it’s kind of grim, the basic sound in the studio in the ’70s was just so terrible. It just sucked. And on top of that, they’re doing this super chart and it was just not good, and they all knew it.
That’s why Bruce asked me, “What do you think?” and I was like, “Man, this really sucks.” And there were a lot of tension in those days, a lot of tension in both the Born To Run sessions and the Darkness sessions. They had a lot of tension. I didn’t have any diplomacy. I didn’t have any record industry diplomacy about me.
I’m just a kid from the street, you ask me a question and I’m going to tell you the answer. I’m not gonna try and be nice about it. So, I said it really sucks and there were a couple of snickers and then Bruce says, “Well, go fucking fix it!” And so to everybody’s surprise, [laughs] all the other guys in the band, that’s what I did. I went out there and told the horn guys, ‘you play this and you play that’ and I sang the horn parts to them. And these were well respected session guys.
The arrangement was pretty simple. Just use the instrument that they already had. I think David Sanborn already was playing the baritone sax. So I knew what to do with that and knew how create a combination of a Memphis Stax-type of arrangement with a little bit of a New Orleans touch to it.
Rock Cellar: So you’re officially now a member of the E Street Band. When did you first realize that the turning point had come for the band and that you guys had really broken through?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, I I think in the end, Bruce’s instincts saved him because he knew he it was just not going anywhere. It was okay and the audiences were having a good time on his first two albums, but I think you could feel the limitation of it. There was something not quite happening.
And I think he just said, ‘let me give fronting the band a try because it’s just not worth it with me being the lead singer and lead guitar player and me doing everything, it’s just not quite working.’ I think that was the moment. When I joined, he also decided, ‘let’s have a little bit more personality. Let’s be a little bit more formal with our identity.’ So up until then, the band look like beach bums. [laughs] Look at the picture on the back of either the first or second album, you know, they were wearing shorts and in their bare feet, and they looked like beach bums, you know, like a jam band or something.
So when I joined and he started fronting the band, we also formalized the look. Suddenly me and Clarence [Clemons] were in suits and everybody had more of a look.
Rock Cellar: There’s an an era of Bruce’s career that I know is your favorite and it’s my favorite as well. It’s all the pop-oriented material he was writing during the Darkness On The Edge Of Town sessions, songs that didn’t make the album and later formed the basis of The Promise record where he’s displaying this Brill Building pop sensibility with songs like “Rendezvous,” “Little Things (My Baby Does)” and “Someday (We’ll Be Together).”
Steven Van Zandt: Yeah. It was kind of ironic in a way that just as he blossomed as a songwriter, up until then Born To Run had eight songs on it and then suddenly on Darkness On the Edge of Town has 10, 11 songs on it and he wrote 60. So ironically, just as the faucet opened up, he just tapped into this incredible flow of songs coming out of him and he had decided to go a whole different way with his identity, which I didn’t understand until I wrote this book.
I really never really analyzed what was going on during those Darkness sessions and the endless conversations with [manager] Jon Landau. But I finally analyzed it as I’m writing this book. I mean, look at the 180-degree change in his identity from Born To Run to Darkness. It’s a whole different guy and a whole different sensibility, a whole different mentality.
He’s not the underdog Jersey kid who puts the girl on the motorcycle and rides out of town. He’s now staying in town. He’s not fighting with his father. He’s going to speak for his father. He’s gonna defend his father. He’s going to maybe become his father. So he had made the decision to stay in town, not leave town. He already escaped on Born to Run and he’s now come back to town for Darkness On the Edge of Town. And he’s decided to stay. That’s the difference.
Rock Cellar: You always valued something that he probably didn’t value as much because maybe it came fairly easy for him. But Bruce’s Brill Building pop sensibility is really a beautiful aspect of what he does.
Steven Van Zandt: It was ironic that all of those great songs, I don’t know why other people have not covered those songs. Between me and you, very few of those songs have been covered, maybe one or two here and there. To me, there’s ten hits on those records, at least.
Rock Cellar: What are the ones from that period that stick with you the most?
Steven Van Zandt: I’d have to look directly to see what’s on it, sometimes I mix up The River outtakes and the Darkness outtakes, but certainly “Little Things (My Baby Does)” is one of the greatest songs ever, one of the greatest records ever. “Someday (We’ll Be Together),” “Gotta Get The Feeling.”
Rock Cellar: Why does Bruce undervalue those kind of timeless pop songs he writes?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, we’ll never really know for sure, but it was fitting in with this new persona that he was creating. Look at the songs that ended up on Darkness. Those songs have a certain rural, serious vibe to them, a struggling working class consciousness at that point and those kind of pop songs just didn’t fit well.
Rock Cellar: You co-produced the next album, The River, which is reflective of that yin and yang that you bring to your work with Bruce. You’re carrying the flag of the lightness with The Beatles, The Stones, The Who and The Kinks and then there’s Bruce mining a darker vibe with the influence of The Doors, The Animals and The Yardbirds. That record has a balance between the poppier Raspberries flavored songs like “The Ties That Bind” and “Out In The Street” with the stark, desolate Woody Guthrie vibe of some of the songs.
Steven Van Zandt: At that point, because this new identity was firmly established, he was able to be loosen up a little bit, and allow some of the poppier things on the record, although I think he certainly left off some of the best ones.
Rock Cellar: Like what?
Steven Van Zandt: Things like “Loose Ends.” How do you leave “Loose Ends” off? How do you leave “Restless Nights” off? I mean, come on! “Roulette.” “Take Them As They Come,” “I Wanna Be Where The Bands Are.” I Want to Be With You.” Anyway, it was just one of those things where every song was a lost argument. But you know, at least things had loosened up enough where we were able to put some fun things on there.
Rock Cellar: So The Raspberries were a big influence on The River.
Steven Van Zandt: It all begins with the songs, and the Raspberries’ songs are great. Next in line are the arrangements and then the production — all of which were superb. On The River, we were very consciously making classic rock pop songs in the flavor of what Raspberries were doing. Songs like”Don’t Look Back,” “Mary Lou,” “Be True,” “I Wanna Be Where The Bands Are,” “I Wanna Be With You,” and “Out In The Street.” You can hear the Raspberries influence on that album and some of the outtakes from that wound up on the second CD of the Tracks collection.
Rock Cellar: Whether working with Bruce or as a solo artist or with the Jukes or in The Sopranos as Sylvio Dante, your role is kind of as a consigliore, offering advice and guidance and truth, whether someone wants to hear it or not.
Steven Van Zandt: [laughs] I’m afraid that’s true.
Rock Cellar: Do you feel that’s been your role?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, I think that’s the role of a friend, you know? But you’ve got to pick your spots, you know, you can’t be a pain ass imposing your advice on somebody all the time. So you’ve gotta pick your moments.
But I think it’s critically and vitally important for any celebrity, any star, to have somebody from the old neighborhood in their circle of friends that will tell them the absolute truth at all times.
You don’t have to listen. You can ignore him, you know? But I think it’s really is essential to keep people grounded a little bit. And, you know, when celebrity gets to be a little bit out of control, now you’ve got somebody keeping your feet on the ground. I was kind of in that role with Bruce just from being around so long, knowing them since we were kids and watching him transform from very shy guy into the world’s greatest entertainer.
Rock Cellar: I’m from Philly, and there are two Philly-centric events held at the Spectrum that you were a part of. You and Bruce saw Elvis perform live at in Philly at The Spectrum a few months before he passed away.
Steven Van Zandt: Yeah, it was enjoyable. I was never a fan of Elvis. Bruce was the big Elvis fan. I appreciate his records, especially the early Sun singles and a couple of the later ones and I appreciate a couple of movies like King Creole was fun, but I was never a fan. So to me, it was just a curiosity, and he was good but I think I was more interested that he had James Burton playing guitar with him at that point.
Rock Cellar: The second was a Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band show on December 9, 1980, at the Spectrum the day after John Lennon was tragically killed.
Steven Van Zandt: It was extremely emotional. I was crying onstage and it was a little surprising how emotional I got over somebody I never met but that’s how important the Beatles were to me. They gave me life, you know, it was extremely horrible. Any way a person like that dies is going to be depressing. But to die that way was beyond your wildest nightmare. What a fucking scum bag low life fuck that took his life.
Rock Cellar: You got to work with Frankie Valli on The Sopranos. Being a fellow New Jersey boy, what’s your take on the legacy of the Four Seasons?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, the Four Seasons were extraordinarily important and really only one of the two artists that that survived the British Invasion, them and the Beach Boys. They made some of the greatest records ever. They were big production records compared to most. They were the biggest productions right there with Phil Spector and Motown. I wore out the single of “Sherry,” I played it so much that I had to buy it again.
But we didn’t relate to them the same way because they looked like all of our Italian uncles. [laughs] We didn’t look at them the same way as we looked at the Beatles and the Stones. We related in a whole different, younger way as here was somebody more representative of our generation. But I considered Frankie Valli the Frank Sinatra of our generation. He had that kind of class and was a little bit of a throwback. I met him for the first time in Vegas and I remember him introducing “My Eyes Adored You” as that was the first time they ever played it live. I mean, goddamn, talk about an instant hit record to me. You heard this thing live and you thought, man, that’s going straight to number one.
Rock Cellar: If you could have been the fly on the wall for any recording session in history, what would you choose?
Steven Van Zandt: [long pause] Wow! You know, take your pick. There’s so many. Maybe “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan or “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”