Little Steven Van Zandt has spent half a life time fighting injustice. Often this has led the New Jersey-raised 68 year old to create overtly political music, the most famous being Sun City, the 1985 song which shone a light on an infamous South African resort and played its part on leading the world-wide movement to denounce and ultimately defeat apartheid.
On a more personal level he has also been fighting injustice in trying to help veteran artists find a way back to the spotlight, a spotlight he believes they deserve.
With his childhood friend Bruce Springsteen, he produced two hit albums for Gary US Bonds. He also was behind a musical/concert celebrating the career of and featuring his childhood heroes The Young Rascals. For much of this century Van Zandt work has been acting in two hit television series, The Sopranos and Lilyhammer but in 2014 he moved back to his first love when he began working on an album for Darlene Love. Introducing Darlene Love was the improbable debut album from a five-decade veteran whose career reached back to 1962 and her uncredited lead vocal on the Phil Spector-produced He’s a Rebel by The Crystals.
After completing the album, they launched it in September 2015 with a concert at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Van Zandt was her musical director and as well as arranging all the material for the show he also performed a few of his own songs. While he looked at home standing in Love’s shadows in much the same way he has all these years as the goofy, guitar slinging offsider to Bruce Springsteen, when he had his moment to shine he revelled in the attention.
When asked if this was the moment he realised it was time to head back to the day job, he paused to consider the question and replied, “Well I hadn’t thought about it, but it was probably the first time I revisited my music in many, many years.”
In 2016 Van Zandt was contacted by the organisers of the London Bluesfest who asked if he would put together a band and play the festival.
“It took a promoter in London to really drive it home, to make it obvious that I should go back to my own music. That [the Love show] was a little taste of it there wasn’t it. Maybe that did plant the seed.”
“My natural inclination is to be in the background really. Over the years I got used to being the front man in the ‘80s. I think I got quite good at it, but my natural inclination is to be more of the producer role or the arranger role or band leader role. It gives you a front row seat for the show and it tends to be a little more fun because you have a little more time. The girl or guy on the spotlight, they have to do all the work. I am comfortable both ways these days.”
While working up the set for those London shows he decided he would choose a range of songs he had written during his initial Little Steven phase (1982-1990) as well as many he had written for his other Asbury Park buddy Southside Johnny, and mix them with some covers from the likes of James Brown, The Electric Flag and Marvin Gaye. The experience enthused Van Zandt so that soon after he was back in the studio working on his first album in well more than a decade.
In 2017 he released Soulfire, an album that captures his love of the intersection between rock, soul and blues. He went out on the road with a 15-piece band and has pretty much kept at it since. A live release Soulfire Live followed last year. In recent months he has recorded a new album Summer Of Sorcery, which will see its release early next month.
Van Zandt has decided that his first Australian tour, which kicks off on Saturday at Perth’s Metro City, will be the end of the Soulfire tour rather than the beginning of the Summer Of Sorcery tour. He reasons that he did not want to present a lot of new music to people who have not had the chance to hear it yet and instead will present his band and the Soulfire show in its well-drilled glory.
“You will hear my roots and influences in there and I am quite proud of them and wear them on my sleeve. You’ll hear a little Sly And The Family Stone here, a little Sam Cooke there, a little Tito Puente, a little James Brown, a Little Van Morrison, they are all in there and you will be able to pick them out.”
He realises that many people may be coming to the show because of his connection to the mafia or Bruce Springsteen and not be too familiar with his material. He laughed that he is confident he has at least one song everyone will know like their own name. In 1985 the newly solo Jimmy Barnes had had a hit with Van Zandt’s Ride The Night Away but had no idea how iconic a song it was in this part of the world until he came here.
“It’ll be the one song people know,” he said with a big cackle. “I’m used to playing places where people know none of the songs. It’s going to be wonderful to have people know a song. The song was written to order with their mutual friend Steve Jordan who had promised Barnes a song for what would become his debut album For The Working Class Man and insisted Van Zandt supply it. He rates it as one of his best songs. A few years after Barnes’ version, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes included it on their Van Zandt-produced album Better Days.
Like the three previous albums Van Zandt and the Jukes had worked on, they were reviewed much more impressively than they sold. Little Steven’s debut album Men Without Women, which has come to be seen as his masterpiece, suffered a similar fate.
He admits to a feeling of frustration, in creating work, as artist or writer and producer, that by any measure has undeniable quality but it cannot not find a sizable audience.
Upon reflection Van Zandt sees that the reason now is obvious. “I didn’t have a manager. That’s really the key to who succeeds and who doesn’t. I firmly believe that. If you don’t have a manager to go out there and be your advocate, to sell you, you are gonna have a tough time. I don’t care who you are. I think that’s true going all the way back.”
All the biggest acts in the world had a manager that you could name. Whether it be Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, U2, Led Zeppelin or The Jackson 5, any music fan could instantly name the driving force behind them.
“That is not a coincidence nor is it an accident. It is absolutely why you know them. That was my problem and it’s been the problem of my life really. I never had that business partner where I could take care of the art and they could take care of the business. It’s been the one big problem of my life and continues to be to some extent, honestly. It’s my destiny and you just go with it after a while.”
On the other hand, it may be hard to talk around somebody who, say, has never had a hit under their own name taking a 15-piece band on the road on the other side of the world.
That laughed roared down the line again. “Exactly. That’s why I don’t have one, they would be trying to talk me out of everything I do.” This is clearly not a new problem. He did have representation while working out of Hollywood during the seven-season run of The Sopranos. He followed that beacon of TV history with Lilyhammer, a small production that was not even in English. My agent at the time, said to me, “you were part of the biggest TV show in the world, the most respected show and you are going to go do a local Norwegian TV show? Are you out of your fucking mind?”
Van Zandt was packing his winter coat before he could answer.
With Summer Of Sorcery due for release, much of the rest of this year is spoken for with extensive US and European tours. Beyond that he is not sure. He does not describe himself as a workaholic but rather thinks that he is simply someone who works hard but who is also always willing to take a chance on a project that appears interesting. His weekly radio programme Little Steven’s Underground Garage (heard in Australia on Triple M Classic Rock) is still rolling along after 17 years. He would like to get back to some more acting and says he is currently looking at five completed scripts and has 25 treatments to consider.
“I wanted to take a couple of years to reconnect to my own music. Which I have done and by the end of this year it will be two and half years. That’s a solid time and a good bit of work. It’s been a very productive couple of years really. You have to find five or six months to do a TV show. That’s not counting pre-production or post production. It takes about two weeks per show. Even if you are only doing 10 episodes it’s hard to find that time but I will eventually.
“If Bruce doesn’t want to go out next year, I may do a TV show.”
And how much notice will he get if Bruce is keen to gather the members of the mighty E Street Band to make some more magic?
“Almost none,” he explained, making it clear this is hunch and guess work territory. “It feels like the right year to go back to work because it has been a couple of years off [for Springsteen], but we’ll see. I’m stopping this tour around November 6 just in case he wants to go into the studio and do a new album and have it out for the summer of 2020. But you never know, he may not and in that case, I will look for a TV show or something. We’ll see, we’ll all find out together.”
Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul play Metro City this Saturday, April 13. Tickets are $66.67 from Megatix.com.au.
Support comes from Little Steven’s good friend Dom Mariani and Datura 4. Datura 4 are on at 8pm and Steven And The Disciples Of Soul hit the stage at 9.