Steve Van Zandt talks New Jersey legends, Sopranos prequels, and sweet soul music
As he gets ready to roll into Dublin with 14 of his Disciples, Steve Van Zandt talks New Jersey legends, Sopranos prequels, abortion rights, how to combat the US’ school shooting epidemic, and sweet soul music with the equally devoted Stuart Clark.
It’s 11am local time on a sun splitting the rocks Wednesday morning and Steve Van Zandt is saying ‘goodbye’ to Mobile, Alabama and getting ready to hit up another of the Deep South’s legendary music cities, New Orleans. With 14 Disciples of Soul in tow, it must be a pretty big tour bus.
“It’s so big we put wings on it and made it into a plane,” laughs Steve throatily. “I have to say it’s one hell of a band I’ve got at the moment. Eddie Manion and Stan Harrison go back to the earliest days of Southside Johnny. The others are basically the best session people in New York. I don’t know where to begin… we’ll start with Ron Tooley who played trumpet on ‘I Got You’, ‘It’s A Man’s World’ and half a dozen other James Brown records. Andy Burden on keyboards was with Cyndi Lauper for years: Jack Daly the same with Lenny Kravitz. Lowell ‘Banana’ Levinger is from The Young Bloods. They’re my favourite group from the ‘60s. He was the guy who made the electric piano cool for my generation. And that really is just for starters…”
Having caught Steve and the Disciples the last time they were in Dublin, I can report that rarely has anything on 30-legs made such a joyous noise steeped not only in soul, but also in gospel, doo-wop, R’n’B, punk, garage of the ‘60s Californian variety and the full throttle rock ‘n’ roll he also gets to play with the E Street Band. Talking of which, did he get to see Bruce on Broadway?
“Yeah, I’ve seen the show several times. It’s really great just like his book. You expect it to be great, but it’s better than you think. He’s always capable of that surprise. It’s not a typical show the fans would expect. It’s really, really effective. I can’t say enough about it: it’s wonderful.”
Steve spins some great yarns himself inbetween Disciples of Soul tunes. “Thanks but, believe it or not, I’m not really a big talker,” he insists. “I’d rather put my head down and work more instead. I’m good for the odd story or two, but I don’t have the wonderful Irish gift of conversation. I envy my friend Bono and people like him who love to talk.”
Bruce took a night off from his record breaking Walter Keer Theater run – he started on October 12, 2017 and won’t be letting up until December 15 – last month to induct his trusty lieutenant into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the craziest events of the year,” Steve chuckles. “They induct something like 16 people, so it’s total chaos. This time they included Harlan Coben the writer, Al Leiter the baseball player, a politician guy, a couple of astronauts, Debbie Harry, Gloria Gaynor and Franki Valli who’s 84 and doesn’t need to be working, but it’s in his blood. Look at Paul McCartney, look at the Stones… they don’t need to tour but we just love it.”
We now know the outcome to be a resounding ‘Yes’ but at the time of my shooting the transatlantic breeze with Steve, the Repeal referendum is two-days away and I’m a Grade A nervous wreck worrying about the outcome. “In the end, common sense has to rule at some point,” Steve tells me. “Nobody likes the idea of abortion but, sorry, a woman has a right to her own body and what happens in it. What an absurd notion it is to think otherwise. Certainly, everything should be done as far as birth control and sexual education. All that stuff needs to be done to make sure the pregnancies don’t happen, but when they do, man, it’s a woman’s body. It’s the most basic right. How can any man contend to have control over a woman’s body? I don’t understand that stuff.”
Thankfully, 66.4% of Irish voters agreed with him. As he’s doing at the moment in the States, Steve is reserving a number of free tickets for teachers who want to attend his Button Factory gig.
“All they have to do is contact Christine at rockandrollforever.org and they can bring their children or husbands or wives,” he explains. “We want to show our appreciation to some of the hardest working, most underpaid people we have. Teachers are under siege at the moment. Their job has become much harder with this generation. People thought it was ADD but they just have trouble paying attention because everything is instant. There’s no more development; no more patience; no more craft; no more working on anything for any length of time. The kids want everything now. As we all know, greatness is not born. It’s earned by focusing on a craft for a long time. Teachers are on the frontlines trying to deal with it, so we’ve come up with a TeachRock curriculum where they can use music as a common ground and establish communications with these kids because, thankfully, they’re all into music. We’ve been working on it for ten years and it’s proved to be very, very successful.”
In addition to ensuring their pupils get good grades, teachers in the US are now expected by their President to have SEALs-standard shooting skills.
“That’s ridiculous,” Steve responds. “I have a bit of an extreme solution, which is station military personnel at every single school in America. People are gonna say, ‘Oh my goodness!’ but it shouldn’t be teachers and it shouldn’t even be police. We have to defend our children at this point. This is not going to stop. We have to do it. Make it part of our military service. Whatever it takes: 8, 10, 12, 18, 20 soldiers stationed in every single school at every level. And on the perimeter: metal detectors too. I’d rather have it looking like an armed camp than have one more kid get killed. Magazine size, how many days it takes to register, the assault weapon thing: these will all hopefully be issues in November when the midterm elections take place. Meanwhile, stationing military personnel in and around schools is something we can do today that’s guaranteed to save lives.”
Asked whether he ever gets tired of being on the road, Steve shakes his bandana-d head and says: “Never. You could get very intellectual about it if you wanted to, but the truth of the matter is it’s what we do. It’s our identity. You can go plant flowers or drink Pina Coladas on a yacht, but that’s only good for about an hour. You’ve gotta love travelling and experiencing different cultures. It’s a different kind of sensibility, man. We don’t feel alive unless we’re rolling into a different city every day. You feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
Like the rest us, Steve is eagerly awaiting the Sopranos prequel movie that David Chase announced in March.
“I keep getting phone calls: ‘Can’t wait to see you.’ I’m like, ‘Not unless there’s a time machine!’ It’s a prequel so obviously my character would be 20/30 years younger and no amount of make-up and CGI is going to make me look like a teenager! I’m looking forward to it. I’ve seen several drafts of the script. David Chase is just not capable of doing anything that’s less than great.
“Personally, I’ve gotta pay more attention to getting back on TV. I’ve got five different scripts written and had a few offers as well. First, though, I want to spend a year or two reintroducing my music. Whether we do an E Street Band record and tour or not, I want to keep coming back to the Disciples of Soul. Having reawakened this idea of rock meets soul, I want to see how far we can take it.”
The Button Factory gig won’t be your only chance to get up close and possibly personal with Steve when he rolls into Dublin.
“We’re going to do a live edition of my Underground Garage show, which goes out locally on Dublin City FM,” he enthuses. “I couldn’t fit it in last time, but the guys at Tower Records are good to go so you’ll get to see me play DJ for two hours. My label, Wicked Cool Records, has eight fantastic singles coming out, so that’s the first half-hour taken care of!”
Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul play the Button Factory, Dublin on June 28