Steven Van Zandt Talks With Bruce Springsteen About Nearly Playing Tony Soprano, a Life of Activism, and How They Saved ‘Born to Run’

·11-min read

Is Steven Van Zandt content with having spent much of his career in what might have been perceived a sidekick role? The answer is yes, he told Bruce Springsteen during a chat between the two that was webcast Tuesday evening. And maybe that’s just the sort of thing you’d be expected to tell the boss… or the Boss. But this applied not only to Van Zandt’s longstanding stint with Springsteen’s E Street Band but also to his role on “The Sopranos,” since, in a parallel television universe, the role of Tony Soprano might have gone to Van Zandt.

The actor-guitarist’s most-valuable-supporting-player parts in two of the great pop-culture phenomena of our lifetimes came up in a conversation celebrating the publication of Van Zandt’s new memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations: Odyssey of a Rock and Roll Consigliere (A Cautionary Tale).” The two rockers also discussed the social awakenings of Van Zandt’s solo career — with Springsteen giving his friend credit for being even bolder in that than he was — and the need to keep the power of rock ‘n’ roll alive amid its seemingly diminishing returns in today’s musical landscape.

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Van Zandt told Springsteen that him playing the role of Tony Soprano was “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s original vision until “cooler heads prevailed” about giving a lead role to a “guy who never acted before” in a $30 million production. The role, of course, ended up being portrayed by James Gandolfini. “Davey was like, well, HBO won’t let me… I said, ‘Now that I’m thinking about it, David, I really appreciate this opportunity. I really do. But I feel guilty taking an actor’s job. My wife’s [Maureen Van Zandt] a real actor. I watched her go to school for years, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, I mean, they do these classes and I feel guilty taking a job. And he says, ‘All right, I’ll tell you what. I want you in the show. And I will write you in a part that doesn’t exist.'”

In a one-hour discussion hosted by Unison Events, Van Zandt delved into his evolution as an artist from his early days as a teen discovering rock ‘n’ roll, to his his political awakening and activism founding TeachRock, a curriculum inspiring children to learn through music and “keeps the arts in general, in the DNA of the education system,” he explained.

The chat also weaved in his third act as an actor portraying Silvio Dante on HBO’s “The Sopranos”; recent years with his band, Disciples of Soul; running his syndicated radio show, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage”; his own channels on SiriusXM, the Underground Garage and Outlaw Country; and his record label, Wicked Cool Records.

Playing Silvio, he said, was a natural extension of his role as a consigliere of sorts serving as a sideman to Springsteen in the E Street Band, as he wasn’t always comfortable fronting a group of his own.

“I was okay at it and I would get good at fronting in the ’80s when I had to, but my natural inclination just has never been to be the frontman,” he told Springsteen. “I liked being the guy behind the scenes or to the side. if I had to describe myself, it would be as a producer, producer/writer, writer/producer. (But) the performance part of my life has been the fun part.”

With that as a guide, Chase essentially asked Van Zandt what he would like to do as this new, as-yet-unnamed character.

“I had never thought about acting, but I was thinking about writing and maybe directing someday, and I read him a treatment about this hit man, an independent man named Silvio Dante that ran a club, but he kind of lived in the past. It was set in present day. But in his mind with a romantic mob past, and it was like a Copacabana club and had big bands and the Jewish Catskill comics and the dancing girls,” he continued. “In that club, the five families would have their tables and the commissioner and the police commissioner and the mayor. And it’s kind of ike a mafia version of Casablanca. And he says, ‘All right, well, let me think about that.’ And he comes back a couple of days later, and he says ‘We can’t afford it, but but we’ll make it a strip club instead.'”

The wide-ranging interview, which was recorded at a kitchen table, started on a humorous note as Springsteen noted the occasion was to celebrate the “day of the publication of his fabulous book… which the two of us were too stupid to bring a copy to our interview.”

Asked to explain the title of his book, Van Zandt said there were several themes he wanted to explore.

“It starts off as a kid from Jersey and somehow he makes it in rock ‘n’ roll and that’s already a miracle,, but then when I leave the E Street Band, a whole other adventure begins, and it was really the end of one life at the beginning of another,” the 71-year old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer told Springsteen. “This is where the bigger themes start to emerge, like the search for identity, the search for purpose, the search for spiritual enlightenment and doing all the rest. As you go through life, artists have a dilemma, a challenge, which is to find an audience for our work. It’s art meets commerce, and the artist’s job is to attempt to make the audience care about your obsessions.”

He continued, “In spite of my enormous successes, and I’m totally grateful, they have been, mostly other people’s visions and my own personal work has never really found an audience. I just figured that everybody has a little frustration in their lives, a little disappointment, you know? And the things you love the most sometimes, they don’t love you back, you know? And so that’s not that unusual, I think, but it’s what you do with it. That is where the book starts to have some usefulness, and I wanted the book to have some usefulness.”

Springsteen — who summarized the book’s thesis as an exploration of Van Zandt’s musical and political development — started at the beginning painting a picture of Van Zandt in a top hat and “huge tie” singing “Happy Together” by the Turtles, who would one day in the future would guest on the E Street Band’s breakthrough hit single, “Hungry Heart.”

From that point, the two friends reminisced about the Beatles shaking up the world on Ed Sullivan, when the next day everybody had a band and some “mercifully stayed in the garage.” Van Zandt and Springsteen, 72, waxed poetic about 50 years of friendship, taking trips into New York City and meeting at Cafe Wha’, playing at Hullabaloo in Middletown, New Jersey, debating the merits of the Jeff Beck Group vs. Led Zeppelin, and bonding over “being the only other guy we knew that was completely into rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I had no interest in show business,” Van Zandt said. “The band thing was about family and friendship and community, and that was what appealed to me.”

“It’s a miracle that we found each other, that we struck up a friendship and it’s lasted for 50 years and we play in the same band together,” Springsteen said, as he sat at the table marveling over Van Zandt’s short dissertation of the five paths of learning the craft of rock ‘n’ roll: learn the instrument, pick 50 songs to learn, play in front of an audience, learn to compose songs, and then recording, in that order.

After taking a trip down memory lane about playing shows in Asbury Park, and later as the Stone Pony house band with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Springsteen talked about how in 1975 Van Zandt joined the E Street Band around the time the future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer only had seven shows booked and, according to Van Zandt, was “still in a little bit of trouble.” Grabbing a guitar, Springsteen told the tale of how his friend visited in the studio and helped make a very important contribution in the recording of the song “Born to Run.”

“I have to throw this in, because this is probably — and Steve has done many great things in service for the E Street Band and my work — but this may be the single most important thing he has ever done. We are making ‘Born to Run.’ He comes in the studio. He sits down. I play it for him, and he goes, ‘Man I love that riff. The way you go to the minor.'”

Confused, Springsteen asked, “What minor?” When Van Zandt insisted the note was reminiscent of Roy Orbison or the Beatles, Springsteen insisted he was “bending the note up,” but Van Zandt heard it differently. Thankfully, it was his interpretation of the chord progression, going to a minor note, that remained.

Speaking on the subject of rock ‘n roll, Van Zandt expressed concern the genre is “an endangered species,” teasing Springsteen that the oldies format now “goes back to the ’80s.”

“The reason I started the radio show and the record company and everything else is, one day you turn on the radio and it’s like, man, what happened here? What happened to the wonderful world we grew up in? I started feeling a little bit guilty that we had all the fun, we had all this great music,” he said. “There’s something special about rock ‘n’ roll, and I go into a lot of detail about this in the book. All the different genres have their place — soul music, folk, jazz is a little more intellectual — and rock ‘n’ roll has some kind of ability to communicate substance somehow that nothing else ever has. And I think this has got to be preserved.”

Springsteen also delved into the beginnings of how rock ‘n’ roll — and the E Street Band’s River tour in 1980 in East Berlin in particular — led Van Zandt into his political life, a far cry from his earlier “Miami Steve” persona.

“You became an activist on the level where I never had the guts to go out and do,” Springsteen said.

“A kid came up to me and said, ‘Why are you putting missiles in my country?'” Van Zandt said. “I just disregarded him, but I couldn’t shake that question for weeks. … When you travel overseas, you’re not only a guitar player or a taxi driver, Republican or a Democrat, you’re an American. What obligation goes with being an American citizen? You have some responsibility for what your government does.”

With that responsibility, he said, you need to pay a little bit more attention to what government is doing, and he started to read books about foreign policy.

“It was shocking to learn that we aren’t the heroes of democracy that I thought we were,” he said. “I grew up with an ex-Marine Republican Goldwater father, so I knew all about that stuff and how conservatives think.”

With that, Van Zandt morphed into what he described as an “artist/journalist,” telling stories on his records and formulating concepts to “explore topics” on his solo records “Men Without Women” and “Voice of America” and taking on the issue of apartheid in South Africa, which he acknowledged “was really beyond my celebrity level to pull off.”

The chat ended with fan questions asking about guitars and favorite teachers, with Springsteen giving props to his high school English literature teacher Robert Hussey, who “understood that I had an imagination and was literate,” and Van Zandt recalling a librarian who recognized he was a fan of Bob Dylan and turned him on to the Allen Ginsberg book “Howl.”

Asked if it was hard to write his book, Van Zandt revealed he attempted a memoir 15 years ago, but couldn’t find a natural ending. Then, “out of the blue comes the most productive three years of my life” recording new music and touring with the Disciples of Soul and a full-circle moment with Beatle icon Paul McCartney coming to see the band perform.

“Your life has been a tremendous success and the book is a testament to that success, and it should be read by everybody,” Springsteen concluded. “If you are a rock ‘n’ roll fan, you’re going to love Steve’s book because that’s what’s at the center of it… the rock music that we fell in love with when we were kids and you captured that really beautifully. And it is a wonderful thing.”

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