Steve Van Zandt’s Soulfire
Springsteen henchman and Sopranos boss hits the road and classrooms
Miami Steve Van Zandt, Silvio Dante, Frank Tagliano – a phone call with the E Street Band consigliere zings and pops just as you’d hope and expect. Revived as an activist with his Eighties group the Disciples of Soul, the guitarist now stumps for his teaching initiative with a tie-in show at the Paramount Theatre on Friday. Strap in for an epic Q&A.
Austin Chronicle: Greetings from Austin, Texas.
Steve Van Zandt: Yeah, we’re finally getting there.
AC: I work with Charlie Sexton putting together the Austin Music Awards, so I wanted to thank you for playing the tribute set to Ian McLagan in 2015.
SVZ: That was fun, yeah. Yeah, yeah, that was a great show you put together, actually. Really, and I know you did it in a short time.
AC: You produced the Arc Angels’ 1992 debut. Had you known Charlie since he was 16 and breaking out with “Beat’s So Lonely”?
SVZ: Not quite that early. I was always a fan, though, and then at some point, I don’t remember when we met or why or how, but at some point, I had a feeling he wasn’t quite being treated properly in terms of his artistic potential, you know? I felt things were a little bit weird, with various record companies trying to point him in one direction or the other. I felt everybody’s sort of wrong about him. He’s this incredibly talented guy, so I wanted to make a great record with him to show people what I felt he could do. That’s why we put together the Arc Angels thing, you know?
And then, of course, you had the bonus of Doyle Bramhall [II] and the great Double Trouble, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section. But that record was born out of me wanting to show people that Charlie was this great guitar player on top of everything else. I never felt he was getting the credit for that, you know?
AC: Did you by chance hear Doyle’s last album? Incredible contemporary blues album.
SVZ: No, no, no. I got to do that. I will make a point of finding that album and checking it out, yeah. I mean, yeah, he’s a terrific artist and I’m very happy the way his career’s gone.
AC: In the same vain, your first solo album in decades, Soulfire, coalesces a myriad of classic styles: folk rock, doo-wop, psychedelic soul. It all fell together beautifully, so you must have been pleased with the outcome of that album.
SVZ: I really was, especially since there was no planning whatsoever. It happened very, very organically, and really by accident. Suddenly, out of nowhere, this friend of mine in London said, “Listen, when you coming back to London?” I said, “Me and my wife are coming back for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday.” He said, “That’s the same week as my blues fest. Why don’t you throw a band together and play it?” I hadn’t done that in 25 years. I hadn’t talked to the band in a long, long time. I don’t know why.
So I said, “Yeah, all right, why not?”
We threw a bunch of songs together and it felt like an album right away. I said, “Well, maybe it’s time to revisit my own work here.” I kind of abandoned my own work for 25 years. I didn’t mean to. I started acting and then Bruce put the band back together, and before you know it, 20 years go by. I said, “I think I should get back into this. I really have ignored a major, major part of my artistic life here.”
I knew I wasn’t going to be able to write a whole new album. It was going to take awhile to get back into that, so I figured let me cover myself. I’ll do an album of songs I’ve written for other people and throw in a couple of the blues things we put together for the blues festival. I liked the Etta James song [“Blues is My Business”] and found a cool arrangement for the James Brown song [“Down and Out in New York City”], so I said, “Yeah, we’ll put those on the record.”
I’d never really put any cover on a record before, or somebody else’s songs. I’ve never really done a rootsy, sort of, “Here’s my influences album,” but I thought, “This is a good time.” Not only to reintroduce myself to people who might know me as a songwriter, but to introduce myself to people who just know me as an actor on The Sopranos or Lilyhammer, or know me from the E Street Band, or know me from the Underground Garage Radio Show, or whatever. I wanted to reintroduce myself as a songwriter, singer, arranger, producer, guitar player, all that.
It’s also the first time I’d ever really produced myself in a proper way. People should really not produce themselves, you know? I’ve always produced myself and it’s probably always been a mistake. But this is the first time I actually produced myself the way I would produce somebody else, you know? It felt like a good, solid production, on top of the materials being quite fun.
AC: I interviewed Denny Laine from Wings about a month ago, and he had great things to say about you helping him get the rights back for the Moody Blues. And I asked him, “Do you feel like your career took a back seat to playing behind Paul McCartney that whole time? Is that a regret that you didn’t nurture your own career more?” So I put that same question to you: Do you feel there was an alternate path you didn’t take and wonder what that might have been like?
SVZ: Well, it’s a bit more complicated for me. You know, I regret leaving the E Street Band in the first place [in 1984]. I shouldn’t have done that, but at the same time, I learned everything I know and accomplished whatever I accomplished. I did accomplish something by leaving, such as the whole South Africa thing. Probably would not have happened had I stayed in the band, but basically, what you learn through the years is, you know, if you have a band and it works, it’s a miracle and should not be taken for granted and should not be taken lightly.
If you want to go do solo things, do them, but don’t break up the band. Come back to it. Do every other year or whatever you want to do, but you should never, ever leave the band to do solo things – not in a permanent way. There’s no reason to do that. In my case, I did leave the band to do solo things, but I didn’t really pursue my solo thing as a career. That was my problem. I didn’t have a manager, which is a major problem. You know, five of my solo albums are completely different musically, because it was all one big artistic adventure for me. I was much more interested in what I was saying, and each one had a scene. Each one was very contextual.
All the songs added up to a story on every single one of those albums, and that’s what I was interested in, exploring the world, finding out what makes the world go round, trying to understand politics and political situations, and talk about them in the songs. Translating the information about politics into emotional information, which is the art form that we use. I was more concerned with that than having a career, per se, because you would never do five records that were completely different musically, if you were really seriously having a career. I mean, if I was a manager or producer, I would never allow my artist to do that. It would be suicide.
In that sense, I was a bit naïve and a bit stupid about the career, which I really, really deeply regret now, because I realize I blew it. I should have been focused on it, and focused on having hits, because it was something I had no interest in whatsoever at the time. Which again, is ridiculously naïve, because now, here I am, probably the only fool who’s ever toured with a 15-piece band and 30 people on the road, and here I am touring without ever having one single hit. It’s a bit bizarre, to say the least.
AC: Toward the end of his life, Joe Strummer once said something to the effect that, “The music industry had changed so much. If only the Clash could have taken some time off from the band, we would have been fine.” Instead of breaking up the band.
SVZ: Exactly, there you go. Exactly right. You don’t realize it at the time, when you’re in it, because you’re just obsessed with whatever you’re obsessed with, but it’s easy to see it now, you know? I’m like, nobody should ever break up the band. If it works, it’s a miracle and don’t take it for granted.
AC: You mentioned South Africa, and your Eighties activism against apartheid is well documented. What politicized you originally? You came of age in the Sixties when so much of the youth demographic became politically motivated.
SVZ: Interestingly enough, I was completely ignorant of politics right through the Sixties and in the middle of all that turbulence and amazing political upheaval, civil rights and Vietnam and everything else. All I was caring about was, how do I get a gig and how do I learn this blues lick from Reverend Gary Davis. How do I get laid? I couldn’t have cared less about politics even though it was in our DNA at that point, coming first from Bob Dylan and the rock era ethos, where that whole sensibility was built in, Jefferson Airplane and then of course Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Neil Young’s “Ohio” was the ultimate political song.
All that was going on and I found it interesting, and enjoyed it, learned from it, I suppose, but I didn’t really say, “Okay, I want to have a musical political career.” It wasn’t until we finally succeeded with The Riverthat we actually got a paycheck. Fifth fucking album it took, you know? So after 15 years work – me and Bruce started around ’65 – we finally break through in 1980. Fifteen years later I get my first decent paycheck and I quit the fucking band. Genius career move. But I co-produced The River and Born in the USA before I left.
It was on that River tour and in Europe for the first time, a kid came up to me and said, “Why are you putting missiles in my country?” Referring to the missiles I guess Reagan was putting into NATO. Then I just ... it was a ... question to me. You know, I’m a guitar player. I ain’t got no missile in my guitar case here, what are you talking about? But the question stayed with me, stayed with me, and because I was successful for the first time in my life, you know, that tunnel vision I’d had all my life faded away. Suddenly you’re confronted with the world, you know: “Oh, there’s this world going on here which I hadn’t been paying attention to my whole life. What is going on in this world?”
It suddenly occurred to me, “Oh my God. What this kid meant was, I’m an American citizen, and I’m responsible for what America does.” This had never occurred to me, number one that I was an American citizen, or that I was responsible for anything, you know? I said, “Well, wow. I guess I am putting missiles in this kid’s country and I wonder what else I’m doing. I started reading these books about our foreign policy since World War II and it was shocking to discover that we weren’t on the side of the good guys very often, actually. We were always supporting every major dictator in the world and doing all kinds of terrible things. My God, I felt like a German citizen in the Thirties watching Jews being rounded up and saying, “Well, it’s not my business.” I didn’t want that to happen, so I felt like, you know, I have to say something about this. This is absolutely incredible and nobody was really talking about it.
I became obsessed with politics just out of circumstance, and to such a degree that I actually quit the band and dedicated the next whatever it was, seven, eight years, to nothing but politics and learned what I needed to learn, said what I needed to say. Then I realized, oh yeah, I better find a way to make a living. I’d kind of blown every possible opportunity to make a living by that point, a little bit late in that thought process, but what the fuck, right?
I mean, I had basically walked out on, I don’t know, easily $100 million dollars, probably. By leaving the E Street Band right when Born in the USA hit, you know, if you add up all of the money that would have been made from then on, it’s like tens of millions, probably hundreds of millions. At the same time, it was all rock & roll and don’t let anybody ever tell you differently. Rock & roll brought down the South African government. We did. Would that government have fallen inevitably anyway? Probably, yeah, but it would have been years later and you know, we saved lives. There were lives we lost every single day down there, plus we got [Nelson] Mandela out of jail just in time, because what nobody knows is they were scrambling his brains in prison with drugs in his food.
Nobody really knows that story. You know, a couple of years down the road, he probably wouldn’t have had any brains left. And believe me, that transition down there would not have been smooth without him. At least I feel good about that, okay? We saved some lives, and maybe lots of lives. If that cost me $100 million, what the fuck, you know what I mean? It’s worth it, you know what I mean? You can always make a living, but we can’t, couldn’t duplicate another Mandela.
AC: And you’re still at with TeachRock. It’s a middle and high school curriculum in music developed through your Rock & Roll Forever Foundation, is that right?
SVZ: Yeah, yeah. We’re doing great with it, too. Keep in mind I’ve been working on this for 10 years, but we only have gone public in the last year. This is not like we’ve been banging our heads against the wall. Every single teacher, administrator, principal, school board, everybody we’ve approached has welcomed us with open arms. We have great expectations for this teachrock.org program, and we already have 120 lessons up online. They’re all licensed. They all meet the state standards. Scholastic’s our partner.
I outlined 200 lessons, which is basically the outline of the entire history of music going back to the early 20th century, and along the way, we have partnered with various documentary people, which has been a really fun, good way of just keeping this thing contemporary, because basically, documentaries, they live in a theater for a minute and then they’re going to end up on TV. We give them a third life and a third dimension by bringing them right into the classroom.
We base lesson plans on the documentaries. Use footage from it and basically turn the documentary into a lesson plan. We did that with The Beatles. We partnered with the Ron Howard movie. We partnered with Dave Grohl for the Sonic Highways HBO special. We just partnered with Tom Zimny for the Elvis Presley thing, which is great, and Rumble, you know, Native Americans Who Rocked the World.
Establishing the entire history of rock, we physically created this thing as a gift to teachers to help them teach in this very difficult environment. It’s not like the old days, with here we were told, “Learn this now and someday you’ll use it.” Kids don’t want to hear that, man. I call it teaching in the present tense. Give kids something they can use right now, you know? Get their attention right now, and music is the way to do that. You know, instead of taking that iPod out of your ears, tell us what you’re listening to and we’ll trace it back for you. And it works. We create a little bit of historical context around the music and then it’s taught cross curricular. We’re a music class, but we’re also a history class, a social studies class, an English class. It works on every grade level. It’s very flexible.
That’s now getting out there as a way of saying thank you and showing our gratitude to the teachers, who are right now under siege across our whole country. There’s all kinds of strikes going on, you know. We supported them West Virginia, and now I think Kentucky, Oklahoma. I’m not sure what’s happening in Arizona right now. There’s all kinds of stuff going on, basically, and teachers continue to be the most under appreciated, under valued, and underpaid part of our working class.
We wanted to show solidarity with teachers on this tour, so we’re inviting them to come to the soundcheck. Come to a workshop, which my foundation people will hold, and show them how the lesson plans work. Then they can come to the show for free. We have like 200 tickets per show put aside for teachers. They can bring their friends, their mates, their children, their students, whatever. If we need more than 200, we’ll give them more than 200, but that’s what we’re doing this tour – connecting what we’re doing live with what we’re doing with the foundation and the curriculum. It kind of makes sense because my show right now, it’s kind of a history of rock & roll. The Soulfire album touches upon all those sub-genres.
When you look at the show, we add even more stuff, so you get everything from doo-wop and blues right through soul and salsa and hard rock and folk. We’ve got the whole thing kind of covered in the show. We’re kind of the living embodiment of the curriculum in a way. So teachers, come down for free. Let us say thank you. Let us show solidarity with you.
AC: You said teachers are under siege, and they’re under siege literally. Killing sprees in schools have become almost commonplace. I asked Denny Laine if rock & roll could save the world – and he said it already had – so I put it to you: can rock & roll do anything about guns and what’s happening with these massacres in our schools?
SVZ: Well, it’s something to consider. I have great hopes with these Parkland kids in Florida. I met them and found them to be incredibly intelligent and determined. I hope they can hang in there and get the support that they need, and I certainly would help them. I think they’re very sensible.
AC: All the musical styles you mention blend very naturally on Soulfire. “Standing in the Line of Fire,” speaking about guns, has such a delicious, spaghetti western intro. What’s your favorite western and who’s your favorite country singer?
SVZ: Well, you know, I really did love those spaghetti westerns with Sergio Leone. I guess the ultimate one was The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, although they’re all enjoyable in their own weird way. Clint Eastwood comes up with a classic every decade or so. What was that one with Morgan Freeman a few years ago? I think it won best picture, actually.
AC: The Unforgiven.
SVZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely fantastic. Just when you think the genre cannot be revitalized, they come up with that one. I like a lot of the old ones, too – My Darling Clementine and John Ford. The cinematography alone on that thing is just stunning. The John Ford and Howard Hawks stuff is all still very, very, enjoyable.
Musically, I wanted to give the greatest country people a home, like I did with the Underground Garage for rock & roll. It was exactly the same sort of thinking, you know? Country radio had stopped playing Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings. I’m like, “Man, it’s time for a new format.”
Our format, Outlaw Country on Sirius XM – it’s channel 60 – is basically all three generations of Hank Williams and everything in between, from the classic, legendary cats like I mentioned, George Jones and those alt-country rockers, to you know, Dwight Yoakam and Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams, and then the rock guys who have some country leanings, like Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape, Youngbloods.
AC: Moby Grape!
SVZ: Yeah. Yeah. You know, the Band, there was no format for the Band. That’s just wrong. People have got to be able to hear the Band. Outlaw Country was formed on that basis of connecting the dots between the traditional country guys and the alt-country, modern people and. If I had to pick a favorite it probably would be Johnny Cash overall. He just had that amazing, amazing thing about him. There’s quite a few of those cats that I really loved. Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams himself, you know?
SVZ: Country and rock & roll, it was very, very close in those days. All those cats, Conway Twitty and of course Johnny Cash, a lot of them had that rock & roll thing. It would later split into separate categories, but back then it was very close to the same thing. They were equally rebellious, equally crazy. Equally full of drinking and drugs and sex, and you know, everything that God intended for a music career.
AC: Ever been on Willie Nelson’s bus?
SVZ: Let me think about that for a minute. I think I have. I think I did do that once. I’ve heard about it so often I feel like I have, even if I haven’t. I’m still high from it, in fact.
AC: Ever meet Roky Erickson?
SVZ: Oh yeah. We did his first gigs when he got out of the hospital.
AC: No kidding.
SVZ: I booked his first gigs, yeah. We got him to Florida for a gig and we were very excited to get him back out there. I think we did his first gigs in decades, yeah.
AC: How cool was that, to be shaking the hand of a psychedelic pioneer?
SVZ: Yeah. I mean, I was mostly concerned for his health and his well-being, and making sure that he was ready to do that, so I was just very happy to see how together he was and he was just in a great mood. It all worked out quite well. I was more concerned than anything else, you know what I mean? Because you didn’t know what damage had been done through the decades and how permanent was it, or what. It turned out to be a wonderful experience, you know. It was great, great seeing him and re-introducing him to an audience again. Is he still in Austin?
AC: He’s doing well. He’s found real happiness and peace.
SVZ: I’ve got to invite him to the show.
AC: Are there any particularly E Street gigs here in Austin over the decades that stand out?
SVZ: You know, I don’t know. They’re all fun. I don’t really ... I don’t really have anything that comes to mind, you know what I mean? Not one more than the other, you know?
AC: I was sorry that The River re-tour didn’t come here. Y’all did Dallas and Houston, I believe. When you were talking about doing The River again, that’s the point at which you were beginning to leave the band, so doing this most recent tour of the album must have been a cycle coming full circle.
SVZ: Well, it was certainly. The first one was, I think, the peak of our band. Probably the best tour we’ve ever done. But I think the second best was the one we just did. When we did The River on this last tour, I thought that really made for an incredible show – for me. It was just my favorite record for a lot of reasons. Not only was it the first time I co-produced, but also that record had Bruce’s soul music on it, which he tends to tragically take for granted and doesn’t really do the songs in the normal shows. He kind of ignores that part of himself, and doing The River from beginning to end every night, you know, forced him to do those fantastic songs, “I Want to Marry You” and “Drive All Night” and those soul songs. He’s probably the greatest white soul singer alive today, and he just never does it. He’s so good at so many things, he just sort of ignores it.
I don’t think he ever quite saw that as a big part of his own identity. He tends to be more of the, you know, Americana, country-rooted sort of thing. Of course he’s great at that also, but me, soul music being my thing, I’m a bit prejudiced towards that type of music, and he’s so unbelievably good at it that it makes me crazy. We can go entire tours where he won’t even, he won’t do one single one of those songs, and he’s just so good at it. That made that last tour really, really enjoyable for me, but the original River tour was probably the peak of that original band with Danny [Federici] and Clarence [Clemons] still there.
AC: You’re right, all of Bruce is encapsulated in that one album, so to see that in a show was incredible. Bravo. Steve, it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you. Keep doing the lord’s work through rock & roll and we’re looking forward to seeing you in Austin.
SVZ: Me too, man. Thank you. Good talking to you and just spread the word to all the teachers, will you? We want to fill the room with teachers and make sure that we get a change to say thank you to them for all their under appreciated work.