Little Steven – The Renaissance Man of Rock and Roll (Part 2)

I have always admired Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt).  To me his actions both in the studio and out are the true epitome of what rock and roll is all about, and the power it has to be a force for good in the world.  In Part 1 of this two part blog, I focused on Little Steven’s career through the end of the 1980s.  For Part 2, I’ll focus on highlights from the 1990’s right up to the present.

Image result for little steven

As I mentioned in Part 1, Van Zandt had lost his recording contract at the end of the 1980s.  But he was still plenty busy.  Through the years, Van Zandt had written and/or produced songs for other artists, including as mentioned before Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen (Van Zandt served as co-producer on The River and Born in the USA).  Other artists that he has written and/or produced songs for include Michael Monroe, Arc Angels, Nigerian superstar Make Fashek, and Darlene Love, among others.  He also produced and wrote songs for the ill-fated LA cowpunk band Lone Justice‘s second album Shelter in 1986. (As an aside, I have always loved lead singer Maria McKee‘s voice – its a real shame that things fell apart after this album).  Here’s the title track, a Van Zandt song that should have been a massive hit.

Towards the end the 1990s, Little Steven suddenly became insanely busy.  First he went into acting, playing mob consigliere Silvio Dante in HBO‘s The Sopranos.  The show’s producer, David Chase, had seen Van Zandt induct the Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and was struck by his “performance” that evening.  The show ran from 1999 to 2007.  While not directly musical, one of the highlights of the show was the songs that would play during the ending credits each week.  These include several Little Steven songs, including Affection, from a never released album he recorded with a short lived garage band he had formed called the Lost Boys.

At the same time in 1999, Bruce Springsteen decided to reform the E Street Band after about a decade after breaking it up to pursue new musical directions.  While Van Zandt had left the band in 1984, when Springsteen asked him to be a part of the newly reformed band, he was in.  Touring behind a box set of Springsteen outtakes and alternate song versions called Tracks, the 1999 Reunion Tour highlighted the new more powerful E. Street Band, since they now had a 3 guitar line-up – Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren (who had replaced Van Zandt in 1984) and Springsteen himself (who was no slouch on the guitar).  I saw Springsteen several times on this tour, and it was a real joy to able to see Little Steven as part of the band (he had left before I got to see Bruce live).  Here’s one highlight from those shows, Bruce and Little Steven duetting on the River classic Two Hearts.

As if acting in a ground breaking TV series and touring with Springsteen weren’t enough, Little Steven also found time in 1999 to release his fifth solo album, Born Again Savage.  Recorded in 1994, it was released on Little Steven’s own Renegade Nation label, and featured both Adam Clayton of U2 and Jason Bonham.  A tribute to the 60s garage rock that Van Zandt loved as a teenager, it was a return to the harder rocking sound of his 1984 album Voice of America and dealt with issues of politics and religion.  Here’s Salvation.

Born Again Savage, and its garage rock sound was a precursor to another major endeavor of Little Steven, the creation of his syndicated radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage.  Premiering in 2002, and currently on over 80 stations in over 200 markets worldwide, the show has broadcast well over 800 episodes.  Van Zandt has said that he created the show in order to showcase the type of music that was heard on the radio during his youth, especially garage rock, that you don’t hear anymore.  The show, also heard on Sirius satellite radio, together with Van Zandt’s record label Wicked Cool Records, also promotes the current wave of garage and classic rock bands that you won’t hear on commercial radio.  According to the Underground Garage website, over 700 bands have been showcased on the show.  Here’s the humorous opening montage of the show.

During the rest of the 00’s and 10’s, Little Steven kept busy DJing the Underground Garage, touring with Springsteen, and writing/producing/starring in his own Netflix show Lillyhammer (about an ex-Mafia type living witness protection style in Norway).  In addition, in 2007 he founded the Rock and Roll Forever Foundationand its TeachRock project, to counter the widespread cut in arts funding seen in many school districts nationwide.  Using music (including rock) and provided for free to any school who wants it, the projects uses “interdisciplinary arts-driven materials designed to keep students engaged and in school.”  Again, using rock and roll to make society a better place by making learning and education fun and engaging for students!

In 2016 came the exciting news that Little Steven was going back into the recording studio to work on a new album with the Disciples of Soul!  The album Soulfire, was released in May 2017 and included both new and rearranged “rock and soul” songs from his previous work over the years.  The resulting tour for the album began in 2017 and looks to finish up later this year. Mike and Paul of this blog got to see the show when it stopped in Philadelphia and highly recommend it – one fantastic song after another; it was great to see Little Steven in top form!  One pretty cool aspect of the current tour leg is that Van Zandt has reserved a block of tickets at every show for teachers to attend free of charge, as a thank you to them for what they do educating the future generations of America.  One final song choice then, off of Soulfire – here’s Saint Valentine’s Day.  Classic Little Steven – I absolutely love the horn line in this one.  Just like way back in 1975 and Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, it elevates the song to a higher level.

Well, there you have it – my attempt to spread the love about Little Steven and all the good work he has done over the years using rock and roll as a force for good in our world.  I hoped you’ve enjoyed it.  I’ll close with the original liner notes that Little Steven wrote for Born Again Savage.  To me they get to the core of his view of what music can mean.

We live in an insane asylum. A barbaric, merciless cesspool. And in this purgatory filled with disease and ugliness and violence and hatred and injustice and greed and lies and pain and frustration and confusion there are brief, fleeting moments of peace and love and truth and beauty. They are rare. They are years and miles apart. But they are so meaningful that they make life worth living. Those moments give you strength to face the insanity with your balance intact and your eyes focused and you endure and tolerate and survive. And if you’re lucky, real lucky, you can tap that strength and hold on to it long enough to, in your own small way, try to make it all a little bit better. Just a little bit more civil and just. To serve. And you don’t do it for anybody else because no one is going to thank you or reward you or even notice. Don’t kid yourself. You do it for you. For your own soul. Because in this world that’s all the salvation you’re ever gonna get.

Thank you Little Steven for all your efforts – it is noticed, and appreciated! Your music has made my life and our world a better place.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube; littlesteven.com; underground garage.com; rockandrollforever.org;teachrock.org;

Little Steven – The Renaissance Man of Rock and Roll (Part 1)

Songwriter.  Guitarist. Band leader. Producer. Arranger. Actor. DJ. Political activist. Little Steven is all these and more.  In all of this, the common theme (in the recording studio, on stage, and off) has always been, in my opinion, keeping the true spirit, soul, and potential of rock and roll alive.

Smwknd-steven-van-zandt-3814.jpgBy Fuzheado – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

I’ve admired Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt) for several decades now, ever since I got into Bruce Springsteen back in the late 70’s/early 80’s.  While knowledgeable music fans may know him as the bandanna wearing guitarist in Springsteen’s E St. Band, his career and accomplishments actually go far beyond his contributions to Bruce’s music and live shows.  His tireless efforts and dedication both in the studio and out to preserve and promote rock and roll as a life changing force for good in the world is something that has always impressed me.  So I thought it might be fun to do a career retrospective to spread the love.

First, some quick bio information.  Van Zandt was born on November 22, 1950 in Boston MA.  His family moved to Middletown Township, NJ when he was a child, and he came up  in the 60’s Jersey Shore music scene.  Like many teenagers at the time, his life was forever changed after watching the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964. He formed a number of short lived bands, including one called the Shadows.  In 1966 or 1967, the Shadows were playing the Hullabaloo Club in Middletown, when another aspiring musician by the name of Bruce Springsteen showed up.  So began a life long personal and musical friendship.  Van Zandt was a member of several of Springsteen’s early bands, including Steel Mill and The Bruce Springsteen Band. Interestingly, he was not in the earliest versions of the E St. Band that recorded and performed with Springsteen in the early 1970’s.  But he came back in a big way with Springsteen’s break out (and classic) album Born to Run.

During the recording of Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the session had come to a crashing halt because Bruce’s original horn arrangement was not working.  The two high priced session horn players that had been brought in (Randy and Michael Brecker) were having trouble translating Springsteen’s vision to tape.  Van Zandt was there that today, hanging out in the control room.  According to legend, Van Zandt said “I got it” and then proceeded to sing the individual horn parts to the Brecker Brothers.  And the rest is history as they say.  Here’s the track with the classic horn line.

Van Zandt officially joined the E Street Band on July 20, 1975 for the first show of the Born to Run tour and remained with the band until 1984 (more on that later). When not recording or touring with Springsteen, he found time to co-found Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a Jersey shore “rock and soul” band that achieved its most success in the NY/NJ/Philly area in the 70’s.  Van Zandt wrote the majority of the songs on and produced their first three albums, including Hearts of Stone, which was named by Rolling Stone magazine one of the top 100 albums of all time in 1987 (fun fact – the title track was a classic Springsteen outtake that he gave to Southside Johnny).  I could highlight so many songs, but let’s go with the title track from their debut album, a Van Zandt composition called I Don’t Want to Go Home.

Little Steven’s solo career and political activism started to take shape in the early 80’s.  During Springsteen’s European tour to promote The River, Van Zandt was exposed for the first time to how the rest of the world viewed the US, and it was not entirely positive. This led him to start researching things himself, and soon to start writing songs with more overt political themes.

Little Steven’s first album Men without Women (with his band the Disciples of Soul), was released in 1982.  I have to say that it is a killer album – one of my all time favorites, definitely on my Desert Island Disc list!  The music is similar in style to the rock and soul sound of his work with Southside Johny, and  only hinted at his budding activism.  Here’s the opening cut, Lyin’ in a Bed of Fire, which deals with everyone’s individual responsibility to participate in political life.

In 1984, just prior to Springsteen’s Born in the USA tour, Van Zandt decided to devote himself full time to his solo career, and left the E St. Band. His 1984 album Voice of America fully embraced his new political activism with a more varied and rocking musical style, with most of the songs dealing with either general political issues or his disagreement with US foreign policy under President Reagan. Whether you agree with his politics or not, what can’t be disputed is Little Steven’s desire to use rock and roll as a source of inspiration and education about current events and to call for change in the world we live in.  Again, so many songs to choose from, but I’d like to feature I Am A Patriot.  This song, which has been covered by a number of artists, including Jackson Browne and Pearl Jam, gets at what true patriotism is.  It’s always been one of my favorites.

In 1985, Little Steven took his new overtly political musical outlook to another level, forming the organization Artists United Against Apartheid and writing the song Sun City to protest the apartheid policies of South Africa.  Sun City was a luxury resort in an area of South Africa called Bophuthatswana, which the South African government claimed was a separate nation but which was in reality where the government was forcing South African blacks to move to.  Many Western artists were playing the resort with the notion that they were not playing South Africa so it was ok. Little Steven wrote the song to bring attention to this hypocrisy and to the wider evil of apartheid.  Similar to We Are the World, the song brought together a wide collection of artists for the song’s recording and companion video. Except this group was much cooler than the Michael Jackson/Lionel Ritchie led group (IMHO), and included rap and hip/hop, rock, R&B and jazz artists. The song was a declaration of solidarity that this group of artists at least would not play Sun City.  I think its a great example of Little Steven using the power of rock and roll to try to affect social and political change.  Check out this video and see how many artists you can spot.

Little Steven continued his solo career output with two more albums in the decade, 1987’s Freedom No Compromise, and 1989’s Revolution.  Musically they included more dance and world music influences, and both continued his focus on political issues, with Freedom No Compromise for example tackling the US government’s treatment of Native Americans, its foreign policy in Central America, and South Africa.  Here’s one of my favorite cuts, Sanctuary (the message is self evident in the lyrics).

At the end of the 1980’s Little Steven lost his recording contract.  But did he fade into oblivion?  Of course not!  Since this post has gotten pretty long, I’ll end for now.  But I’ll cover Van Zandt’s activities from the 90’s through the present in a follow up post.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube.com; Little Steven.com; Goldminemag.com 

 

Song of the Day 9/16/18 Billy Joel “Vienna “

Some songs can be indelibly linked to a specific moment . For me, Vienna goes back to a Sunday morning  when I was about 14. I was delivering news papers early on a mild fall Sunday morning and I could hear this song quietly coming from an open upstairs window as I dropped the newspaper on my neighbor’s front porch. Vienna will always be a Sunday morning song to me.

Song of the Day 9/15/18 Joan Jett and the Blackhearts “Fresh Start”

I heard this song yesterday and all of a sudden it was like I was back in 11th grade again (minus the bad haircut and acne), sitting at a stop light, bobbing my my head and playing air guitar in the front seat  while the kids in the minivan next to me looked at me like I was nuts. I’ve now listened to the song about 15 times in the last 24 hours.

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