Penthouse Retrospective

by Rick Petreycik Originally Published: October, 2000

Steve Van Zandt | 20 Years Ago This Month

Of course, it’s made a little more dramatic by [Tony Soprano’s] type of work, but if it was just a mob show, I don’t think it would be as successful. I certainly think the whole mob thing is a standard American genre now, so there’s that familiarity, which creates a nice comfortable context for people to kind of know the world. We’re able to take that familiarity and show you a bunch of stuff that you weren’t familiar with, without necessarily having to explain the basics. And you know the basics. [Laughs] These guys do some bookmaking; they do some of this, they do some of that. You already know that stuff. Now let’s show you their emotional conflicts. Let’s show you their thoughts. Let’s show you their personal problems and their home lives. It’s familiar and detailed and relatable in the broad sense because it reflects something in everybody’s life.

Do you like the characters in The Sopranos? Is there something heroic about them?

No. There’s nothing heroic about them. I think we go to great pains and great effort [on The Sopranos] to not romanticize these people. I think if you’re watching the show and you want to join the Mafia, you need a psychiatrist [laughs]. It’s nothing but trouble. Tony Soprano has nothing but problems. At work. At home. You name it. So I don’t think they’re particularly heroic. I think they’re very, very normal in their own way. They just happened to grow up in that gangster environment, and, for them, getting into that line of work is as normal as a cop’s son becoming a cop. It probably wasn’t even so much a career choice for them, either. It was just inevitable. I think the moral issues that arise from their work are often talked about in the show, which is great, because there are plenty of moral choices — even in the context of that particular world. I think one of the points of the show, too, is that this world is not as isolated as it used to be. I think in the old days it was more of an alien, isolated island within society. It’s not so much like that now, and I think we show that, for example, through interaction — like at their kids’ soccer games. It’s like the line between straight society and the gangster society is a bit more blurred now.

Do you see any similarities between Silvio and Little Steven?

There’s only one thing I can think of: Neither of us relates particularly well to modern culture. We live in different eras. I remain in the sixties, and he’s probably more in the forties or fifties. Maybe even the thirties. But we both tend to be throwbacks — people who live very much in the past in terms of things we like and things we relate to. He’s probably a little more nostalgic than I am. I think he, as well as Tony Soprano, feel they really did miss the good old days, to some extent.

I’ve experienced that a little bit less, although certainly in 1972 I felt very much that I had missed the renaissance of the sixties, which I did, even though I was there. But I certainly didn’t participate in it and I quit playing at that point. I just said, “It’s done. It’s over. Everything great has been done.” I wasn’t that far off [laughs]. I don’t know if I’d want it to be the sixties again. I don’t have a particularly romantic vision of it all. I think it was the most significant decade maybe ever. One of them, certainly. But I don’t have any great need to go back and relive it. I’m living the parts of it that I want to live now, whereas Silvio and Tony and those guys are probably a little more nostalgic.

Do you like acting?

I like acting on this show. I like this character. I understand him. I love these writers. I love these producers. I love working with HBO. And I love the working environment that we’ve created with this group of actors.

How do you balance all your commitments?

It’s not too bad. Last year was a little tricky because we did the [Springsteen] tour and the second season of The Sopranos simultaneously. So I had to fly back every day off, and the Sopranos production people were kind enough to schedule my scenes on days off from the tour, which was great. This year, the tour ends before the third season begins, so that’s not a problem.

What’s suffering a little bit is my very important hobby [laughs], which is my work. Born Again Savage is the first album I’ve ever put out without a tour. And I’m limited in my ability to even promote it, plus I’m also limited by the fact that it’s on my own label, Renegade Nation. It’s extremely difficult for a little independent label to succeed these days. But at least I got it out, and I’m very proud of it. In the meantime, my two jobs come first. I love both of them.

How does it feel to be back on the road with Bruce and the band?

It’s great. It’s a wonderful thing and really an honor to play with this band. I think we’re one of the best bands in history. And it’s more fun than ever now that we have not only the original band but also the two people that replaced me when I left — Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa. That just makes it even better. We have a unique interaction with each other and a unique sound and these great, great songs. And equally enjoyable is reconnecting with this audience, which is the most loyal in the world. But I think we’re out there doing something that’s actually important, you know? We made sure, as much as we could, that the shows would be very much in the present tense. In an era in which there’s this shortening attention span and nobody has time for anything because they’re running around, we stop time for three hours a night. We communicate community; for three hours, each arena is a community.

Is there a chance of a new Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band studio album?

I certainly think there’s a good chance of that. I don’t know when. We haven’t really talked about it, but one has to assume that it’s an inevitable step in this permanent reunion, which I think it is. So I think sometime in the next year or two, that’ll probably happen.

It sounds like you’re on a roll with all of your pursuits. What keeps you going?

I’ve never stopped loving music. When I was growing up, music was not only enjoyable, it was essential. Rock ‘n’ roll is my religion, essentially. And I think there’s a war going on to exterminate it. So there’s a lot to do right now in terms of making sure that this important art form survives. I’m still passionate about it, as you can hear in my latest album. And if you’ve seen us onstage, I haven’t changed one bit since I was 15 years old. I walk onstage, planning on doing the best show anyone’s ever seen — every night. I walk into a recording studio, planning on making the best record anyone’s ever heard — [laughs] certainly the best I’m capable of. And now — much to my surprise — I’ve found a new thing to be excited about with this acting thing. And I’m not sure where it will go — if anywhere. But I’m absolutely passionate about acting in The Sopranos. It’s a fantastic new experience, and participating in a whole new art form is nothing but fun. As long as The Sopranos lasts, man, I’m gonna love every minute of it.


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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