“The Republican Party no longer believe in democracy, equality, science, and are quite brazenly bragging about being white supremacists.” Stevie Van Zandt, sideman to Bruce Springsteen on stage and to Tony Soprano on screen, is angry, sad and scared for the future. The vocal opponent of Donald Trump is not letting the Democrats off the hook, either. “They are pathetic and weak and it’s just sad because they’re not warriors in a war.”
Politics has taken up a lot of Van Zandt’s life since he infamously left the E Street Band in 1984, both to pursue a solo career and to try and get Nelson Mandela out of jail and end apartheid in South Africa. He also accidentally found his way onto revolutionary TV show The Sopranos, playing Mafia consigliere, Silvio Dante, and leading Netflix’s first foray into original programming with Lilyhammer. It’s been a ride, and the charming and charismatic guitarist has explained it all his newly released autobiography, Unrequited Infatuations.
“There’s a lot of truth in there – you’ve got to be a little bit careful because I know a little too much,” the 70-year-old chuckles. “I’ve lived through most of the history of rock ‘n’ roll except for the first decade,” he adds with slight amazement. A who’s who of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame – into which he has been inducted – strut in and out of the memoir’s 400 pages. Springsteen stories abound. There are appearances, too, from Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, Prince and Whitney Houston, as well as an account of the time he cornered Paul Simon for refusing to play on his anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”.
It’s in South Africa where the book begins. The moment represents a sort of spiritual rebirth for the rock star, fresh from the hedonism of a life on the road. Van Zandt describes his post-Springsteen days as the “beginning of an entirely new life from scratch” as he searched for a “purpose in life” and “spiritual enlightenment”.
He remains immensely proud of cultivating his music and platform to free Mandela, and putting pressure on the South African government and the Western banks and politicians that backed apartheid. “We went up against the unholy trinity of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Hermut Kohl,” he says, before passionately reliving the struggle to make the world a better, more human place. “We drew up a strategy to take down the South African government and point by point, stage by stage, we did it.” He leans closer to the camera. His brown eyes are alight, a rebellious smirk on his face. All these years later, he still takes delight in sticking it to the man.
“We strategised how to get economic sanctions, which was the home run,” he continues. “The sports boycott was already in place thanks to [tennis legend and the only Black man to win Wimbledon] Arthur Ashe, so we bridged that gap with the cultural boycott and were able to raise enough consciousness to protect that sanctions bill when it went to President Reagan – who we knew was going to veto it because he supported apartheid. We raised the consciousness enough that congress overrode Reagan’s veto, which was a big, big, big deal and the first time that ever happened. Then we knew we had a victory and the banks cut them off and they had to release Mandela. [The movement] was amazingly successful which is rare when you’re engaged in international liberation politics.”
Where Van Zandt looks back with pride on the triumphs of ending apartheid in the 1980s, he’s nervous about the current political climate in America. The last 18 months have seen race riots, voter suppression and supporters of Donald Trump storm the US Capitol Building in an attempt to overturn his loss in the 2020 election. Van Zandt shakes his head. “At this point in America, we are somewhere you wouldn’t believe. We’re being thrown back to the 1950s. It’s embarrassing. They’re passing laws in states that say democracy no longer matters. They’re trying to suppress the Black vote, the Latino vote.” Apartheid is two years older than Van Zandt, and he was born before Black people could vote. This lived experience of injustice is perhaps why his language becomes apocalyptic: “You’re going to see violence in my country that you haven’t seen since the Civil War. It’s looking like a really dangerous moment, so I am nervous if we break out into violence, I don’t know where that’s going to stop.”
Though fearful of the future, Van Zandt is not nostalgic for the past. The book is upfront about regrets – in particular his decision to leave Springsteen’s side in 1984, just before the commercial juggernaut of the Born in the USA tour. “All my life, I’ve had the regret of leaving the E Street Band,” he tells me. “I wish I could have done both. I wish I could have stayed in the band and done solo records and Sun City and bust Mandela out of jail but it wasn’t particularly realistic.” Van Zandt is thankful for all the gigs that came his way once he was free of the rigours of band life: being a pioneering voice on digital radio with Sirius XM; his unexpected divergence into acting; and launching TeachRock, his musical education charity. But still, he adds, leaving Springsteen “will always be a little bit painful”.
Van Zandt didn’t just split with Springsteen for other opportunities, though: he says he no longer felt as valued as he once was. There was a row over Van Zandt – who produced both The River and Born in the USA – receiving due credit for his work on the albums. “I did a lot of the arranging on Darkness on the Edge of Town, which I’m not sure I got any credit for,” he says, but he seems to have softened. “More importantly for me, I was helping my friend realise his vision and make the best records he could make.”
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There was no great animosity between the two of them. Springsteen would appear on the “Sun City” record a year later and Van Zandt would make guest appearances throughout the Born in the USA tour. He reunited with his “brother” in 1999 and they’ve recorded and toured together ever since. In fact, Springsteen was the first person to read the book. “There were some semi-intimate things in there and I wanted to make sure he was cool with it. He was very nice about it – didn’t change a single word.”
Van Zandt also found similarities between working for Springsteen and his later TV boss, Sopranos creator, David Chase. “They are both tough – very, very tough”, he says, breaking into a grin. But though he took on Reagan and Thatcher and won, Van Zandt is afraid to commit when I ask who is tougher. “I’ll call it a tie,” he says. “They’re not complete dictators, more benevolent dictators. They both have very specific things in mind and are absolute perfectionists.”
When he cast Van Zandt as mob consigliere Silvio Dante, Chase gave the musician a new lease of life. Van Zandt, whose wife Maureen is an actor (and also appears on The Sopranos as his on-screen wife), had never thought about acting until Chase wanted him to audition. Chase had long been intrigued by his face on record covers, and in particular his live performance when inducting The Rascals into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. Chase tells me Van Zandt was a “natural actor, who fell into [the role] naturally”. Van Zandt agrees: “I guess I was – I didn’t realise it at the time but that’s why he’s David Chase.”
Van Zandt was familiar with the subject matter of The Sopranos. “The mob is a big interest of mine. I’ve read every mob book and watched every mob movie going back to the 1930s. Being a kid from working-class New Jersey, he knew the world of The Sopranos, with its pork store Mafia fronts and slightly dubious gangs of well-dressed men. “I knew the milieu, I knew those types of guys, I felt I understood that world.”
Van Zandt found a lot of common ground with Silvio, in the sense that he’s a guy loyal to the boss and has no inclination to take the throne for himself: “It’s not my natural inclination to be a front man.” A holiday to Italy (where his solo records proved to be big hits) only strengthened his antagonism towards being famous. “We couldn’t walk down the street. The kids were all over the place because of the two hit singles and I realised then: ‘Jeez, this is what you’ve always hoped for.’ You hope for that kind of success, and I just had to admit to myself, ‘I really don’t like it. I don’t like being attacked on the street by hundreds of kids. I prefer quality of life over celebrity.’”
If it wasn’t for a heart attack at 51, Sopranos leading man James Gandolfini would have turned 60 a fortnight ago. Mention of him brings the boisterous Van Zandt down an octave. “I have nothing but special memories of Jimmy,” he says. “He became one of my best friends quite quickly. I think we bonded on the fact that he wasn’t a front guy, you know, he wasn’t a lead actor.”
Gandolfini was notoriously shy, never once appearing on late-night TV shows to promote work. He was so opposed to fame that, according to fellow Sopranos co-star Steve Schirripa, he once threatened to beat up Harvey Weinstein for attempting to force him to do press for Killing Them Softly, a brutal gangster flick he starred in with Brad Pitt shortly before he died.
Van Zandt still feels the loss of his friend. They had plans to open a club and restaurant together. “You do a scene with him and you walk away a better actor. He was very generous. A huge loss. He was one of the greatest actors of all time. He was always great, no matter how mediocre the movie might be.”
When I mention Gandolfini’s son, Michael, taking on the same role that made his father famous in Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark, Van Zandt lights up again. “I knew Michael before he was born! One of the first conversations I had with Jimmy, he told me his girlfriend was pregnant.” He also praises the film and his performance; “Great film, great performance. Such perfect casting. A gift from the Gods.”
Silvio also makes a return in The Many Saints of Newark. Played by John Magaro – who became friends with Van Zandt when they both worked on Chase’s only prior feature film, Not Fade Away – the young Silvio is all hair and exaggerated mannerisms, but Van Zandt wasn’t asked to help Magaro find his way into the character. “He didn’t need me. He had 86 episodes to study and he does a terrific job.”
After 20 months of pandemics and lockdowns and closed music venues, Van Zandt is desperate to get back on the road. In the time of Covid, though, health takes precedence. He says he won’t be back on the road this year. “Hopefully things will calm down by next summer. Bruce gets first priority if he wants to go out.” He’s resigned to being locked up a little longer. “Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which way Covid is going to go – so we’re all going to find out together.”
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