Post-'Sopranos,' Steven Van Zandt keeps on rockin'

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

7 January 2008


Steven Van Zandt balances a foot in two worlds: the record-setting music field and the drama arena. He was not only a veteran member and producer of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, he also costarred as the imperturbable Silvio on HBO’s series, “The Sopranos.”

Van Zandt says he sees similarities between Springsteen and David Chase, creator and executive producer of “The Sopranos.”

“They’re both crazy and uncompromising and singular in their visions,” he says. “And they both have been very, very inspirational to me. I’m proud to call both of them my friend. Whenever you sort of falter and you feel like, `Jeez, maybe I should compromise a little bit,’ you look at those guys, and it’s, like, straight up.

“They don’t care. They don’t do any marketing research. They’re not asking anybody’s opinions. They just have a vision, and they’re going to realize it. They’re just brilliant at that ...”

Van Zandt, and musicians like him, are the subjects of a series airing on VH1 Classic titled “The Seven Ages of Rock.” The program on Jan. 14 features stadium rock with such bands as Queen, U2 and the Police.

Bands often played differently when they expanded into large venues, Van Zandt says. “Now there are screens once you get to bigger places. Even in arenas now, most arena shows have screens, and of course, stadiums have screens. So in that sense, you don’t have to play `bigger’ because you’re playing to the camera, sort of.

“On the other hand, you have more room. You can move a bit ... some people prefer a bigger production when you’re at a bigger place. And we just never took that approach. We just kind of built that audience - one person at a time.”

Bands today aren’t able to fill those football-sized stadiums so easily as the groups of the `80s, says Van Zandt, who has produced and written songs for Brian Setzer, Ronnie Spector, Nancy Sinatra and Southside Johnny.

“We were able to do that and take your time in those days. And we could slowly see our crowd growing, and we felt like we knew everybody, all the way up to stadium level,” he says.

“Now if you have a couple hits and you’re a kid and all of a sudden you’re playing arenas, it’s got to be a little bit disorienting. But for us, it was just the most natural progression in the world, very slow, very organic, very natural. So I think that’s one reason why, unfortunately, you’re not seeing our generation being replaced right now. There’s a whole lot of reasons, but one reason is there’s no development.

“There’s no time for development, you know. We didn’t break till our fifth album or something. Most bands don’t. If you look back at everybody’s history, you’ll find - from Led Zeppelin to U2, you name it - most of the big albums are, like, fourth, fifth. Now if you get a second record you’re lucky.”

Van Zandt thinks music has revolved full circle. “Things are now back to rock `n’ roll co-existing with the rock-as-art-form era, which really did begin around `65, around `Like a Rolling Stone’ and Bob Dylan and the Stones and the Beatles all combining to create this more personal art form around that time.

“Rock `n’ roll was sort of, for a while, not particularly fashionable because of the evolutionary process. But I think now things have gone full circle. We now accept all of rock `n’ roll, I think, all 60 years of it, kind of equally.”

Van Zandt would like to simplify the rugged road to rock posterity. “It’s hard to make a living. We introduced 170 new bands in the last five years, and 20 of them or so are signed to major labels. The other 150 probably work during the week. And it wasn’t that much easier for us, but at least we had an infrastructure to be a part of. We knew if we made it (vee-jay) Mark Goodman was going to play us on MTV or you’re going to get played on the radio, you’re going to sell records. Those days are over. There’s no infrastructure to support new rock `n’ roll.”

That’s one reason Van Zandt, 57, started his nationally syndicated radio show, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” he says. “Just to sort of let people know there’s a whole bunch of really cool rock `n’ roll bands out there, but there’s no format to play them. So it starts with, I think, radio and record companies. Everybody has to sort of start thinking to the future ...”

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