Born on November 22, 1950, in Boston, MA; married Maureen, c. 1983. Addresses: Record company--RenegadeNation.
An acclaimed guitarist and music producer turned character actor, the multi-talented Steven Van Zandt has been working almost non-stop since the mid-1960s, reaching one of his greatest career peaks in the late-1990s. During this period, Van Zandt recorded his first solo album in eleven years, went back on the road with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band after a 15-year absence, and landed a featured role playing New Jersey mobster Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, the acclaimed HBO cable television series about a dysfunctional mob family. "No one is more surprised at how all this has worked out than I am," Van Zandt, at the time filming episodes of his show during a break in the E Street Band tour, told Los Angeles Times writer Robert Hilburn. "After so many years of not doing anything really, it's funny to have it all happen at once. But it's coincidental. None of this was planned to happen simultaneously. That's the way life is."
In the midst of a budding acting career and a return to the stage with Springsteen's band, Van Zandt, who claims rock and roll music as his first love, somehow found time to resume his career as a solo recording artist. His 1999 album Born Again Savage signaled the end of a cycle he initiated back in 1982 when he conceived the idea to compose five albums, each dedicated to a different subject. Representative of the themes Van Zandt sought to explore included the individual, the family, the state, economics, and religion. The first four concept albums--Men Without Women released in 1982, Voice of Americareleased in 1984, Freedom--No Compromisereleased in 1987, Revolution released in 1989--ranged, in terms of music, from soulful rock to world and dance music.
"I knew they would all be political records that were truthful, artistic adventures, rather than smart career moves," Van Zandt, whose albums earned critical recognition yet failed to attract the mainstream, explained to Anthony Bozza in Rolling Stone. "I knew their musical inconsistency would kill the possibility of a career--you can't ask that much of an audience. Looking back, you could say it was stupid, and I might agree with you. I was a bit naïve, because I forgot to think about how I was going to make a living. But I was compelled to do what I had to do." The passing of time, however, had little effect on his convictions. Years later, Van Zandt, still driven to follow his own creative energy rather than succumb to industry standards, recorded the fifth album to complete his thematic plan. Fittingly, Born Again Savage studies the "religion" that Van Zandt has followed his entire life: rock and roll. On the album, Van Zandt consciously saluted the spirits of an array of bands--from the Who to the Sex Pistols--who made significant contributions to rock music.
Born on November 22, 1950, in Boston, Massachusetts, to an Italian-American family, Steven Van Zandt was raised in Middletown, New Jersey, where he started playing guitar on the club circuit and formed his first band, the Source, in 1966. In the early-1970s, Van Zandt played with a number of bands, including Steel Mill and Southside Johnny Lyon's Asbury Jukes. In the middle of the decade, in addition to writing songs and producing for Lyon's first three albums, he joined Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. As a guitarist with Springsteen's band, Van Zandt also co-produced the acclaimed Born to Run, helping to shape one of the world's most beloved rock and roll outfits.
Found a Kindred Spirit in "The Boss"
"We just had a thing right from the start," the guitarist said to Hilburn, recalling the bond he and Springsteen discovered soon after they first met. "I was one of the two guys in my high school of 3,000 with long hair. He was the only one in his high school with long hair. That meant you didn't really fit in. You were called a freak--especially if you were in a band. This was before everyone wanted to be in a band. But we found something in the music that we believed in--even though no one else was supportive and there was no way of realistically thinking you were going to make a living at it."
While working with the E Street Band, Van Zandt formed Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul in 1982, a 12-piece band that included horn players from the Asbury Jukes, bass guitarist Jean Beauvoir, formerly of the Plasmatics, and ex-Rascals drummer Dino Danelli. The group debuted that year with Men Without Women, a solid roots-rock effort produced by Van Zandt himself under his E Street name "Miami Steve." Voice of America, which included the song "Solidarity," followed two years later, illustrating the guitarist's new-found commitment to international politics. By the time he released this album, Van Zandt had retired from Springsteen's group, thus dropping the "Miami" part of his name on record.
Although Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band had achieved success beyond their expectations, Van Zandt at the time felt he needed to follow his own musical path. "You dream about being the biggest band in the world, and I wasn't about to leave until we were, but then you are one day and I started to look around and I realized this was all I've done my whole life," the musician explained to Hilburn regarding his decision to leave the group. "I didn't regret that, but I also didn't know much about myself outside the band. I just felt like learning, learning about myself and learning about what was going on in the world. I was interested in what was going on in the world, and I wanted to express my ideas."
Became an Activist
As Van Zandt moved away from the E Street Band to pursue his own career, he became a freedom fighter through his music. In 1984, the musician made two visits to South Africa, and upon his return, gathered over 50 of the world's most esteemed performers--including Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, and U2's Bono--to form an organization called Artists United Against Apartheid. The group recorded a song written by Van Zandt entitled "Sun City," and out of that song grew an album by the same name co-produced by Van Zandt and Arthur Baker, a popular music video, and a concert, all of which raised funds for anti-apartheid efforts. The series of projects also helped refocus attention on the industry's longtime cultural boycott of South Africa, a trust many entertainers had neglected by performing at a lucrative, Las Vegas-style show at the South African Sun City resort.
Released in 1985, the Sun City album and other related projects transformed Van Zandt into an activist, and the musician spent the following years risking his life at times in order to meet with revolutionaries in South Africa, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, as well as raising public awareness of United States military involvement in Central America. "I was like a soldier," he told Bozza. "I was obsessed. I knew I was right and feared nothing. I didn't care if I lived or died. I wasn't going to look back 20 years later at a holocaust and feel that I didn't do as much as possible. It was egomaniacal and maybe delusional, but you need that to go out there and try the impossible."
Meanwhile, Van Zandt produced records for a variety of bands, from the goth-rock outfit Lords of the New Church to the alternative country band Lone Justice. In addition, he continued to produce and record his uncompromised, politically-charged series of albums, which eventually alienated him from the music industry. Besides Sun City, none of his albums sold well, even though on Freedom--No Compromise Springsteen sang on "Native American" and Van Zandt duetted with Ruben Blades on "Bitter Fruit," a song about labor conditions in Central America. In 1991, he reunited with old friends Southside Johnny Lyon and Springsteen, producing Lyon's Better Days album.
From there, Van Zandt spent the remainder of the decade continuing his activism and struggling to finish other projects--a forthcoming album, a rock musical, and a music company--without much success. "For a while, I was just kinda like walking my dog, man," he admitted to Hilburn. However, Van Zandt's luck changed when he received two job offers: to reunite with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and to act as an old-school hitman living in the modern-day mob world on David Chase's Golden Globe award-winning HBO series The Sopranos. During the show's first 13-episode season in 1999, The Sopranos skyrocketed in popularity to become a national favorite.
"I'm living proof of 'It ain't over til it's over,'" he said with a laugh to Bozza. "It was a strange convergence. If it didn't happen to me, I wouldn't believe it." Oddly enough, Van Zandt was discovered while presenting at an awards show held in 1997. "I was inducting the Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which I initially refused to do--I told them to get a real celebrity." Eventually, Van Zandt broke down and agreed to participate in the televised event. By chance, Chase watched the awards special, then asked Van Zandt to fly to Los Angeles for a screen test--just to make sure he had some acting ability. Since then, the musician and now actor has maintained a busier schedule than ever.
Along with touring and a new acting career, Van Zandt was also able to complete Born Again Savage, released on his own RenegadeNation label to favorable reviews. Though continuing his solo work, Van Zandt hopes to record again with the E Street band. He resides in New York with Maureen, his wife of 17 years.
by Laura Hightower
Steven Van Zandt's Career
Formed first band, the Source, 1966; played with bands including Steel Mill and Southside Johnny Lyon's Asbury Jukes, early-1970s; member of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, mid-1970s through the mid-1980s; formed 12-piece band called Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, 1982; released debut album Men Without Women, 1982; produced Sun City, 1985; reunited with the E Street Band, joined the cast of The Sopranos, released Born Again Savage, 1999.
- Selected discography
- Men Without Women , Razor & Tie Music, 1982.
- Voice of America , Razor & Tie Music, 1984.
- Sun City , (with others and as co-producer), Manhattan, 1985.
- Freedom--No Compromise , Manhattan/EMI, 1987.
- Revolution , 1989.
- Born Again Savage , RenegadeNation/Pachyderm, 1999.
- Chicago Tribune, January 11, 2000.
- Los Angeles Times, December 19, 1999.
- Rolling Stone, January 20, 2000; March 2, 2000.
- USA Today, February 2, 1998.
- Rolling Stone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (June 21, 2000).
- Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (June 21, 2000).
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