Steven Van Zandt talks career and future plans
Steven Van Zandt, a founding member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, visited the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications Monday evening as part of the David M. Rezak Music Business Lecture series, part of the Bandier Program. But before his speaking engagement, The NewsHouse sat down and talked one on one with him about everything from his career as a musician and actor, to politics, to receiving an honorary college diploma.
You played in a number of bands during your early career and you even bounced out of the industry and into construction work for a little bit. At what point did you decide that you wanted to make a full-time career out of music?
Steven Van Zandt: When I had to pick up the jackhammer every day. Somewhere in that period, I’m like, you know what, maybe showbiz is not such a bad idea after all. I kinda quit. I got into an early depression, my first of many and I decided that all of the great music had already been made. I was very wrong about that by the way. But I said, we missed it – we missed the boat and the renaissance is over. Just out of whatever, of not wanting to be in construction for the rest of my life, I came back in by accident really.
I was playing flag football on the weekends and broke my finger, which is still bent, and got on-the-field surgery by a guy who just popped it back into place almost. To exercise my finger when it was healing, I joined a band as a piano player. I couldn’t really play piano, but, you know, a little bit. And I slowly got back into it that way and fell into what they called the oldies circuit at the time which was ‘50s and ‘60s artists who had been put out to pasture by the British Invasion, which was a tragedy, because that’s the only generation it really happened to.
Everyone else, the audience grew up with them and to this day the biggest acts in the world are the Beatles and the Stones, right? But that first generation, you know, whatever record they had when the British Invasion started in ’64, that was it, they would never really record again. They were all kind of miserable.
But I was just happy as hell meeting all of my heroes in the early ‘70s. That’s where I met Little Richard who eventually would become the preacher at my wedding and Gary U.S. Bonds. That was it, and I got back in and came back in and started Southside Johnny & The Jukes and that was the beginning of becoming public. Actually I joined the E Street Band right before Southside Johnny recorded so I stayed as producer of their first three albums and then didn’t really appear on a record until Darkness on the Edge of Town.
It took a long time to succeed at this craft. I started when I was 15 and didn’t really have any success until I was 30 really. It helps keep you grounded though. When you succeed early, you see all these kids really getting screwed up. They don’t know who they are, they don’t have an identity yet and they get into drugs and drinking. They have success and they have money. You tend to get screwed up, I think, when you’re young and successful – you see it in the pop world today. So, when you succeed that late in life, you’re kind of over it. It’s like, okay, I’m just a working class celebrity now.
You’re getting ready to release Summer of Sorcery with the first original music you’ve recorded in over 20 years. Why now? Why is this the time period to release your own music again?
SVZ: I didn’t plan that. Most of my life is not planned. I work really really hard trying to do this over here and then my life comes through the back door.
This all started three years ago or so at the end of the last E Street tour. We were ending in England and this English promoter says: “When are you coming back to England?” and I say, “Well me and my wife come back for her birthday every year in November and this year we’re coming a little earlier because Bill Wyman, the original bass player with the Rolling Stones, invited us to his 80th birthday party, and wants me to play, do a little jam with him.” And this promoter, Leo Green, says, “You know, that’s the same week as my blues festival. Why don’t you throw a band together and headline one of the nights?”
So I was like, “Well I haven’t done that in like 25 years, so I don’t know.” I thought about it and I was like, you know what, maybe it’s time. So just by accident, I threw a band together and made a list of songs, some covers and some blues things, and made some of my own songs and I kind of became reacquainted with my own music at that point.
I was really kind of surprised how well it held up and that has value. It’s different than I expected. It kind of became it’s own genre through the years, this rock meets soul thing that I created with The Jukes. So it felt like an album already and I wasn’t ready to write a whole new album but I’d do an album of covers. I’d do an album of things I had written for other people and see how it goes, you know, kind of slip back in a little bit because Bruce is on Broadway all year so he’s not going to do anything.
And we did Soul Fire, which was a way of reintroducing myself. Not only was it written for the people, but I threw a couple of cover songs on there as well and really made it an introduction that included my own roots. For the first time in my life, I recorded a doo-wop song, a blues song, you know, early early influences as well as the rest of the stuff.
Suddenly, I was back in and I thought to myself, you know, you really write differently for other people than you write for yourself. I thought, I want to write those kinds of songs for me. And that’s what I accomplished with Summer of Sorcery, which I’m very proud of because all of my records were extremely autobiographical and extremely political.
I was the most political guy in the world and I just stopped all politics like 12 years ago when I started my education program. I didn’t want some teacher in Alabama that says, “I’m not going to use this because this guy’s too liberal.” I wanted to make sure that that was not the case. So I stopped really being partisan, well partisan politics.
This record is quite driving because it’s not really about me. It’s like little movies, it’s cinematic and there’s a lot of different characters. It’s fictionalized. There are traces of me here and there and traces of politics here and there but mostly not. I’m very happy about that. It’s a whole new kind of rebirth.
In the end, I figured, enough about me already, I’m sick of me. I don’t want to think about me ever again [laughs]. I’ve thought about me for years and years, analyzing myself and learning about myself and learning about the world and I’ve had it with that. I get it. I know what’s happening, I understand myself and I just want to make some great music.
Philosophically, I want to bring people together now, I think that’s my usefulness. Not being partisan.
The entire Soul Fire tour was about that. This whole new album starts off, the first song is called Communion and the chorus is, “Harmony, unity, communion,” which says it all in those three words. That’s what the whole album is about, variations on that theme. I’m very happy about the new album.
I’m very happy about being reacquainted with my own work. It is my life’s work after all which I just completely abandoned and then I was like, wow, where did 20 years go?
Other than your new album, are there any projects that you’re currently working on?
SVZ: The main thing we’re kind of integrating now is my foundations work with this music history curriculum we created. We worked on it for the last 10-12 years and just went public with it this last tour. I didn’t want to go public until I had at least 100 lessons online so now we have 150 lessons at teachrock.org.
It was time for teacher outreach. How are we going to do this? Yea we could go to administration and school boards and do that thing. But I want to get right to the people on the frontlines. I want to go straight to the teachers. We put aside 500 tickets a show and invited teachers to come, register for the curriculum when they came free to the show, the curriculum is free and we do a workshop.
I found out that teachers have to do 20-25 hours of professional development every year just to qualify for their certificate and then pay for it out of their $40,000 a year salary. I thought, my god, what a world we live in, so let’s give one hour for free that counts towards their certificate.
It’s been very successful. We only did the last three months, if that, and we registered 25,000 teachers. They teach about 100 kids a year. So that’s 2.5 million kids a year right now. That’s a good start. So that’s my main thing. I’m going to keep doing this, this year.
We’ll see what Bruce wants to do next year. If we go out, that will be another year or two. Then eventually I’ll get back on TV I hope, which is my real passion at the moment. I had to put it aside for music right now. 2020-2022, I might be back on TV, or not, we’ll see.
Speaking of which, the 20th anniversary for The Sopranos is this year. Reaching this milestone, what do you remember most about that experience?
SVZ: It was a gift for someone to give me another opportunity and a whole new craft. I got a phone call out of the blue asking, “Do you want to be on my new show?” And I said, “Thank you but no. I don’t want to be in your new show. I’m not an actor.” He says, yes you are, you just don’t know it. So I gave it a shot and it turned out to be something that was a lot of fun.
I took everything that I learned on the 7 seasons in 10 years of the Sopranos and really applied it to Lilyhammer. I co-wrote it. I co-produced it. I starred in it. I did all the music. I directed the final episode. I was really able to move that craft into multiple crafts. I love learning, I want to learn.
Are you currently more often recognized as a musician and a member of E Street Band or do more people remember you from your acting roles?
SVZ: It’s probably about equal. It depends what’s happening at the time. Some people just know me as a DJ on my radio show. Sometimes it’s from Lilyhammer. Sometimes it’s the Sopranos. Sometimes it’s this or that. When I’m touring with E Street, it’s all about that. When The Sopranos has another anniversary, it’s all about that.
The power of TV though is amazing. Two weeks after that show was on, that’s all people wanted to talk about – two weeks. 25 years of being a rock star, forget it. Gone. So I think, wow, this TV thing, this is intense.
"WHATEVER YOUR CRAFT IS, WHATEVER YOUR INTEREST IS, GO BACK TO THE BEST TO COMPARE YOURSELF."
STEVEN VAN ZANDT
You have accomplished careers as a musician and actor and a lot of people call you a legend. Do you like that title?
SVZ: [Laughs] A legend is a celebrity that’s broke basically.
So it’s kind of appropriate. I’m more famous than I am rich which is really annoying, let me tell you right now.
You hang around long enough, then I guess you become a legend, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m just getting started, I have a lot of things in my head that I’m never going to get to. But I feel like I’m running in quicksand all the time. The world works so f—— slowly. And unfortunately, my projects require funding.
I fund them myself when I can afford it but that doesn’t last very long. And then I gotta go out and find more money. I hate asking people for money. And I find myself doing it quite often, I need these projects funded.
So I don’t have nearly the output that I would like to have. I got five TV scripts finished. I got 20 writers I’d like to be producing. There’s live events I’d like to be producing. There’s a lot of things I’d like to do and wish I had the time to do and wish I had the funding to do. I don’t feel like this is the end of the story.
I’m hoping for a big 4th quarter, let’s put it that way.
Despite your accomplishments, you have all of these plans and all of these projects you want to do. Why haven’t you felt the need to slow down yet? Why haven’t you retired from the public eye?
SVZ: And do what? I had a vacation once in 1978 and I didn’t like it. I didn’t get it.
I’m like, okay, here we are. If I’m going to go somewhere nice, I’ll go work somewhere nice. I don’t understand the concept. If you’re writing, you’re writing. You can do that anywhere.
If you’re reading, well you tend to read when you’re younger. I find that the older I get, the less time I have to read. At a certain point, you have so much input that you can never get the output to equal. If I stopped all input, which I mostly have for many decades, I can have an output for the next 20 years with what’s in my head. I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but I don’t have time and you don’t really need to do it unless you’re trying to adapt something for a screenplay or do something that’s part of your work directly. But you don’t read for fun anymore. There’s no time. And you don’t really need the input.
I feel like I don’t have nearly the output that I’d like. I’m trying to get done as much as I can get done.
Talking some about your upcoming album, Summer of Sorcery, you mentioned that it’s going to have some messages of politics. Can you talk about what events are currently happening that you looked at to draw inspiration for the album?
SVZ: Basically, I was the most political artist in history in the ‘80s because none of it was obvious. It was all happening behind the scenes and you’ve got this grandfatherly, cowboy guy, ex-actor named Ronald Reagan that everybody loves, who to me, was Satanic. He’s got this big smile on his face when all of these bad things are happening around the world. So I felt the need to talk about those things and put some light on them.
Now, it’s redundant. It’s politics 24/7. Back then, you would go weeks and months without thinking about the government at all. Can you imagine that? I can’t imagine that anymore. I mean months. What’s Ronald Reagan doing? Who cares? I had to study what was going on behind the scenes, but it wasn’t news every day. It just wasn’t like that. Now you cannot escape it.
The example I use is: what do I need to say about a government that brags about kidnapping children as an immigration deterrent? I didn’t have to discover that. They’re bragging about it. What am I to say? I don’t find it relevant.
I find that right now I’m ready to be non-partisan. Come to my show, I don’t care what your political party is, you’re not going to be insulted or humiliated. There’s some politics built into my old songs. But I’m not going to do some kind of rap that’s going to embarrass you. It’s about trying to find common ground and trying to bring people together. We are inches away from a civil war in this country, I’m not exaggerating right now. It’s really bad. I’ve never been a big fan of the political system anyway. I never believed in political parties. It’s like football teams and making sure your team wins. That’s all that matters. I’ve never been into it, least of all now. Let’s just try to not kill each other for a minute.
You mentioned in previous interviews that being political all but ended your career. What’s it like to see other figures in pop culture right now and see that there’s generally a more positive reception of artists being political in their work?
SVZ: I’m proud of that because I was extreme about it for that reason. I wanted to politicize everybody. I wanted to politicize my friends, the industry. I wanted to make it okay to talk about politics in your work and in your life. And I wanted to encourage it to a point where you felt an obligation to do it.
It doesn’t need to be a big thing, like bringing the South African government down as I did, you can do whatever. Clean up your neighborhood. Whatever little thing it is, make it a normal part of your life, make it a normal part of your business.
I was very extreme about it and I think I succeeded in just crossing that line. Yes, you can feed people in Africa which is important, and I’m like, let’s bring down the government which is making people starve. But that’s the difference between social concern and political concern. It’s naming names and pointing a finger. It’s saying this is what’s wrong, this is who’s doing it, this is how we fix it. Feeding people is nice but they’re going to be starving again next year if the government is these greedy, despicable thieves that the world is full of.
You received an honorary degree from Rutgers in 2017. You’re here at Syracuse University today to speak to future college graduates. Having been them, what advice do you have to give to young people as they approach their next milestone and what comes after?
SVZ: I always say: it’s all about craft and comparing yourself to the best no matter where you go. Whatever you do, don’t compare yourself to what’s going on in the world right now. Whatever your craft is, whatever your interest is, go back to the best to compare yourself.
I call it chasing greatness. Seek it out. That’s what I’ve done my whole life.
You seek it out, you try to find it. You support it when you find it. You create it when you can create it. It’s all about keeping those standards high, which is really a challenge these days because the world is drowning in mediocrity. You gotta go back to the Renaissance of the ‘50s, ‘60s and into the ‘70s. I don’t care what you’re doing, you gotta find the best in your field.
If you’re a journalist, you gotta go back. If you’re a musician, you gotta go back. If you’re a songwriter, a novelist, a painter, a filmmaker, you gotta go back and study the masters. And that’s just educational truth. Get your standards up.
Then you gotta find the place where art meets commerce – a universal challenge. But get the art part right, get the craft part right then worry about the commerce. Eventually, you do have to marry the two and you’ll have to compromise with what the modern world is giving you – the outlets, the opportunities – you’re going to have to study them and find a way to get in and join the modern world. You can’t be in your garage and be a painter, well you could be, but you’d starve [laughs].
When it comes to craft and art, study the masters.
Steven Van Zandt will be releasing his new album, Summer Sorcery, on May 3.