“I should call this book ‘Unrequited Digressions,’ ” writes Steven Van Zandt, a few hundred pages into his new memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations” (416 pp., $31, Hachette Books), before launching into one that has to do with Billy Ray Cyrus, of all people.
Yes, there are many digressions in the book. But you won’t mind. The style fits his varied and unpredictable career, which is really like no other.
Membership in one of the greatest rock bands ever (Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band) and one of the greatest TV shows ever (“The Sopranos”). Writing classic songs, producing classic records, leading his own Disciples of Soul bands, taking political stands, championing garage-rock music and arts education …
In the course of the book, Van Zandt writes about his inspired work with Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes, of course, and Darlene Love. Then there is his “Lilyhammer” TV show, which was the first series licensed exclusively to Netflix (and whose behind-the-scenes shenanigans could probably make a pretty good book on their own). And his childhood, and his early exposure to The Beatles (at Shea Stadium) and The Rolling Stones (in Asbury Park). And his long, successful marriage.
Plus the time legendary bluesman Freddie King pulled a gun on him (!). And the way he cleverly talked his way out of having to serve in the military (!!). And his love of ballet (!!!).
This is not a story that can be told in a straightforward, linear fashion.
Van Zandt writes about all of it with the personality and the humor you would expect from one of the rock world’s greatest characters. Why shouldn’t this Renaissance man be a skilled memoirist as well?
The pandemic gave him time to get it all down, he writes (while sarcastically thanking “the Trump kakistocracy”), and I’m assuming editor Ben Greenman (there is no co-writer) deserves some of the credit for making it a smooth, consistently entertaining read.
It comes with an unusual disclaimer, though. “Who knows?” Van Zandt writes, after trying to pinpoint the moment when he was asked to join The E Street Band. “We’re all making up half of this shit anyway.”
Van Zandt writes that his favorite craft is musical arrangement, which is an unusual thing for a rock star to write. But it makes sense. He’s good at figuring things out as he goes — analyzing where all the pieces go to make whatever he’s attempting work. And he’s constantly, in this book, fine tuning, and trying to put his finger on what’s really important, and explain why that is.
But — and I think this is probably a bit unusual for someone who has such an analytical mind — he’s also a bold dreamer, unhesitatingly taking on controversial or commercially doomed projects just because he thinks they’re worthwhile.
Most people he meets along the way come off pretty well. “I don’t have time for petty conflict,” Van Zandt writes, and that’s a pretty believable claim, given his résumé.
But in some cases, he does hold grudges and will name names. The late Frank Zappa, for instance, earned his everlasting enmity by refusing to participate in the “Sun City” all-star protest single, calling it “meaningless bullshit.”
“His arrogance and obnoxiousness were breathtaking,” writes Van Zandt.
Then there is Doyle Bramhall II, who was in a blues-rock band that Van Zandt produced (Arc Angels) and who fought Van Zandt every step of the way. “Once in a while I still see that face in my dreams,” Van Zandt writes.
Not surprisingly, he writes about Springsteen with brotherly affection, though he also enumerates the only three times they fought.
One time was, surprisingly, when Van Zandt was out of The E Street Band but Springsteen played “Ain’t Got You” for him. (The song, about a super-rich man suffering from an unrequited romantic infatuation, ended up on his Tunnel of Love album). Springsteen said he was just trying to be funny, and honest about his life.
“I hate to tell you this,” Van Zandt responds, “but nobody gives a fuck about your life! Your gift, your job, your genius is telling people about their lives!”
Van Zandt writes some more about their argument, then concludes the anecdote with this memory: “We yelled and screamed for a while and then he threw me out.”
The book also describes Van Zandt’s encounters with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan — there are so many Dylan cameos in the book, in fact, that I did a separate post on them — Nelson Mandela, Paul Simon, Patti Smith, Phil Spector, Ronnie Spector (with whom he had a brief affair) and many others.
For a rock star, Van Zandt doesn’t display much vanity. The book has a little self-aggrandizement but also a lot of self-deprecation, and he shares memories of his projects that didn’t work out well, as well as the ones that did.
One encounter that did not bear immediate fruit was with the aforementioned Billy Ray Cyrus. Van Zandt was enlisted by Cyrus’ management to write a follow-up to Cyrus’ huge hit, “Achy Breaky Heart,” so he met with Cyrus in Nashville, and ended up liking him a lot. And he did write a song for him, though Cyrus never released it.
But for Van Zandt, always juggling a million different projects and trying to figure things out, it was still a worthwhile trip. During his time in Nashville, he got the idea for the Outlaw Country channel that is now on SiriusXM satellite radio (along with his longer-running Underground Garage channel), as a way to get airplay for acts ranging from Johnny Cash to The Band that all other formats were ignoring.
Also, he writes, referring to that abandoned Cyrus song, “Somebody somewhere in Nashville has a hit sitting in a desk drawer waiting to happen.”
Van Zandt has a busy book tour planned. For more information about his appearances, or to order the book, visit his page on hachettebooks.com.
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