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The Last Word: Steven Van Zandt on the Death of Rock and the Biggest Mistake He Ever Made

The guitarist-actor-producer also discusses his lifelong friendship with Bruce Springsteen, how he crafted his ‘Sopranos’ character, and the possibility of a 2020 E Street Band tour

Steven Van Zandt reflects on his close friendship with Bruce Springsteen and explains how he crafted his 'Sopranos' character.

Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

A little more than 20 years ago, Steve Van Zandt didn’t know if he’d ever work again. He quit the E Street Band in 1984 to pursue a solo career, but that dried up by the 1990s and he didn’t know where to turn next. “I literally went out into the wilderness,” he says. “I’m not exaggerating. I walked my dog for seven years. I’d be out for eight hours a day just thinking, ‘How’d I get here? If I ever get back, what will I do?’ I said to myself, ‘If I ever get back in, I’m not going to stop working. I’m never going to be in this position again where I can’t work.’”

His prayers were answered in 1999 when he was cast on The Sopranos as Silvio Dante, right around the same time that Springsteen reunited the E Street Band for a world tour. He’s been working steadily every since, somehow managing his record label Wicked Cool, his Underground Garage radio channel on SiriusXM, and the new incarnation of his solo group Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul all at the same time. Oh, and every few years he drops everything to tour with the world with Springsteen.

Days before wrapping up his 2019 solo tour with shows in Boston and New York City, we sat down with Van Zandt for a Last Word interview where he shared the bits of wisdom he’s learned throughout his long career.

What are the best and worst parts of success?
The best part of success, real success, is getting a chance to work the way you want to work, do what you want to do. Your projects are funded, your ideas are funded, your content is marketed. The worst part of success is being more famous than you are rich. I know that sounds funny, but I’m involved in fundraisers all the time, and I have to ask people for money, which I hate doing more than anything else on the planet. And they look at you like, “What are you asking me for money for? I’ve seen you on TV. You must be fucking rich.”

You’d never acted before you took the role of Silvio on The Sopranos. How did you find the courage to go in there and work with these top pros?
I decided that I had to create this guy. First of all, I wrote a biography of who the guy was and I made up my own story. He grew up with Tony Soprano, he was his best friend, he’s the only guy who doesn’t want to be the boss, he’s the only guy he trusts. I kind of used my relationship with Bruce, basically. But then I said, “I’ve got to create this guy from the outside in.” And part of the biography, by the way, was that he kind of romanticized the mob’s history and felt that the best times were over. The good times are gone, now everybody’s ratting everybody out and the good old days of the mob are long gone. But he was a traditionalist, so he wanted to have that kind of honor that he felt the old mob guys had, and so he looked like a throwback. I have a Fifties haircut and a Fifties kind of demeanor, because that was his philosophy.

I found out where John Gotti had his clothes made. I had some associates of associates who know things [about Mafia figures], so I had the right clothes, I had the right hair. I felt if I could look in the mirror and see this other guy, I could be that guy. To this day, I have just the utmost respect for actors who can look like themselves and act. But I’ve got to look in the mirror and see somebody else. Anyway, part of my biography was that he was fearless. So when I walked out on the set, I was that guy. I was fearless too. Stevie Van Zandt could not have walked onto that stage, believe me. Silvio Dante could.

How much of success is hard work and how much is luck?
The old expression is “the harder you work, the luckier you’ll get,” and I think there’s something there. In other words, when the opportunities present themselves, if you’re not ready, it’s irrelevant. On the other hand, I don’t have a lot of ambition. I’ve got a lot of flaws, but that’s a pretty big one. I don’t really have as much ambition as I should have. So when I’m trying to do something with my life, usually I’m at the front door trying to do something and my life comes in the back door. So, it’s all luck. I mean, why are we who we are? Let’s get down to basics. The characteristics that make up who you are, you don’t have very much to do with that.

It’s the time and the place that you were born.
Exactly. I analyzed this once, in fact, and I came up with four elements of who we are. The first three are DNA, circumstance, and environment. By that, I mean the circumstances of your life. You’re born in the middle of Africa or you’re born in New Jersey. Environment means your parents showed love for you or they didn’t. DNA is DNA, and that provides inclination or is at least a factor in terms of your inclination. Whether you realize that inclination is another story. But the fourth thing, and in some ways, it’s the smallest part of who you are and the most important, is willpower. And that plays a funny role. That, I think, determines a lot of where you end up, and you can call that ambition in some ways, but willpower is more than ambition. It’s a certain drive to realize one’s potential, to be somebody not necessarily famous, but to realize your potential. I don’t care if you’re a carpenter, you still want to build that perfect house.

You’ve had lots of moments in your career where you’re the guy in charge, whether it’s your solo career or your show Lilyhammer. Then there are situations like the E Street Band or The Sopranos where you’re part of a much bigger machine. How did you learn to put your ego aside for those kind of situations, especially after you grew accustomed to control?
My natural instinct is to be out of the spotlight, behind the scenes. If I had to identify myself, it would be as a writer-producer. So that’s part of it right there. You’re contributing to something that is complex, and recognizing greatness is one of the things that I can do. As a troubleshooter, I make bad things good, good things great, and great things better. I know how to do that. But chasing greatness has really been what gets me off in life. I seek it out, I support it when I find it, I try and create it, or I contribute to it. You don’t run into greatness that often, but it’s important as a producer, if that’s one of your gifts, that gift is recognizing it when you see it. So I’m a good soldier and a good leader because I understand both sides of the story.

You’ve been with your wife, Maureen, for 37 years. What’s the secret to a long marriage?
If you want to stay married, stay apart. We’ve been married for 37 years, but we’ve been together for about 10 of those. Truthfully, though, I think it’s important to give each other some space. She has a very, very strong personality. She has her own life, her own interests, her own career. I think you need to have enough in common, obviously, to stay together and stay in love, which we have, but at the same time, you want to be able to give each other a little room to grow on your own and be your own person.

How do you respond to Gene Simmons when he says that rock is dead?
Well, I think what he’s referring to is in the business. In the mainstream business, he’s absolutely correct. On the other hand, live, for instance, we’re still the biggest thing. And I’m sure he would acknowledge that. He’s one of the beneficiaries of it. Kiss is one of the most successful touring acts, I think, in history, and they still are. So I think he was referring to the mainstream business of record sales, the charts and record sales. That’s the business, right? I think in that sense, we were a blip on the radar screen. History will look back on the rock era as a blip. An extraordinary renaissance that turned into extraordinary sales for that 30-year period, which was largely the benefit of what Frank Barsalona created. But that’s another story.

Do you think the genre will wind up like jazz, where it’s enjoyed by only a small cult of devotees?
We’ll be lucky to end up as a cult, OK? If you would’ve told me [my Sirius station would] be the only one that ended up playing the Beatles, I would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I thought that was carved in stone. When Paul McCartney puts out a new record, I’m the only one who plays it. The Stones put out a new record, I’m the only one who plays it. Even though they’re playing five Stones songs all day, they won’t play a new one. Why not?

It’s just “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Satisfaction” over and over and over.
Why is that? It’s the same fucking voice, same sound. It’s not like the Stones started doing jazz fusion or something. I mean, come on. I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. But we’re filling a big, big gap with that. There’s also the thousand new bands we played, but if Joan Jett puts out a new record, Cheap Trick … these people are still making great records, you know?

You and Bruce Springsteen have been close friends since you were teenagers. How have you managed to not let business and creative issues get in the way of that relationship?
Our friendship is deeper than any of that, and it’s forever. I decided that very early on. Remember, he was a very different person the first 10 years I knew him. He wasn’t the world’s greatest entertainer. He was like one of those grunge guys with long hair that just stares at his shoes. But I got extraordinary strength from finding one other person on the planet that felt the same way I did about rock & roll. You only need one so you don’t think you’re insane and you don’t think you’re a loser by not fitting into society. And I didn’t fit in and he didn’t fit in, and so we kind of had each other there in the beginning. This is when rock & roll was not a business yet. It was not hip. You didn’t get the girls by being in a rock band. They still were going after the football players and the surfers. It wasn’t like A Hard Day’s Night in New Jersey, OK? That was not being acted out.

What advice do you wish you could give to yourself at age 20?
My big regret of my life is not having a manager and not seeing myself as an artist to the degree that I would demand to have a manager. I’m a really good troubleshooter in a lot of different ways, and that makes me kind of a good manager. if I had become a manager for other people, I would’ve been a really good one.

But you can’t manage yourself.
Right. You can’t be your own manager, no matter how much you understand the business. That’s because the one thing you can’t be is an advocate, and that’s the main job of a manager. Advocate. To be the person that sells you and encourages you, and is a fan of yours, and constantly pumps you up when you get depressed and all that stuff. All those clichés are all valuable and they’re all true. You need that. You need somebody out there selling your work, because content, as I learned the hard way, is only half the story. The other half is marketing.

You left the E Street Band in 1984. What advice would you give yourself the day before you did that?
Don’t do it! It’s the one defining moment of my life. It was a mistake I’ve never recovered from. Financially, it was apocalyptic. That said, we did take years off the life of the South African government [Van Zandt created Artists United Against Apartheid in 1985]. But is that worth losing all of my friends, all of my power base, all my juice, all my celebrity capital, to save a few lives? And you’ve got to say, “Yeah, sure. It was.” But I look back and think, “Jeez, if only I could’ve done those things and stayed.” I would’ve had the perfect life.

Let’s move onto politics. What’s so wrong with America that 63 million people thought Donald Trump should be president. What happened?
What’s happening is going on worldwide; it’s not just here. The whole world is full of disappointed people. That’s why you’re seeing the rise of nationalism, of white supremacy, of isolationism, of religious extremism. All of those things are rising everywhere you look. Half of Europe is holding on by a thread. I can’t entirely explain it, but I know one thing: The basic economic system that has never really worked all that great is no longer working at a functionary level. When you have people in America who have jobs and are homeless, something’s wrong with the system that is deep.

What did you learn about grief after losing people like Clarence Clemons and James Gandolfini?
I’ll tell you how I’ve evolved. My life is mostly about work. And honestly, I am usually very frustrated in my output. I’m constantly trying to catch up and have more output and work harder and get stuff done. So I’m obsessed with work most of the time. So when it comes to these kind of things, I’ve decided, my mind has gone to a place where it’s a very useful defense mechanism called denial. We spend the first half of our lives fighting denial and confronting our fears and what is false and trying to get to the truth and understand ourselves and be as honest and open to the truth as we can be and live it.

At this point, I’m the opposite. In my head, me and Jimmy’s schedules are just not crossing at the moment and I’ll catch up to him one of these days. That happens to me a lot. You might see good friends once a year, but you start the conversation right where you left off. Also, I try and avoid funerals if I can. I’d just rather be in denial about it, because it’s the only way to live with it, really, because they’re such big losses. Jimmy, I miss Jimmy every day. Frank Barsalona, one of my best friends, I miss him every day. Steve Popovich, I miss him every day. I mean, there’s so many. Your mother, your father … and after a while, the older you get, it’s happening all around you all the time, what are you going to do? You can either spend your life in grief, or you just say, just be in denial about it. It’s like, “Alright, I’m just not seeing them at the moment. They’re busy. I’m busy, they’re busy.” And that’s how I deal with it.

You tweeted recently that you weren’t sure if you’d ever play another solo show. What’s going on?
Well, I was trying to be … what’s the word? Existential’s not quite the word, but I was trying to impress upon people to not take anything for granted. I hope I keep this band together forever. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that because if we go out with Bruce, that could be two years and by then, who knows? The different guys in the band may find different bands. I was telling people before the New York and Boston shows that they shouldn’t take us for granted. I didn’t want them to be like, “Oh, they’re going to be around every three months, every six months, so if I can’t make it this time, I’ll go next time.” That’s not true.

To wrap up, there have been a lot of Bruce interviews in recent months where he says the E Street Band are touring in 2020. Are you pretty sure it’s going to happen?
Until I see a press release, I don’t care what he says, alright? I mean, I’ve gotten in trouble before, so I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t care what he says. Yes, I hope so. I even may think so. But until there’s a press release, all I can say is that I hope so and I think so.

Are you ready fore a two-year tour?
Yeah. To be honest with you, it’s like a vacation.

Even during a show that lasts four hours like some did on the last tour?
Four hours is too long. By the end, your fingers can’t even bend the strings anymore. We were in good shape by then, but Bruce came to me and said, “I can’t bend the stings anymore.” I was like, “Go complain to the boss. Don’t tell me.” The fact you can’t even bend the strings anymore tells you maybe we were overdoing it a bit.