Penthouse Retrospective

by Rick Petreycik Originally Published: October, 2000

Steve Van Zandt | 20 Years Ago This Month

But I left religion till last because I knew it would be the most personal and the most complex. [Born Again Savage is] the most subtle, politically, even though all five records are political records. It deals with the political consequence of spiritual bankruptcy. But, lyrically speaking, it’s a little more gray than my typical political records. I try not to be rhetorical, but when it comes to politics, my lyrics tend to be a little more black and white because there’s a more easily defined right and wrong. Religion is not so clear. It’s a little more complicated.

In terms of spirituality or religion, what do you embrace?

I tend to focus on the common ground among all the religions. I take what I feel works for me, wherever I find it. I feel probably closest to some of the more primal religions — Taoism, some Buddhism, some Hindu, some American Indian. And essentially my religious beliefs come down to two things, which I learned in science class in the fifth grade [laughs]: All matter is in motion, and for every action there is a reaction. All matter is in motion means everything is alive. For every action there is a reaction means everything is connected. Those two things are the essence of my spiritual beliefs. As I say on the record, I don’t think religion is something that can be inherited from your parents. I think it’s a very personal thing that one needs to work at and think about. You have to dig deep inside, look around, and do some research. I think it would be helpful if the organized religions spent more time on the common ground rather than on our differences. It’s all the same: Be good to each other and respect each other.

When and how did you hook up with Bruce Springsteen?

It was around 1965 and we were on a circuit. The baby-boom thing was just peaking, and there were a whole lot of 14-, 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old kids, and a whole new teenage culture was being built around them in the form of beach clubs and teenage nightclubs. One of them was the Hullabaloo chain of clubs, named after the [sixties] weekly television show. Anyway, there were three Hullabaloo clubs in New Jersey — oddly enough, in Middletown, where I was from; in Freehold, where Bruce was from; and in Asbury Park. They formed this sort of triangle of a circuit, and Bruce and I just ran into each other. If you had long hair in those days, you were friends. If you were in a band, you were friends. If you had both long hair and were in a band, you were best friends. And we’ve been best friends ever since.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were at the height of their popularity in the early 1980s, yet you bowed out to pursue a solo career. What prompted that gutsy move?

I felt I’d spent my whole life playing rock ‘n’ roll and trying to make it, which was an impossible journey. And then suddenly you’re there! I just had this need-this desire-to learn about myself and what was going on in the world. I didn’t feel like I knew very much.

And we were very successful at that moment, and that allowed me the luxury to think. And I became obsessed with politics. It was like an enlightenment. Everything we do is political. If you’re marching in a demonstration, that’s obviously a political act. If you stay home, that’s also a political act because you’re endorsing the status quo. And that kind of thinking was like a revelation to me, and so I started looking into U.S. foreign policy, and was shocked at what I found. I felt I needed to talk about the fact that we were not supporting democracy all over the world like we said we were. We were, in fact, supporting a lot of bad people, and these bad people are like vampires that can only live in the dark. I wanted to bring that into the light and let people know what was going on, because that was the only way to stop them.

Your passion for getting to the bottom of some of these issues took you to dangerous, strife-ridden places, such as South Africa, Nicaragua, and Central America. That must have been pretty intense.

Yeah, it was. [But] I was literally obsessed. I was on a mission. I didn’t care if I lived or died. I was just totally into seeking the truth. I felt it was my patriotic duty to do something, because I love America. I love the ideals we were created around. But we haven’t lived up to those ideals, and we haven’t fulfilled the promise of America yet. It was that kind of thinking that got me going. The eighties happened to be an interesting period, because there was a lot going on. I had a list of 15 or 16 countries that the United States was actively involved in — and on the wrong side. There were another 30 or 40 issues in which we were marginally involved on the wrong side. Plus there were 45 wars going on — from Haiti to the Philippines to Morocco to South Africa and all through Central America and South America. And we were usually on the wrong side of the struggle. So there was a lot to discover. And a lot to talk about.

What’s your take on today’s music?

I personally think the pop music of the sixties was extraordinary and shall never be matched. But since the sixties, pop music for me has pretty much lost its artistic and emotional significance. It’s pretty much become wallpaper and background music and stuff that’s rather thin and temporary-something for teenagers to enjoy for a year or two and then move on to the next group. The balance between what was pop and what was rock has now shifted radically, and rock music in general is under siege. It’s actually being eliminated, and to me that’s very serious. I don’t have any problem with pop music. But when it’s almost exclusively pop music, I think we’re way out of balance. Rock music was-and is-an art form. And we don’t have that many art forms, so to have one stolen from us-which is what’s happening-is a very serious issue.

Maybe telling Bruce Springsteen he'd rather try it off on his own prepared Steve Van Zandt for dealing with Tony Soprano. Who knows? When you live and die by your own decisions, you’d better be tough.

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