Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano’s most trusted advisor reveals his rock and roll life in new book
In real life, Stevie Van Zandt has been a trusted advisor and bandmate for one of the greatest rock stars of all time and on television he played the role of Consigliere for one of the most feared characters in the Mafia. Now with his new autobiography Unrequited enthusiasm: a briefVan Zandt finally gets the chance to take center stage with his own life story. I spoke with Van Zandt about his rock and roll life, the price of leaving a band before their most successful album, and why your next drink should be a Stevie Colada.
You’ve been around the world. What favorite foods and drinks did you discover along the way?
I am a when in Rome eat the local pasta kind of guy. A few guys in the group, Jon Landau and Roy Bittan, are connoisseurs of great food and drink. I’m kind of a peasant, give me some local wine and parmesan and I’m fine. Even my drinks change depending on where I am. My favorite drink is an espresso martini. But for the summer I invented the Stevie Colada.
What’s in a Stevie Colada?
It is important that you know this. It’s a piña colada with a half shot of Kahlúa. You don’t use more because it’s too strong, but the half shot changes the piña colada considerably. So the next time you’re on a yacht or on a beach, try a Stevie Colada.
You write that arranging songs is your favorite job. Are there any similarities in taking the different parts of your life and making them work like a book?
Yes, my own narrative was the least interesting part of the book for me, so I wanted to make sure I had two other things that balance it out: a certain amount of music history – which I’ve mostly been. witness, I only missed the first decade of rock and roll – and the bits and pieces of the craft that I was involved with. I also thought I’d better write the way I’m going to speak the audiobook. I told my editor that I would not be grammatically correct and that there would be some weird sentence fragments, but if you read it as I write it you will hear my voice.
We all imagine Bruce Springsteen with a Telecaster guitar, but in the book you claim you got one first and Bruce had to get your permission before getting one too.
It was serious. In fact, I had the first Telecaster in our whole area. Back then, every guitarist had a different guitar and that was part of their identity. I know it sounds ridiculously superficial and irrelevant (laughs) but it was like that. So in the end Bruce wanted to switch to a Telecaster and asked “Do you mind?” I said “no, go ahead.”
In addition to your role in the E Street Band, your character Silvio Dante in The Sopranos is also in a position to be the boss’s trusted advisor. Who are the people you trust to advise you?
Fortunately, I have quite a few. My wife Maureen, she does not hesitate to point out to me my multiple weaknesses. I go to Bruce Springsteen for some tough choices. I have a lot of friends, Peter Wolf, Richie Sambora, David Chase, Jimmy Iovine. I’m lucky like that. (voice of Silvio Dante) I have no one full time, but I have my people.
You have a long history of activism, including Artists United Against Apartheid. Tell me about one of your most recent projects, EDUCATION.
There is a fundamental flaw in the education process right now, which we can correct by integrating the arts. Children come with built-in gifts: instinct, emotion, imagination. These are usually deleted or ignored. Our position is that we should use these gifts and integrate them into other disciplines. We use the history of music as common ground.
How does the program work?
We ask children what is your favorite song? No matter what they say, we say ok, let’s go back. Do you like Beyoncé? Great, well, she’s from Aretha Franklin who’s from Detroit – so we’re talking about Detroit. She was involved in civil rights – so we are talking about civil rights. And the children are completely with you because you have come into their world.
What was the impact?
We have forty thousand teachers using it and many partner schools, which is exciting. I did a press conference the other day with the governor of Connecticut and they just accepted it for the whole state. We want to revolutionize the education system and include the arts in a way that not only allows children to learn better, but also to stay in school. If they like a class or a teacher, they will stay in school. We want to be that class.
You write about the backstage battles at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What is the last group you are advocating for?
It’s a friendly fight, we are all very respectful of each other. There are a lot of people who deserve to be in there, that’s the main thing. I have some artists that I think you absolutely have to be a part of: Procol Harum, The J. Geils Band. There are a number of people for whom you continue to be in politics. My list is probably about a hundred names that I think are essential. But everyone has their own list.
You left the E Street Band just before the success of Born In The USA. In the book, you write your punishment because it is “a lifelong penance for the biggest mistake of my life of which there is no redemption”. How much of humor is that and how real is it?
It’s a bit of humor, BUT … is it too much to expect that maybe 1% of the E Street audience doesn’t have something better to do at night when I’m playing with my own group? Well the answer is YES! So they stay home instead. It’s one of those curious things: life does not cross. Same goes for my Lilyhammer show. Literally a million Norwegians tuned in every week out of five million inhabitants. We are going to play in Oslo and only a thousand people show up. What is a tenth of 1%?
I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world, I got accepted as rock and roll in E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen’s left hand man and friend. I was also accepted as an actor. It’s already very unusual and I’m totally grateful for it, so asking for a third acceptance as my own artist may be that bridge too far.