If Bruce Springsteen is the architect of the Sounds of Asbury Park, Steve Van Zandt is its blueprint. Responsible for rescuing Born to Run from a time-consuming production snag right around the same time he helped form Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes in 1974, Van Zandt also lays claim to a high pile of influential moments in music and societal history.
In 1985, at the start of a budding solo music career, his all-star protest song, “Sun City,” helped raise awareness and more than $1 million to fight and eventually help end South Africa’s apartheid. His activist organization Renegade Nation took similar strides to help Native Americans.
Then, one fateful night after inducting The Rascals into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — for which Van Zandt now serves on the Nominating Committee — he got a call from “The Sopranos” creator David Chase to play Joisey mafia consigliere Silvio Dante. Once again, Van Zandt’s Garden State star rose in a new career direction as an actor. The rocker’s creativity then blossomed onto the stage and screen as writer and/or producer of a variety of projects. They include “Lilyhammer,” another gangster turn, but this time for Netflix rather than HBO; and the musicals “The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream” and “Piece of My Heart,” a revue of songwriter Bert Berns’ work.
But the actor-writer-producer-singer-guitarist-arranger-activist’s activity doesn’t end there because his passion for rock ‘n’ roll also keeps him busy as an educator, a radio personality and label head. Little Steven’s Underground Garage has helped preserve rock music and promote many of the artists who make it, including New Jersey’s The Doughboys, The Grip Weeds and The Anderson Council. So does his Wicked Cool Records, which, in 2017, released his first solo album in nearly 20 years. Other garage rockers who call the label home include Dollyrots, Steve Conte, Wyldlife, The Chesterfield Kings, The Chevelles and The Woggles. Underground Garage also presents concerts at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre, where Van Zandt is a board member.
Perhaps the most important thing the tirelessly talented entrepreneur, impresario and philanthropist does is teach kids about music through the TeachRock program of his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. He also has made extensive contributions as a board member of the Little Kids Rock after-school music mentorship program and the Count Basie Theatre’s Rockit music education program.
For all this — and probably more — Van Zandt will be inducted a second time into the New Jersey Hall of Fame on May 6 at the Paramount Theatre, in the city that he helped stamp forever on the world’s music map. The first time, he was inducted in 2012 as a member of Springsteen’s E Street Band. The NJHOF Class of 2017’s 21 inductees also include Meryl Streep and Debbie Harry of Blondie.
Before the induction, Van Zandt will kick off a three-week tour with his band, the Disciples of Soul, to raise funds for and awareness about TeachRock, a program of his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation that allows teachers to incorporate the history of rock ‘n’ roll into their studies. Teachers can attend shows for free, learn about the curriculum, and experience Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul live. Area tour dates include April 29 at the State Theatre in New Brunswick; May 2 at the PlayStation Theater in New York; and May 5 at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
In the following chat, he discusses his upcoming induction, his charity tour and his future endeavors, including a live album with the Disciples of Soul.
Q: How does it feel to be inducted in the New Jersey Hall of Fame a second time in early May, especially in Asbury Park?
A: It’s always an honor, always a pleasure and always fun being recognized for one’s work. That never gets old.
Q: Why is it important to you to do “Underground Garage” and Wicked Cool Records, and what have you enjoyed most about the impact they have had?
A: Well, you know, at a certain point, I realized that rock ‘n’ roll is becoming an endangered species, and so I just kind of started to do a bunch of things that were all related, starting with a radio show, which turned into two different channels on Sirius Satellite. But it started with a little syndicated show. We’re still on, once a week.
It turned into starting a record company and the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and the entire program of TeachRock.org, which teachers are using all over the country to teach rock ‘n’ roll and the history of music. We’re inviting teachers to come to a seminar before the soundcheck at every single show. They can talk to Christine (Nick, senior manager of Education and Outreach) at Rock and Roll Foundation, sign up for TeachRock, and come to the show for free. At the seminar in the afternoon, they can learn how to teach the curriculum. We’re doing that all over the country and all over the world this year, so we’re integrating what we’re doing with the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. It’s all related, whether it’s a curriculum or radio or the record company.
How can we expect the next generation to achieve greatness unless they have access to it? We have to keep the standards up and give them access: “This is what greatness sounds like.” If they don’t have access to greatness, how can you expect that to happen? So now people can access the stuff and realize, “Well, maybe I didn’t miss the party after all.”
A lot of the younger generations feel like they missed the party, and in many ways, they did because it was a relative period when we grew up, and the reason why it was a renaissance period was because the greatest music was being made, but it was also the most commercial. We will never see that again.
But that doesn’t mean that the people can’t have access to it, so that’s what we’re working on. Thank God Sirius Satellite came along. That’s going to be the depository of all the great music, but at the same time, I still show up on all the local stations, so that’s been very useful also.
Q: Wicked Cool also released your own Soulfire album. When will we see another Little Steven album? Will we have to wait another 20 years?
A: Yeah, I know, I know, I know. I know there’s no excuse for that, honestly, but what we’re going to do in the interim is put out a live album in the next couple of months from the tour, which is been a lot of lot of fun with this really great band that I’ve assembled. And people are going to see the band this year, also. And then, we’ll start working on a real follow-up to the album. It’ll be the first album I have written in probably 25 years, so this might take me a minute to get back into it. It’ll be the first time in my life I’ve ever done a follow-up record with the same band, the same sound and in the same sort of genre because all five of my solo albums are completely different musically. I want to keep it the same this time … that same identity, and then build on it and see where it evolves. I’m quite curious myself to see where things go. I’m hoping to start working on it this year, maybe get it out next year. This year, we’ve got plenty of stuff to put out with the live album and the catalog: my five solo albums, “Sun City,” and a three-record set of the score from “Lilyhammer.” I want to get that out there, too. So if we can get all that out this year, we can begin to work on a new record for next year.
Q: What do you like most about the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, its TeachRock program and the impact that they have had, how has that led you to do a charity tour to support them, and will you be paying the band and crew out of your own pocket?
A: Well, if that has to happen. I have in the past. But we’re going to solicit donations to the foundation for the tour and also sponsorships. Citibank is sponsoring the tour, so they’re going to be helping out a great deal, and then a lot of it will be donations. People actually will be donating specifically toward the tour because it’s a way of reaching teachers. We’re inviting teachers to come to every single show and come to that seminar, so we could have as many as 200 or 300 teachers at every seminar. That’s where the donations come in to justify that. We’re finding that it’s going to be very, very useful, a new way to reach teachers, and a good way to do the mission of the foundation.
Q: Any acting gigs on the horizon for you?
A: I’m working on it. I do want to get back on TV. I really do. I love it, and so I’ve written some things. And we’re looking at some other things that are being offered, and hopefully, with a little bit of luck, it’s up and going at the end of this year. But we really have to find the right thing, so I’m working on it.
Q: You have an amazing legacy, but is there something else you would like to do to that you haven’t done and why?
A: Well, the main thing is to create a TV show. The “Lilyhammer” experience was wonderful because I was writing and co-producing it and starring in it. I did the music for it. I even directed the final episode, so that was great. It was sort of an evolution for me from my beginnings on “The Sopranos.” I keep learning and learning and learning, and I’m hoping the next step is to create my own show.
I wish I was 10 different people because I’d love to be making more records. I would love to produce Darlene Love and Gary U.S. Bonds and the ’60s heroes who are still around and still fantastic. Making records with those people is just a thrill and an honor. I can’t even explain to you what it’s like artistically because they’re different. Fifties and ’60s people are different. There’s a different quality … so it’s just wonderful to work with them. I would be doing that full time if I was five different people. One of them would be making records all the time, one would be acting.
I also love producing live events. That’s my favorite thing, probably. I just produced something with my wife (Maureen) for Eddie Brigati, one of the lead singers of The Rascals. We introduced to Broadway, shows for The Rascals a few years ago. The other Brigati show is a cabaret show, where he’s doing show tunes, Broadway songs and the Rascals hits as well. It’s a wonderful show. I loved putting it together.
Yeah, so whether it’s a TV show, a radio show or live events, I love producing. That’s probably my favorite thing.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.