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From Bruce Springsteen To 'The Sopranos': Rocker Stevie Van Zandt Tells All In New Memoir

Musician Stevie Van Zandt (Heidi Gutman/NBC Universal)
Musician Stevie Van Zandt (Heidi Gutman/NBC Universal)

Stevie Van Zandt has a lot to say.

As documented in his new memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations,” it’s because his life has encompassed far more than music alone.

The musician, actor and activist covers everything from forming the E Street Band with childhood friend Bruce Springsteen to taking on the iconic role of Silvio Dante in “The Sopranos” — one of the few people who could tell Tony Soprano what he didn’t want to hear.

He recorded solo albums, radio shows and a Netflix series “Lilyhammer.”

In the 1980s, Van Zandt was a political activist who brought together more than 50 stars including Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt to attract worldwide attention to apartheid in South Africa.

But it all started with the E Street Band, even if their success did come “extremely slowly,” he says.

“I’m sure we had the longest gestation period in the history of show business,” he says.

They played for 15 years before they had a hit, “Hungry Heart,” off of their fifth album.

Van Zandt says the outgoing Springsteen the world now knows and loves was once a shy kid. Springsteen’s transformation was a “miraculous thing to witness” as his “ ‘Born to Run’ persona” took off, he says.

But that’s rock n roll, he says, because the genre demands that an artist morphs into someone else.

But when he wanted to have more of an official management role, the two longtime friends had what he calls their first real fight and “without thinking too much of the consequences,” Van Zandt quit the E Street Band.

“It would hit me a little bit later just what I had done,” he says. “You know, I had basically ended my life.”

He’d return to the E Street Band more than a decade later. But he says in his memoir if he didn’t leave the band, he wouldn’t have begun the political activism that was sparked when Van Zandt heard “Biko” by Peter Gabriel. Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist, was beaten to death by state security guards in 1977.

In 1984, Van Zandt traveled to Soweto, a segregated and dangerous neighborhood in Johannesburg, rallying for the anti-apartheid cause. It was all part of the “unexpected turn” in his career.

“How do I justify my existence? I mean, the world does not need love songs from a former sideman,” he says. “So I decided I’d be the political guy.”

They recorded “Sun City” as a takedown of the Sun City resort in South Africa and pledged they would not perform at the venue — unlike other famous U.S. artists still making appearances — in opposition to apartheid.

He decided to get other artists involved to bring more attention in the U.S. to the injustices occurring in South Africa. What he thought would be a collaboration between a few musicians blossomed into over 50 participants known as Artists United Against Apartheid.

He thanks the late Danny Schechter, news director from WBCN radio in Boston and creator of the TV show “South Africa Now,” for his enthusiasm to get folks involved.

Watch on YouTube.

At the time, the U.N. had instituted boycotts against cultural exchanges, but stars like Cher, Elton John, Rod Stewart and The Beach Boys were still holding shows at the Sun City resort. Artists United Against Apartheid released the protest song and album “Sun City” in 1985 and pledged to not perform there.

In his memoir, Van Zandt details how Frank Zappa and Paul Simon didn’t contribute to the project as he thought they should have. He thought Simon was hypocritical because Simon broke the cultural boycott to go to South Africa to record parts of “Graceland.”

Those two artists aren’t the only “jerks” Van Zandt ran into, he says.

“I was a huge fan of Frank Zappa, and he was a complete obnoxious jerk on the phone and that was sad for me,” he says. “Paul Simon, he had a different philosophy about it. And, you know, and I totally respect him and his work. But on this one subject, we just did not agree.”

Van Zandt was in close contact with Nelson Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, while creating Artists United Against Apartheid.

When Mandela was released from prison and came to visit the U.S., Van Zandt helped coordinate a massive event to raise money for the cause. In his memoir, he details how he got a call from Mandela’s people saying the revolutionary activist was too tired to attend the event.

Van Zandt would not take no for an answer.

“I don’t take s*** from anybody. I don’t care who they are. And I’m like, ‘hey, I advertised dinner with Mandela. You don’t want Mandela to come down here? Good. I’ll give everybody their money back,’ ” he says.

And to Van Zandt’s delight — Mandela showed up.

More From The Interview:

Robin Young: “You were so in real life perfect for the role that you played [in “The Sopranos.”]

Stevie Van Zandt: “That was destiny calls and I jump in and learn on the job. That’s been most of my life. I had nothing better to do. Let me go see if I’m an actor.”

Young: “You killed Adriana. I mean, it was just one of the most difficult things to watch you do this hit on this beautiful young woman in ‘The Sopranos’ in this gorgeous forest. You write that was one of the toughest things you’ve ever done.

Van Zandt: “Yeah because it was so abhorrent to me, so far removed because I hate bullies with a passion and I hate people who beat up women. It was everything I hate in the world — and I had to do it for like two hours. And, you know, it’s not a lot of fun.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Unrequited Infatuations’

By Stevie Van Zandt

Chapter 1

My first epiphany came at the age of ten, in 1961, in my room at 263 Wilson Avenue, New Monmouth, Middletown, New Jersey, during my fifty-fifth consecutive time listening to “Pretty Little Angel Eyes” by Curtis Lee.

That’s what we did in those days.

A song on the radio would stop your life and start it up again. Talk about the perfect relationship completing you? When you were a kid in the ’60s, the right song completed you. It made your day.

Owning a great record wasn’t optional. You had to have it. That meant convincing your mom to drive you into town and then, with great anticipation and reverence, entering the teenage church / temple / synagogue / sweat lodge known as the record store.

Mine was Jack’s Record Shoppe in Red Bank, which had a Music Shoppe on the other side of the street. Getting in early with the British Invasion with that spelling.

It’s where I’d buy my first guitar a few years later. Still there, incredibly.

The store was a beautifully constructed place of worship, as ornate and glorious as any European cathedral. I’d go through dozens of bins to find the record I’d heard on the radio, take it to the counter, and give the guy my hard-earned seventy-nine cents. Then, back at home, I’d listen to it over and over again until it became a physical part of me.

We were the second generation of Rock and Roll kids, which meant that we were only the second generation able to play records in the privacy of our own rooms. The 45 rpm single was invented by RCA in 1949 in retaliation for Columbia inventing the 33 ⅓ rpm LP the year before. Individual portable record players soon followed. Up until then, the record player was in the living room, in the same piece of furniture that held the TV and radio.

If it wasn’t for that portable machine, Rock and Roll might never have happened.

A record player in the living room meant kids needed their parents’ permission, or at least tolerance, to listen to what they wanted. Without the portable player, the first generation of Rock kids would have never gotten Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Jerry Lee Lewis past their parents.

The older generation viewed those 1950s pioneers as an odd combination of novelty and threat. Humorous because of their onstage antics, flamboyant looks, and complete lack of talent (as parents defined it), but scary because there was an uncomfortable element of black culture connecting it all. What effect would that have on kids who already had too much time on their hands for their own good?

Rock could have been snuffed out right there!

But it went up to the kids’ bedrooms. It isn’t my imagination when I say that back in the ’60s you didn’t just hear records, you felt them. Sound waves entered your body. The needle, dragging through

analog impulses miraculously etched into a piece of plastic, somehow had a deeper, more physical level of communication than modern digital music.

I happened to be in London for the twentieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, and EMI, my label at the time, invited a bunch of us to hear the original four-track analog tapes at Abbey Road. I have never heard anything quite like it before or since. I swear to you, I felt stoned for two days afterward. Drug-free.

There had been great strides breaking through to autistic children with music. They ended when the world went digital.

I remember reading that it took two hundred plays to wear a record out. The high frequencies would finally give up. Technology was no match for teenage passion and perseverance.

I passed that limit often. “Twist and Shout” by the Isley Brothers, “Sherry” by the Four Seasons, “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler. Had to buy them again.

So there I was, just getting started on “Pretty Little Angel Eyes,” and even though I can’t remember what I had for breakfast today, I vividly remember looking out my window, seeing a neighbor, Louie Baron, and experiencing a rush of exultation. The music had released my endorphins in a new and unexpected way.

I wanted to run down the stairs and embrace Louie and tell him he was my friend. And that friendship was everything. And that love and music would save the world. I could see a beautiful future clearly. It was there for all of humankind.

My first epiphany.

I didn’t do it, of course. My bliss didn’t make me completely stupid. Men didn’t embrace other men in those days.

I was always a little slower than most kids, so my ecstasy didn’t immediately trigger what should have been obvious curiosity. Who was making the music? How was it made? Could I make it myself? These thoughts wouldn’t come for another couple of years. But music would soon replace my religious fervor.

Did I mention I was a very religious kid? I regularly went to Sunday School, accepted Jesus as my personal savior, got baptized at nine or ten. That’s how Protestants did it, as opposed to Catholics, who baptize at birth. They don’t take any chances.

I was extremely devout there for a couple of years.

Easter Sunrise Service was the test. You had to get up at 4 a.m. to make it to some mountaintop in Highlands by six. I don’t remember my parents going to this, only the church elders and a few super extremist types. I liked the respect I got. I could see it in people’s eyes. I went two years running, maybe three.

I’ve always wanted to be the guy who knows. The guy with the inside dope. I was willing to put the work in, to spend the time to find out. At the age of ten, I figured religion was where the answers were hidden.

In addition to that, I obviously had some genetic penchant for metaphysical zealotry. A need to be part of something larger. A sense of wanting to belong is built into human nature; the zealotry part is what separates the holy rollers, and holy rock and rollers, from regular, far more sane civilians.

Excerpted from UNREQUITED INFATUATIONS: A Memoir by Stevie Van Zandt. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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