ROCK AND ROLL RENEGADE…STEVEN VAN ZANDT TAKES CENTER STAGE By Sandra Castillo
Steven Van Zandt certainly runs off something other than an innate lust for Rock and Roll. For the one who holds the dubious titles of musician, songwriter, producer, actor, radio show host and activist is also rocking the scene at the speed-of-sound as the front man in Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, a rousing, blow-the-roof-off-the-sucka, fifteen-member ensemble that has to be seen and heard to be believed. And if you were anywhere near the House of Blues in San Diego, California on the night of December 11th, 2018, then you were witness to one of last year’s most exciting musical extravaganzas of sight and spectacle.
As the longtime guitarist for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Van Zandt knows a sure-fire thing or two about what it takes to make it and remain relevant in an industry where Rock and Roll continues to compete with those who rely on vocal enhancements by way of Autotune, while vaingloriously grandstanding as agent provocateurs of their own egotistical persuasions, onstage and off.
Born on November 22, 1950, in Massachusetts but who would eventually move to New Jersey, Steven Lento, who later adopted his stepfather William Brewster Van Zandt’s surname as his own, began his storied career as a guitarist when he joined forces with another axe man, by the name of Bruce Springsteen, in the band Steel Mill.
In 1975, Van Zandt collaborated as producer and songwriter for one of New Jersey’s most promising artists, whose gritty, soulful vocals belied the fact that he was white and not some black R & B singer tearing it up at the Apollo. John Lyon, aka Southside Johnny, lead singer of “Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes” and staunch champion of Stax-influenced classics lifted from the playlists of legendary acts like The Drifters, Otis Redding and Solomon Burke, is still considered one of the pioneering aural architects of the “Jersey Shore Sound.” Comprised of a small armada of musicians, who employed enough brass and killer guitar licks to satisfy the most discerning of music aficionados, The Asbury Jukes dominated an entire stage whenever they performed with Southside Johnny. It was through Van Zandt’s expert commandeering on several of the group’s albums and song compositions, by way of such signature gems as “I Don’t Want To Go Home” and “Love On The Wrong Side Of Town,” which provided the rollicking, hard-driving musical muscle for one of Jersey’s most popular bands of that era.
It was around that time Van Zandt joined forces with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, which was soon riding the crest of a massive wave with the break-through hit “Born To Run.” Together, he and the members of the Boss’ entourage embarked on concert tours around the United States and Europe to promote the single that put them and New Jersey on the map. He also served as a co-producer on Springsteen’s seminal 1980 masterpiece, The River, and the commercially-successful Born in the U.S.A.
At some point, Van Zandt had strategized other plans to kick start his own band, so in the dawn of the 1980s, he founded Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, a blistering, soul-rocking act which showcased his R & R sensibilities and flair for gypsy-inspired fashions, replete with layers of bangles and scarves. A few years later, he departed from his obligations as co-producer and guitarist for The E Street Band to pursue a myriad of social-political causes which significantly impacted his life as a musician and humanitarian.
With the ongoing injustices wrought against a sector of the population occupying South Africa during the mid-eighties, the nation faced a firestorm of opposition from those on the outside looking in to witness the de-humanizing aspects of apartheid. Van Zandt grew increasingly incensed over the government-enforced segregation of those subjugated to such mistreatment and decided to challenge the powers-that-be by taking on the situation in wide-spread protest. So, with a little help from his friends, including Run-DMC, Bob Dylan, Darlene Love, Bono, Springsteen and dozens of others, the singer formed Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985 to record the album Sun City, which called on people around the world to boycott the South African vacation resort of the same name.
Even though Van Zandt’s involvement with global issues was all-consuming, he still found the energy to sate his fans who simply could not get enough of the rebel-rocker’s music. With Voice of America, Freedom No Compromise, Revolution and Born Again Savage in his canon, he was able to deliver his musical sermons for the masses.
In the late 90s, Van Zandt was contacted by producer David Chase to see if he would be interested in reading for a part for one of his TV pilots. He gave the once-in-a-lifetime offer much consideration and soon found himself immersed in the role of consigliere “or trusted advisor” to a Mafia boss named Tony Soprano. The critically-acclaimed HBO series, “The Sopranos,” ran from 1999 to 2007 and has garnered numerous awards, including several Golden Globes, Emmys and the prestigious Screen Actors Guild Award. Assigning Van Zandt to the role of Silvio Dante turned out to be a fringe benefit for the executives at the network and for the singer, who had jumped headfirst into acting with no prior experience. A few years later, he found himself, once again, in front of the cameras, when he landed the role of Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, in the drama-comedy “Lilyhammer.”
In 2002, Van Zandt began hosting a weekly syndicated radio program called “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” which gives a platform to showcase the giants of music: Curtis Mayfield, Muddy Waters, The Ronettes, The Rolling Stones, Electric Prunes and many more. His show has been lauded by the press as the very best thing to have graced radio in years.
Last month, Van Zandt wrapped up his “Soulfire Teacher Solidarity Tour 2018” in Phoenix, AZ, where he had invited educators around the country to attend his concerts at no charge. The musician’s noble mission is to have every school in the U.S. foster learning about America through the implementation of Rock & Roll history incorporated in classroom curriculums. He pointed out that STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, is being taught in schools, but that standard lessons should also include the Arts, which have been decimated by deep cuts in funding to schools around the nation. Without the Arts, the future of music for generations-to-come will gravely suffer the consequences of such negligence and oversight.
Fortunately, Steven Van Zandt knows a thing or two about what it takes to make great music and is going the distance for those who still have a very long way to get there.
For more information, visit www.littlesteven.com