Stevie Van Zandt Looks Back at His Wild Life

June 29, 2024
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For filmmaker Bill Teck, the hardest part of making a documentary about the life and career of Little Steven Van Zandt was just fitting it all in. “It’s just a complicated life,” says Teck, who directed the new documentary Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple, streaming now on Max. “Silvio Dante helped end apartheid!” In addition to his work in the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen, Van Zandt was the writer and producer behind Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes’ great 1970s albums; a solo artist backed by his band, the Disciples of Soul; an actor in The Sopranos and later Lilyhammer; and a political activist, fighting against apartheid in South Africa with the classic 1985 all-star single “Sun City.” He’s also become something of a rock n’ roll evangelist in recent years, fighting to keep rock and soul history alive with his Underground Garage channel on SiriusXM and his TeachRock educational program.

In the new episode of our weekly Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Van Zandt looks back on it all, accompanied by Teck. To hear the whole interview, go here for the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play above. Some highlights from the interview follow.

Van Zandt’s dramatic recent weight loss was all about belatedly re-embracing his rock-star status. “It was a long journey, mentally, maybe spiritually back to that place,” he says. “Because once I became an actor, that dominated up until a year ago. I had done the rock star thing, now I’m moving on. So then Bruce puts the band back together [in 1999], and I come back halfway, and stayed there really up until literally two years ago…. We were going to come back and it’s going to be seven years after our previous tour, right? And I’m thinking to myself, ‘This could be the last tour. I’m going to be a rock star one more time.’…. And I really feel like, let’s surprise everybody because they’re not going to know what to expect, man… Is it going to be like a bunch of old men coming back and going through the motions? And I’m like, no way, man. I’m like, we’re going to come back and blow minds…. We’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning, but we ain’t going out quietly, baby. So I lost a hundred pounds in six months. Let’s honor our audience’s loyalty. Let’s honor Bruce Springsteen’s incredible writing and the E Street Bands’ hard work by showing respect and getting in shape for this one.”

Van Zandt is deeply proud that he was forward-looking enough to make sure rappers (including Run-DMC, Melle Mel, the Fat Boys, and Kurtis Blow) were part of “Sun City” in 1985. “Yeah, that was big because the industry was trying to stuff it out in its infancy,” Van Zandt says. People don’t realize that now. They’d probably deny it if you ask them, but I was questioned at the time. ‘You’re putting Melle Mel next to Jackson Browne, next to Bob Dylan?’ I was like, ‘Yeah! I feel that strongly about this new thing called rap.’ I thought it was monumentally important and and we were happy to to be ahead of the curve that way — and got them all on MTV on top of that, which was miraculous.”

After losing money on two recent tours with his revived Disciples of Soul, Van Zandt doesn’t see his solo career resuming. “I don’t think so,” he says. “Not unless I win the lottery. I’m still paying for those two! And I just felt I needed to do it. It’s very expensive. And unless I get to find a patron at some point, it’s unlikely that’ll ever happen again. I gotta say, it’s almost impossible.”

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Van Zandt was in a dark place after leaving the E Street Band before the massive success of 1984’s Born in the U.S.A. — which only made him more fearless in his activism. “There was no going back,” Van Zandt says. “So I became a bit suicidal at that point, which was very helpful. It didn’t help my marriage maybe, but it put me, in a situation where I could talk to [South African liberation group] the Azanian People’s Organization, tough characters, to accomplish what I felt needed to be accomplished instead of being scared about it or fearful for my life, which anybody logical and reasonable would’ve been. I didn’t care. Take that machete out and cut my head off. I don’t give a shit. You know what I mean? At that point, I was like, ‘You wanna kill me? You’d be doing me a favor.’ So I wasn’t the least bit afraid, and I think that came from that suicidal impulse, that I had ended my life and done such a stupid thing. But somehow, you hang in there — and destiny shows you, you’re not done yet.”

Download and subscribe to Rolling Stone‘s weekly podcast, Rolling Stone Music Now, hosted by Brian Hiatt, on Apple Podcasts or Spotify (or wherever you get your podcasts). Check out six years’ worth of episodes in the archive, including in-depth interviews with Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, Questlove, Halsey, Neil Young, Snoop Dogg, Brandi Carlile, Phoebe Bridgers, Rick Ross, Alicia Keys, the National, Ice Cube, Taylor Hawkins, Willow, Keith Richards, Robert Plant, Dua Lipa, Killer Mike, Julian Casablancas, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Marr, Scott Weiland, Liam Gallagher, Alice Cooper, Fleetwood Mac, Elvis Costello, John Legend, Donald Fagen, Charlie Puth, Phil Collins, Justin Townes Earle, Stephen Malkmus, Sebastian Bach, Tom Petty, Eddie Van Halen, Kelly Clarkson, Pete Townshend, Bob Seger, the Zombies, and Gary Clark Jr. And look for dozens of episodes featuring genre-spanning discussions, debates, and explainers with Rolling Stone’s critics and reporters.



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