The third act of Steven Van Zandt

The Observer, 2005-12-04, by: unknown
He walked out on Springsteen, swapping guitars for gangsters and a lead role in the Sopranos. Now, he's airing his record-breaking radio show on the BBC. Here, Steven Van Zandt tells Sarfraz Manzoor why he's bringing it all back home
Is Steve Van Zandt the coolest man in America? The initial impressions are not encouraging. On the afternoon I meet him he is dressed in a lurid purple paisley shirt unbuttoned at the belly button, snakeskin cowboy boots and his trademark bandana. It is a hippy-gypsy-pirate look that the 55-year-old has made his own, possibly because no one else has expressed any interest in acquiring it. The books that line his office on the sixth floor of a block overlooked by the Empire State Building do little to allay the suspicion that Van Zandt may not have realised the Sixties are over: the room is an explosion of psychedelia, stacked with music and books about Indian mysticism, religion, spirituality, as well as music and films. A box of incense sticks sits in one corner of the room.
And yet Steve Van Zandt is cool. Why? Well, this is a man who in the Seventies played guitar on a couple of the greatest albums ever made (Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town), who turned his back on that success to spend the Eighties using his celebrity to support the struggle against apartheid and who is now not only a huge star in one of the best series in American television history - The Sopranos - but is also the host of his own radio show, Little Steven's Underground Garage, which he created, and whose playlist is dictated simply by what he chooses to play. Van Zandt broadcasts the programme each week from New York City. Sometimes guests will co-present - Brian Wilson, Iggy Pop and Ringo Starr have all appeared recently, and Donovan is dropping in the afternoon we talk.

A few days before we met I saw a younger Van Zandt on a concert film of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing at the Hammersmith Odeon in November 1975. The film forms part of a special box set recently released to mark the 30th anniversary of Born to Run. Springsteen, 26 years old, woolly hatted and bearded, was still smarting from the hype that engulfed his visit to Britain, hype he feared would destroy him. To his left, standing mostly in the shadows, is a shorter figure, a guitarist dressed in a fire engine red suit with a white wide-brimmed hat, wearing a now familiar expression of menace and mischief. 'I was quite natty there for a while,' admits Van Zandt, sipping on a mug of green tea. 'I watched the concert myself only a few days ago and was surprised by how good we sounded - it was strange to think that I was the guitarist on stage there.'

Van Zandt's friendship with Springsteen defined the first act of his life. They met 40 years ago as teenagers in the tattered, fabled New Jersey seaside resort of Asbury Park, which by the Sixties had already seen better days. They were both Italian-American misfits who had few options but rock'n'roll. Van Zandt had been thrown out of school for having long hair and was sitting around waiting for his life to begin.

On 9 February 1964, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time. 'The British invasion was the most important event of my life,' he tells me, his eyes widening with the memory. 'I was in New Jersey and the night I saw the Beatles changed everything. I had seen Elvis before and he had done nothing for me, but these guys were in a band.'

Inspired by the British invasion, Van Zandt, like seemingly everyone else in New Jersey, picked up an electric guitar. 'We knew all the local bands,' he explains. 'What happened was that any member of any band who had any choice to go to college or join their father's business did so; the ones who were left kept playing music. Sometimes I'd be the guitar player in Bruce's band and sometimes he'd be the rhythm guitar player in mine. We were the last men standing because there was nothing else that we could do.'

In the week I meet Van Zandt, Springsteen is performing solo in New Jersey. The E Street Band are in hiatus, but Van Zandt remains convinced of the singular potential of rock'n'roll. 'I know it sounds a bit silly, but I do believe it can change the world. It's embarrassing, but I don't care. Rock'n' roll as a genre is different from pop and hip hop: it is about bands, and that for me suggests brotherhood, family, friendship and community.'

Having joined the E Street Band just before the release of the breakthrough Born to Run album, Van Zandt quit just before the multi-million phenomenon that was 1984's Born in the USA and spent the Eighties raising awareness of US military operations in Central America. His involvement with the Sun City album and anti-apartheid movement won praise from the United Nations, but commercially the music was a failure; by the early Nineties, Van Zandt found himself completely alienated from the record industry.

'I literally spent years walking my dog, wondering, "What am I going to do for work?" I had no place in the world. I knew something was over, and I didn't know what was next. 'And then, just as it did as a teenager, rock'n'roll saved him. The second actof Steve Van Zandt begins in the spring of 1997, when he inducted Sixties band, the Rascals, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Watching the ceremony on VH1 was television producer David Chase, who was dreaming up a series for HBO. Chase, also from New Jersey and a long-time fan, offered Van Zandt a role. The pair created the character of Silvio Dante. 'He's a friend of Tony Soprano's, a trusted lieutenant and a bit of a throwback,' Van Zandt says now. 'He thinks the heyday is over and they missed it. He and Tony see a romanticised vision of the good old days, when everyone could be trusted. And I wanted Silvio to look like that - Fifties hair, the whole thing.' To transform himself from guitarist to gangster Van Zandt sports an impressive pompadour wig: 'Half of the acting I do is actually done by the hair,' he jokes.

I had assumed the signature bandana was an attempt to hide the ravages of male-pattern baldness (it is not considered possible to be rock'n'roll and bald), but Van Zandt reveals that 'when I was younger I went through the windshield of a car and my hair didn't grow back right. I had been wearing scarves occasionally and I decided that I didn't want to deal with wigs and things, so I just stumbled onto my thing.'

Then, just as he was settling into his new wig and a career in acting, Springsteen reformed the E Street Band for The Rising. If there is a common theme between The Sopranos and Springsteen, aside from New Jersey, it is that for Van Zandt both act as surrogate families. Just as Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, plays in the E Street Band, Maureen, a former ballerina to whom Van Zandt has been married for 17 years (no children but one dog, Jake), plays Silvio's wife Gabriella on The Sopranos. Both Springsteen and The Sopranos recall the values of another time: whether it's family and honour or the fanciful idea that music can change your life, Tony Soprano and Bruce Springsteen are both yearning for glory days. 'Silvio and I are alienated from modern culture,' Van Zandt explains. 'It's the theme of the loss of values. In The Sopranos, these guys know their best years are behind them. They have nostalgia for their old traditions. In their minds, they're looking for a time when loyalty mattered, community mattered. E Street is about community, too. People are looking for something real.'

Which brings us to the present day and the third act in the life of Steve Van Zandt - guitar hero, TV star and now syndicated radio DJ. For the past three years Little Steven's Underground Garage has been playing on 136 stations to two million listeners in the US, and around the world. This Christmas Day it will be broadcast here for the first time, on BBC 6. For Van Zandt, airing the programme in Britain represents the conclusion of a journey that began more than four decades ago when he first saw the Beatles: 'I have wanted to take the show to the UK since I started it. This is bringing it all back home. I could try and pretend that I am surprised by the show's success,' he says, failing to sound modest, 'but the truth is I am not in the least bit surprised. Young fans want to know about the past and older fans also want to find new music.'

As British listeners will soon discover, the music played on the Underground Garage, whether old or new, is inspired by the time before rock music became an art form. Van Zandt dates the birth of the rock era to the release of 'Like a Rolling Stone' and says it died with Kurt Cobain. 'Before Dylan, before rock became art it was a wonderful fusion of pop structure and personal statements,' he explains, sounding less like a rock star and more like a fan. 'I want to play music from a time when rock'n'roll was fun and we danced to it.' So does he blame Bob Dylan for ruining rock music? 'Yes, I do actually,' he says smiling slyly, 'and I tell him any chance I can. Look, the truth is that of course I can see the value of the Bob Dylan thing, but we try to stay on balance on the fun part.' That means Iggy and the Stooges, Lou Reed, the Ramones, alongside newer bands like the Raveonettes and whatever he likes that lands on his desk. 'I get emails from 11-year-olds,' he says, managing to sound both horrified and delighted, 'saying thanks for telling me about all these new bands - and they're talking about the Kinks and the Animals and the Hollies!'

As someone who spent the Eighties railing against America's nefarious activities in El Salvador, Nicaragua and central Africa, surely Van Zandt must have things to say about George Bush, about Iraq, about debt relief. Where did the politics go, Stevie? 'I've retired from politics,' he claims. 'Forget about all that. It's called a strategic retreat. The revolution can wait.'

With a sixth and possibly final series of The Sopranos currently being filmed, seven television spin-offs of the Underground Garage in the pipeline, the arrival of his radio programme in the UK, and strong rumours of a new Springsteen and E Street Band album and tour next year, the revolution could be a long time coming.

? Little Steven's Underground Garageshow will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music at 6pm on Christmas Day