Stevie Van Zandt’s Long Walk Home From E Street
In an exclusive excerpt from his new memoir, Springsteen’s best friend recounts for the first time why he quit the band, and his big return
Steven Van Zandt’s new book, Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir, is a deep dive into the life of rock’s greatest consigliere. It traces his childhood in New Jersey, his first meetings with Bruce Springsteen in 1965, and their early days on the New Jersey bar circuit, the formation of the E Street Band, his work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, his politically charged solo career and activism in the Eighties, and his unlikely transition to the world of acting on “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer.” One of the most pivotal moments in his life took place in 1982, when he decided to suddenly quit the E Street Band. They were coming off a massive album and tour with “The River” and finally starting to make huge money, with much more to come in the near future, thanks to “Born in the U.S.A.,” but Van Zandt walked away from all of it. He’s given various reasons for his decision in the past, but in this book he finally tells the whole story.
Money and me, what can I say? We never got along too good. The pattern of my life is investing everything I have in what I believe in. Emotionally. All my time. All my talent. All my energy. And, yeah, usually all my money. Because I hate asking other people for money, and, until recently, never had anybody to do the asking for me. And we’ll see how long they last.
In 1982, I proceeded to spend what little money I had left after taking an eleven-piece band around the world for a year.
Now, the Rock life isn’t for everybody. You’re basically packing your bags and unpacking them thirty years later. It’s a lifestyle that requires dedication, perseverance, patience, ambition, and, most of all, having no desire or ability to do anything else.
People are always saying, “Oh, how proud you must be! How righteous to have withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!”
But no. I’m sorry.
I resist all accusations of nobility.
We were bums. Profoundly unsuited for any legitimate type of work. We did have honor for our outlaw profession. And a work ethic. I’ll give us that.
Part of the rationalization and satisfaction of being a boss working for another boss was the ability to offer suggestions and advice.
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. And there was a balance between me, Bruce, and Jon Landau. We had artistic theory and artistic practice covered.
But somewhere in ’82, it started to feel like Bruce had stopped listening. He had always been the most single-minded individual, with a natural extreme monogamy of focus in all things — in relationships, in songwriting, in guitar playing, in friends. Was that impulse now going to apply to his advisers?
At the time, I was hurt by the thought that maybe Jon resented my complete direct access to Bruce. I liked Jon a lot and thought he felt the same about me. If anything, I should have been the resentful one, but I wasn’t. In the end, I don’t think Jon had anything to do with the way things changed. There comes a time when people want to evolve without any baggage. To become something new and different without having to stay connected to the past. This was, I think, one of those moments.
Occasionally you need to be untethered.
Without all this retrospective wisdom, though, Bruce and I had our first fight, one of only three we would have in our lives.
I felt I had been giving him nothing but good advice and had dedicated my whole life and career to him without asking for a thing.
I felt I’d earned an official position in the decision-making process.
He disagreed. So I quit.
We finally made it.
And I quit.
The night before payday.
It was fucking with Destiny big-time.
Or was it fulfilling it?
Briefly, let’s leave emotion out of it and examine the balance sheet of this rather . . . incredible move.
On the positive side, I would write the music that would make up the bulk of my life’s work. Had I stayed, in between tours I probably would have produced other Artists. Or continued writing for others. Or both. But I probably would never have written for myself.
I very possibly wouldn’t have gotten into politics. Would Mandela have gotten out of jail? Would the South African government have fallen? Probably. But we took years off both of those things.
I got to be in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. They probably never would have happened.
I would create two radio formats, a syndicated radio show, two channels of original content for Sirius (which has introduced over a thousand new bands that have nowhere else to go), a record company, and a music-history curriculum. Would any of that exist?
It would change Bruce’s personal life for the better; that’s indisputable.
He would have been on the road for two years. Would he have had the time to hook up with Patti if she hadn’t been on the road with him? Would their three wonderful kids exist if I hadn’t left?
Patti Scialfa would find the love of her life, a mixed bag for her well-deserved career — a more visible shortcut but forever in his shadow (welcome to the club) — and most importantly, again, would those same three amazing kids exist if she hadn’t joined the band to sing my vocal parts?
Nils Lofgren, hired to do my guitar parts, got a very rewarding second career, or third career if you count Crazy Horse, which he well deserved.
So some good things happened.
I lost my juice.
As Chadwick Boseman, playing James Brown, says in the excellent biopic Get on Up after he fires his band, “Five minutes ago you were the baddest band in the land; now you’re nobody.”
Let that be a lesson, kids. And believe me, I am nothing if not the cautionary tale.
Never, ever leave your power base.
Not until you have secured a new one.
I not only lost most of my friends and the respect of several different industries, I blew any chance of living a life without ever again having to worry about money.
Who knows what could have been created if I’d had the backing of the masters of the universe, who are nothing but thrilled to invest in the ideas of happy, successful Rock stars?
I might even have been financially secure enough to have kids of my own.
Upon leaving the band, I became persona totally non grata. We didn’t publicize any bad blood. Not one negative word from either of us. We just said that I had left to pursue my own career, but I was seen as a traitor by virtually everybody. People felt they had to choose sides. Guess whose side they chose?
I didn’t think I had much in common with Trotsky, but we were both temporarily written out of history.
Van Zandt recorded a series of critically acclaimed albums in the Eighties, and he rallied many of the biggest names in music to fight South African apartheid on the protest classic “Sun City” in 1985, but he never found a mass audience. And while Springsteen and the E Street Band played football stadiums throughout the decade, Van Zandt struggled to fill theaters.
By the Nineties, his solo career fizzled out completely, and he struggled to find a purpose. By his own admission, he spent much of the decade walking his dog and trying to figure out his next move. Everything changed when David Chase happened to come across his 1997 speech at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducting the Rascals. Chase was putting together a show about a New Jersey mob family and felt Van Zandt would be perfect for it, even though he’d never acted a day in his life. And when “The Sopranos” was taking off as the biggest show on TV, Van Zandt’s former boss felt it was time to get the old band back together.
The reasons not to go back to E Street were obvious: I had a chance at a whole new career as an actor. That could lead to writing, which I was already doing on the side. And that could lead to directing, which had always interested me. And finally, to producing. The big picture. Overseeing all the details of a project. The ultimate goal.
Never mind that in my life plan, I kept getting to first base but couldn’t make it to second. And never mind asking an audience to redefine me a third or fourth time. If I wasn’t a performer, if what I did was behind the scenes — writing, directing, producing — I would only have to worry about how much an audience liked my work, not how much they liked me.
Another reason not to go back was that the dynamics of the organization had changed.
I’d given up my position as underboss and consigliere when I left. Bruce was now, more than ever, treated by the organization as a solo act.
I would have no control or input whatsoever.
How would it feel being a real sideman for the first time? Nils Lofgren was now playing all of my guitar parts and Patti Scialfa was singing my vocal parts — so what would my role be in the re-formed band, exactly?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be the same as it always was. The role that couldn’t be replaced. I would be the lifelong best friend. I was fine with that. In fact, I’d just been cast in the same role in The Sopranos.
The bio of Silvio Dante that I had given to the writers had helped them a little bit, but the character was still coming into focus as the show got started. Halfway through the first season, I realized I could use my relationship with Bruce as the emotional basis of Silvio’s relationship with mob boss Tony Soprano, because I knew exactly what the job entailed.
Dreaming together, planning and strategizing, sharing the good times and the bad, suffering the undeserved wrath when bringing bad news that only you could bring because you were the only one who wasn’t afraid of the Boss. They were all part of the job. Of both jobs.
Back in the late ’80s, years after I had left the band, Bruce had me over to hear his follow-up to Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love, at his house in Rumson, New Jersey. I listened. Tunnel felt like a solo record, for starters. There were still great songs, but they were smaller in scope, with more personal lyrics. “And what’s up with that first song, ‘Ain’t Got You’?” I asked. “ ‘I got this, I got that, and I got Rembrandts on the wall’?!?”
“What?” he said. “That’s how it is.”
“I know you’re trying to be funny,” I said. “But it’s only funny if it’s not true! If it was a line from a Dave Van Ronk song, we’d all have a good laugh about it, right? Look, I’m sure it’s more than a little weird to be rich and famous after almost forty years of being poor and struggling, and I know you’re trying to come to grips with how that new reality fits with your working-class persona, but damn!”
“Well,” he says, “in a certain way — an exaggerated way — I’m just being honest about my life.”
“Honest?” I was getting kind of worked up. “About your life? I hate to tell you this, but nobody gives a fuck about your life! Your gift, your job, your genius is telling people about their lives! Helping them understand their mostly fucked-up existence! Letting them know that you understand what they’re going through and that they are not alone.”
“Oh, man,” he said. “You’re totally nuts! It’s just a little humor!”
“People depend on your empathy!” I said. “It’s what you do best. They don’t want advice from Liberace or empathy from Nelson Fucking Rockefeller! You shouldn’t be writing shit like this!”
He said I was crazy, overreacting like I did with everything, that no one else had complained about it. We yelled and screamed for a while, and then he threw me out.
It was the second of our three fights.
We got over it.
I was right, of course. Like I always am when it came to giving advice to my friends. Because I care about them. A little too much, to be honest. Friendship is a sacred thing to me, and I can’t be casual about it. I don’t know where that comes from. But I realized early in life that if I’m going to have friends, the friendship has to be defined on their terms. Because nobody is as extreme as me. It’s a flaw I can’t fix.
So where was I? Oh, yeah. The cons and pros of going back to E Street.
There was the money.
Well, not really, because even though it was more than I made my first year of acting, they would soon even out.
Bruce has always kept us the cheapest concert ticket in the business while doing the most work. It’s a Jersey work-ethic thing. It was a typically unprecedented moral gesture from Bruce for the benefit of the working class.
But lately it was getting harder and harder to keep the tickets away from the scalpers.
It didn’t matter anyway, because my allergy to money would never allow me to make a decision based on it.
No, it was all about the closure.
I shouldn’t have left in the first place.
It didn’t matter how justified it might have felt at the time, or what I had learned and accomplished since. It felt like I had fucked with Destiny, interrupted what was supposed to be, and abandoned my best friend when he needed me most.
I also felt the band’s place in history needed to be secured. We were slowly vanishing from the mass consciousness. When magazines did their annual polls of best bands, or even best American bands, we had always been top five. But recently we had started to slip off the charts.
I wasn’t big on competition. But all due respect, shouldn’t we be ranked higher than the Spin Doctors?
One day, too, the E Street Band should be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and it would be best to be active if that day was ever to come. [Editor’s note: E Street were inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2014.]
There was a broader principle too. It had occurred to me somewhere along the way that we needed to preserve this endangered species called Rock. And not because it happened to be my main Artform of choice. Because there was something different about the Rock idiom’s ability to communicate substance.
Folk music passes along stories and allegories. Blues talks about the conditions of life. Jazz operates through mostly wordless intellect. Soul is all about relationships. Rock has substance and the ability to communicate it worldwide. And that includes its greatest hybrid, Reggae. Bob Marley was the ultimate example. Got to be neck and neck with Muhammad Ali for most well-known human on the planet. Get Tim White’s book on Marley. Incredible.
It’s why I was so interested in Hip-Hop when it started. The early Rappers were carrying on the Rock tradition. Emotional information. Sometimes literal information. Inspiration. Motivation. Education. Melle Mel, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Duke Bootee, Run-DMC, Ice-T, N.W.A, KRS-One, Public Enemy, all the way to the Wu-Tang Clan and Rage Against the Machine.
But Hip-Hop didn’t turn out to be as consistent as I hoped it would be. Got a little too comfortable with the hedonism aspect, like Rock before it.
One more reason to go back to E Street?
I liked being with him. Always have. I still got a kick out of him as a performer. He still made me laugh. I still marveled at the fact that my shy best friend had become one of the world’s greatest entertainers. And if we could adapt to being back together, we’d not just get back what we had, but maybe even take it further.
Tony and Sil ride again!
David Chase made my decision a little easier by scheduling my scenes on days off the tour. It was an amazing thing to do and added to the infinite gratitude I already owed him for giving me a new craft.
Of course, my role became smaller if I toured. And I’d never get to write and direct The Sopranos.
But for the next seven years I found a way to be in a TV show and a touring Rock and Roll band at the same time.
Flew home and back every day off. Never missed a day on the set, never missed a gig.
Two Bosses, two worlds. One fictional, based on reality, and one real, reinforced by fiction.
A circumstance as improbable as it was unpredictable.
A reconciliation of brothers.
There was work left to do.
Excerpted from “Unrequited Infatuations: A Memoir,” by Stevie Van Zandt. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.