To hear Steven Van Zandt tell it, his career over five decades has been a zig-zagging journey dictated by destiny.
Take his return to releasing solo albums after a couple of decades playing a mobster in “The Sopranos” and “Lilyhammer” (which he co-wrote) and touring as Bruce Springsteen’s foil in the E Street Band. With Springsteen on a Broadway break and no nibbles on his television projects, he turned to a dusty songwriting career, opening his back catalog in 2017 to release “Soulfire,” an album of tunes he had not finished or had written for others including Southside Johnny and Gary U.S. Bonds.
“I kind of go the path of least resistance sometimes,” he says. “You play whatever cards you’re dealt.”
“I don’t really have control of my destiny,” he adds, laughing during a call from Europe, where the band was on tour. “I wish I did. I consider that a bit of a failure in my life, you know. I’ve been basically working in the TV world, and I want to keep working there. That’s where most of my interest is. But, you know, no TV deal came together. And Bruce was on Broadway. It was just like, ‘Okay, I got nothing to do, let’s do that’.”
Starting with “Men Without Women” in 1982, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul released four albums of autobiographical and increasingly political songs (“Sin City,” “I Am a Patriot,” “Trail of Broken Treaties”) over seven years. He issued the garage rock of “Born Again Savage” in 1999 before being hired by David Chase for The Sopranos although he had no acting experience. Chase originally offered Van Zandt the lead role of Tony Soprano, but HBO nixed the idea so he was cast as Silvio Dante, a hitman and the owner of the Bada Bing strip club. The character was partly inspired by a script Van Zandt had written.
Out on the road behind “Soulfire” changed his point of view. “It opened my eyes to writing for myself. I was like I can’t believe I sort of abandoned this,” he says. “This is my life’s work.”
Again, that accidental destiny.
“Summer of Sorcery” pays homage to his long and varied career with seemingly at least one song from every conceivable genre — soul, rock, funk, blues, reggae, Latin, doo-wop, you name it. Van Zandt moved beyond the autobiographical subject matter of previous efforts. “I decided I wanted to do fiction, 12 movies (in song) about a different character in each,” he says. “So that suggests a mixture of genres. You can mix it up, but can you still retain your identity? At this point, I can do that. So it was a really significant artistic breakthrough for me and a major rebirth. It really was sorcery.”
“Summer of Sorcery” is a loose concept album “experiencing the first summer of consciousness, the first time in love, the first experiences in life.” I ask him if he thinks playing characters gave him the confidence to write characters in song. “That could very well be because I’ve been writing TV scripts now for years,” he says. “I think part of it also is I had said everything I wanted to say, I mean, politically. These days, there’s nothing much to be explained anymore. So, my usefulness now is trying to bring people together again. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like what’s going on right now. So I’m like, you know, what? Let me try and bring people together for change. See if we can use music as a common ground.”
“Communion,” the first cut on “Summer of Sorcery” establishes that message with its refrain of “harmony, unity, communion, say it out loud.” When I saw Van Zandt front his 15-piece band in Richmond earlier this summer, the tune opened the show. The crowd surged to their feet and didn’t sit down for the rest of the two and a half-hour show, one of the best I’ve seen in recent years.
More than 50 years ago, Van Zandt was performing a cover of the Turtles “Happy Together” in a New Jersey bar when he met a guy named Bruce Springsteen. They played together in bands, including Steel Mill, which featured the late Robbin Thompson of Richmond as lead vocalist. When Springsteen signed to CBS as a solo artist, he let Van Zandt and other band members go. “I just thought, well, we kind of missed it anyway,” he recalls. “I just quit.”
He worked construction for two years. “I came back due to destiny again,” he says. “I broke my finger playing football and got into a local band, playing piano just to exercise my finger.”
That led to touring with The Dovells, a doo-wop group, which led to him meeting Dion and going on the oldies circuit, playing with one rock legend after another looking for work in the wake of the British Invasion. He backed Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Lloyd Price, Gary U.S. Bonds, and Bo Diddley. “We had 15 acts on the show,” he says. Each played their few hits and made way for the next.
“They hated it,” he says. They were the pioneers, people who in their 30s were labeled oldies, the generation that invented rock and roll. “They’re the ones that got screwed because every generation after that grew up with the bands and supported the bands making music. The Beatles and The Stones, they’re still the biggest bands.”
Playing with those legends pushed him deeper into songwriting. “I’m meeting all my heroes and I said to myself, man, you know what, I gotta go to school if I’m really going to take this songwriting seriously,” he recalls. “So where does it begin? It begins with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. I decided I’m going to write a Leiber and Stoller song for The Drifters. I met Ben E. King and I met The Drifters. I never did have the courage to give it to him. But, I gave it to Southside Johnny. “
The song was “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” the title cut to the first Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album, which Van Zandt produced. “That was the first time I thought, that’s a real song,” he says. “It was an important breakthrough for me.”
He contributed two other cuts to Southside’s debut, while Springsteen threw in two, including “The Fever.” After Van Zandt arranged the horns on Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and helped rescue the overworked “Born to Run” cut by pointing out a key minor riff, he was invited into the E Street Band. He remained for a decade departing before the “Born in the USA” tour for a solo career. He returned in 1999.
Asked what three songs he would recommend to new listeners, Van Zandt chose “Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared Ones),” “the most emotional song I’ve ever written in terms of turning politics into stories;” “A World of Our Own” (off “Summer of Sorcery”), and “I Am A Patriot,” covered by Jackson Browne, among others.
Van Zandt started the performers’ boycott of South Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid, and recorded the protest song, “Sun City” with more than 50 artists. He plays “I Am a Patriot” on the current tour, but feels the need to make an explaining introduction. “You can be a patriot and a globalist at the same time,” he says. “There’s not a contradiction. You can still love your own country. It’s important that the word patriot does not get co-opted by any political party. That’s what’s been happening. That’s just not a word for sale. “
Van Zandt and Springsteen shepherded the comeback of Norfolk legend, Gary U.S. Bonds, with two albums, “Dedication” and “On the Line,” in the early 1980s. Van Zandt had his doubts when Springsteen brought him the project. “Out of all the singers of the ’50s and ’60s, frankly, he (Bonds) would not have been high on my list,” he admits. “Great party records, but not one of the greats of all time until I got into the studio. Then it was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t know how Bruce knew that, but I’m glad that he did.”
“On the Line,” with the marvelous “Club Soul City,” has never gotten the recognition it deserves partly because the first was a hit, Van Zandt says. “The second album was one of my favorite productions ever,” he says. “He’s just singing his butt off. It proves he’s one of the greatest singers of all time.”
Van Zandt is involved in numerous charities, raising money for police widows, to fight cancer, and to fund musical instruments for schools. He started the nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation years ago to back music education. He’s recently been promoting his TeachRock project (teachrock.org), which aims to lower the dropout rate by incorporating rock and roll as a way into history and current events (lesson plans include the Flint water crisis, dance trends since the 1920s, and blues, poetry and the Harlem Renaissance). Teachers can register online for two free tickets to Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul shows.
His tour concludes on Nov. 6 at New York’s Beacon Theater. He expects to continue with the Disciples of Soul. He is writing scripts. But he’s leaving the end of the year open in case an old buddy wants a date in the studio with Van Zandt and the E Street Band.
“Nothing’s definite yet,” he says, “but I stopped at that date to make sure we had time if Bruce wants to go out in 2020. There will be an E Street Band tour eventually, if not in 2020. And the Disciples will stay together and eventually we’ll get back on TV. I have to figure all that out.”
“I got a whole new artistic life,” adds Van Zandt, who is 68.
Thanks to destiny.