In the infinite list of shocking moves by rock stars over the years, Steve Van Zandt’s decision to leave Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band right after the release of Born in the USA is up near the top.
These days, ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt is Springsteen’s right-hand guitar man and band leader, the coolest cat on E Street. And since the death of iconic sax player Clarence Clemons in 2011, he’s also Bruce’s go-to guy for goofing off, improv left turns and crowd-rousing in their epic concerts, that still go on for over three hours.
Steve rejoined in 1999 and he’s now an E Street lifer. And even though he admits it was a “crazy decision” to leave the band just as they’d released one of the defining rock albums of all time, he says the move led to him educating himself politically, and began a life-long vocation for political activism and protest music.
Speaking over the phone before his recent show in Dublin with his band the Disciples of Soul, Van Zandt says: “You tell yourself, ‘Hey I walked out on probably 100 million dollars, But I saved a few lives maybe – so what the fuck, it was worth it.”
Van Zandt is talking about his 1985 song Sun City, when he gathered the greatest gang in history to appear on a protest single, as Artists United Against Apartheid – a staggering line-up of 49 acts, featuring Springsteen, U2, Run DMC, Kool DJ Herc, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Bob Dylan, Gil Scott-Heron, Joey Ramone, Ringo Star George Clinton, Lou Reed, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood… it really does go on and on.
Steve says the success of Born In the USA came at a time of “all kinds of horrors in Latin America with our government supporting these military dictatorships, and basically partnering with these food companies in order to basically enslave the local populations down there, wholesale slaughter of teachers and activists, it was such a terrible terrible time.”
He adds: “I felt like I was a German citizen in the ’30s or something, watching them round up Jews and saying, ‘Well it’s not my business’. I just felt like I couldn’t live that way. I thought it was supposed to be a democracy, and if we are a democracy, it’s every citizen’s obligation to make sure the government is doing the right thing. I felt I better do something about that, and at least say something about it, as nobody else was at the time.
“In a way, [leaving the E Street Band] was the stupidest possible thing I could’ve done – after working for something for 15 years you finally get your first pay cheque and then you quit… talk about fucking crazy. But I was compelled to do it, to educate myself and get politically engaged.
“The South Africa issue was pretty obvious, because you know, nobody’s into slavery. that was literally slavery we were fighting against.”
The chorus of “I ain’t gonna play Sun City” was a call to arms against the controversial Sun City casino resort that was offering huge sums for artists to ignore the UN cultural boycott and play gigs there, with Queen, Rod Stewart and Status Quo among those who took the bait. It was also a huge crossover moment, with Van Zandt uniting hip-hop artists with rock’n’roll and pop and soul legends.
“What we accomplished with South Africa, nobody can ever deny,” says Van Zandt. “We all did it together. But believe me, rock’n’roll brought down that government, I’m telling you right now. Would it have eventually collapsed under its own evil? Probably, but we took years off that.
“And we helped get Mandela out in time. They were feeding him drugs in prison, trying to scramble his brains before they released him. Nobody knows that, but that’s a fact. Two years later he probably wouldn’t have had the brains to come out and be the authoritative, wonderful, miraculous figure that he was. We got him out in time, when he was still coherent and able to make that transition. Would I have done that had I stayed in the band? Probably not.”
Steve says working with U2 on Sun City and sharing a similar mindset on human rights led to the support slot on their career-changing Joshua Tree tour.
“It was a wild time, and it was very nice of U2 to have me on that tour,” he says. “They obviously didn’t need it, it wasn’t gonna help sell tickets. But we certainly shared a lot of common philosophies. We really bonded, I like them a lot, they’re great guys to hang out with, I wish I saw them more often.”
Van Zandt bonded further when he borrowed Adam Clayton to play all the bass on his 1999 record Born Again Savage – the album he recorded before finally joining the E Street Band again.
“We all sort of become insular in our little band bubbles,” he says. “But what I said to Adam was it would be nice to show people a different side of yourself, and stretch out a bit, and I think that’s what happened. And it blows minds when people hear that record and they hear him. It’s like, ‘Wow, he’s not just a great bass player in U2, he’s just a great bass player… and so I was really happy about that, it was really great of him to do that.”
Van Zandt is one of the most popular side men in pop culture. 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 riffs in all of rock’n’roll.
And beside his spot next to Bruce he played Tony Soprano’s much-loved chief advisor Silvio in the iconic HBO series.
But he’s getting used to becoming his own Boss these days, and last year released Soulfire, his sixth solo album and his first in 18 years, with his 15-piece band The Disciples of Soul. He says the band is “practically a history of rock’n’roll… everything from doo-wop and blues to soul to jazz to Morricone bits”. Speaking to me last year, Van Zandt said: “I’m not nostalgic, I just haven’t left the 60s.”
He elaborates this time, adding: “I just feel like we were the lucky generation, we grew up in a fucking renaissance. It was just amazing. I just feel like we really have an obligation to at least make this renaissance music accessible to people, for future generations.”
He also makes a vocation about spreading the word. Our phone call is the day after he hosted the annual blues awards in Memphis, and he’s forever breaking bands on his long-running radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
He’s taken it a step further with a new US school curriculum on music history called the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. He says of the Foundation: “You wanna completely keep kids focused on the greatness of it. Compare yourself to the greatest ever in whatever field you’re in, that’s what counts. But nobody’s born great, it takes years of focus and development. That’s the problem these days, everybody is in such a hurry, so greatness will continue to elude future generations, until they can find a way to shut the phone off for a few hours, We gotta turn the computer off for a few hours a day… until we stop being distracted we’re never gonna get there.
“But I also feel for young artists. Labels are content companies run by bean-counters and nobody’s buying records. When we grew up it was all very new, more flexible, there was a lot more to be gained letting the artist sort of go their own way a bit.
“Now it’s the opposite, you’re not getting time to develop. Man, we didn’t break through to our fifth album, but it’s so difficult now, it really is. That’s why I like going for new bands on the radio show. We counted on the other day, over the last 15 years of the show we’ve introduced over 1,000 new bands. And these days there’s no logical reason to be in a rock band, let’s face it, you gotta be fucking crazy, OK. If you’re in a rock band now, you’re obviously doing it out of passion, what other reason is there? So it just makes you wanna support them even more.
“Hopefully the curriculum will get kids excited about music. We start with the best common ground between teachers and students to establish that communication they need. But we also need the common ground between the students themselves, especially in America, as we’re more segregated than ever. We may as well be in 1946 in America at the moment.”
Steve says that even though he’s fully immersed in the Disciples of Soul for now, “I got five scripts I’ve written and I’m looking at a couple of other TV shows”. As always, when Bruce decides to go on the road or hit the studio it’s like E Street Avengers Assemble, and Van Zandt says the last time he rang the band they were on stage gigging within a few weeks.
“Bruce remains a priority,” he says. “He’s on Broadway through December then we’ll talk. It’s very possible we might do something in 2019 but it’s equally possible we might wait till 2020, so we’ll see what he decides. There’s no sense waiting around, I have so many projects in my head I’m never gonna get to as it is. I’m always trying to increase my output and i feel like it’s pathetically small, I really wish I’d got more stuff out.
“But you know if Bruce calls, Bruce calls and I’ll always figure out a way to work around it.”