Born and raised in New Jersey, Steven Van Zandt grew up as a rock freak in what he still believes was rock's greatest era, when legends like The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Byrds inspired teenagers across the country to start bands that could be just as great for any given three minutes. Van Zandt rose from the garage circuit to the Asbury Park bar scene, where he befriended the local players who later formed The E Street Band and Southside Johnny's band The Asbury Jukes. Van Zandt made the leap from the Dukes to the E Streeters after helping Bruce Springsteen with the arrangements on Born To Run, and his stint with the band corresponded with (and maybe prompted) Springsteen's shift from Bob Dylan-inspired boogie epics to the working-class retro-rock of his heyday.
Van Zandt left the band in the '80s to pursue a more political brand of global rock, embarking on a five-album cycle that began with 1982's intimate Men Without Women and ended with 1999's equally intimate Born Again Savage, with more expansive records (and a couple of minor hits) in between. He returned to touring with The E Street Band when Springsteen reconvened the group in the late '90s, but lately, he's been better known for two unexpectedly successful side projects: his recurring role on The Sopranos as the mobbed-up proprietor of a Jersey strip club, and his four-years-and-counting run as the programmer/host of the weekly syndicated radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage. Between hustling from TV sets to radio booths—and writing a weekly column on garage rock for Billboard—Van Zandt spoke with The A.V. Club about how his eclectic career fits into one long statement in favor of rock 'n' roll's power to bring people together.
The A.V. Club: Did you ever grab a stack of records and play DJ when you were a kid?
Steven Van Zandt: [Laughs.] Nope. It never occurred to me. Never did that. I never pretended I was an actor, either. [Laughs.] There's a lot of things you end up doing that you never figured on.
AVC: What did you think you were going to do?
SVZ: Well, from the age of 14, 13, I guess I wanted to be a rock 'n' roll star. And that was it. I wanted to make a living playing rock 'n' roll, and it was a ridiculously impossible dream at that time. But it was kind of all I ever wanted to do. It's nice to do it.
AVC: On the radio show, how much say do you have in the final playlist?
SVZ: One hundred percent.
AVC: Everything is your choice?
SVZ: Completely. Every single second of the show is me.
AVC: It's a wide, diverse collection of music, from old to new.
SVZ: Well, I think it's important that all 50 years of rock 'n' roll live in the same place, because it's all connected. I'm not pretending to be an academic, or to have this down to a science. It's strictly my taste. But there is a connection between everything I play and the sets I put together. The Ramones are the fulcrum. I play the Ramones, I play everyone who influenced the Ramones, and I play everyone the Ramones influenced. If you look at it that way, it sort of makes sense. [Laughs.]
Basically, it's what we call garage rock, which is traditional rock 'n' roll. I hear a very specific, obvious emotional connection, even if it's just in the spirit of the record. They're all connected in my mind.
AVC: You're unusually up to date for someone of your generation.
SVZ: I did this show for probably three or four reasons, and one of the main reasons was the impulse to support these new, very good rock 'n' roll bands that somehow ended up in the 21st century with no format. I don't know how we got here. Rock 'n' roll was the mainstream for 30 years, and now we've ended up in radio with formats for everything except rock 'n' roll. It's incredible, when you think about it. So I thought, "Well, we have to support these new bands too, in a way that keeps the relevance of the older bands."
If it's in a museum, it becomes an artifact, not emotionally connected to now. And that can't happen, because rock 'n' roll is a continuum, the way I see it. An emotional continuum, going back as far as you want to go, and leading into the future as far as you want to see. It has to stay connected in order to make that continuum effective, and you can't do that without playing new music. When you hear The Boss Martians or The Hives or The Strokes or Jet, whoever it may be, you can trace their roots back directly, and that keeps the old stuff fresh. We wanted to give these new bands a chance, and let the next generation of kids actually hear what rock 'n' roll is. When they hear it, they love it. We know that. I get e-mails from 11-year-olds and 61-year-olds. But if they never get a chance to hear it, we're gonna have a generation of kids never having heard the real thing. That's not acceptable.
AVC: Have you noticed any change in the past couple of years? It seems like there have been more inroads for rock 'n' roll at MTV and elsewhere.
SVZ: Yeah, yeah. A little bit. When we started five years ago, there wasn't a single rock 'n' roll group signed to a major label. It was horrifying. Now there's about 12, which is progress. Five of them went gold or platinum in the last couple of years, which is remarkable, really. But there's still no format to play them other than mine. The alternative formats will play The White Stripes for a couple of weeks, or The Hives for a week or two, but they can't play them regularly, because they don't really fit. It's a different format. Different genre. It's garage rock. We finally had that officially recognized by Billboard magazine in the last month. There's finally a garage-rock chart, up in the front, connected to my column. For the first time, people have started to realize, "These things don't fit in anywhere else, really. They're different." So it's a beginning of recognition, and in one sense, it's fucking slow motion. But it's progress.
AVC: You were touring with The E Street Band at the time that the Ramones and other early punk bands were emerging in the New York clubs. Did you get to see those guys, or were you on the road too much?
SVZ: The '80s is what I missed. I was on the road with my solo records—in Europe, mostly—in the '80s. In the '70s, I caught some things. The Ramones, people like that. The Dictators, you know. Compared to what happened later, there weren't that many really important bands to catch in the '70s. It wasn't like there were a million bands. It was a relatively small number, and we all kind of knew each other.
AVC: Did you and the other members of The E Street Band have much connection to the mainstream of rock 'n' roll in the '70s? The early Springsteen records, before you joined, kind of shadowed what bands like The Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan were doing, only more organic and not as studio-slick, but the records after you joined sound more like "Springsteen music."
SVZ: Bruce and I were friends from way back, but I didn't really officially join the band until the third record was coming out, and I was only there for three albums, really. I started producing on The River and Born In The U.S.A., and I arranged Darkness On The Edge Of Town. So really, it was those three records, and the tail end of Born to Run. Even then, it was completely out of the mainstream. I don't remember Bruce ever being anywhere near the mainstream. Which was why it was so remarkable that Born In The U.S.A. ended up having seven top-10 singles. Just absurd. If you listen to those singles now, you'd think the same thing I thought back then, which is, "They don't fit."
It's like there was a cumulative effect of us playing so effectively live, and having such a loyal audience. Building it up that way, it almost forced radio to play us, because radio was a lot looser than it is now. They had to respond to the community, which they don't do anymore. It was just an odd moment, where Bruce became the mainstream for five minutes. It was ridiculously, completely out of character. [Laughs.] He didn't fit in, so he kind of made his own way.
I don't really see even the Steely Dan or Doobie Brothers. I don't quite see that. Bruce had a bunch of different influences on his first couple of records. You could hear a little bit of this guy, little bit of that guy.
AVC: But he shared that loose, boogie style that other early-'70s bands employed. The difference was, those guys were more studio-bound and insular, while Springsteen was looser.
SVZ: More jammy, almost? Kind of instrumentally based? I could see that, yeah. When I got involved with the arrangements on Darkness On The Edge Of Town… My thing has always been not just band-oriented, but three-minute-song oriented. That's my personal taste, obviously, as you can hear on the radio show. I kind of brought that with me. And that's the direction Bruce wanted to go at that moment, so that's what happened. But I think you're right. We came out of the '60s, where there was a lot of jamming going on. A lot. And we had to be good musicians, to a certain extent, but I just was never into it. I was never into five-minute guitar solos and that kind of stuff, personally. Those first two Bruce records, I think, cover a lot of ground. A lot of influences from the '60s, from folk music to jazz, and everything in between, including some jamming and extended instrumental passages and things like that, which were fun. Still, looking back on it, it just didn't fit in anywhere.
AVC: What was the attitude of the band in those days, knowing you could blow anybody else off the stage? Were you cocky about it?
SVZ: Yeah. [Laughs.] I'm not sure "cocky" is exactly the right word. Certainly confident. It was one of those things. We had to be good before we got into the music business. Locally, we just had to be good. You had to be good to pay the rent. So we came up that way, and learned how to be good. Learned how to get audiences going, and what worked and didn't work, and stuff like that. By the time we got to the music business, it was seven, eight, nine, 10 years later, after we were making our living playing live. It became easy. It's the only place I really feel comfortable, onstage. That's where I get a chance to relax.
AVC: Do you dress the way you dress onstage in everyday life?
SVZ: Yeah. I dress the same all the time.
AVC: You get up in the morning and pick out your bandana?
SVZ: It's part of my life, yeah. [Laughs.] We don't separate those things, we '60s guys. Being a rock 'n' roll star ain't a part-time gig. [Laughs.]
AVC: Part of the appeal of the E Street Band is that you weren't trashing hotel rooms or snorting cocaine off supermodels, but were more into hanging out, drinking beer, playing Monopoly, watching TV. More a working-class ethos.
SVZ: I think that's because we achieved success a little later in life. We weren't 18 years old when we sold a million records. I think that could screw you up. We weren't successful until we were in our late 20s, you know? So it's different then. You go a little crazy, you have a little fun, and you do those things to some extent. But we never lost sight of the big picture, or our place in that continuum of rock 'n' roll. We always took that quite seriously. It was miraculous that we were able to make a living playing rock 'n' roll, and I think we never forgot that. We never, ever took that for granted.
I don't take it for granted now, with my radio show or whatever. We try and communicate fun on our live show or in my radio show, but I'll never forget that it's important and life-changing and life-giving and life-saving. That's part of it, too. It's that tradition that you want to honor. Whether that tradition is an illusion doesn't matter. But the illusion of rock 'n' roll, we turned into the reality of rock 'n' roll. It's about family and friendship and community. That's what it implies. That's what it communicates.
And that's what's missing right now. We don't have that any more. There's something about hard rock and hip-hop and pop—which are the only three genres, really, that we're allowed to hear—that's different. It doesn't quite communicate that same sense of community.
AVC: It's more self-absorbed?
SVZ: I'm not making any value judgments, but it's a different kind of communication. Just the fact that you can make a living doing what you want to do is difficult, and we never understood the concept of people going onstage and giving anything less than 100 percent. Maybe that's a blue-collar work ethic, but I call it just ethics. People are paying to see a show. You asked them to be there. You're not doing anybody a favor. You asked them to be there. So, give 100 percent. I'd never go onstage in my life without fully intending to do the best show you've ever seen. I never made a record without feeling that I wanted to make the best record humanly possible. I carry that with everything I do. For every Sopranos show, every radio show, I assume it might be my last. So I do it as good as I can possibly do it.
I think, especially these days, we have an obligation—those of us who know better—to raise the standards. The standards are so fucking low. We're all drowning in this mediocrity we call culture. I think it's up to those of us who know better to try and get the standards back up. That's another reason for doing the radio show. I figure if I play one great song after the other, people are going to be affected by it. New bands are going be affected by it. Realize they shouldn't be listening to mainstream radio or MTV and comparing themselves to that. They should be listening to the greatest records ever made, and comparing themselves to that.
AVC: When you took on your role in The Sopranos, did you have any idea of the phenomenon it was going to become?
SVZ: No. Not at all.
AVC: Did you think you'd still be doing it years down the road?
SVZ: We have eight more shows and that's the end, I think. Nobody really knew it was going to be that big. You couldn't possibly know that. It's one of those odd things.
AVC: One of the most important moments in the series comes in the second season, when your character—who seemed like one of the nicer guys—suddenly beat the living hell out of one of his dancers. A lot of viewers weren't sure if the show was headed in the right direction, because it wasn't as "fun," but in retrospect, it was an indicator of what the show was really trying to say, that none of these guys are nice.
SVZ: That's true. We never ever wanted to glamorize these guys, and the writers have been very careful not to. Part of the brilliance of the writing is not only making a very mundane job compelling—which, believe me, the modern mafia is not exactly like the Roaring 20s—and at the same time, not glamorizing or romanticizing what these guys do. I think it's a remarkable achievement to take these guys who are basically rather superficial, one-dimensional, and boring, and make them compelling. I think it's brilliant writing.
AVC: How do you juggle The Sopranos, your radio show, and touring with The E Street Band?
SVZ: You gotta love everything you do. You just gotta do it. I filmed two seasons of Sopranos while I was on the road, and they were nice enough to move my scenes to days off, and I would fly home every day off, no matter where I was, whether it was in California or France. I would fly home, say two lines, and get back on the plane. And we had an ISDN line installed in every hotel room so I could do the radio show every week. And you know, you do what you gotta do. You have to love it all, or else it doesn't get done. I mean, you just couldn't. Nobody has that much energy. Nobody's that good an actor. You have to love what you're doing in order to find the energy.
AVC: The radio show lets you play the music you like, but you can also insert commentary. On a recent episode, you pointedly read from Thomas Paine's Common Sense at the beginning of the show. Is having that kind of platform as important to you as playing music?
SVZ: Not like it once would have been. You know, I spent 10 years doing nothing but international liberation politics, and I was quite obsessed with it, and I wanted to make a point when I started this show that it was not going to be political. Really. I have a bigger mission now than any kind of specific politics, which is trying to restore the accessibility of rock 'n' roll. It's a much bigger job, and more important, I think. So I never wanted to make the show a political platform of any kind, and I very rarely wander into that area. In that sense, it's not important.
I probably talk 20 minutes out of two hours, and usually it's about the songs, the music, or celebrating pop culture. We may talk about the guy who invented the drive-in theatre, or the guy who invented the hot dog, or maybe talk about Allen Ginsberg, or whatever, and just try to celebrate pop culture and the music. Occasionally I'll do a rant about something that's bugging me. Just to vent. But usually it's not of a political nature, necessarily, other than natural sort of anti-authoritarian things we're all born with. I try not to make the show a political platform. I really made a point not do that.
AVC: Having completed the five-record cycle you announced decades ago, do you feel a sense of satisfaction, or do you have new places you want to go with your own music?
SVZ: I may never make another record. I may write a song or two for somebody, or co-write, or maybe even produce something now and then, but I don't have any real screaming need to express anything. The radio show kind of satisfies that artistic urge, in an odd way. It's never going to be the same as writing a song, exactly, but it's close. It feels like you're realizing your own potential somehow, or accomplishing something.
At the same time, going into a studio and making records is fun. It's my idea of a vacation, so I hope I get a chance to do a little of that in the future. But I may never make another solo record again. I don't feel the need to. I said everything I wanted to say in those five records, really. So that may be it.
AVC: Did you get to work on the new Springsteen album? The Pete Seeger one?
SVC: No. I heard some of it a couple years ago, and I'm ashamed to say I have not gone down to hear the record all the way through. I've been too busy. But I gotta get down there. The things I heard were a couple years old and were just great stuff.
He's always got an album in his pocket. He's just one of those guys. It doesn't matter what's going on, in his back pocket, he's got an album. It could be this. It could be that. But it's always interesting, and it's always good. I love the fact that he does those odd things with folk-music records, or this kind of thing, bringing attention to Pete Seeger. Who else is going to do that? Who else has the balls? Who else has the ability? And who else has the platform? If he doesn't do it, it's not going to get done, and it's just nice to turn people on to things. It's the greatest thing about doing my radio show, and I think it's great about what he does. Turning people on to where we came from. It may not be the most commercial thing in the world, but all the more congratulations to him for doing it.
AVC: Any final message for the youth of America?
SVZ: Go out and support your local rock 'n' roll band. Rock 'n' roll is a participatory sport. [Laughs.] It ain't passive. It ain't TV. Go out there and rock 'n' roll and dance and have fun.