Stevie Van Zandt Talks With Bruce Springsteen About Their Friendship, Activism And A Life In Music

‘The book meant a great deal to me. I am proud and happy for its existence,’ said Springsteen.

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Stevie Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen - Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage
Stevie Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen - Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage

Stevie Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen held a webcast Tuesday evening to discuss Van Zandt’s career and his forthcoming memoir, Unrequited Infatuations.

The book chronicles the twists and turns of Stevie Van Zandt’s always surprising life. It is more than just the testimony of a globe-trotting nomad, more than the story of a groundbreaking activist, more than the odyssey of a spiritual seeker, and more than a master class in rock and roll (not to mention a dozen other crafts).

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The conversation between Van Zandt and Springsteen spanned the duo’s work together in the E Street Band, Van Zandt’s work in The Sopranos, and more.

Origins

Springsteen began the conversation by recalling the time they first met. He says, “…we first met Middletown Hullabaloo. I remember coming in and seeing a guy on stage in a top hat, a huge tie, singing the Turtles Happy Together. We struck up an immediate friendship and then went on to move into sort of our mutual trips to Greenwich Village.”

Van Zandt added, “You know, the Beatles being on Ed Sullivan, I think February 9th, 1964, suddenly we went from a country with not very many bands to everybody having a band the next day. But they mostly stayed in the garage where they belonged, but about a dozen of us or so got out and around. And we were so lucky, man. What a lucky generation we were.”

Van Zandt also recalled the risks that were involved in pursuing his dreams as a musician. “We had no plan B. And I didn’t know anybody else like that, except you [Springsteen], which was extremely important at that time because if you’re the only freak around, you’re going to start to wonder. But if there’s two of us, maybe there’s something. Maybe we’re onto something here. And it’s hard to imagine, but it wasn’t even a business until the 70s, you know? So if you were in a rock and roll band in the 60s, you were kind of freaky. It was weird.”

The E Street Band

Springsteen and Van Zandt also discussed their early days with The E Street Band, beginning with the release of Springsteen’s seminal Born To Run. “The interesting thing was Steve and I had such a bond, a bonding of souls, that really couldn’t be resisted. It had its own innate characteristics that said, ‘We just got to be in the same band.’ How can we have this much in common and not share it on stage in one of the most central places in your life? So that was when… I guess it was… Was it 1975 or something when you joined the E Street Band?”

Van Zandt confirmed that he joined the band in 1975, right when Born to Run was coming out. The single had come out months before and had kind of created a little bit of a little bit of hope because stations were playing that thing. But now the album’s about to come out, so you had about seven gigs book. You said, ‘I want to put the guitar down for a minute.’ Because you were about to go through your first really big change in terms of your persona and everything else. And it’s very significant.”

Van Zandt also discussed how he put his instincts to lead a band in the rearview to help honor Springsteen’s vision. “I think because I had come from being a boss in my own world, originally, people were quite surprised when I joined up with you, because we were both successful locally. We had two of the most popular bands. And at a certain point, even though I was okay at it, and I would get good at fronting in the 80s, when I had to, but my natural inclination just has never been to be the frontman. I like being the guy behind the scenes, or to the side. If I had to describe myself, it would be as a producer, or a producer/writer, or a writer/producer.”

Activism

Given his work with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and “Sun City,” Springsteen also asked how Van Zandt got involved in activism.“Let’s talk about how rock music led you to your political life because that’s the other huge part of the book,” said Springsteen.

“Going from that to where it became such a central part of so many of your initial records and simply such an essential part of your life to where you became an activist on a level that I never had the guts to go out and do.”

Van Zandt mentions touring with the E Street Band in East Berlin in 1980 during The River Tour and the effect it had on him.

“We’re finally doing Europe and a kid came up to me and said, ‘Why are you putting missiles in my country?’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about kid?’ I just disregarded him, but I couldn’t shake that question. At that point, we had become successful, which was unexpected in a way. We had been working at that point for 15 years.

So that tunnel vision that we all have, in order to get where we got, starts to fade a little bit. I’m like, ‘Wow, I wonder what I’ve been missing for the last 15, 20 years?’ It just hit me like a ton of bricks. When you travel overseas, you’re not a guitar player or a taxi driver or Republican or Democrat, you’re an American.”

The Sopranos, Solo Music, And More

Van Zandt also discussed his seminal role as Silvio in The Sopranos, even diving into how he was almost cast as Tony Soprano. “Suddenly I find myself acting, which is a whole other story that’s in the book. But at first, I wasn’t in the original pilot, and he had cast me as Tony Soprano, actually. Intellectually cooler heads prevailed, and HBO said, ‘You’re out of your fu__ing mind. The guy never acted before, and we’re going to put $30 million into this thing,’ Van Zandt explained.

“David was like, ‘Well, HBO won’t let me cast you as Tony, so what do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Now that I’m thinking about it, David, I really appreciate this opportunity, I really do, but I feel guilty taking an actor’s job. These guys… My wife is a real actor. She goes to school, and I watched her go to school for years. Off-Broadway, Off-off-Broadway, they’re all doing these classes.’ And I said, ‘I feel guilty taking a job.’ And he says, ‘All right, I’ll tell you what, I want you in this show, and I will write you in a part that doesn’t exist.’”

Van Zandt also explained his passion for rock ‘n’ roll, discussing his Sirius Radio show and how it became a project to continue rock’s legacy. “I spent the last 20, 25 years doing nothing but trying to save this endangered species called rock and roll, not out of nostalgia, but because it is special. And we grew up in a Renaissance period, and I don’t use that term lightly. When the greatest art being made is also the most commercial, you’re in a Renaissance. And suddenly the formats on radio, nothing wrong with classic rock, it’s great. That’s us, basically.”

Van Zandt added, “But it’s a narrow little genre, and there’s a whole lot else right now. The oldies format goes back to the 80s now. We’re oldies. Well, you’re oldies, we’re classic rock, as a matter of fact. But I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. What happened to the 50s and 60s and even the 70s now, what happened to that? That’s gone forever? This does not make sense to me, okay? We got to somehow preserve this.’”

Springsteen wrapped the conversation by telling Van Zandt how important he is to his life. “That’s what it’s meant to me, just getting to read the book as your best friend. The book meant a great deal to me. I am proud and happy for its existence. And for you and, of course, for our friendship over all these years, I can do nothing but thank you.”

The conversation between Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Van Zandt is available to stream.

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