Steven Van Zandt has been a star sidekick for Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano. But, for now, he’s happy to to do his own thing, writes Ed Power.
In June 2007, Steve Van Zandt was preparing to say goodbye to The Sopranos.
The acclaimed gangster drama remade television in its image and had a similarly seismic impact on the career of Van Zandt, best known until then as Bruce Springsteen’s sideman and arranger in the E Street Band.
As Tony Soprano’s “consigliere” Silvio Dante Van Zandt won a new generation of fans and was regarded as an irreplaceable member of the ensemble. Ten years on from the The Sopranos’ notorious short sharp shock of a finale — in which Tony puts Journey on the juke box and the screen fades to black– Van Zandt has gone back to music and brings his revitalised Disciples of Soul project to Ireland at the end of June. But for many The Sopranos is still what he is known for.
“I try not to look back,” he says. “I prefer to look forward. You know, I’ve never actually sat down and watched The Sopranos from the beginning. I have to do it one of those days. It is probably quite enjoyable.”
His memories of The Sopranos are bittersweet. In 2013 James Gandolfini, star of the series and a close friend of Van Zandt, collapsed and died on holidays in Rome. Van Zandt had perceived him as a kindred spirit — a natural sideman who took pride in his work yet didn’t seek the spotlight (if anything Gandolfini had loathed the fame that came his way). He was devastated by his death.
“What happens as you get older and you start to lose people is that you go into denial about it,” says Van Zandt. “I find denial quite useful. You grow up thinking denial is a bad thing and that you need to confront everything.
“Which is as it should when you’re young. Later, I think denial comes in handy. When it comes to Jimmy and other people… my way of looking at it is that our schedules are just are not crossing. Sometimes you won’t see a friend or two for a year. You’re both busy. Eventually we’ll meet up. That’s how I think of Jimmy.”
Van Zandt came rather well out of Bruce Springsteen’s 2016 autobiography Born To Run, in which the singer delivered unstinting home truths about himself and the musicians with whom he worked. In fact, he receives pride of place in an anecdote in which, high on the success of Born in the USA, he and Springsteen visit Disneyland only to be ejected for refusing to remove their bandanas. It’s a rare interlude of hilarity in a frequently self- flagellatory book.
“This, say the powers that be, is so he will not be misidentified as a gang member, Blood or Crip, and fall victim to a drive-by while hurling his cookies on Space Mountain,” writes Springsteen. “Steven’s bandanna is neither red nor blue but an indeterminate hue, chosen carefully and precisely to complement the rest of his ‘look’ by the man who invented the male babushka.”
Did “Little Stevie”, as he is known to E Street Band fans, rush out to buy a copy in order to discover what Springsteen had to say about him?
“Well… I figured I’d be mentioned,” he laughs. “I was very impressed. He did a great job I thought. That’s the thing with Bruce — he leaves it all out there. He gives it everything.”
Van Zandt, aged 66, was born in Massachusetts but grew up along the Jersey Shore, not far from Springsteen. The singer first spied his future foil at a local club in the late 1960s and was impressed by his stage presence and his virtuosity (and, yes, his bandana). Van Zandt duly joined the E Street Band during the making in 1974 of Born To Run, helping arrange ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ when Springsteen was stumped as how to proceed (the signature horn flourish was his idea).
“I was just in the studio, hanging around,” Van Zandt would tell Uncut magazine. “He said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘I think it sucks.’ And he said, ‘Well, go f***ing fix it, then.’ So I went and fixed it.”
He comes to Dublin with a reformed Disciples of Soul and a new album, Soulfire. The record is his first solo release since the Eighties (his fifth album Born Again Savage was issued in 1999 but recorded a decade before). Back then, Van Zandt had a reputation as a firebrand. And though he moved on the dial on many causes close to his heart — apartheid in particular — he feels his career suffered. At that point, mingling politics and music was regarded as iffy.
“Back then there was no political discussion at all going on,” he says. “My new album isn’t really political because there’s no need. Today you can’t get away from politics. It’s 24/7. In my younger days, however I was obsessed with politics.
“I ultimately succeeded in politicising a lot of people who spoke out on issues such as South Africa. My friends Springsteen, U2, Joey Ramone... they could use their celebrity togged things that. And that’s how I got things done, through their celebrity. “
“I was naive about the career side of things,” he continues. “Politics was my fixation. The whole thing was about politicising my friends. And I do think we accomplished some things, such as being victorious in South Africa. So I succeeded in converting a lot of people and making them aware of their injustices. That is all I was really interested in.”
Ideally he would like to tour every summer — whether solo or with Springsteen — and spend his winters making television (after The Sopranos he wrote and produced the Netflix gangster-out-of-water comedy Lilyhammer).
“You have to have a relationship with the audience,” he says. “To have a real relationship with people you need to see them. It might be only every year or every two years. But you want to see each other on a regular basis. So that’s my plan .”
Soulfire is out now. Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play Vicar Street in Dublin on June 22.
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