Stevie Van Zandt
(Photo courtesy of Universal Music)

Little Steven's Big Life: A Q&A with Springsteen Guitarist & 'Sopranos' Star Stevie Van Zandt

Click here to watch video excerpts and outtakes from the interview below.


Cloud-to-ground lightning arrived almost nonstop, followed by deafening thunderclaps as rain pounded the roof of Stevie Van Zandt’s dressing room behind the Orange County [New York] Fair’s main stage. In walked Van Zandt, wearing flip-flops, his trademark bandana, and a broad smile. He joked with me and my photographer and videographer about how we’d better finish our interview quickly, so we could turn our attention to building an ark. Then, all our cellphones beeped loudly as flash-flood warnings appeared on their screens and the tour manager stopped by to confirm what we’d already assumed: that the evening’s outdoor concert had been canceled. That meant we had plenty of time to talk, which was good, because there was plenty to talk about.

Van Zandt, who also answers to Little Steven and Miami Steve, has had quite a career—several careers, actually. Growing up in New Jersey, he was still a teenager when he began a musical partnership with Bruce Springsteen that has now lasted on and off for more than half a century. He has also performed with and produced Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which he cofounded, and written some of their signature songs; worked with a long list of other rock artists, including such beloved early stars as Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Dion; and released a series of solo records.

Since 2002, meanwhile, he has hosted the syndicated and Sirius/XM radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage, for which he personally selects all the music and writes all the scripts. He has been active politically, most notably as the founder in the 1980s of Artists United Against Apartheid; and he created the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, whose TeachRock initiative promotes musical education in middle schools.

But you don’t have to be a music fan to be familiar with Van Zandt, who has also achieved fame as an actor. He played Silvio Dante throughout HBO’s groundbreaking Sopranos series and, from 2012 to 2014, starred in Lilyhammer, Netflix’s first original series, for which he wrote and played the soundtrack music.

Currently between Springsteen tours, the 69-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist has spent much of 2019 performing in the U.S. and Europe with his own band, the Disciples of Soul. The group and their support staff include about three dozen people, so they’ve mostly traveled on chartered large aircraft that normally serve as airliners—a Bombardier CRJ 200 in the U.S. and a Dornier 328 in Europe. Clearly, Van Zandt has come a long way from his teenage bar band days in New Jersey when, by all accounts, even a bus ticket to New York City might have stretched the budget.

Stevie Van Zandt
(Photo courtesy of Universal Music)

When I interviewed Springsteen in January 1974, he was earning $75 a week, and he was concerned that money pressures would force some of his band members to quit. You actually did turn to doing construction work in the early 70s. Were you worried that you wouldn’t make it in rock?
We certainly thought we were late and by the time I quit, which was 71ish, I thought we’d just missed it—all the best stuff had been done and the great songs had been written.

I guess that answers my next question, which was about whether you had any sense then of how successful you or Springsteen would become.
No. It was really a struggle just to accomplish the miracle of making a living playing rock and roll. Which didn’t happen really until the fifth [Springsteen] album, The River.

Well, Born to Run was pretty big.
It was perceived to be bigger than it was. It was big in New York, Cleveland, Philadelphia. It certainly kept things going, but it was not a hit and did not really increase our revenue. Darkness on the Edge of Town went down from there. [Though not as successful as The River, Born to Run and Darkness did both make the Top 5 on U.S. album charts. —Ed.] So it was a struggle for years.

Stevie Van Zandt Speaks Up

Related Article

Stevie Van Zandt Speaks Up

Stevie Van Zandt interview excerpts and outtakes.

And still is, in a sense. Because when you do something new, the success does not cross over. I mean, we’ll play three stadiums to 180,000 people [with Springsteen], and then I’ll play with my band in a club and get a thousand. Same thing for the acting. Over a million people a week watched Lilyhammer in Norway—it’s a country of only five million—and I’ll play Oslo and it’s a thousand people again. You know that expression “life is like one long audition”? There is something to that. If you try new things or go outside that comfort zone with your audience, you’re starting over.

Tell me about your TeachRock program.
The music teachers of America came to me and said that No Child Left Behind legislation had devastated all the arts classes—they were dropping arts in public schools. I went to Washington and talked to [Senators] Teddy Kennedy and Mitch McConnell. They said, “Yeah, it’s an unintended consequence of the legislation, but we’re not gonna fix it.” So I came back to the teachers and said, “We’re not gonna put instruments in kids’ hands for a while, if ever. But let’s do a music history curriculum where we can reach all the kids, not just musicians.” We worked on it for 12 years, went public with it just this past year.

You’re involved in creating the lessons?
Yes. We now have 150 lessons and we do a new one every week or two. All teachers have to do is register at teachrock.org and they’ve got it for free. We did a tour [to promote it] and got 25,000 teachers registered in a couple of months.

Your musical tastes include everything from Sinatra to punk. But is the rock and soul that you created with Southside Johnny closest to your heart?
Yeah. I returned to that this past two years, and I’m gonna stick with it. I’d done the political thing and the autobiographical thing [in my songs]; now I wanted to do fiction. Do 12 little “movies” and I’ll be a different character in each, and that’s what [the recent album] Summer of Sorcery ended up being.

Stevie Van Zandt
(Photo: Bill Bernstein)

Do you have a favorite Springsteen album?
Probably The River, the first one I coproduced. And the outtakes from The River and from Darkness are just terrific.

How about a favorite airplane?
[Laughs.] I don’t really pay attention to that.

How does flying privately help you with touring?
It’s extremely helpful, though we can’t land in some places because our plane is too big. That’s a drag because then we have to go through the regular airport. But flying privately, you leave when you want to, you arrive when you want to, and it’s a huge, huge help, not having to go through the regular airports. And I’m past the point of driving for eight hours to a gig.

Stevie Van Zandt
(Photo courtesy of Universal Music)

[Sopranos creator] David Chase called you after seeing you induct the Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—
Strange but true. He said, “Want to be in my new show?” And I said, “No thanks. That’s nice of you, but I’m not an actor.” He said, “You are an actor; you just don’t know it yet.”

You’ve said he’s brilliant.
David Chase is a genius. He completely rewrote the rules for TV, and everybody has been following them ever since. He showed what could be done.

How did you wind up playing the Silvio Dante character?
David had originally cast me as Tony Soprano, and HBO was like, “Are you out of your f**king mind? The most expensive thing we’ve ever done, and you get a guy who never acted before?” So David said, “They won’t let me cast you [as Tony]. What else do you want to do?” I said, “Now that I think about it, I feel guilty taking an actor’s job.” He said, “OK, I’ll write you a part that doesn’t exist.”

Stevie Van Zandt
Van Zandt and his real-life wife Maureen as Gabriella and Silvio Dante in 'The Sopranos' (photo courtesy of Steven Van Zandt)

You had a dispute with Paul Simon when you were involved with the boycott of apartheid South Africa.
The plan was to shut the country down economically and then the government would fall, and Nelson Mandela would get out of jail. The slight flaw in the plan was Paul Simon, who felt it was more important to broadcast South African music to the world. And he said some things that were quite aggravating at the time, like, “What are you doing with Nelson Mandela? He’s a communist.” Of course, the minute Mandela got out of jail, the first picture you see is Paulie and Nelson hugging. [Laughs.] I’m very much into South African music, but there was plenty of time to get it heard. Every day apartheid existed, somebody died; and by violating the boycott, it was gonna continue to exist.

Some years later, you saw Paul and he said, “Art transcends politics,” and you answered, “Not only doesn’t art transcend politics, art is politics.” What does that mean to you?
It means there is no escape from politics. Politics is everywhere.

I wonder whether you also think art transcends the artist. Some people say they won’t buy a Michael Jackson album anymore or won’t go to a Woody Allen movie.
I’ve heard that. And I’ve been saying for years that the art is always better than the artist.

Many veterans of the South African struggle—most prominently Desmond Tutu—now support the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions to pressure Israel to allow Palestinian refugees to return home, to end the occupation, and to grant equal rights for Palestinians in Israeli-controlled territory. What’s your position on the BDS movement?
All of us in the human-rights struggle feel Palestinians should have their own country, but this movement is extremely na├»ve. These things are quite complicated. One solution does not fit all. It happens to have worked in South Africa. Eventually we’ll get something done in Israel, but it’ll be done quietly behind the scenes.

There’ll always be a problem as long as Hamas is running things. I’ve read Hamas’s mission statements, and there’s no way you can endorse an Islamic state. Yes, the human-rights violations should stop, and Netanyahu should be in jail—he’s been a problem forever. And you know what he’s trying to do right now? He’s trying to fix it so the Supreme Court reports to the executive branch so he can stay out of jail. If that happens, Israel is in really big trouble.

How do you feel about the situation in the U.S. today?
I’ve never seen us more divided. I think it’s worse than the Vietnam era. The increased nationalism and fascism and white supremacy, combined with religious extremism, is making the world a very difficult place to live. We have a permanent recession; the orthodox so-called capitalist system is no longer working and needs to be adjusted. And until that happens, people are gonna be disappointed and wanting to blame somebody. Who ya gonna blame? The other guy.

I’ve read that you’re trying to stay out of partisan politics now.
It’s difficult, but I’m trying. I was extremely political in the 80s because I needed to be. There was nobody talking about anything; everything was hidden. We were supporting half the dictators in the world and nobody knew it. Now everything we do is on the front page or in a tweet.

I feel my usefulness now is to bring people together if I can. I don’t want Republicans or Democrats or independents feeling that they’re going to be embarrassed or humiliated when they come to my show. The only thing I say in my show is nonpartisan—that we’re given the choice of a good economy or a clean environment, which is a false choice that we must start to question.

You’d think that’d be nonpartisan, but there are people who’d disagree.
I know, but I don’t know how the environment became partisan. Don’t we all breathe the same air?

You said it was a mistake when actor Brandon Dixon addressed then Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage after a Hamilton performance.
There’s no bigger fan of Hamilton than me; it’s the greatest play I’ve ever seen. But they made a mistake. You’re inviting people into your home when you invite them to your theatre; they should be protected while they’re there. I couldn’t be more in disagreement with Pence, and I know more about him than most people. There’s nothing good there. [Laughs.] But the last thing we need is actors addressing people in the audience from the stage. Because the next thing that’s gonna happen is the audience is gonna start addressing people on the stage. And that’s the end of Broadway.

Where’d the names Miami Steve and Little Steven come from?
I was performing in Miami on New Year’s Eve, and I came back [to New Jersey] with all the flowered shirts and the Sinatra/Sam Snead hat, and started jamming with what would become Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in January when it was snowing. And I kept wearing the same clothes, like I’m never gonna recognize winter again. So the group started calling me Miami.

And Little Steven?
Everybody called me that when I was young. Little Walter was my favorite blues guy. And Little Anthony was the first record I ever bought. Little Richard, he invented rock and roll as far as I’m concerned. He would later be the preacher at my wedding.

Speaking of which, you’re the second rock star we’ve interviewed recently [after Chuck Leavell] who’s been married for nearly 40 years. How have you made a marriage last in the rock world?
Well, if you want to stay together…stay apart. I’m kidding, but there is something about each having your own lives and then when you come together, it’s new all the time. We’ve been married almost 40 years and we’ve probably been together about 20. [Laughs.] When you’re gone, each of you gets a chance to grow, and then you come together and share what you know and do.

Is there anything new you want to do that you haven’t done yet?
Well, I don’t know about new but I love producing, especially live performances. I’d like to do more of that—the big Grammy-type shows. I also enjoy producing radio and records. And TV is probably where I’d spend most of my time if I could.

Acting or producing?
Both. I have five scripts now and 25 treatments, so I have plenty of ideas. It’s just a matter of finding six months in a row to do it. Now that I’ve got the Disciples of Soul back together, I want to keep that going. And I’m gonna give Bruce first priority always, so we’ll be doing that if he decides to go out in 2020.

Do you think he’ll stop touring anytime soon?
No, there’s no reason to stop. Stop and do what? Go fishing?


FAST FACTS

Name: Steven Van Zandt (aka Little Steven, Miami Steve)

Born: November 22, 1950 (age 69), in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

Musical career: Guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Cofounder and former member of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Leader of Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Host of Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a syndicated and Sirius/XM radio program, and producer or coproducer of records by artists such as Gary U.S. Bonds and Ronnie Spector.

Acting career: Appeared as Silvio Dante throughout The Sopranos HBO series and as Frank Tagliano/Giovanni “Johnny” Henriksen on Netflix’s Lilyhammer.

Philanthropy: Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and TeachRock.org.

Honors: Inducted with E Street Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

Personal: Married since 1982 to actress Maureen Van Zandt (who played his wife in The Sopranos). Lives in New York City’s Greenwich Village.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

THANK YOU TO OUR BJTONLINE SPONSORS