“I saw something in Bruce Springsteen that no one else has seen”
It’s the mid-80s, and Stevie Van Zandt, after leaving the E Street Band and leaving Bruce Springsteen, is pursuing a solo career. He also transformed decades of experience in bar orchestras into a new and unusual role: international activist and activist against injustice. And so he finds himself, along with Jackson Browne, in Nicaragua, against whom the United States is waging a proxy war.
He organizes a meeting with Rosario Murillo, the wife of the President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, as he notes in his memoir, Unrequited Infatuations. “After a few drinks, I stopped the conversation and suddenly asked her if she loved her husband. She was a little taken aback but said: Yes, señor, a lot. – Well, I said, you should spend as much time as possible with him, because he is a dead man who walks. It’s only a matter of time and time is running out ‘… She was a very intelligent woman married to a revolutionary. But she expected a pleasant conversation about the arts, and the reality of what I was saying hit her hard.
There are also other encounters. Van Zandt visited South Africa and persuaded controversial black nationalist groups to lay down their arms as he taught them how to end apartheid and recorded Artists United Against Apartheid’s single Sun City . It’s a little surprising that he didn’t end the Cold War either. The biggest miracle, however, is that none of the people he was lecturing to told him to piss off.
“I’m sure they meant that,” Van Zandt now says, via Zoom. “In Nicaragua, I caught his attention. I probably wasn’t telling her anything that she didn’t already know or feel. But I know what Ronald Reagan was thinking. He was eager to invade Nicaragua. And her husband had a target on his forehead. So when I explained to her what was going to happen and how she could avoid it, she took it very seriously and listened to my advice.
And South Africa? “In the case of South Africa, they thought I was a little bit crazy and eccentric because of my looks – a lot of earrings and bracelets – which was the only way out. The hardest part is when you are in Soweto and there is no electricity, telling people that they are going to win the war on TV. It was a bit of a stretch. So they probably thought I was such a fool that I wasn’t worth killing.
Van Zandt had an extraordinary life. It would be enough to have been the right-hand man – consigliere, as he says – of Springsteen from 1975 to 1984, then again since 1999, would be enough to ensure his status. Add to that her lead roles in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. Then consider the training, writing, arranging, and producing of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and his own solo career with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. And don’t forget his relentless rock’n’roll cheerleaders as a broadcaster for nearly 20 years, and his music education campaign work. It is tiring just to read about it.
It’s all in boredom, he said. “I find the world extraordinarily boring. I don’t know how boring we got, honestly. Everywhere you look it’s just boring. Why? The architecture is boring. All. Why are we not creative? We have all this wonderful creativity in the human species; why don’t we use it? At the same time, I am constrained by bullies, injustice, and obvious shortcomings. And I’m like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone do a radio format that has this, this, and that? I’ll have to do it myself. The thing in South Africa, I was just embarrassed by the politics. How could we support slavery in the 1980s?
Van Zandt has the true zeal of an enthusiast, an overflowing passion for the music of the mid-1960s – “the rebirth”, he says, the absolute zenith of human cultural endeavor – and he laughs easily. He also easily talks about life as a perpetual sideman, always in the shadows, never in the spotlight.
I am convinced that every successful person should have someone from the old quarter hanging out
At first, he said, it was because he thought Springsteen was missing something. “I saw something in him that, frankly, no one else saw. He was very calm for many years. And very shy. But I just felt he had something. It wasn’t out of philanthropy: if I make him the biggest star in the world, I’ll get on that train. It was good for me. I didn’t really have the ambition to be the leader and to go all the way. I could have been signed solo immediately, at the same time as we signed the Jukes, that’s for sure. But I didn’t have the ambition to do it, and Bruce was always very determined.
There’s also a more modest reason to stay with Springsteen: “I’m convinced that every successful person should have someone from the Old Quarter hanging around.
Unrequited Infatuations, however, achieves the rare feat of making its author less sympathetic: by trying to do more than Springsteen’s consigliere, it manages to do less. There are attitudes that frankly seem to raise eyebrows. (The way to end misogyny, he suggests, is to make sure all men can buy sex.) There is a strong tension of “Needless to say I had the last laugh. ” on this subject. When things go wrong, it’s because Van Zandt has been ignored; when they go right, it is because he has been listened to. It is clear that there is no shortage of ideas but maybe, I suggest it to him, some of them were rejected because they were terrible ideas.
Bring his proposal to US TV networks that he hosts a New Years special at Playboy Mansion, featuring Playboy Bunnies dressed as go-go dancers and a handpicked roster of his favorite bands. It was rejected. It’s a horrible idea.
“It was a long time ago,” he said with disdain.
Not so long ago: second half of the last decade. Come on, Playboy Bunnies in a New Year’s Eve show?
“This is before the world wakes up. This is your opinion. And I have my opinion. My opinion is that instead of showing a repeat of a boring network show, maybe a few people would like to see Playboy bunnies go-go dancing in the Playboy Mansion with five or six fantastic bands playing. Call me crazy, but it would have caught the public’s attention more than a terrible network TV show. So I don’t agree with you, obviously.
At that moment, a voice comes in line. My time is up. So I can’t ask if it’s up to women to end misogyny by letting men pay for sex. Instead, I say how much I hope the E Street Band will be back on the road next summer, how much I look forward to the concerts. Van Zandt’s face softened again into a smile.
No matter what his book, he’s still Stevie Van Zandt. He’s still the man on stage at Springsteen’s show, which is way more than most musicians will ever get. You might doubt how central Sun City was to the apartheid collapse, but he still came out and made the record happen. He’s still Miami Steve, Little Steven. It’s still Silvio. How many of us can look through our CV and say we’ve come close to what he has achieved?
And there is more humility in conversational Van Zandt than in writing. At some point, he begins to explain why it’s worth taking his advice. They should do it, he said, “mainly because I screwed up every possible way I could screw it up in this business. Usually when I give advice it’s because I didn’t have it. not taken. So I’m really someone you should listen to. He laughs, the most successful failure in rock history. – Guardian
Unrequited Infatuations is published by White Rabbit