"I don't think this existed six weeks ago," Steven Van Zandt said, chuckling to himself, over a late lunch of salad and tea a few hours before showtime on January 16th, the day Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened their unexpected 2016 tour in Pittsburgh. "It wasn't 'Maybe it's gonna happen, let's get ready,'" the guitarist went on. "It was Bruce putting out this box set and thinking, 'Maybe we should do a show or two.' When I heard that, I was like, 'Wait a minute. We're not playing a residency at the Stone Pony anymore. Assembling 160 people to do a show or two — that's complicated.' I thought, 'If that happens, it could well turn out to be more' — which is what happened."
Van Zandt has played with Springsteen and been a consistent, trusted confidant longer than anyone else in the E Street Band — that is from the very beginning, in the mid-Sixties, when the two were New Jersey teenage misfits mutually determined to make their futures in rock & roll. "This year will make it 50 years," Van Zandt, 65, claimed proudly of their bond. But even Van Zandt was taken by surprise when Springsteen — a week before the December release of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Columbia), a multi-disc reflection on the prolific turbulence that became his 1980 double LP, The River — suddenly called his band to order for a tour that is already in its second month, features nightly performances of that entire album and is now set to run into the summer.
"I've known him longer than anybody, and he just doesn't think the same way everyone else thinks," Van Zandt said of Springsteen. "He's earned the right to have total freedom. He wants to keep his life wide open, and that's great. Occasionally it's going to be a problem. I was very lucky with The Sopranos," Van Zandt noted, referring to his breakout television role as wise guy Silvio Dante in that HBO series. The show's creator David Chase "was such a fan — he would book all my scenes on off days during a tour."
Van Zandt said he has long "fantasized" that the E Street Band — which last toured with Springsteen in the spring of 2014 — could hit the road more regularly, "six months, same time, then do other stuff. It's never happened." Springsteen, he conceded, "doesn't play by the rules of career. I mean, look at the marketing." Van Zandt laughs. "Which is zero. If anyone else tried to have a career with no marketing ... " There is a pause, then more laughter. "But he's managed to come all this way, bigger than ever. This is the most successful tour we've done here in a long time. So from his point of view, why fix what ain't broke?"
In this last installment of conversations from the first weekend of the 2016 River tour, for more than hour before Van Zandt departed for soundcheck (including a run-through of "Rebel Rebel," Springsteen's tribute that night to David Bowie), the guitarist affirmed many of the themes from my interviews the day before with Springsteen and drummer Max Weinberg: the narrative transformation in Springsteen's writing for The River and the torrent of songs from which he eventually built the final 20-song album; the dizzying momentum of the sessions; the invigorating element of discovery in the current shows, as Springsteen and his band play that record live each night.
Van Zandt also spoke about The River and its resonance from his unique perspective as the album's often frustrated co-producer; as a super fan of the two dozen songs that got left behind; and as a true believer, to this day, in Springsteen's determined, idealistic course. Asked about future of the E Street Band — how soon they'll know how long is too long — Van Zandt was as blunt and certain as his friend and leader. "There is no end in sight," the guitarist says. "And as long as I'm standing there next to him, it's a band."
You have been outspoken in the past about the songs Bruce left off The River — that, in fact, it was some of his best work and didn't deserve to be left behind.
The River, to me, meant 43 songs.
The actual album plus the outtakes.
And those are among the greatest records ever made, as far as I'm concerned. It's funny, because all these years you're thinking "outtakes." There's really not that much he'd have replaced on The River. It works very well. And these two other albums' worth of songs are just two legitimate albums. The second outtake album is another band's career. The first one [the initial sequence, The Ties That Bind, pulled by Springsteen before release] — that's some of our best stuff: "Loose Ends," "Restless Nights."
Does it feel strange to be going on the road without new music, playing an album from 1980?
I'm looking at that outtake album as new music — absolutely, which is why I hope some of it gets integrated into the show, whether we're doing it in sequence or not. We might have occasionally played "Loose Ends." We did "Where the Bands Are" maybe twice, "Take 'em as They Come" a couple of times, "Restless Nights" once. Honestly, I think we're coming out to promote a new album in that sense.
What did you think of that initial sequence, The Ties That Bind, before Bruce pulled it to create The River?
I don't remember knowing about that. I don't know how I missed it [laughs]. And I'm there producing. A couple of songs, like "Cindy," I don't remember at all. And there it is — second track on the album we delivered.
He was right in pulling it back, saying it doesn't feel finished. He thinks so deeply about this stuff, so comprehensively. I can't pretend to understand everything he's thinking about. I can only do what my instincts tell me and what he says he wants to do — out loud [laughs], which might be five or ten percent of what's actually going on. Part of the job of being a producer is the Vulcan mind meld, where you listen not to what they're saying but what they mean.
He described The River as his first "insider" album — about the struggles in working life, personal relationships and family — after making four albums about "outsiders."
He had a vague film-noir aspect to Darkness on the Edge of Town. Born to Run was a mixture of things but mostly about youth and fantasies. Now, all of a sudden, it's "The Ties That Bind" and "I Wanna Marry You." It was partially the fantasy of being normal. He wasn't quite there yet. He would wisely wait until he felt a bit more secure, which wouldn't be until that album came out and we had our first, real success with [the Top Five hit] "Hungry Heart." That allowed him to start thinking about having a real life, so to speak.
Was there a turning-point song in The River sessions where you could hear the material becoming more than a sprawl of material, developing a narrative course?
I don't think so. It was one song after the other. He was in that hundred-song run which maybe Bob Dylan and a few others have had. That run of songs from Darkness to The River — it just became normal. "The Ties That Bind" felt like a statement. "The River" had that wonderful thing he does — very detailed nuance in a story. The more detailed, the more particular it gets, the more universal it is. I found that fascinating.
He just had a thing: "I'm bringing everybody to me. I'm not going to them. I don't belong in the mainstream industry. They're coming to me — or they're not coming. And if we're at the Stone Pony forever, so be it." He was not into compromise, from Day One.
That continues to this day. He's his own genre, his own rules. Kids at home, don't follow this career path. You'll find it doesn't work for you. [Laughs] But it works for him.
As Bruce's co-producer on The River, how did you deal with telling him "No" or "You should change this"?
It's about having the right conversation at the right time. In the end, you accept the fact that you're there to help him realize his vision. Every single outtake was a lost argument. He was getting 10, 12 great songs very quickly at that point. I would be like, "OK, let's put that out. You want to do 12 more? That will be the next album." But you can't stop that flow when it happens. Chuck Berry had that flow for five or six years. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones — the great ones have a run where they're in touch with something a little bit mystical, a little bit beyond logic.
It's not something you plan, that you aspire to. You have this stuff built up inside, wanting to come out, and you tap into that faucet. Born to Run was eight songs. He went from that to a hundred [over Darkness and The River]. It was some of divine ... [pauses] It's something you can't take for granted. That's what made me mad sometimes. I'd get angry with him. Here I am, struggling to write a good song; every fucking one of them is war. And I'd be like, "Hey, man, you're annoying me here. You're taking this shit a little bit for granted. [Laughs] What do you mean you're throwing out this song other people would have a career with?" "Restless Nights," that's a career. "Loose Ends," that's a career. But you can't stop it. Once it's happening, you go with it.
We had a wonderful recording method by then. We'd found the right studio [the Power Station in New York City]; we'd found the right engineers. We figured all that stuff out. It felt so good to go to work every day, after three years of torture. Suddenly, recording is fun. That alone is good for 40 fucking songs.
In a way, The River marked a break in what had been an indivisible thing. He wrote songs; the E Street Band played them. But his next album, Nebraska, was totally, literally solo. From that point on, there was a divide between Bruce's solo records and E Street work.
He wanted both things. He always had both things in him, ever since I've known him. He has the solo-folk side, and the band side. Most people do one or the other. He was extremely versatile. And that can be confusing. He didn't want to be tied down. When I heard the Nebraska demos, I said, "This is an album." As a producer, you know when someone is doing something special. I thought it was the most intimate glimpse of his solo side, the folk side, that you were ever going to get Why? Because he never intended to put it out. Taking on those characters, doing that crazy yodeling — it sounded like you were in fucking Nebraska.
I actually think The River is somewhat underrated, even by fans, because it came between the breakout records. It's actually caught in the long shadows between Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.
I think that's right. I've had a theory for years: I don't think the human brain can absorb more than 10, 12 songs at a time. Altbough it was the right thing to do a double album, it becomes diluted. Your energy is going to 20 songs instead of 10, and you appreciate them less. If it had been a single album, it would have been appreciated more, especially if he had put more of the pop-rock stuff on there. It would have been our biggest album. All you gotta do is throw on "The River" — that's all the content you need. [Laughs] A little of Bruce's content goes a long way. But he felt he had to do eight or 10 songs like that. And I understand that. He was very conscious of carving out his own identity.
He just continues to break the rules. You can't categorize or predict what he's going to do. That is part of the fun.
And you just wait for the call.
And hope you're available [laughs]. All you can do is try and keep up. This tour is a bit of a miracle, really. There's no grand plan here. It just happened. And we'll see what happens tonight. We haven't played with this small a band in a few years.
Actually, half of the 10 people onstage were on The River. You lost organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, but that's still a good survival rate.
In many ways, this tour is probably the biggest tribute to Clarence and Danny — in the details. I was enjoying that at rehearsal, enjoying the detail in the songs – not just in the arrangements but in the different keyboard sounds and the great melodies of the sax solos. Jake [Clemons, Clarence's nephew and replacement] is getting better and better. And you realize those solos are part of the compositions — that old King Curtis style. The drum fills are totally part of the composition.
Those seven guys on The River — everybody was doing something important, playing a very specific role. It's a real "band" album, in the true sense of the word.