Steven Van Zandt: "Rock'n'roll is my religion"
Guitarist with Springsteen’s E Street band, leader of his own band, label owner, actor (Silvio Dante in The Sopranos), radio host… And there’s a lot more to Steven Van Zandt than that
In every sense, the man born Steven Lento has led a gloriously colourful life. At one time or other – and often all at once – these last forty-plus years, he has been a rock’n’roll musician, activist, actor, broadcaster and educator. Along the way he co-piloted two great bands out of his adopted New Jersey – the E Street Band and the Asbury Jukes – and fronted his own band the Disciples Of Soul. He has founded a record company, Wicked Cool, devised a globally-syndicated radio show, Underground Garage, and created not one but two pop-culture icons: strip-club-owning consiglieri Silvio Dante for David Chase’s groundbreaking TV mob saga The Sopranos, and his own bandana-sporting, gypsy-maverick on-stage alter-ego, Little Steven. When in 1982 he married his actress wife, Maureen Santoro, the couple were sung down the aisle by soul giant Percy Sledge, Bruce Springsteen acted as best man and the presiding minister was Little Richard.
“The trick is to be able to keep it all going simultaneously, but part of the joy of life is integrating all of your interests,” suggests the man better known as Steven Van Zandt, aka Little Steven. “It keeps everything fresh and you never get bored. Plus I found out a long time ago that if I focus on just one thing I tend to obsess and overdo it, whereas if I have five things on the go, that’s about right for me.”
It’s a hot spring day in Manhattan and Van Zandt is working out of his downtown office, an hour’s drive from his home in Jersey. Momentarily he is distracted by his wife dropping by and insisting that he take delivery of their King Charles spaniel, and then again by the question of whether or not he ought to retrieve his car sometime soon. “Am I going to need to go out again? Yes? No?” he asks of his assistant rhetorically. “Yes! Jesus, I was a fucking idiot to park it up in the first place.”
Domestic dramas aside, Van Zandt is very much in the room. Sixty-seven this November, he is still recognisably the outsize character who was generally first sighted sidling up next to Springsteen at the microphone in the mid-to-late 70s, the Boss’s left-stage foil and right-hand man. The voice and gestures are exaggerated, the yadda-yadda Italian-Americanisms together with animated chocolate-brown eyes suggest pathos and smarts. Fixed in place on his head is a bandana, black, the kind of which he has sported all this time – and not to hide premature baldness, but head scars sustained in a car accident as a teenager.