In fact, Stevie Van Zandt has been a trusted adviser and bandmate to one of the greatest rock stars ever, and on television he has played Consigliere to one of the mafia’s most feared characters. Now with his new autobiography Unhappy love affairs: A memory, Van Zandt finally gets a chance to take center stage with his own life story. I talked to Van Zandt about his rock and roll life, the price you pay for leaving a band before their most successful album, and why your next drink should be a Stevie Colada.
You have toured the world. What favorite food and drink have you found along the way?
I am a when in Rome eat the local pasta kind of guy. A couple of guys in the band, Jon Landau and Roy Bittan, are connoisseurs of good food and drink. I’m a kind of farmer, give me the local wine and some parmesan, and I’m fine. Even my drinks change depending on where I am. My drink is an espresso martini. But this summer I invented Stevie Colada.
What’s in a Stevie Colada?
It is important that you know. It’s a piña colada with a half shot of Kahlúa. You do not use more than that because it is too strong, but the half shot changes the piña colada significantly. So try next time you are on a yacht or a beach Stevie Colada.
You write that song arranging is your favorite craft. Are there similarities in taking the different parts of your life and making them work like a book?
Yes, my own narrative was the least interesting part of the book for me, so I wanted to make sure I had two other things that balanced it: a certain amount of music history – which I mostly witnessed, I only missed the first decade of rock and roll – and the bits and pieces of the craft I’ve been involved in. I also thought I’d rather write the way I want to speak the audiobook. I told my editor that I do not want to be grammatically correct and there will be some strange sentence fragments, but if you read it as I write it, you will hear my voice.
We all imagine Bruce Springsteen with a Telecaster guitar, but in the book you claim you had one first and Bruce had to get your permission before you got one too.
It was serious. I actually got the first Telecaster in our entire area. Back then, every guitar player had a different guitar and it became part of their identity. I know it sounds ridiculously superficial and indifferent (laughs), but that’s how it was. So in the end, Bruce would switch to a Telecaster and ask “do you mind?” I said “no, keep going.”
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Along with your role in the E Street Band, your character Silvio Dante on The Sopranos is also capable of being the boss’s reliable advisor. Who are the people you trust to advise you?
Luckily I have a few. My wife Maureen, she does not hesitate to point out my several weaknesses. I’m going to Bruce Springsteen for difficult choices. I have many friends, Peter Wolf, Richie Sambora, David Chase, Jimmy Iovine. I’m lucky that way. [Silvio Dante voice] I do not have any full time, but I have my people.
You have a long history of activism, including Artists United Against Apartheid. Tell me about one of your recent projects, LEARNING HOOK.
There is a fundamental flaw in the education process right now that we can correct by integrating the arts. Children come with gifts built-in: instinct, emotion, imagination. These are normally suppressed or ignored. Our position is that we should use these gifts and integrate them into the other disciplines. We use music history as a common ground.
How does the program work?
We ask the kids what your favorite song is? Whatever they answer, we say ok let’s trace it back. Do you like Beyonce? Great, well she’s from Aretha Franklin, who’s from Detroit – so we’re talking about Detroit. She was involved in civil rights – so we’re talking about civil rights. And the kids are completely with you because you have come to their world.
What has been the effect?
We have forty thousand teachers using it, and many partner schools, which is exciting. I held a press conference the other day with the governor of Connecticut, and they just accepted it for the whole state. We want to revolutionize the education system and include art in a way that not only makes children learn better, but also stays in school. If they like a class or a teacher, they stay in school. We want to be that class.
You write about the battles behind the scenes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Who is the latest band you are arguing for?
It’s a friendly match, we all respect each other a lot. There are a lot of people who deserve to be with, that’s the bottom line. I have certain artists I definitely feel should be in: Procol Harum, The J. Geils Band. There are a number of people you continue to politicize for. My list is probably a hundred names that I think are essential. But everyone has their own list.
You left the E Street Band just before the success of Born In The USA In the book you write your punishment for this is “a lifetime of penance for the greatest mistake of my life from which there is no redemption.” How much of it is humor, and how much of it is genuine?
It’s a little bit of humor, BUT … is it too much to expect that maybe 1% of the E Street audience has nothing better to do at night when I perform with my own band? The answer is YES! So they stay home instead. This is one of the curious things: life does not cross over. Same thing for my show Lilyhammer. Literally one million Norwegians lined up every week out of a five million population. We go and play Oslo, and only a thousand people show up. What is it, a tenth of 1%?
I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world, I’ve been accepted as a rock and roll guy in the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteens left hand husband and friend. I have also been accepted as an actor. It’s already very unusual, and I’m completely grateful for it, so asking for third acceptance as my own artist may be that bridge too far.