Penthouse Retrospective

by Rick Petreycik Originally Published: October, 2000

Steve Van Zandt | 20 Years Ago This Month

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Europe, where there’s not one rock [radio] station left. None. It’s all pop. You can’t hear the Rolling Stones. You can’t hear the Beatles. Forget about anything new. It doesn’t exist. And yet there are millions of rock fans over there, as we know. Very strange. Very strange. Here it’s not that bad, but it’s not that great, either, [especially] since the deejays lost the freedom to play what they wanted to play and. to talk about the records and supply what I call “the educational component.” All of the great deejays, like Scott Muni, have either been unceremoniously retired or they quit because they didn’t want to be handed [a list of] what ten songs they were going to play. It’s a terrible thing, because I love radio and I miss it-miss it in that sense.

What’s your songwriting process like?

I knew I wanted to make political records, and I knew they were going to be conceptual. So I outlined the themes for all five: the individual, the family, the state, economics, and religion. I would then find the album title that would best reflect the theme of the record. Then I’d come up with the individual song titles. Next, I’d divide the album into sub-themes — some general and some specific. Then I’d write the choruses of the songs, and then flesh out the rest of the lyrics. I would usually write the songs in order as they appear on the record. And I’d usually write on the road while I was on tour.

How did you get your part in The Sopranos?

It’s an odd story [laughs heartily and lights up a cigarette]. One of my best friends is a guy named Frank Barsalona. He’s a legendary figure in rock ‘n’ roll and was the first guy to start a purely rock-’n’-roll agency. He represented almost everybody. He booked the Beatles, and today he’s Bruce’s agent. He’s also on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So every year he’d come back from the Hall of Fame [induction] meeting and I’d ask, “Did the Rascals get in?” And every year he’d say, “No. They don’t wanna let the Rascals in.” Finally, about five years ago I said, “Frankie, don’t come back from one more meeting and tell me the Rascals aren’t getting in, because this is ridiculous, and if there’s a problem, I want you to arrange a special meeting of the board, and I wanna come in and state the case for the Rascals.” Anyway, he made the case for the Rascals and they finally got in. So then he says to me, “Why don’t you induct them?” And I said, “No way. Are you kidding? That’s a fucking insult. I’m nobody here. They’re one of the greatest groups ever. Get somebody famous.” So months go by and I kept saying no, but finally-although reluctantly — I said okay. I decided to do this little three or four minute comedy monologue, bringing them in.

Meanwhile, in California, David Chase is creating a new TV show, and he wants New Jersey to be part of its identity and he’s looking for new faces. He wanted fairly unfamiliar actors to be in it. Anyway, the night of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony, which was being televised for the first time, he’s clicking around with his remote and he sees a photo montage of the Rascals and says, “Oh, the Rascals.” He happens to be from New Jersey and happens to be a huge Rascals fan. He also knew of the E Street Band and even knew my solo works, and then on I come and do my thing, and he says, “I want him for the show.” So he tells Georgianne Walken, the casting person for The Sopranos, to find me, which wasn’t easy to do. I had no record company, no publicist, and no agent. I had no connection to the entertainment world whatsoever.

Anyway, she finds me through the corporate pages of the Solidarity Foundation, and a friend of mine named Doc, who runs Solidarity along with another friend named Alex, calls me up and says, “Somebody called and wants you to be on a TV show.” And I said, “Yeah, right.” [Laughs] Just what I wanna do, you know? I said, “Tell them to send a script.” So I forgot about it. But then Doc calls the next day. Oddly enough, he read the script, which is a very strange thing to have happened because he’s extremely busy. [Laughs hysterically] He and Alex have been working on an encyclopedia on Native Americans, so they’re busy all the time. So he says, “This is really good. You gotta read it! You gotta read it!” So he kept on bugging me, and I said, “All right, I’ll read it.” And it was good, obviously.

But you start to wonder about destiny. You really do. I happened to get the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I happened to induct them. It happened to be the first time it was televised. David Chase happened to be clicking around. He happened to be a fan of the Rascals. He happened to be doing a show about New Jersey. I was like, “Whoa!”

Was it difficult to make the transition to being an actor?

You basically have two or three things going on here. First of all, there’s the craft itself, which is obviously something I had to just jump in and learn as I went. But, for whatever reason, I felt I could transform myself into this other guy. I was a fan of the genre and I had a picture of who this guy was. The learning process, of course, is just beginning and will go on forever.

But the actual acting process took some getting used to. I’m used to the artistic process being a little more in my own control. For example, when you make a record, you walk into a room, sing a song, come back in the booth, and listen to it. If you want to make some changes, you go back in and make them. With the acting process, you walk into a room, you act, and then you see it six months later [laughs]. You’re totally dependent on the director, and, to some extent, on the other actors. “How’d I do?” you know. “How was I?” But it was an uncomfortable feeling, because I thought to myself, “Well, this is a director’s medium, but how do they know what I can do?” You know what I mean? How do they know if it’s the best I can be? They can’t know that. All they can know is if it’s what they need. If it works for them, it’s gotta work for you. So I had to let go of that whole control thing.

Why has The Sopranos been so successful?

I think people relate to the situations and the general premise of the show, which is, everybody has two families — your family at work and your family at home — and nobody has enough time these days for either one. You have problems in both families that run into each other. The problems at work sometimes are carried home, and vice versa. And I think everybody goes through that sort of juggling act.

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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