Steve Van Zandt may be one of the most popular side men in pop culture — with an essential spot in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and as Tony Soprano’s chief adviser Silvio, but he’s getting used to becoming his own Boss.
Van Zandt aka Little Steven has just released his sixth solo album and his first in 18 years, Soulfire, with his 15-piece band The Disciples of Soul, so you’ve a good idea of his latest musical tangent.
After decades as the coolest cat on E Street and Bruce’s main foil after the death of the Big Man Clarence Clemons in 2011, Steve is ready to jump back into the spotlight, but says he’s rusty as a frontman.
“I tell you what, it’s a lot more work! A fucking lot more work,” he says, over the phone from New York, the night before the tour starts.
“Honestly it’s gonna take me a couple of tours to get back to really being a frontman. I look back at the video of Sweden in 1987 and I’m like, ‘Who the hell is that guy? What a great performer! You’ve gotta find that bit of your personality again and bring it back to life.
“But i’m focused on it, who knows, but I’m certainly gonna stick with it now, and I’ll tour every other summer whenever Bruce isn’t touring, and I’ll go out with bruce another summer, in that cycle.
but i’m focused on it now, getting back and making new records again, and get back to being a frontman mentally. so it’s a bit of a challenge. you’ve gotta find that bit of your personality again and bring it back to life. which again is part of the actor’s job as well.
After years knocking around New Jersey with the young Bruce as “two freaks and misfits”, jamming in various bands, Steve was drafted into the E Street Band in 1975 to arrange the horn section on Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. He also gave Bruce the nickname the Boss and helped write Born To Run’s main guitar part – one of the most iconic motifs in all of rock’n’roll.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is a handy stepping stone to the new album, which veers between soul, gritty wah-wah funk, doo-wop and blues rock. There’s even a song called Blues Is My Business, an ultra-concise CV.
Why does he think it’s the right time to release another solo album?
“I dunno, I’m not sure it is! I was with this cat in England and he asked me to throw a band together for his blues festival. I hadn’t played my own songs in such a long time, it was a bit of a revelation. Through the years it’s taken on a different sort of intensity, it’s far enough now from its basic roots that it sort became its own genre somehow.
“I was really taken by it all and thought the stuff deserved to be out there and I shouldn’t have ignored it for so long. So I’m trying to make amends, I took the opportunity to use it to introduce myself to a new generation, and reintrouduce myself to people who might know me, so it was really a unique opportunity that way.
“I put things on this album i’ve never done before, i put a blues thing and a doo-wop thing and some jazz and covers that I’ve never done before, a little Ennio Morricone, a little bit of the elements that really make me who i am. i’ve never done that before so it turned out to be a nice opportunity.”
One song on Soulfire, The City Weeps Tonight, is a hopelessly romantic doo-wop song that he’s been trying to finish for over 30 years, and it finally clicked.
“I always loved doo-wop, it came out of an innocence,” he says. “The innocence of the 50s is something that you can’t get back, you know you’re only innocent once, so it was really a challenge. That last verse, it had eluded me for 30 years. and y’know finally I hit it.”
Through his work with Bruce, his political activism, his Underground Garage radio show and the fact that he left the E Street Band in 1984 at the height of their success to teach himself politics and American foreign policy, it’s an understatement when he says “my thing is authenticity”. And even though’s he’s a blues man to the bone, his 1985 apartheid protest song Sun City could well be the greatest collection of seemingly mismatched musicians ever on one trick – a staggering line-up featuring Run DMC, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis (!), Herbie Hancock, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Bonnie Raitt, Kool DJ Herc, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Jimmy Cliff… it really does go on and on
In contrast to this authenticity and , he maintains that the rock’n’roll persona is an act, and he was secured for the Sopranos when David Chase asked him in for an audition after seeing him induct The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.
He says: “Any lead singer or anybody singing a song is basically acting, you’re becoming the character of that song and basically convincing people that you are that character. That’s the gig.”
He says he misses the mixture of naivety and authenticity of the 60s, of the fledgling E Streeters, “all preparing ourselves with the Temptations and Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, who were just one step out of the gospel church.”
Don’t call it mere nostaglia though, as he admits: “I’m really not very nostalgic about the 60s, I just never left the 60s [laughs], so I think this stuff is just as relevant now, I honestly do.”
- Originally published in Irish Star