Stevie Van Zandt, modern-day Renaissance man
Stevie Van Zandt, aka “Little Steven,” aka “Miami Steve” is a man of many hats although he prefers to wear scarves. Best known for being a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (with whom he was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with back in 2014), he is also a singer, songwriter, musician, producer, actor and activist.
Steve Cooper recently had the chance to talk with him for over an hour for his podcast “CooperTalk.” Here are some of the highlights.
Q: How did the Netflix series “Lilyhammer” come about?
A: I was in Norway mixing one of my bands on my record label. I’ve signed a bunch of Norwegian bands and they said there’s a husband and wife in the lobby that want to say hello, went down and they said, “Listen, we’ve written a TV show for you.” And that’s not something you hear every day.
They gave me the one sentence pitch, which was “gangster goes into witness protection and then he chooses Lillehammer, Norway.” And I was like, “Oh man I just played a gangster for 10 years. I probably shouldn’t do this.” But I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t resist the craziness of starring in a foreign country’s local TV show. We ended up signing with Netflix as their first TV show.
Q: What did The Beatles mean to you?
A: They revealed this wild new world that you had no idea existed, which was the most exciting thing to me because I needed a new world. I was not relating to the world that I had, so this one was a complete epiphany and revelation … Keep in mind, we got introduced to The Beatles halfway through their career. They started ‘57 and were gone by ‘69, so by the time we saw them they were extraordinarily sophisticated and just very very good.
So getting a look at The Beatles, I said, “Maybe I can do that.” It was a wild new experience. An entirely glimpse at a new world, but you didn’t think for a minute that you can do it.
Q: How did the Stone Pony influence the early Jersey music scene?
A: Now the bar scene is a whole ‘nother scene because that is strictly Top 40. So by the time we get to the bar scene in the 70s, the Top 40 isn’t so cool anymore, so we didn’t want to do that. And we luckily found this club Stone Pony that was going to close—the roofing caved in from a hurricane or something. Stayed open for another four or five weeks. Milked whatever tourism was left of that summer.
We went in there and got in a good position of negotiating. We said, “Listen, we don’t want to charge you anything. We’ll play for the door. We pick the bar, but we play whatever we want.” And that was not allowed. But they said OK because the club was going to close anyway, so they didn’t care. So we kind of broke the rules there, and first week there was 50 people then 100 then 200, then they fixed the roof … We ended up with a thousand people a night, three nights a week.
Q: How did you end up being part of the E Street Band?
A: Bruce had a third record coming out and his career was in trouble. And I think he booked about seven gigs. They’ve managed to book seven shows. Then the record was going to come out and either do something miraculous or not, and so I joined him for those seven shows, so he can put the guitar down.
He figured, “Let me try and maybe by fronting the band maybe we’ll get a little more attention, be able to maybe find a way to break through.” And that’s kind of what happened. He kind of started to transform and throw himself into this amazing front man, which is one of the most amazing transformations of a human being I’ve ever seen because he was very, very quiet and shy and introverted as a kid when we’re growing up, and now he’s the world’s greatest entertainer. And that was quite a trip to see that transformation, but that was the beginning of it. By fronting the band, he had to become the persona and that was the beginning of—I went for seven shows and stayed seven years.
Q: What was it like recording your tribute album to The Beatles at the Cavern Club in Liverpool?
A: It was just fun, and I think it was especially fun the way we did it because about a week before we got to Liverpool, I’m thinking, “I remember reading The Beatles used to play these things called Lunch Time Sets,” which is a crazy British eccentricity. The shopkeepers, the clerks would bring their lunches to the club and The Beatles would play for half an hour. How weird is that? It’s just a weird thing to do, right? And I thought, I said, “Call the Cavern. Tell them we’re playing Liverpool Saturday night, but I want to come Saturday afternoon in the Cavern to do a Lunch Time Set.
The Cavern guy was funny. He was like, “Well we haven’t done that in 50 years but why not?”
Q: Did you have people recognize you from “The Sopranos”?
A: I’d already been well-known as a rock star, as a rock guy for 25 years by then. So you’re walking the street, and I’ve always been a low-level celebrity, which is fine by me. And suddenly we’re on two weeks and maybe three weeks, everybody stopped me on the street about “The Sopranos.” “The Sopranos.” And I look pretty different on the show. It wasn’t obviously me, but the power of TV was astounding. Astounding! You cannot possibly be prepared for that. I mean two weeks on the air and boom! The whole world knows you. After 25 years of rock n’ roll, gone, meaningless. Forget it! That was nothing.
Q: During the pandemic have you missed performing live?
A: I spent the last three years in a row, 2017, ‘18 and ‘19—I went right from the Soul Fire Tour to The Summer of Sorcery Tour really without stopping, so it was actually good timing for me. I’ve done it in a row for three straight years, two tours—probably the most productive three years of my life. I mean I think I’ve got out six album packages in these last three years, and one more is coming in July this summer. The Summer of Sorcery package is coming in July, and the book will come in September, so I was ready to be home for a while. It was actually perfect timing for me.
I worry about the crew. The crew’s out there is what I worry about. The artists of course is one thing, but the members of the crew, that’s another story entirely and I worry about them.
Follow Steve Cooper on Twitter @coopertalk and Instagram @coopertalk1. For more CooperTalk podcast episodes, visit his website coopertalk.net. Hear the full interview at https://www.coopertalk.net/e/little-steven-van-zandt-episode-853/.