Steve Van Zandt’s performing career goes back to 1974, when he conducted the soulfully cool Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes with friend Johnny Lyon.
Then he hooked up with Bruce Springsteen for the Born to Run album, beginning a seven-year association with the Boss as both touring-band stalwart and coproducer of the best-selling The River and Born in the U.S.A.
In 1982 Van Zandt decided to pursue a solo career, Adopting the name Little Steven, he opted for the personally rewarding but financially suicidal world of making politically charged albums.
Zeroing in on the apartheid practices of South Africa and the U.S. government’s dubious involvement in the politics of Central and South Americas. In 1985 he established the Solidarity Foundation, to promote the sovereignty of indigenous peoples, and Artists United Against Apartheid. The latter group, which included such performers as Bob Dylan, U2’s Bono, and Run-DMC, recorded a tune called “Sun City” that played a key role in calling the world’s attention to South Africa’s horrendous policies. For his efforts in that endeavor — and for his championing of human rights worldwide — the United Nations and Bishop Desmond Tatu paid tribute to Van Zandt in 1986.
After a ten-year recording hiatus, little Steven has returned with a vengeance with his latest solo effort, Born Again Savage, a blistering tour de force of guitar driven rock, propelled by the high-voltage rhythm section of the U2’s Adam Clayton on bass and Jason Bonham, son of legendary Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, on drums. Van Zandt is also back on the toad with Bruce and the E Street Band and gearing up for a third season playing hit man/strip-club manager Silvio Dante in the acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos.
Penthouse caught up with Van Zandt during a break in the Springsteen tour. Funny, intelligent, and totally passionate about his work, he talks about The Sopranos, his buddy Bruce, his own new record, and the state of rock ‘n’ roll today.
Your latest record, Born Again Savage, definitely sounds like Little Steven, yet it reminds me a lot of The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. Was that a conscious effort?
Yeah. That was the idea.
What was the thought process behind the record?
Musically, it was the first time I was able to find a way to do a traditional rock record and maintain my own identity. That was quite a challenge, and it was something I had never even attempted before. Ever since I started, I’d felt we needed to do a hybrid type of sound to be original because I respect traditional rock so much. I didn’t want to do something mediocre. I wanted to do something that was up to those standards. And I didn’t feel that it was possible to meet those standards in a traditional sense [ using just] guitar, bass, and drums. I thought everything great had been done. I really did.
So right away [with earlier records], I would incorporate R&B and soul and blues and rock and world music, and use all kinds of combinations, and find my own identity that way. But with this new record, I finally found a way to meet those traditional rock standards. And I did want it to be a bit of a tribute to the hard-rock people I grew up with. They meant a lot to me, starting. with The Kinks and The Who and The Yardbirds. With The Yardbirds, suddenly the guitar player emerged as the center of the rock universe, and that was a new development. Eric Clapton changed everything. People started going to see The Yardbirds because he was so extraordinary and he was doing something brand-new, really. So when he leaves The Yardbirds, in comes Jeff Beck, and he’s amazing, and then when he leaves, in comes Jimmy Page, and he’s amazing also. And then [those guitarists] went and formed, as you know, Cream, The Jeff Beck Group, and Led Zeppelin. And then Jimi Hendrix would become the fourth and final guitar god. But I wanted to do that. I wanted to structure the songs and arrange them so that the guitar was featured. And I’d never done that. I never played this much guitar on a record.
The songs have a healthy, fat sound, which you don’t really hear on records anymore.
No, you don’t. I despise digital technology when it comes to music. It’s the biggest scam that’s ever been perpetrated upon the American public. I keep my stuff analog till the very, very last phase, knowing that when it gets to the digital stage, the sound is going to be reduced. So I keep it as fat and healthy as possible. And it absolutely makes a difference. My record sounds warmer and bigger and fatter than most records because of that.
The theme of the record is religion. What prompted you to head in that direction?
It’s a subject that has always intrigued me. Who knows why, but it just does [laughs]. I love reading about religion and spirituality, and I find it endlessly fascinating. Even though the music on each of my five records is very, very different, the lyrics are very, very connected. I outlined five themes, and I stuck to them, and the idea was to at least have an idea of who I was at the end of the five. That was the point.