Steven Van Zandt still regrets leaving Springsteen and The E Street Band: 'My life ended'
Steven Van Zandt’s kitchen looks exactly as you might expect from a guy whose everyday attire includes head scarves and printed shirts.
The black-and-white-striped walls and purple velvet couch with gold trim set in the background of the room in his New York home are the epitome of Zany Rock Star Living. But while Van Zandt has always embraced his colorful persona, he’s also a laser-focused professional, whether sharing syllables at a mic with Bruce Springsteen, shrugging and mugging as Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos,” fronting his Disciples of Soul band or steering his syndicated radio show, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” (he also programs the Underground Garage and Outlaw Country channels on SiriusXM).
Van Zandt’s new memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations,” out now, is a rollicking read that spans his Italian-American upbringing, the dive bar days with Springsteen, his ill-timed departure from the E Street Band, his commitment to illuminating the horrors of apartheid, reuniting with Springsteen and his surprising third act as an actor.
In a freewheeling Zoom call, Van Zandt, 70, talked about working on his memoir during quarantine – he started it 10 years ago, but struggled with finding an ending – his loyalty to Springsteen and why he believes The Rolling Stones are doing the right thing by carrying on without Charlie Watts.
Q: You tell the story – which I’m not sure a lot of people realized – about how you created the character of Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos.” Did you have any input for John Magaro, who is playing the role in “The Many Saints of Newark”?
Van Zandt: He did it all on his own. He didn’t need me. He had 86 episodes (of “The Sopranos”) to look at! He’s a terrific actor. I saw an early cut of the film and it’s great.
Q: You’re such a vivid storyteller. Did you have anyone assisting with writing the book, or is this all you?
Van Zandt: My editor, Ben Greenman, really helped to keep me on the path. Even though it starts off as a music book, I didn’t want it to be that. By the second half of the book, it becomes an odyssey. I wanted it to be a detective novel: you don’t know what is coming next because I didn’t know myself. I wanted to write every word and I explained to the publisher, the way I’m going to be sure this is in my voice is that I’m going to picture doing the audiobook and I’m going to write it that way. It’s not going to be grammatically correct, but if you read it the way I’m going write it, you will hear my voice.
Q: Did you have Bruce read it before finalizing?
Van Zandt: Yes. I said, if there’s anything you disagree with or remember different, I will take it out immediately because I didn’t want a journalist blindsiding him and saying, “Stevie said this in his book and you said this in yours.” I have no sense of time. You want the encyclopedia of our lives, I’m not the guy. I’m gonna tell you what I remember and the way I remember. In the end, I wanted to keep the Bruce stuff to a minimum, but he ended up being in there more than I expected because he’s been such a big part of my life.
Q: You write a lot about being at peace with the way destiny shook out as your career went along. But is there still a part of you that regrets leaving the E Street Band in ’84, just before the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour?
Van Zandt: Totally. Forever. That will never go away. My life ended. I committed suicide for all intents and purposes and you do have to die to be reborn. That was the end of my life, which occurred to me as I was flying down to South Africa (to research apartheid). Then my “Voice of America” (album) comes out and I didn’t know Bruce was going to call the album “Born in the U.S.A.” and have the same red, white and blue and flags. ... At that point I was like, oh, I blew it. I blew my life. A couple of things happen when that occurs; you lose all fear. All of a sudden I’m going to dangerous places thinking what’s the worst that can happen? They gonna kill me? OK, I’m ready to go. You tend to suddenly do things in a more committed way, that life is over so whatever is left, I really have to make it count.
Q: You mention in the book about going to see The Rolling Stones perform “Sticky Fingers” in 2015 and talking to Charlie Watts about it. What do you think about the band continuing on, since obviously they can never be the same without him?
Van Zandt: No, they’re not, and they weren’t the same after Brian Jones or Mick Taylor or Bill Wyman. They were huge parts of the band and people underestimate Bill’s enormous musical role in that band. So yeah, it will be a different Rolling Stones – like we’re a different E Street Band – but I agree that they should continue. As long as Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards) are there, it’s the Stones. In the end you want them to continue because the music is bigger than any individual. But Charlie will certainly be missed.
Q: Will we see you on an arena stage next year with the E Street Band?
Van Zandt: Who the hell knows with what’s going on? It’s very hard to plan anything. I’m going to give Bruce first priority and I’ll be there with him if he decides to go. If not, I’m going to try to get back on TV. I miss it. I’d consider going back to “Lilyhammer” if Netflix wanted to. The show doubled its audience during quarantine. We were the first new (original) show on Netflix (in 2012) and on my first promo tour I had to explain to people what Netflix was (laughs). It’s such as strange and wondrous world.