From serving as Bruce Springsteen's longtime music partner in the E Street Band and Underground Garage radio host to activist and actor on HBO's "The Sopranos," Steven Van Zandt has maintained a multi-faceted career for nearly five decades.
On Monday night, he discussed all that work and more during a rare sit-down at the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles.
It was moderated by the museum's executive director Robert Santelli - a former New Jersey music journalist and author of Springsteen books with a long history of covering the rocker.
Also in attendance in LA were two musicians with ties to Jersey: Blondie drummer Clem Burke and current Breakfast with the Beatles/Underground Garage radio show host Chris Carter (during the '90s, the pair were bandmates in Dramarama).
Since 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of "Born to Run," the sold out 95-minute program (including audience Q&A) began with Van Zandt reminiscing about making the landmark album. "It was a special record and Bruce was making a statement," he said. "Back in the '70s, it was uncool and courageous to have the sax" play a prominent role in a band. "But tradition mattered to him." Then he recounted the popular story about how did helped guide the horn arrangement on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" without any formal training.
Santelli asked about Van Zandt's stint with Southside Johnny & the Jukes. At the time, all the other bands playing Jersey Shore clubs like The Stone Pony did covers. "We played original songs, which was unusual." Onstage, Van Zandt would sometimes say his songs were by another successful artist instead. "Back then until now, I never fit into the modern world. I create my own world. We do it today with 'Underground Garage.'"
About his formative music influences, Van Zandt said, "The British Invasion was everything to me," citing The Beatles appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and how they popularized the idea of the band as a fully creative entity (while acknowledging predecessor Buddy Holly & the Crickets). "The Beatles all had nice outfits and haircuts. Then the Stones came along, weren't so nice and made it look easy. I thought, 'I could do that.'"
Flashing forward, Van Zandt said Springsteen asked him to co-produce "The River" album to help get a full live band sound. Then on 1984's "Born in the U.S.A.," they eschewed studio overdubs in favor of playing entire songs again and again. "I did the mandolin solo in my vocal mic."
Regarding "The Sopranos," Van Zandt talked about how producer/creator David Chase had seen him induct The Rascals during the televised Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and insisted he should accept an acting role on his new mobster drama. In the 1990s, Van Zandt was at low ebb musically. "I didn't relate to anything about grunge," so the TV opportunity came at a good time in his life.
A fascinating part of the discussion centered on Van Zandt's creation of Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985. He had gone down to South Africa twice the previous year and felt "I needed to bring attention to the problem. I wanted to get a cultural boycott." Although 49 acts participated in benefit song "Sun City," he said only a few people turned him down, including Frank Zappa.
"Radio wouldn't play the song, but MTV and BET aired the video." The uprising eventually led to South African bank sanctions and Nelson Mandela being released from jail. "We couldn't do it now," said Van Zandt.
He said today's music is mired in mediocrity. The Underground Garage show and station on SiriusXM radio are about "getting the standards back up. Everything gets diluted the further you get from the source" of rock 'n' roll. "We plant as many seeds as we can" on the show (which launched in 2002). "You get great music 24 hours a day" on the channel.
"As far as I'm concerned, 1951-1971 was a Renaissance period for music. It needs to be accessible. "
The audience Q&A portion saw Van Zandt touch upon a variety of other subjects (and go over the allotted time), including...
All the great songs left off "The River":
"One of our best albums was that second disc on (1998 outtakes box set) 'Tracks.'"
Reuniting The Rascals and the Broadway show he spearheaded:
"No one person is more important than others in a band...Felix (Cavaliere) caused all the problems."
How he felt when the E Street Band broke up and how things are now:
"If you have a band with that kind of chemistry, you should never break up...that last tour was one of our best ever. We broke four new markets around the world with little promotion. We still have unfinished business left."
Producing/writing and arranging the new Darlene Love album:
"All 40 years of my music knowledge went into it...I couldn't deal with the injustice of not hearing this woman sing. Greatness is not supported enough in this world."
All photos by Rebecca Sapp, wireimage.com, courtesy of the Grammy Museum
My report also appeared at www.musicnewsnashville.com
For more information on the museum programs and more, go to www.grammymuseum.org