Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man is on a rockin’ crusade

Little Steven Van Zandt has diagnosed America’s ills—and he has the prescription. “We have no great art to replenish ourselves,” he says. “Art is not a luxury. We’re the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury! There’s no spiritual nourishment going on right now. That comes from great art.”

Van Zandt is doing his part to get great art to the people who need it, through a dizzying variety of outlets. For almost eight years he has presided over the popular radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which is now bringing whip-cracking rock ’n’ roll new and old to stations all over North America and Europe. He signs promising new garage-rock acts to his Wicked Cool Records label, and is now expanding his empire to a social-networking site called Fuzztopia. He drew raves as an actor for his supporting role on TV’s acclaimed The Sopranos, plus he’s become an in-demand public speaker known for his razor-sharp analysis of the modern music industry.

Oh, and there’s also the day job Van Zandt’s held down off and on since 1975, as a key member of Bruce Springsteen’s juggernaut E Street Band. The Boss and company completed a massive two-year world tour in November that found the group playing at the top of its game and attracting record crowds, but also facing several tragic losses—most visibly the death in April 2008 of keyboardist Danny Frederici. We recently spoke with Van Zandt about the ups and downs of rock, radio and life on E Street.

Looking back, what are your feelings about the most recent E Street Band tour?

Creatively, artistically, in many ways we’re the best we ever were. It just kept getting better and better. It was a terrific tour, maybe the most fun ever. The business, for us, has shifted a little bit. For many years we were two-to-one bigger overseas, now we’re probably three-to-one. We did fine here, we have such great fans here, but overseas we’re bigger than we ever were. We’re bigger than Born in the U.S.A. big! I don’t really know why. It’s fascinating.

How did losing Danny affect the sound of the band?

That was not fun. Over the course of this last couple of tours we lost three very important people: Terry McGovern, who was Bruce’s personal [assistant]; obviously Danny; and we just lost Lenny [Sullivan], our road manager. That was three very, very big shocks. That was the downside of these past few years. Sound-wise, Charlie [Giordano, Frederici’s replacement] came into a very tough job. Danny’s an impossible act to follow for many reasons, but Charlie came in and did terrific. Musically, if you’re an organ aficionado and you really understand the details of what it takes to be an organ player, then you’re going to miss Danny, because nobody plays like him. Overall, musically it was OK—but emotionally that was difficult.

What guitars have you been playing onstage lately?

I mostly play Stratocasters. I also play a Rickenbacker 12-string—usually the Tom Petty model [the 660/12TP], which has a wider neck. I don’t know how Roger McGuinn from the Byrds and those old guys that played Rickenbackers did it. It’s very hard to fit your fingers on that neck. During the show I might play 10 different guitars, but mostly it’s the Stratocasters and the Rickenbacker.

Do you use a lot of effects?

No, I don’t. I use occasional delay, an occasional Leslie pedal, an occasional vibrato and a power boost, like a Fuzztone. That’s about it. I keep it simple.

The band has expanded quite a bit over the years—near the end of the tour there were 12 people onstage. How have you adjusted to that?

It’s an army, man! (laughs) It makes it even more versatile, musically. It’s not a rock ’n’ roll band, exactly—we’re an orchestra of a sort. It’s rock-based, certainly. A typical five-piece rock band absorbs all kinds of other genres, but when you have more instruments you can do that a little more literally. Instead of hinting at a classical influence or a country influence or whatever, you can go in that direction more explicitly. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve got nothing to prove as a rock band. We’ve always been a good rock band. Everybody knows that. It’s just another dimension, a bigger playground to play in.

How has the radio show evolved over the years?

The rest of radio has tightened up since we started. The oldies format has moved almost entirely into the ’70s, so we’re the only ones playing Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis now—in addition to being the only ones playing the Ramones and the Clash and a whole lot of the ’50s and ’60s stuff. Even the early British Invasion—we’re the only ones playing album cuts from the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks—and as far as I’m concerned that’s the best stuff. We’ll play The Who, but we’re not going to play “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” We’re gonna play “Pictures of Lily” or “The Good’s Gone,” something from the earlier days. Why play a song if some other format is playing it?

With all these interrelated ventures, have you been forced to learn more about being a businessman?

A bit, especially in these last three years. The music business is a combination of art and commerce but the commerce side has gotten kind of weird. It’s not something you can ignore because everybody wants to get their music to the people. You’ve got to say, “How is this business going to survive?” Because if the business doesn’t survive, then the art is going to have a harder time surviving. Great art isn’t made out of the kindness of people’s hearts. Sometimes great art is made for the most mercenary of reasons, including paying the rent! (laughs) These last 10 years have been rough, and it’s getting rougher.

How do you run the business side of things while on the road?

I work constantly on the road. You’re onstage for three hours, and there’s soundcheck and you’re in the air maybe for a few hours. The rest of the day I’m working on other projects. I’m listening to records, reading proposals, writing proposals, writing speeches, whatever I have to do. We’ve done the radio show from the road when we’ve had to. It doesn’t matter where you are, you can get a lot done. It helps if you love it, OK? If you really didn’t like what you were doing it would be difficult. My only frustration is that I don’t get the chance to do more.

– Chris Neal

Jan/Feb 2010 Issue of M Music & Musicians

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