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.
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