Steven Van Zandt: Springsteen, the death of rock and Van Morrison on Covid

'Little' Steven Van Zandt talks to Richard Purden about Springsteen, the death of rock and why he believes in separating 'the art from the artist' - including Van Morrison and his views on Covid

Steven Van Zandt has had a varied career as a musician, actor and activist. Picture by Bjo?rn Olsson
Steven Van Zandt has had a varied career as a musician, actor and activist. Picture by Bjo?rn Olsson

STEVEN Van Zandt has enjoyed a varied career as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street band, as an actor in The Sopranos and as a political activist.

It was back in 1985 that 'Little Steven' invited Keith Richards and Ron Wood from the Rolling Stones along with the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to form United Artists Against Apartheid.

Am emerging Irish talent in the form of Bono was also asked to appear.

"We really chose people on the nature of their work," explains Van Zandt, "who by their nature were political and socially active, they all had to have some reason to be on it.

"We had people like Miles Davis, Gil Scott-Heron and we were all recording in the basement of John Lennon's house as there was a studio down there.

"Bono just happened to be in town and got into the looseness and the craziness of it all. In the end, we ended up with an artistically valid album which came from the single."

A live version of Sun City with Bruce Springsteen also appears on Summer Of Sorcery Live! At The Beacon Theatre with Van Zandt's touring band, The Disciples of Soul.

"My tours are more like Broadway shows", says Van Zandt, "every song has a purpose, I have connecting tissue in between the tracks.

"It's the opposite of an E-Street show which is spontaneous and constantly changing."

Van Zandt has enjoyed a long friendship with Springsteen since the age of 15. But how does the relationship change when Little Steven is the one in charge?

"It's not really very different. It's happening with my songs instead of his, he's coming into my world, so it's obviously whatever I've chosen to do - but it's not really an 'I'm the Boss now' kind of thing," he says.

"We've been friends so long we don't need to categorise or formalise everything."

Van Zandt's rock n' roll radio programme, Little Steven's Underground Garage, was first broadcast in 2003 and has continued to grow in popularity around the globe ever since.

As well as writing, presenting and producing content he also organised Teach Rock, a free music curriculum for schools.

If that's not enough he also formed his label Wicked Cool Records. No one could argue against his point: "I've done my bit to make sure rock doesn't die."

But what does he make of Kiss man Gene Simmons's insistence that rock is already dead.

"He's not wrong," says Van Zandt. "We're not mainstream any more and we most likely never will be again.

"But perhaps we shouldn't have been in the first place. We're more like a cult these days which frankly is maybe where we belong.

"The fact that we ruled the airwaves for 30 years was an anomaly, a mistake. I clock it from Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone to the death of Kurt Cobain, which is almost exactly 30 years."

Steven Van Zandt's latest release Summer Of Sorcery Live! At The Beacon Theatre is out today
Steven Van Zandt's latest release Summer Of Sorcery Live! At The Beacon Theatre is out today

Perhaps those on this side of the Atlantic might suggest it ended with the release of the Oasis debut Definitely Maybe. Why did the Irish-derived five-piece from a council estate in Manchester not catch the attention of American audiences in the same way?

"It's a good question. We've always played them and they have great records. A lot of tension in a band is not an unusual thing but can you keep it together with that tension going on?

"The Stones are still going," he laughs. "They are sort of the ultimate template. I don't know their situation but usually, when somebody has success or not, the management is a factor."

The E-Street band haven't played in Ireland for over five years. Are there any plans to return to Europe or is the extended live break likely to continue due to the current pandemic?

"It's really hard when you look at the world to finally say it's safe, especially with this new Delta strain.

"I'm not worried about us - we've had the vaccine - but most of the world is not vaccinated yet.

"In America, we have another problem, where 40 per cent of the country are saying they don't want to be vaccinated."

He adds that 40 per cent also don't believe Joe Biden is a "legitimate president" while referring to Trump as "Satan": "He and Benjamin Netanyahu can share a cell as far as I'm concerned and until that happens we have a problem."

Biden has spoken about the importance of his Irish Catholic background and he's a popular figure on E-Street, but at the same time Van Zandt voices his concern.

"Biden comes from the working class, he has that mentality - the problem is he comes from a place of compromise and old school politics where everybody got along," he says.

"Yes, you would have opposing parties, but everyone went out drinking together after (the election), which is how it was I believe.

"Tragically, he's the right guy at the wrong time; he comes in with bipartisanship on his mind and nothing is going to change or get done.

"He has done a great job with the vaccine distribution but that could be the last thing that gets done, we got rid of Satan but that was it."

With sexual misconduct allegations in the music industry among well-known figures such as Marilyn Manson and Alt-country troubadour Ryan Adams, artists are now being dropped as part of the Me Too movement. What does Van Zandt make of these artists being cancelled?

"One of my favourite sayings is, 'You must separate the art from the artist'," he says.

"I've been talking about this my whole life because if you dig deep enough into any artist you are going to find problems. The art is more important than the artist - we need the art, and who makes it shouldn't be relevant because it's too important."

"Most artists are a**holes - I know, I am one and I can say this with great confidence," he laughs.

"Are we going to start writing off Picasso? He was a jerk. And what about Beethoven?

"There's probably a lot of mediocre artists who were very pleasant guys to get along with, but we can't limit ourselves like that - the art is too precious, rare and essential for us to start cancelling."

Little Steven also mentions Covid sceptic Van Morrison, who was joined on stage in Belfast's Europa Hotel by Ian Paisley to harangue health minister Robin Swann, and who has been described by the Independent as a "toxic menace" for his pandemic views.

Morrison's collaborator Eric Clapton has also made headlines after expressing anti-vaccine views.

"Van and Eric are in the news at the moment and I couldn't care less - they've given us enough gifts in their lives," says Van Zandt.

"We owe Van - I mean, Astral Weeks, right the way through, and we owe Eric because these guys are brilliant, brilliant artists and if they go off in a political direction that we don't like then they are free to do that... we need the art."

Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul Summer Of Sorcery Live! At The Beacon Theatre is released today as a three-CD box-set, five-LP vinyl box-set and a Blu-ray disc.