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Stevie Van Zandt and the Art of Not Giving Up

When 'The Sopranos' icon isn't touring with Bruce Springsteen, he's dreaming up new projects (at least four scripts), refreshing America's Rock and Soul memory with SiriusXM's Underground Garage and running a record label. He wants to get back on TV, too.

BY ERIK HAYDEN. The Hollywood Reporter

JUNE 10, 2024 8:34AM

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Stevie Van Zandt PER OLE HAGEN/GETTY IMAGES

Stevie Van Zandt is full of contradictions, but owns them. The E Street Band member, songwriter, activist and producer is uncompromising when it comes to creative ideas, charging forward on a vision even when it leads to commercial dead ends. Yet he’s also an insider’s insider with a rolodex of heavyweight artists, executives and directors willing to sing his praises or line him up to punch up a song or a soundtrack.

He’s burned bridges — yes, including walking out on Bruce Springsteen’s group right before Born In the U.S.A.’s big payday; going all-in on a solo career that, in his own words, yielded no hits — yet also mended them. His late-career renaissance as an actor, plucked out by David Chase to be Sil on The Sopranos, looks less improbable when realizing that Van Zandt always seems to have a few irons in the fire. If one works out, great (see: Norwegian mob comedy Lilyhammer, Netflix’s first original series, or his creation of Underground Garage and Outlaw Country on SiriusXM, where he narrates the oft-forgotten history of Rock and Soul). If the idea doesn’t work out, you know, it’s on to the next one (he’s shopping a Bourdain-inspired travel series).

It’s in that spirit that HBO Documentary Films premiered the doc Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple(riffing on his solo band, Disciples of Soul) at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 8. The laudatory retrospective, which wrangles Paul McCartney, Eddie Vedder, Jackson Browne, Bono, Richard Plepler, Darlene Love and many more to offer up anecdotes about Van Zandt, follows his more candid 2021 memoir, Unrequited Infatuations. And many of those same bold-faced names — including Netflix co-chief Ted Sarandos, who rolled the diced with a two-season order for Lilyhammer after one meeting — gathered at the Tribeca Grill following the screening to toast the firebrand’s career.

The doc, pitched by director Bill Teck in 2006 and then again in 2014, was initially conceived as a three part docuseries before landing at HBO Documentary Films. “We were actually into our first rough cut when Stevie started writing the book, which tells you how long we’ve been working on it,” Teck notes, adding: “We didn’t wanna make some quick, ‘just the highlights’ thing like a record label would produce, we wanted to craft something that felt fuller.”

Van Zandt spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about his winding path, pitch meetings with studio execs, his frustration with 2024 political fights and staying grounded during a global E Street Band tour.

There’s some dry humor in your memoir. In a few places there’s pages building up to a project (a record or a new band or show) and then the hype will abruptly end with “And nobody saw it” or “Nobody heard it.” How do you deal with those rejections?

You have to have a sense of humor to survive in this world. I honestly didn’t really think it was unfair because I was following the path of an artistic adventure and not considering the career — as naïve as that was — I got enthralled and obsessed with the fact that I had stumbled upon my rationalization for existence by seeking out these political issues and then turning them into stories. This job I was kind of inventing as an artist/journalist was thrilling, just feeling like “wow.” Each album had a different theme and a different soundtrack and was very satisfying artistically.

You mentioned you were too committed to artistic integrity for your solo work, rather than thinking of commercial prospects.

Lets face it, without intending it, my life has been a triumph of art over commerce. Somehow managing to survive with no hits. So I kind of joked about it in the book but it was based in truth. And, again, to be fair, it was what you expect to happen. Audiences are wonderful but you can’t expect them to make those 180 degree turns every album, there has to be some consistency. The identity has to be more than just “you’re the Political Guy learning about life and learning about yourself and telling these stories.”

When you created the Little Steven moniker you said you became the Political Guy. What do you think of this season now and are you involved in this election year?

The country’s facing a real catastrophe if it goes the wrong way. I’m a little bit disappointed in our inability to educate people about what’s going on right now. It’s a rather extraordinary failure when you see college kids holding up Hamas flags. That’s an extraordinary failure of education. I tell people all the time, if you’re going to get engaged politically, do your homework before you open your mouth. And there’s a real lack of homework going on right now in a lot these demonstrations. The entire vibe that has taken place is misplaced.

With those demonstrations, you wrote in your book that out of high school in New Jersey you were drafted and told the officer, “listen if they step foot on Bradley Beach I’ll be the first one there” but you weren’t going to be shipped overseas during Vietnam. How do you think about the two eras of activism?

I just feel that literally, virtually all the protests before this one were righteous, were about something important. Not misconceived. Whether it was against the Vietnam War, whether it was against apartheid in South Africa, and everything in between, those were really legitimate causes. Divestment from Israel, when this insane leader has a 15 percent approval rating, is not the way to go. The worst thing that ever happened to the state of Israel is Muslim terrorism. The second worst thing is Benjamin Netanyahu, who has caused more damage to the state of Israel and Jews worldwide than one thousand Muslim terrorists could have ever done.

There’s many hats you wear now — guitarist, songwriter, producer, label owner, radio host and more — which one resonates most at this point?

At this point, on my last two albums, I very consciously decided there’s no reason to be political anymore. I made the first two non-political albums of my life and they’re also non-autobiographical, they’re just albums like everybody else makes, which is fictional characters and fictional songs. Just trying write some good songs and have fun with it. Put together one of the greatest bands in the world with Disciples of Soul and we toured twice — which I’ll be paying for the rest of my life, but it’s OK, it was worth it.

You mentioned putting your own money into projects you believe in…

You kind of do what you got to do, you know what I mean? Sometimes it’s not very wise economically, but I’m allergic to money. I never got along with money very well. I use it when I have it because it is useful. But it can’t be a priority to me, I got bigger priorities on my mind.

When starting Underground Garage at SiriusXM the rationale was that Classic Rock on the radio had narrowed to “the same five hundred songs.” What’s your read on music discovery in the Spotify era?

You need some kind of curation to separate the chaos — to separate the good stuff from the chaos. Of course it’s all very subjective, but that’s why I started my radio network, for that purpose. I’m just going to play my favorite songs. And I’m going to connect the dots in history, we go back all 70 years of Rock and Soul, we go back to 1951. This stuff doesn’t fall off trees, it comes from somewhere, we’re going to tell you who the producer is, who the writers are. We’re going to do all that to make the greatest music ever made accessible to future generations. That’s very important.

You’re shopping a new unscripted series, The Jam, to networks — what’s the idea behind that pitch and what have you heard from buyers about it?

The variety show, we pitched that a couple weeks ago and no takers so far. I pitched two different TV shows, that one, and a Bourdain-style travel show since I was going to all the greatest cities in the world, with the greatest band in the world — one of them — I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a travel show while I was out there. No takers on that either. Everyone’s a little bit cautious about pulling the trigger on new TV shows right now, which is concerning. Especially those two TV shows which are kind of easy ones and kind of cheap ones and pretty surefire hits, I must say. To have people hesitant about those two TV shows kind of concerns me — I have four big scripts, big TV shows ready to go. I want to get something going after this tour. I want to get back on TV.

Speaking of TV, the origin story for Lilyhammer was interesting. In your telling, you were cajoled into doing this Norwegian mob comedy after landing 50 percent of the back end profit and artistic control, but realized the budget was slim, $750,000 an episode, so had to find a co-producer. After meeting with Ted Sarandos, it became Netflix’s first original series, and ended up a three-season run. If you were to start that over, would you have gone about it the same way?

I was kind of lied to about the budget, so there’s nothing I could’ve done about that. And honestly it couldn’t have been a better story and I just wish everybody in the business had the balls, and the courage, of Ted Sarandos. This guy completely revolutionized the business, as we all know now. For the first Netflix show — the stock was down, they were in trouble at the time, now they’re getting into the whole new venture of creating content — and he picks a local Norwegian show with subtitles? I mean, really, what incredible courage. Hands it to me. Yes, I had been in a big show, The Sopranos, but I was just an actor, really. I took my one new craft, which was acting, turned it into five new crafts, co-wrote the show, co-produced the show, did all the music and directed the final episode without any notes from Ted whatsoever. He just completely trusted me, man.

I wish every head of every network had that same courage. I’m not sure that the way the system works right now is working. That was the only pitch I’d ever done in my life, right? I pitched one show, one time, walked out with a two-season deal and $20 million in 45 minutes. That was my entire experience with negotiating with networks.

It was a different Hollywood era…

And I thought, well, this is how things work, this is how things are supposed to work. And then a couple weeks ago, we pitched these two shows with virtually all the networks and I’d come out of every pitch meeting saying to the gang, “So that’s a deal, right?” And they were like, “Well, in New York, that’s a deal. But in L.A., not so much.” It turns out you’re pitching to people who don’t make the decisions anymore. So I thought that’s an odd way to do things. I’m not sure how to deal with that. We’ll see what happens, I do want to get back on TV somehow but I’m not sure that system is going to work for me. So we’ll see.

We’ve reported on a broader cutback in unscripted orders this year, a lot of the contraction hasn’t helped.

When you look back at the art and commerce balance that we all try to maintain, it just seems like the businessmen that have the artistic sensibilities are the ones that succeeded. Berry Gordy at Motown, Sam Phillips at Sun, Leonard Chess at Chess. Same thing with the movie people and the TV people. Jeff Bewkes and Chris Albrecht, who pulled the trigger on The Sopranos, which was a risk. You look at the high points of any medium and there seems to be something in common. They happened by risk-taking by businessmen with really good artistic taste and courage. And now we seem to be in a weird transitional period.

Studio execs don’t come from a creative background, in a lot of cases. Or they’re being layered and don’t work directly with talent.

Right. Which I guess has some practical reasons, but the intermediaries that they’re selecting to make these choices don’t have the courage — They’re not going to lose their job by doing nothing. They lose their job by doing the wrong thing. So they’re all a little bit shy about making commitments. I think it’s a real problem going on right now with that. I don’t know if anybody can name ten great TV shows that are on right now.

There’s a different sort of TV age setting in, maybe the IP age or franchise age…

There seems to be a lack of that combination of art and commerce. When it achieves that sort of balance that’s when it seems to cook. Things start cooking and working and you have these peaks when that happens.

How do you stay grounded?

Creativity is still, for me, the salvation. And I’m still chasing greatness. I support it when I find it and I try to create it when I can. We find a new song to play every week on my Underground Garage radio network, we are still signing bands who, for some reason, are still writing and making great records even though there’s no reward for it anymore.

Whatever we can create, we stick with that stuff and keep the creative process going. Try not to get too hung up with watching the news and reading the newspapers, which are really quite depressing right now. And hope that this year’s election goes right. We’re certainly not going to be shy about telling people — I’m an Independent law-and-order liberal, but we all got to be Democrats now. I don’t believe in the party system, that’s why I wrote “I Am a Patriot,” that’s what that song’s about. The other side has gone to the dark side, literally. We all got to just hope for the best and we’ll be actively trying to educate people as much as we can, but at the same time, like you’re suggesting, your mental health cannot survive long in that world so you better have some sanctuary to go to. For me, it will always be the art world.

When you’re back home after touring, what’s your perfect day in New York?

I spend some time with my wife, Maureen, and new dog, Tiggy. Maybe get together with friends and have a meal together somewhere nice, outside. I love eating outside — they’re starting to tear down some of the outside places, I hope that doesn’t happen. Perfect day, you want to read a chapter of a good book and you want to create something, write a song, write a chapter in a new book I’m writing or do something creative. That’s what life is all about, harmony and balance. Create something and do something productive that moves our society forward maybe an inch, if you can. That’s all you can do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

https://www.hollywoodreporter....disciple-1235916530/

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