Steven Van Zandt: ‘Unrequited Infatuations’

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Musician and actor Steven Van Zandt. Photo by Kirsti Hovde.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes musician and actor Steven Van Zandt. Van Zandt is a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band as well as an actor best known for his role as Silvio Dante on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” His new memoir is “Unrequited Infatuations.” Van Zandt tells The Treatment that writing the memoir gave him a new perspective on the music that Springsteen and the band were creating decades ago. He says he was fortunate to be at HBO for the start of the groundbreaking series and at Netflix as the streaming giant began creating original content. And he talks about arguing with David Chase about that final song on “The Sopranos.”

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is musician, actor, author Stevie Van Zandt, whose book is "Unrequited Infatuations." What's so great about the book is that your interest in social justice comes in in so many interesting places. 

Steve Van Zandt: Yeah, I think it just became part of the DNA of the art form once Bob Dylan introduced the idea. I actually mentioned exactly the moment he did introduce the idea in the first two lines of "Subterranean Homesick Blues."  It was a new kind of idea to bring the consciousness of country, blues and folk music to the pop idiom, which was soon to become the rock idiom. 

KCRW: One of the things that’s so much fun about the book is there's so much excitement in it.

Van Zandt: I'm glad I'm passing that along, because it's important that somebody provide a little bit of enthusiasm these days because I just think life has become insufferably boring. I don't know how we got this boring, Elvis. I may be a bit extreme because everyday is 1967 to me, but it's boring out there. And I don't know why we tolerate it. Everybody just seems to accept this boredom as inevitable. I'm gonna do everything I can to try and stimulate a little enthusiasm, if I can do it.

KCRW: Part of it is that maybe there's not much that's new anymore. And you were fortunate that you came up through a period where there was new all the time. 

Van Zandt: Yeah, I really cannot over exaggerate that. We grew up in a renaissance, in the true sense of the word. It just really was exciting every single day. You knew tomorrow was going to be more exciting than today. And you know, when the greatest art being made is also the most commercial, you're in a renaissance. And that's what was going on, man. You can measure it from wherever you want to, but basically the '50s '60s and ‘70s, it was a time of great invention and celebration. In spite of all of the protests and civil rights and women's rights and Vietnam, and assassinations, and you name it, we still had the music, and very few other things to do. So the music was such an important part of our lives back then. And it was just fantastic. 

KCRW: The book even opens, in fact, with a bit of intrigue, doesn't it?

Van Zandt: Yeah, I wanted to make it clear, right from the beginning, this is not going to be just a music book for music people, and there's plenty of that. Really, the whole first half of the book is: that kid from New Jersey makes it to the top and rock and roll, and that's a good story. I don't take that for granted. But I wanted to make it more than that. I wanted to make it like a detective novel, like a Dan Brown book, where you don't know what's coming next because I didn't know what was coming next in my life.

I mean, the first half of the book, it's pretty linear, but once I leave the E Street Band, man, it's a whole different trip. And I'm starting from scratch, there's no plan. I didn't just change jobs; my life ended. After 15 years of work, it was over. And now I'm looking out into the abyss. And that's where things get interesting, and the bigger themes start to emerge that I think are more universal than just show business themes or music themes. It becomes a search for purpose in life, a search for identity, a search for spiritual enlightenment and bigger things, and I think that's when it becomes a bit more of a general and hopefully useful book.

KCRW: The book is almost calculated like a really great night of one of those legendary three hour E Street Band concerts that happen to be opened by the Jukes, and you're in both bands. But the book feels like it's structured to be almost like an evening of keeping an audience engaged and alert.

Van Zandt: It's one of those things that you realize, as I'm writing this thing, I realize most of what I'm saying no longer exists. And you say to yourself, Man, how can I make this thing relevant because literally, almost everything I'm talking about no longer exists? But when it comes to the craft, well, the history is the history. That's always kind of useful. The craft stuff, though: that doesn't change much. And the concept of craft, which may be in danger these days, just as the concept of greatness is in danger. But those things don't actually change. They may be being ignored; they may be diluted to the point of mediocrity at the moment. But they actually don't change.

Greatness isn't born. Greatness is earned; greatness is developed. And we got a real problem with development in this modern world. And I'm not sure how that's going to change. This generation, man, with so many distractions, you know, at some point, they gotta shut all these distractions off and have the discipline to do it. Or else, I'm not sure how we're going to aspire to greatness in the future.

KCRW: It really is a book about the ambition to find something greater and passion that goes hand in hand with generosity, because who and what you are is because you're just so generous, you couldn't keep your opinions to yourself, but you also couldn't keep your passion to yourself.

Van Zandt: I think it's just a matter of getting something done, you know, let's stop talking and start doing.

KCRW: You're all doing. You could have written this entire book about the first three Springsteen records and that jump from "Born to Run" to "Darkness at the Edge of Town." Those first three records are so different. And "Darkness" is the proto Bruce record that you don't have "Nebraska," without "Darkness on the Edge of Town."

Van Zandt: And I swear Elvis, I never really analyzed it till I wrote this book. At the time, I was just like, let's make great records. That's all I was concerned with. Because we were having trouble making great records, capturing a live sound on record. It took us five hours to do it. That's all I was concerned with. That's all I could think about. I didn't analyze it until six months ago. And I was like, wow, now I understand what was going on back then, and I didn't all these years. 

KCRW: That's crazy because when I heard "Nebraska," I thought, Well, this is what "Darkness" was reaching at. The DNA of that record can be found basically in every great Springsteen record after that.

Van Zandt: That's right. That's why I recognized that right away when I heard "Nebraska," I was like, Man, this ain't no demo. I'm sorry. This has got to come out. It's just completely unique in that you're never gonna find something more intimate than an artist doing something that he believes no one will ever hear. That's when you're gonna get intimate, man.

KCRW: You can see the influence of the movies on him probably more than any other major American recording artist.

Van Zandt: I think that's right. That's what John Landau meant when he said, I see the future of rock and roll. Because here comes an artist that is including all the other art forms, and that was new. And pretty unique even to this day. It doesn't happen a whole lot. It didn't occur to me at the time, but looking back now I can see very clearly, this was a tremendous transformation going on, and not only within him and finding his identity, which completely changed for "Born to Run" and then completely changed again to "Darkness," And he's now stayed in that "Darkness" thing ever since. But, in trying to encapsulate, trying to use all the other art forms in the music, that was new. 

KCRW: What's so much fun about the book is that you'd have the ability to see the whole picture, but also this almost cosmic boredom with the status quo. I mean, you could have stayed in any of these situations you were in and done very well for yourself and just spent the rest of your life telling stories about that. But you can't not say what you're thinking. And that's what, to some extent, ended your career with the band and also when you're meeting with Ted Sarandos, and you're telling him: who's gonna binge a TV show? And he just says to you, don't you listen to a record in one sitting? Bingo!

Van Zandt: Yeah, he caught me, man. What a wonderful cat. I mean, can you imagine? At that point, their stock was falling, they had done some dumb business thing, and they're about to start making content. And the first thing he picks is something with subtitles from Norway. However much money he has, at this point, he totally deserves. Executives don't have that kind of courage. When the entire business is depending on this new content idea, "Lillehammer" was about to be the first one. And he's gonna do it with subtitles? A local show from Norway? Man, I got nothing but respect for that guy.

KCRW: So much of the book is about this compass that you have that led you to all these people, that sometimes relationships worked out for the best and sometimes they didn't. But still, you learn from them and you got stuff out of them. You just, in one way or another, find yourself bouncing into these people who live life as passionately as you do.

Van Zandt: This Zelig kind of life. I happened to be at HBO, at the most important moment with "Sopranos," one of the most important moments in television history, changing television, for sure. I happened to be at Netflix, when it changes again, the next major change of TV. I happened to be at Sirius, brought the first two original formats to Sirius Satellite. They didn't know what to do with it. 

It wasn't like I sat down: I'm gonna plan this, I'm gonna be innovative here. I'm gonna make sure I'm in the right place at the right time. I wish I was that smart. But I just happened to be there. And I guess you just gotta stay a little bit flexible in this world and get ready to play whatever cards you're dealt.

KCRW: There's such a restlessness in you as a person, that even if you owned the yellow brick road, you might think, Well wait, what's that over there that's not so shiny? And in fact, you've been on the yellow brick road a number of times. So you can chalk it up to being circumstantial, but the fact is that you are driven to find something that's not what other people are looking at.

Van Zandt: I think that's really one of the main themes of the book that I hope is universal. We are all searching for purpose in life, searching for that identity that keeps on evolving, searching for some kind of spiritual enlightenment, where we feel like okay, this is why I'm here. I think that's something that we all feel at some point. Maybe some of us aren't lucky enough to be able to act on it. That's why I keep saying how lucky I am to be able to act on these impulses and try and do something about it. 

I'm very results oriented, and that comes from, I think, my ADD, which I had long before it was fashionable. I just don't have a lot of patience. And I've come to understand the other side of the story, the inch by inch sort of accomplishment that some people deal with in the political world. We're gonna have these slow improvements imperceptible almost, and I understand that that has its purpose also, but I can't do it. I cannot do it. It is too slow. I can't wait for the contracts to get done. I can't wait for the lawyers. If I'm waiting for a lawyer, I'd still be in Asbury Park.

KCRW: We have to talk a little bit about "Not Fade Away." When I saw that movie, it was thrilling to me to hear the song "Pretty Ballerina." Go ahead and talk about your role in that movie.

Van Zandt: The band in the movie had to kind of evolve throughout the film. The band is just getting started to almost getting signed, and that was so much fun. We had to teach the actors how to play the instruments, and they never really sung before. And it was miraculous what we pulled off in four or five months. 

David [Chase] just loves doing music more than anything else. He'd be happy just doing that. We had the longest, friendly argument for that last song of "Sopranos." I don't know if you guys talked about that or not?

KCRW: No, this is the point for you to bring it up. 

Van Zandt: Cuz we had the reputation as the coolest show ever. There were these obscure Otis Redding songs and obscure Kinks things, and Johnny Thunder, just interesting, interesting choices on the music that David had made, and he wants to end the show with a song from Journey. 

Now, I got nothing against Journey. They're terrific, fantastic, one of the great singers of all time. But, you know, it wasn't special, and so I suggested three or four things, one of which was "Pretty Ballerina," which would have been a juxtaposition kind of song. And I also had "Loose Ends" from Bruce, which would have been a little bit, I guess, on the nose as it turned out. And I had "Devil Came From Kansas" from Procol Harum and "Darkness Darkness" from Young Bloods. But, in the end, you couldn't argue with David. He's like, Look, I invented the character, and that's what the character would play. That's the song he would choose. So end of discussion. You know, you can't really argue with that.



Rebecca Mooney