When talking to the multi-hyphenate man Stevie Van Zandt, it’s a challenge to pick just which version of him to discuss first.
The guitarist/best bud of Bruce Springsteen and core member of the E Street Band who also has a thriving solo career? The actor in groundbreaking cable series like The Sopranos and Lilyhammer? The political activist whose all-star “Sun City” record informed so many for the first time about South Africa’s apartheid policies? The writer/director/producer/arranger/DJ? The radio visionary behind the Underground Garage format/station? The owner of the Wicked Cool Records label?
Well, all of the Versions of Van Zandt come together under his latest guise as author, in the highly entertaining and rollicking memoir Unrequited Infatuations (416 pp., $31, Hachette Books).
It traces his story as a rock and roll teenager who hit the road early, earning this valuable advice from R&B singer Lloyd “Personality” Price: if you wash the lube off a condom, you’ll last longer. He also found a soulmate in a scruffy young Springsteen, then himself took wildly varying path(s) of career and personal growth.
In the book, Van Zandt details how he was there and urged Springsteen at pivotal moments in his career: adding an important note to “Born to Run” or arranging the distinctive horns on “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”; encouraging him to put his name in front of the band’s; questioning a shady contract with manager Mike Appel and putting him together with influential promoter Frank Barsalona; releasing Nebraska as his spare original demo; and giving a rousing speech when half of E Street was ready to quit.
But just when 15 years of hard work was about to pay off with the massive success, millions of records shipped, and sold-out stadiums of the Born in the USA era, Van Zandt did the unimaginable: he quit. Simply walked away when he felt his voice in the decision-making process was unheard or ignored in favor of manager Jon Landau.
In the book, he admits it was a mistake (especially to his bank account). But then he also knows what he wouldn’t have done had he stayed.
“When you look back, you come to the inescapable and illogical conclusion that you couldn’t have done it all. I kind of abandoned my friend at his moment of glory, and I regret that, aside from the money and the fame. But I’ve never been a big fan of celebrity,” he says.
A “celebrity” experience only happened to him once, he recalls. When he was in Rome, Italy and had two hit singles at the time, wife Maureen came over for a visit. When they were walking to a local café, the pair were instantly mobbed by enthusiastic autograph seekers and picture takers. It was enough to cure him of any desire for that to repeat on any scale.
“I liked being the underboss in the E Street Band. The consigliere. It kept me out of the spotlight but allowed me to make a significant enough contribution to justify my own existence in my own mind,” he writes in the book.
He continues that thread on the phone. “Should we have stayed together? Probably. But would I have done five solo albums? The Sopranos or Lilyhammer? Busted Nelson Mandela out of jail? Probably not!”
In fact, the book opens with Van Zandt hiding under a blanket on the floorboard of a car as he’s secretly shuttled to meet with the leaders of a possibly violent revolutionary group in South Africa. He became obsessed with almost personally dissolving the country’s apartheid system and legalized oppressing of native Blacks after hearing a random playing of Peter Gabriel’s “Biko” in a movie theater.
That political fire was started years earlier while on tour in Europe for The River album. Van Zandt was approached by a kid in Germany who asked him “Why are you putting missiles in our country?” It was a pivotal moment where Van Zandt realized that whether he liked it or not, to some he was representing the United States. And he had to find out for himself what that meant.
This led to an obsessive desire to self-educate on history, politics and racial/social issues. Culminating in the “Sun City” record that certainly pushed the apartheid dominoes to start falling. Though it was the video that made it happen: radio stations felt the song was too black for white stations, too white for black stations, and ignored it.
On the airwaves today, Van Zandt’s Underground Garage started (and continues) as a weekly radio show syndicated around the world and also a permanent 24/7 channel on SiriusXM radio. It showcases perhaps the widest range of music from the pre-rock sounds of Big Joe Turner, to the early pioneers, British Invasion, R&B, punk and right up to today’s garage rock from new bands—a large number of which seem to hail from Scandinavia!
“I wish someone would steal my format. It’s up for grabs!” Van Zandt laughs. “But everybody was afraid of it. They said you can’t do all 60—and now it’s 70—years of rock and roll together. You can’t play soul next to rock next to blues. I said they were wrong. I had to fight to get on my first 20 stations, but then it took off and proved there was [an audience] for this.”
Van Zandt the Educator is also behind the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. Its TeachRock program offers hundreds of lesson plans, activities and media for teachers to introduce music and music history to students across all grades subjects, and genres. All of it free at TeachRock.org.
“I’ve gotten a lot of evidence it’s working. We recently did two tours [with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul] and gave away 500 tickets every show to teachers, so we heard a lot about how they’re having amazing success,” he says.
“It’s not just about the integration of the arts into the educational system, which is essential. We want to transform the educational experience with a new methodology for this generation. In a time when they can get an answer to any question in 30 seconds on their device. The kids have imagination and creativity and curiosity. And most of the time, school suppresses that. It’s more important to teach a kid how to think than what to think. And the arts really helps that.”
Van Zandt is also on the Nominating Committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and a passionate advocate for acts he thinks needs to be in. He was most notably the force behind the induction of the Rascals, and it was his hilarious speech honoring the band that Sopranos creator David Chase caught and immediately thought he’d be perfect for his incipient show.
So, if he had a Magic Pass to give to Hall President and CEO Greg Harris for Instant Induction, who would get the nod?
Followers of Van Zandt on Twitter are used to hearing his opinions on subjects like this, along with history, politics and sports. It’s one of the more engaging musician feeds where the actual person is pushing the buttons on the phone. And he’s not afraid to mix it up with trolls or dropping a “fuck” here and there.
Like to someone who questions the upcoming virtual book event where fans can purchase a ticket to watch Springsteen interview Van Zandt.
“I’ll take a break from writing or reading and just glance at it, answer a few, and then go back to it,” he says. “I try to mute most of the jerks, but sometimes I’ve just got to vent! They can be really obnoxious,” he says.
“It’s not in my nature to just sort of let that stuff go! But my wife will yell at me that I can’t do those things and what if they’re a fan? But if they’re a ridiculous white supremacist, I don’t need them!”
It’s been two days since Van Zandt and Maureen (a dancer/actress who was also on the Sopranos, playing Silvio Dante’s wife Gabriella), attended the premiere of the Sopranos prequel movie The Many Saints of Newark.
In it, actor John Magaro plays a younger version of Silvio Dante, complete with all the vocal cadence and physical tics and body language that Van Zandt so memorably brought to the character. So, what did The Originator think of Magaro’s performance/impression?
“It was so good, and when he came on, it got one of the biggest reactions of the night! It was hilarious, the place went crazy!” He laughs. “I hope that people can see it in the theaters. Vera [Farmiga, who plays matriarch Livia Soprano] was great. And you talk about a fanatical audience?”
He also calls Michael Gandolfini—the real life son of the late James Gandolfini who plays his father’s Tony Soprano character as a younger man–“terrific” in the role.
Van Zandt rejoined the E Street Band in 1999 and has been there ever since. To celebrate the release of Unrequited Infatuations, there will be a virtual event on September 28 when Springsteen will interview his old friend (though it's more likely to be a genial give-and-take talk). Tickets include a copy of the book and are available here.
Finally, anyone who follows Stevie Van Zandt across any media will keep seeing a recurring color: purple. He favors it with his clothes and trademark head scarves, album covers, digital backgrounds for the Underground Garage online and even the cover of Unrequited Infatuations. This begs the question: Is he trying to take ownership and association of the shade away from Prince?
“Well, you know, Jimi Hendrix started it!” he laughs. “So we’re all borrowing from him!”