The King of the Underground Garage reflects on music, acting, activism, and his new solo career retrospective, Rock N Roll Rebel.
Steven Van Zandt — aka
Little Steven — is in a lively mood as he calls from his apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. Even the current unsettled state of the world doesn’t faze him – if anything, he seems more energized than ever.
Recently, Van Zandt has been revisiting his solo career. He has been reissuing all of his early solo albums individually, as well as putting out Rock N Roll Rebel – The Early Work, a lavish 13-disc box set compiling Men Without Women (1982), Voice Of America (1983), Freedom – No Compromise (1987), Revolution (1989), and Born Again Savage (1999), plus the record Sun City (1985) by
“I look around today and life is so damn boring, man!” he says with a laugh. “Why did it get this boring? I don’t understand why people tolerate this level of boredom! I wish I was a hundred different guys – I’d be creating all different kinds of fun things. I wish I could do more.”
By most people’s standards, Van Zandt is probably doing plenty already: he’s a world-famous musician as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as well as fronting his own band, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, he’s equally famous as an actor thanks to his star turns on the hit television series The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, and he’s also long been the host of a weekly syndicated radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. He also owns and oversees a respected record label, Wicked Cool Records, and does extensive work in arts education and political activism. He talks about all of these things with seemingly inexhaustible enthusiasm.
Van Zandt says it’s been good to return to his own music in this way. “I reconnected to my own work, finally,” he says. “I’m very glad I did, because I’m proud of it and I think it has value. I shouldn’t have abandoned it the way I did – which was not intentional.” He says this neglect happened because he “wandered into other things: started acting, and Bruce [Springsteen] put the [E Street] band back together. Before you know it, 20 years went by.”
Happy as he is with his solo career, though, Van Zandt admits it hasn’t been the easiest role for him. “Out of all the things I do, the toughest thing is fronting the band and being in that spotlight,” he says. He did overcome this hurdle, though.
“I got really good at it in the ‘80s, I really did. I looked back on my 1987 band on a
YouTube video of a gig in Sweden, and I’m surprised how good I got at it, really.”
Watch Little Steven perform “Trail of Broken Treaties” live at the Ritz in NYC in 1987
When Van Zandt took The Disciples of Soul on tour last year, he found that being the leader had become even more of a challenge. Once again, he found a way to succeed. “It was really tough this time going back to being a frontman because I’m not in the greatest physical shape, so I had to look at it a whole different way,” he says. “I had to look at it like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be a front man in the real sense of the word here.’ In order for me to go on that stage, I’ve got to be in the frame of mind [of] ‘I’m presenting this music.’”
To do this, Van Zandt says, he made a plan. “I’m going to have the greatest band you’ve ever heard in your life, and I’m going to have the girls dancing – everything that’s going to keep you entertained, so I don’t have to be the entertainer. But I can be a presenter. That’s the only way I was able to talk myself into going onstage. That worked out just fine.”
This isn’t the first time that Van Zandt has downplayed his own front man abilities, if that’s what he felt was needed to serve the music. After firmly establishing himself on the Jersey Shore music scene (including co-founding Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes) he joined Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band in 1975 as the guitarist. “People were very, very surprised when I joined the E Street Band, because I was a significant local player,” Van Zandt says, but he explains that he made that choice because “I was comfortable with leadership, but I’m just more of a behind-the-scenes guy.”
Also, Van Zandt says, he felt compelled to join the E Street Band because “I felt that Bruce had something special that I could compliment – that together, we could really be able to do something special.” He adds that he instigated one change immediately: “People really started taking Bruce more seriously when I joined and I started calling him The Boss. That’s when he really became The Boss, because you can call yourself The Boss just for laughs, but when another significant boss calls you The Boss, you become The Boss!”
In 1999, when Van Zandt was still in the E Street Band, he also began a concurrent career as an actor when he joined the cast of The Sopranos, playing lead henchman Silvio Dante. He says he managed to juggle both music and acting without compromising either job. “Out of 14 years [of acting], I only missed two months of touring. I just got lucky that [Sopranos creator] David Chase was an E Street Band fan and scheduled my scenes on days off of the tours.”
Van Zandt gleefully recalls what it was like constantly switching back and forth between his E Street Band and The Sopranos duties: “So I’m flying home. I get here, I’ve got to get all fixed up [as Silvio Dante], I get on the set, I tell somebody to go fuck themselves, and then I get back on the plane and get to the next gig!” It was, he says, “a little hectic.”
As much as Van Zandt enjoyed his time on The Sopranos, he says that he got that role entirely by chance. “I wouldn’t have ever chosen to go into acting – I realized how difficult it is,” he says. “David Chase chose me. He was looking for new faces. He called me and said, ‘Hey man, I’m doing this new TV show, want to be in it?’ I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really, really nice – but no, I really don’t.’ He was like, ‘What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘I’m not an actor!’ And he was like, ‘Yes, you are – you just don’t know it yet.’
Van Zandt admits that even with Chase’s belief in him, he still faced a steep learning curve on The Sopranos set. “I’ve got to come out of that trailer and be this gangster named Silvio Dante, and I’m going to be acting with some of the greatest actors in the business – and man, believe me, that gets your attention! So you’re super focused and energized. Doing something completely different like that really does keep you motivated.
“Becoming an actor, getting a gift of a whole new craft, it really is stimulating,” Van Zandt continues. “So, you go from one thing to the other and it fires different parts of your brain. You go from acting to music and get re-energized all over again. So by doing multiple activities, it actually keeps everything stimulated, so you never burn out on any one thing.”
Van Zandt parlayed his success on The Sopranos into his next major acting role in the hit television series Lilyhammer, which ran from 2012 to 2015. Again, Van Zandt challenged himself, becoming not only the star of the show, but also co-writing and co-producing it, as well as doing the music and the score, and directing the final episode.
“I’m very, very lucky to be accepted totally in both worlds. I’m very happy about that,” Van Zandt says of his accomplishments in both music and acting. While much of this success is undoubtedly due to hard work more than anything, Van Zandt admits that his appearance might also be a significant factor: “I think it was helped by me wearing the bandana all the time in real life, looking so different. It really helps the audience suspend their disbelief. You’re not thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I just saw him playing in Cleveland! What’s he doing with a gun in his hand?’” He laughs. “It’s such a different look, people can accept it as a whole different person.”
Regardless of the reasons for his fame, Van Zandt has a history of using that celebrity status to bring attention to various causes, starting with Artists United Against Apartheid, a group of more than 50 artists he put together in 1985 to record the charity album Sun City, to protest South Africa’s government. Since then, he’s been involved in a number of causes to raise awareness about a variety of political and environmental issues.
“I started off really not intending to be an activist, per se,” Van Zandt says. “I was just doing research because when I was going to do a solo career. I had to justify my existence somehow. I had to find an identity. I started reading all these books and learning about foreign policy, started getting into politics, and I thought, ‘Somebody should be talking about this stuff – so maybe that will be my thing: I’ll be the political guy.’
“I started making these trips to places to really understand the situation, just so I could write a song about it. That was really the extent of my ambition. The more first-hand knowledge I had, the better the song would be.” But after actually visiting places like Nicaragua, South Africa, and Native American reservations, Van Zandt realized that he wanted to do more than write music about the things he saw. “You slowly get sucked in. So I made the jump from research and journalism, if you will, to activism.”
“Sun City” — Artists United Against Apartheid (1985)
Van Zandt is also deeply involved in charitable work. He main project in that area is the TeachRock initiative, which is aimed at integrating the arts into the education system. “I’ve been working on this for 15 years,” he says. “We’ve got 30,000 teachers registered. We’ve got a couple of partner schools, which is really exciting. I really, really, feel very strongly about this. The arts connect the dots in kids’ minds. They are able to function in a way that is far more productive and reliable. I think it’s much more important to teach kids how to think instead of what to think. I’ve been dedicating most of my life to that lately.”
Deciding which work to do when, Van Zandt says, usually comes down to circumstance. “You can plan and plan and plan, but in the end, life has its own way of saying, ‘It’s time to do this, it’s time to do that.’ Destiny seems to be something that we shouldn’t disregard completely.” He pauses, then adds with a laugh, “Maybe there is a plan, but it ain’t mine!”