Steven Van Zandt in conversation with Jay Cocks - 92Y, NYC, 9.29.21

by Michael Sherer
Posted: Oct 2021
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Jay Cocks & Steven Van Zandt - photo by Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography

Jay Cocks & Steven Van Zandt - photo by Rod Morata/Michael Priest Photography

Steven Van Zandt has a brand new memoir entitled ‘Unrequited Infatuations,’ and to accompany it a discussion was had between him and an old close friend, screenwriter Jay Cocks. It was a very relaxed, down-to-earth and engaging one, as they’ve known each other for 46 years.

Their association is an interesting one: In ‘75, when Cocks was a cultural critic for Time magazine, he found out that Newsweek magazine’s counterpart Maureen Orth was doing a piece about Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, which Van Zandt had joined that year. Cocks then convinced his editor that they were about to be beaten out to the story by their main competitor. The unprecedented result was that both weekly magazines featured Springsteen on their covers on the same day of October 27th. This was the first time that a musician had achieved that. It stemmed from the breakthrough success of Springsteen’s third record ‘Born to Run,’ which had been released two months earlier and had rocketed to number 3 on the Billboard top 200 chart, after his first two records had hardly made any splash at all.

Cocks, who was already a big Springsteen fan, wrote a very complimentary piece called “Rock’s New Sensation.” A memorable quote was: “His music is primal. Directly in touch with all the impulses of wild humor and glancing melancholy, street tragedy and punk anarchy that have made rock the distinctive voice of a generation. Everybody is going to know where he’s coming from and just where he’s heading.”

By that year of ‘75, a decade after Van Zandt had first entered into what was still being called rock and roll but was morphing into simply “rock,” was now firmly that, and it had become big time in every way. The whole industry would peak in ‘78.

Van Zandt spoke about how he and Springsteen met ten years before, in ‘65, when Springsteen, then 16, went to the Hullabaloo club in Middletown Township, New Jersey, where Van Zandt had moved from Winthrop, MA at seven, when his mother married a second time, to William Van Zandt, who was Steven’s step father but soon became a surrogate one.

In ‘65, Van Zandt, then 15, was performing a cover of the Turtles’ “Happy Together” with a group called the Shadows. Springsteen was then in a group called The Castiles and living in Freehold, New Jersey, not so far away but certainly a less affluent area than what Van Zandt enjoyed. They two quickly bonded, and a lifelong friendship and on and off and on again musical partnership has ensued.

Amongst the many subjects discussed were how greatly the British bands influenced Van Zandt, especially The Beatles. He spoke about the “unbridled joy” they brought to the masses, when it was especially needed just after JFK’s assassination. Van Zandt went on to say that their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in ‘67 fundamentally changed the singles world as a constant hustle into a long play, hi fidelity art form type presentation, accompanied by AM radio being surpassed by FM radio, which allowed for much longer songs and far better sound quality.

Radio is a subject that Van Zandt certainly loves and knows well, and can relate to wholly, as he’s had a popular show of his own since ‘02 called ‘Little Steven’s Underground Garage’. It airs on both traditional (terrestrial) stations and satellite radio nationally.

Also addressed was the major impact of the Beatles being on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th, 1964, with a massive 73 million viewers tuning in. Van Zandt said that overnight, tons of youngsters felt empowered and motivated to start their own bands, which became the “garage” type movement. He added that the other TV shows that were also influential in the ‘60’s were Hullabaloo, Shindig! and American Bandstand.

Van Zandt spoke about how much soul and doo wop music meant to him too, as well as how soulful type American groups such as The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Young Rascals, Vanilla Fudge and the like influenced him. Van Zandt noted that the tipping point that made him really want to infuse soul into rock music was going to a Sam & Dave concert in New Jersey in ‘74, accompanied by friends and colleagues Southside Johnny and Springsteen. Van Zandt then had a band with the former, and they were inspired to bring elements such as the hard hitting horns that Sam & Dave used into their own group, called ‘Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes.’ Asbury is a reference to Asbury Park, New Jersey, where they all found club gigs to play, but was by then a run down shell of its former self, particularly due to the riots in ‘68.

Van Zandt went on to say that dancing became an essential requisite for concerts to really go over, and the music therefore had to be more energetic, grooving and varied than what had been happening up until then. These tenants have remained with him ever since.

The solo career that Van Zandt has had since ‘82 with his band ‘The Disciples of Soul,’ and then more earnestly since leaving the E Street Band in ‘84 (he’d return in ‘95 and again in ‘99, and has been a part of the group since) has afforded him many highly gratifying projects, most especially fighting issues surrounding apartheid in South Africa by creating a group called the ‘Artists United Against Apartheid.’ This culminated in ‘85 when Van Zandt and record producer Arthur Baker assembled over 54 different artists to record an album entitled ‘Sun City’ in order to raise awareness and funds regarding the apartheid policy in South Africa. The title referenced a resort in South Africa that catered to wealthy white tourists. They upheld racist apartheid policies, yet many famous entertainers chose to perform there. Notable artists that took part in the making of the album included Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.

The other very gratifying outlet that Van Zandt discussed has been his burgeoning acting career, starting in ‘99 with the very popular HBO series ‘The Sopranos.’ Van Zandt portrayed the calm but lethal mob consigliere and strip club owner Silvio Dante, and his real life wife and actress Maureen Santoro was cast as his on-screen wife Gabriella.

Van Zandt explained that he didn’t have acting experience at all, let alone being a Screen Actors Guild member, as was everyone else on the set. He expressed to the series’ creator, executive producer and head writer David Chase that he didn’t want to take an actor’s job away from anyone, and that Chase generously responded by saying that he’d create a new role just for Van Zandt. The most surprising revelation to learn was when Van Zandt said that Chase had initially cast him as the lead role of Tony Soprano, much of that having to do with Van Zandt being a Jersey Italian in real life, just as the character was.

Van Zandt went on to say that amongst the actors auditioning for any role on the show he spotted James Gandolfini, and expressed that after seeing him in a couple of film roles such as “Get Shorty” that he instead should be cast as Tony Soprano, which of course ultimately happened. Van Zandt has said that “wiser heads prevailed” regarding this choice.

Van Zandt also conveyed that had he not rejoined The E Street band he would have been content to continue acting indefinitely, along with doing his radio show, charity work and his solo band, although he noted that this band never did have as large of an audience as he’d like. But with that he also stated that his most essential and overriding mission is to find spiritual enlightenment. Moreover, Van Zandt addressed the continual search for real internal significance, valuing his life lessons, and that in the face of adversity and disappointments, he’s learned how to adjust and move forward.

It was a very enjoyable conversation between two men that have both been through many experiences and several remarkable cultural eras. Being at close range to their enduring friendship is a sobering reminder that having even one close friend, and of course good health and peace of mind, are treasures in life that really matter most.