NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of one of the busiest men in show business in New York; musician, actor, activist Steve Van Zandt.
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Want to get to know a man? Check out his walls. Steve Van Zandt may be part of the cast of “The Sopranos” and a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, but the walls of his west side office pay homage to great B movies, long forgotten 60’s acts, and to the rock and roll of his youth.
Welcome to Renegade Nation, the company that oversees all of Steve Van Zandt's many interests. And they are many.
There's his syndicated radio show Little Steven's Underground Garage, there's his work behind the scenes producing shows for Sirius Satellite Radio, he's the music supervisor for the new movie "Christmas with the Kranks," there's his alter ego Silvio Dante, seen on one of the most talked about shows on television, and of course there's that band he plays in, which we last saw this fall taking part in the “Concerts for Change.”
“Well we renamed them the Concerts for the Status Quo,’” says Van Zandt. “What was important, I thought, was to engage people, especially young people, and encourage them to register to vote."
What does he say to those who have suggested that entertainers should stay out of politics? The idea of "shut up and sing?"
"You’re kind of talking to the wrong guy,” he says. “I did nothing but politics for 10 straight years and five solo albums - nothing but. [I did] exclusively international liberation politics."
During that time, in the 80’s, Van Zandt's song "Ain't Gonna’ Play Sun City" became an anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. Now he is passionate about a subject a little closer to home - rock 'n roll.
On the Underground Garage, Van Zandt plays what he calls "garage rock" from the 50’s and 60’s through today, music you don't otherwise find on the radio.
“I said, ÎMaybe I'll do a radio show for fun.’ They said, ÎIs it rock and roll?’ I said, ÎYeah,’ and they said, ÎSorry, there's no place for that in our culture,’” he says. “So my whole life is a lie? Is that what you're telling me?”
Van Zandt hosted a day-long garage rock festival on Randalls Island last August. His radio show is heard in some 200 markets. In New York, it’s on Sunday nights from 10 p.m. to midnight on Q104.3.
"[I have] so many fathers and mothers coming up to me and saying, ÎIt's the first time I've ever had anything to share with my 10-year-old, 12-year-old, 15-year-old son or daughter," he says.
We can't see Little Steven on the radio, but trust me, as always, he's wearing the bandana. Van Zandt first started wearing a hat and then the bandana because his hair didn't grow back properly after a car accident in the early 70’s.
“I know it's a strange sort of contradiction, but I don't like to talk about clothes or wearing things to get a reaction from people. I don't,” he says. “This is just how I am, and I prefer to blend right in. I know that sounds ridiculous.”
The New York Times once called Van Zandt "the coolest guy in New Jersey.” But he lives in New York, and he’s found no better place to blend in than the big city.
"I try to do things in a routine way, because no matter who you are or what you do, if it's a routine, people eventually just get used to it,” he says. “So it's, ÎOh, it’s Stevie. Hi.’"
Van Zandt first caught the rock and roll bug when he heard “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” by Curtis Lee and the Halos in 1961. By the mid-60’s, he was hooked.
“When we first saw the Beatles you didn't relate to them that way where you thought you could do that,” he says. “It wasn't until the Rolling Stones where you thought, ÎMaybe I could do that.’ With the Beatles, there’s just no chance.”
But being a rock and roller in high school in New Jersey was not so easy.
“It wasn't cool, and people would spit on you and try to pick fights with you and the girls did not like you except for the really freaky ones, which God bless them," he says.
Van Zandt says he got kicked out of school, and out of the house, too.
“If you read history you may hear about this thing called the generation gap. We were it,” he says. “They were concerned being in a rock and roll band was just above being a criminal, maybe. At least as a criminal you could make a living."
In a story that is now part of rock and roll lore, Van Zandt met a kindred spirit while playing clubs down the Jersey shore - Bruce Springsteen.
“We were freaks, we were outcasts, we were misfits,” he says. “The only reason you played rock and roll in the end was because you had no choice. If you had any choices, you took them."
Van Zandt eventually helped found a band that was an important part of the Jersey shore bar band scene, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. But it was during the recording of Springsteen's “Born To Run” in 1975 that Van Zandt joined the E Street Band.
The album was an instant classic, and the band set the standard for live performance, playing to packed arenas only a few years after struggling down the shore.
But while on tour in Europe in 1981, a young German asked Steven why the United States was putting missiles in his country. The incident further politicized Van Zandt.
His passion became so great that he left the band just before Springsteen's wildly successful “Born in the USA” tour. As his friends were playing to millions around the world, Van Zandt was in South Africa fighting apartheid.
"The day we started to make money I left the band, which was really brilliant,” he says. “You work for 15 years and you finally make it, and I left. Brilliant. Did it ever get [serious, financially]? It never changed. I've always had a problem with that. It's just my destiny, to never quite get comfortable financially."
Van Zandt was consumed by politics, recording five solo albums, each with a distinctive political theme. But then he spent most of the 90’s simply walking around his Midtown neighborhood with a friend.
"I walked away from this war zone and had no idea where I fit in the world anymore,” he says. “I just felt I had done the rock and roll thing and I had done the political thing, and now it was just me and my dog.”
Then Sopranos creator David Chase heard Van Zandt give a speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and wanted him for his new show, filming across the river.
“The most remarkable thing of all was watching New Jersey become fashionable twice in a lifetime. What's the odds of that,” he says.
Van Zandt loved “The Godfather,” but felt more comfortable studying older gangster movies to prepare to play Silvio Dante.
“OK, you're an actor now, here's ÎThe Godfather,’ here's your example of what you're about to be doing. Well, you're not going to be an actor,” he says. “[You think], ÎI can't do that.’”
But Van Zandt has proven he can do that, and so much more.
- Budd Mishkin