Steven Van Zandt was in fine form when we spoke recently... talking about his show, his commitment to education, his admiration for Bruce Springsteen the actor and his unfailing optimism about life, the future and our children.
So, I’m talking to the legendary Steven Van Zandt
• Who knew Bruce before he became Springsteen
• Who co-founded Southside Johnny & the Ashbury Dukes alongside John Lyon
• Who became a mobster in The Sopranos
• Who hosts a radio show called the Underground Garage
• Who is a philanthropist and activist through Little Kids Rock
• And who is bringing his band, the Disciples of Soul to Auckland for the first time on April 27th
Sir, it is an honour to speak with you.
What else have I missed out in that woefully inadequate but necessarily brief bio?
Well, the first thing I missed was his follow up acting and this time also producing a television show called Lilyhammer (2012-2014), which was the first show to stream exclusively on Netflix, back in 2012.
The second thing was that Little Steven's latest passion in the educational and philanthropic domain is TeachRock.org, a follow on from Little Kids Rock. Teach Rock is an initiative designed to encourage kids to enjoy their schooling through the history of rock, in fact, all the various components of America’s contemporary music history. It’s designed as a new methodology where kids get to learn through the lens of their favourite artists, or their parents’, or their grandparents’, and teachers are encouraged to take on this curriculum, free of charge, to support the more traditional teaching approach. It’s putting the A or Arts into the STEM of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and is really getting up a head of STEAM with 25,000 teachers (teaching perhaps 2.5 million kids) are registered. What’s also in it for the teachers? Two free tickets for a Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul concert and a workshop in between soundcheck and the show itself. What’s not to like?
I shared with Little Steven, "Our teachers in New Zealand are in the middle of an industrial dispute, as I believe are many of yours. And they have the support of the parents (and I’m one of them, I have a ten-year-old daughter, as well as grandsons at school). But, there is never enough money to pay the teachers what they are worth, and sometimes they don’t help themselves with their one for all, all for one approach."
Little Steven explained how he and the band actually scheduled their US Tour around cities who were having teachers’ strikes at the time, and he personally joined the picket lines, out of solidarity. So this activist, who left the E-Street band in the late 70s to study foreign policy, became politicised, as a result, is now on the education trail, and viewing teachers as vitally important to society’s cohesion, as much as doctors.
It’s as easy to agree with him and his cause, as it is to avoid any discussion about pay parity and unionisation. My radar tells me not to go there.
So go take a look at www.teachrock.org, and see for yourself. Bruce Springsteen is a founding Board member, as is Jackson Browne. Oh, and Bono is also there...
What prompts a Disciples of Soul Tour? Is it a pilgrimage, a resurrection? What can we expect, because it doesn’t happen very often, right?
No, it doesn’t, despite five solo albums over the years, Little Steven’s solo music career has been sporadic: two acting stints and several calls from Springsteen saying he’s putting the E-Street band together again have gotten in the way. Not that he’s complaining, it’s just the way it has been. And twenty years have gone by, just like that.
So when a Bluesfest promoter in London heard he was heading over for Bill Wyman’s 80th birthday (let’s say November 2016), he put the pressure on for Steven to get a band together and play. So that gave him the opportunity to “revisit my own life”, which in musical terms he describes as “rock meets soul”
The Soulfire album was made as a consequence, and the tour naturally followed. There’s a new album in the pipeline, but the Auckland show will mostly be the last of the “Soulfire” tour, with maybe a couple of the new songs thrown in. And the band are fourteen of New York’s top session musicians, including Lowell “Banana” Levinger, original guitarist with The Youngbloods ( “everybody Get Together, and love one another right now”)
Do Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul still party like its 1999?
No, Van Zandt chuckles (is that a friendly Little Steven chuckle, or is it, Silvio Dante, I’m hearing?), the partying stopped a long time ago. In fact, he now makes it a habit to always take a day off between shows, to give time to rest, take in the local sights, go out to dinner, to take it just a little bit easier than in halcyon days.
I shared more with Little Steven, "You know, I’m just a couple of year’s younger than you, and I often reflect on how lucky I am, how lucky our generation is, to still be able to go see the artists we grew up with. John Prine was just through. So was Bryan Ferry. And the Manfreds are coming through in a couple of weeks. We’re the rock n roll generation... On the downside, we are also referred to as the greedy, indulgent baby-boomers because we have spent more money, enjoyed the fruits of our parents' post-war labour, and are leaving future generations to clean up our mess. We’re the hedonist generation. What do you reckon? Are we the beginning, and also the end, of the rock n roll generation? Are our kids and grandkids going to be inspired or disgusted?"
Little Steven answers, “Well, first of all, the mess wasn’t our doing. The mess was created by those before us. We are the ones who have tried to fix it, so we’ll come out looking alright. We’re the good guys!! We are the ones who broke with our parents, questioned the government, promoted the right causes, and created the greatest art. Music is the new art form. It’s now become a way to communicate across all cultures, bring people together, and unify. Starting maybe with George Harrison and the concert for Bangladesh; Live Aid, and on and on. Many examples! Civil Rights! No, we’re the good guys, we’re looking good”
It’s interesting to hear Little Steven in defence of our generation and it also brings home the differing perspectives on this issue based on our origin. It’s easier to see a defence being mounted for my generation from the United States, as opposed to here in New Zealand. Here the argument in my view has more traction, given the preponderance of the welfare state under which we grew up. In my view, it’s not so straightforward to wear the “good guys” mantle here in Godzone.
But I’ll take Little Steven’s forthright defence and find succour!
"You have been a political activist, you walked away from the E Street band to devote time to learning about foreign policy and the causes that study inspired you to support. What do you think about today? Are we truly in dangerous times, more so than say 50 years ago, or should we keep faith with the human condition and just muddle through?"
Again the answer is positive. Things will work out. Despite these past two years being what he describes as “the darkest period of my life”, it “feels temporary”. We’ll get through this.
He doesn’t mention it or him by name, but it’s clear he’s talking about the current administration in the US and the personality involved. He’s also talking about Brexit (what a mess). (In fact, I see while writing this that he’s just sent a tweet to Prime Minister Theresa May offering his services to sort it out. Get everyone together in a room and fix it. Silvio Dante at your service...)
But this time, his optimism is not so much based on his belief that the baby boomers are the good guys. It’s on what he sees in the young kids coming through, the kids he sees in the schools which are running his programmes, and also the Millennials. They are without prejudice, they are multi-cultural, they understand the environment, they are anti-gun. He is optimistic that this generation will stop the collective suicide which is global warming.
And in the face of that, he will bring his show to Auckland to celebrate rock and soul, to celebrate his life, to bring people together, to give them release, and to underline his optimism for the human condition.
And with a final chuckle, a Stevie chuckle, we’re out of time, and he is gone...
Wow, it’s going to be a soulful April to bring comfort to all of us reeling from the events in Christchurch.
Nathaniel Rateliffe on the 10th, Mavis Staples on the 23rd, and Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul on the 27th.
Be there !!!