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Steven Van Zandt: 'Bruce Springsteen Is a Living Example of What Happens When You Never Do Drugs'

The E Street Band guitarist on breaking the four-hour barrier and the possibility of a new Springsteen LP

July 24, 2012 11:30 AM ET
steven van zandt bruce springsteen
Steve Van Zandt performs with Bruce Springsteen at Hyde Park in London.
Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Steven Van Zandt made headlines last week when he lashed out at U.K. authorities for pulling the plug at a Bruce Springsteen show in Hyde Park that went past curfew. He later walked back the statements, but a few days before the now-famous gig, he spoke with Rolling Stone about how the band has been pushing limits on this tour. "No one is working harder than Bruce," he said. "And if he wants one more song, we're gonna go one more enthusiastically. We will stay there all night, until someone pulls out the cord." 

Van Zandt also spoke about the possibility of a new Springsteen album in 2013, playing shows in torrential downpours, the possibility of a four-how show, and his thoughts about Springsteen superfan and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. He also emphatically denied the (completely unserious) allegation that Bruce Springsteen gets his incredible onstage energy from performance-enhancing drugs. 

Tell me how it feels to walk offstage after a four-hour concert.
[Laughs] Well, we don't know that yet. We've only reached the 3:48 mark. [Laughs] Honestly, it's not that different from a two or three-hour show. We're not looking at the clock. We've been transported by that point to another time zone entirely, which I think is part of the idea. I think what's effective for the audience is being transported for that time, whatever it may be.

It could be an hour. It could be four hours, but you're taken out of time during the show and brought to some other place, and then returned at the end of the journey, hopefully with positive energy that you then take into your regular life. 

Are there ever times he calls for yet another encore and it's been three-and-a-half hours and you just want to say, "Stop! Enough!"
No. [Laughs] That would be some other band you're mixing us up with. 

I just think about Max Weinberg sometimes. That's a long time to be playing the drums, not to even mention the fact he's 61.
Well, it depends on how you look at life, you know what I mean? [Laughs] If you look at life like, "Work makes one tired," then maybe yes. But if you look at life like, "Aren't we lucky to be working, and working at a job we love?" The physical part of it is overcome by the adrenaline and the spiritual part of it. The intellectual part of it. The part of it that says, "We're here, and we're gonna see how far we can go. We're actually going test our own limits, whenever possible – because, to the contrary, that's actually a healthy thing to do."

You could focus on being tired, or you could break through that barrier and keep going. Then you realize you weren't really as tired as you thought you were, because you just did five or 10 more songs. It just depends on how you look at these things. I don't look at it in any sort of negative way. The longer you're there, the more you're pushing yourself, pushing your limits, the better it is.

Why do you think they've gotten so long? Is it a conscious decision by Bruce, or just a natural development?
There's never really any thought to how long the show should be. We've done festivals. We've done two-and-a-half hour shows and afterwards we'd say, "I can't think of what songs we left out tonight." Sometimes there's no qualitative difference between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half hour shows. It's just a matter of how long you do it. It's not like the show must be three hours and 30 minutes to work. That's just not the case.

We could walk offstage after the first six songs. We're saying everything that needs to be said by the end of "Spirit in the Night." I mean, literally, the first five or six songs are an incredible amount of content. It states the theme very clearly. It could be a show unto itself. 

This conversation with the audience has been going on since, what, '72, '73 ... Sometimes it's like a conversation after dinner with friends. You're in a restaurant, and you got there at 8 o'clock. Suddenly you realize it's midnight. Where did the time go? You're enjoying the conversation. It's sort of a natural, organic conversation. Sometimes it's longer than other times, but we're not really conscious of how long we're onstage.

There's been a lot of rain during shows on this leg of the tour. What's it like playing in the pissing rain?
It really depends on the temperature.
That's a big factor. If it's warm, it actually can be quite pleasant, and people adapt to it. The audiences in Europe are quite used to it and actually enjoy it. It's a bit harder work for Bruce, but I guess there's really no such thing as harder work for him.  

He just does it. He goes out there anyway. He's not gonna change anything. I don't know if you've seen the show lately, but he's in the audience half the show, and he gets soaking wet. It's just that much more work, because he's running around, and the stairs are slippery, the ramps are slippery, the stage is slippery. There's a lot of danger, a lot of physical challenges one must be conscious of that makes the work harder, and just the clothing being soaking wet right through makes it heavier. All the basic things that come with really serious rain make things a little bit more complicated. But some of our most memorable shows have been done in the rain. I think people bond in a different way when they've been through our show in the rain. It's something they're proud of having gone through and bonded with each other, and people find it very memorable. 

Now, if it's very cold out, that's different. Then it can become unpleasant. You feel for the audience, first of all. It doesn't matter to us so much. Bruce is running around so much that he's never gonna feel any sort of chill from the atmosphere, but you wonder about the crowd when it gets to the back of a stadium with 50,000 people. You do feel concerned about them. Most of the time it's fine. You're outside in the summer, so that's not gonna happen very often. It's not really a big factor, believe it or not; it really isn't. If anything, I would say it's more of a positive than a negative because the audiences that I talk to, they love it, they get off on the fact that it's raining. It's interesting. 

I've never seen a Springsteen show in Europe, but I've seen the video and I've heard the stories.  The crowd just seems much more into it. I mean, they go nuts in the States, but often not quite like that. Why do you suppose that is?
Well, I think you can speculate about a lot of different things. First of all, I think we literally have the greatest audience anywhere in the world, wherever we are. They are the most enthusiastic that I've ever seen. I've been to a lot of shows, and I don't see the enthusiasm quite as high for anyone that they are for us, and that's quite a compliment, and quite a nice relationship we have with our audience worldwide. Certain countries in Europe have a younger audience. No one can quite understand why. I mean, the festivals are obviously younger audiences just by their nature.

I mean, we played to 90,000 16-year-olds the other night at Roskilde. [Laughs] It was amazing. I'm not exaggerating. It was amazing. I mean, the enthusiasm of these young, young teenagers defies all sort of, you know… comprehension. I don't know. Did their parents bring them to a show when they were five or six years old and it just stuck with them? Maybe? But 90,000 of them? I don't know. 

It defies all logic. In Spain and Italy, generally audiences are just younger. No particular reason. So sometimes that can be a bit of a factor. I think there's something about being from another place … there's a bit of the exotic element, I think, just as we had it with the British Invasion. It's something about a group from another country that's always a little bit perhaps extra exciting, somehow. But I don't know.  

Again, our audiences are not so much distinctly different as others, but I think there is an element having to do with, American audiences in general come to events to observe. And European audiences in general come to events to participate. I think that is probably a fact. Now it's not such a distinctive difference with us. Like I said, we have the most enthusiastic, active audiences in the world. In America. 

But if there's a difference, it's very nature of what an audience is on a different continent. I think I can generalize here, and I think a higher degree of the European audiences come having the new record because they fully intend to participate. And that is the script of the show that night. So they're gonna come and they're gonna sing every word because that's what they do. Where a lot of times half of the American audience might not get the record until after the show. 

But that's OK. There's nothing wrong with that. That's just the nature of how we do things slightly differently. I mean, people who see us in America can't believe how great our audiences are. A few who have seen European audiences go a bit more berserk in a few countries may notice a difference. But most people just would never know because they're comparing it to other shows in America. Our audiences are just completely phenomenal.  They're so enthusiastic that you can hardly … there's not much difference.

I imagine you guys are able to feed off that energy, and it really improves your performance.
Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt. Without a doubt. That's why I think our staging is probably closer to the audience of any other band playing arenas of stadiums. And we tried to really make some significant adjustments with the festivals. We just started doing festivals on the tour before this. And it's not our show. It's not our stage. We started to get to some of these festivals and we noticed they build their stages to keep the audience away. Call it whatever you want … to keep the audience a safe distance away. 

Well, the problem is, Bruce isn't going to change the show according to the stage. [Laughs] He's not going to say, "Oh, the stage is 40 feet down from the audience, and another 30 feet across and then another 30 feet up. Oh. I'm not going to move from my spot tonight." He's going going to do exactly what he does with a very comfortable kind of staging. 

After a few festivals he's like, "I like pushing it to the limit, but this is becoming the Olympics over here." So we've started speaking with the festival people when we're headlining. We go, "Listen, we need to compromise here. All due respect, we don't want to keep the audience away from us. We want to be as close as possible and Bruce needs to have access to them because he spends half the time in the audience. We realize no one else does that. We feel your pain. But start feeling some of ours because we're not going to change the show. The show is not changing. We're doing the show 100 percent no matter what the stage. It doesn't matter what the weather conditions are. We don't give a shit, OK? We're doing this show. We're going to go out there 100 percent every night and we don't care about nothing, OK? So give us a little break here."

So at the last couple of festivals the stage was … sort of … reconfigured to make it closer to our stage where Bruce can get to the audience quicker and not have to climb down 30 stairs and then go across 40 feet up another another 20 stairs. First of all – and the physical part is one thing, but this takes time. Usually we would do one verse while he goes from one part of the stage to the other, and now we're doing three verses while he's doing all these calisthenics trying to figure out a way to get to the audience. 

There's really a time element as well as a physical element. But it's all been a lot of fun. The audience at these things might be, I don't know, 25 percent your audience. That means you're constantly winning over new people, and younger and younger people. That's just fun.

How has Jake Clemons been doing?
He's doing great. The whole horn section has been terrific. Jake is a naturally confident guy. He really did the work at rehearsals. He put in the work and the show takes care of itself in a way.

It's really been a great way to pass the baton.
Yeah. I'm quite proud of the fact that we made a whole lot of good decisions here. We spent a long time really talking about this and trying to figure it out. It was big. It was a big, big moment in our lives and our careers. We really had to think it out. We made a lot of good decisions and our audience has been very, very understanding. 

Bruce has been … just beyond … the songwriting is one thing. Honestly, if you take even three songs from the new record: "Death to My Hometown," "Jack of All Trades" and "We Are Alive." They are three of the most incredible songs he's ever written. They say something extraordinary that people really want to hear right now. It can be summed up by, "You are not alone."

The rap he does onstage is really equally important. It's the perfect way of celebrating Clarence and Danny. It turns it into positive energy rather than mourning and turning it into a funeral. It's easy to take that for granted, but let me tell you, it requires a lot of talent. He's just as brilliant at what he says as what he writes.

A lot of people are surprised at his physical shape. You hear people joking and whispering at shows, "He's gotta be on HGH or something! How else can he be doing this at 62?"
There's nobody at 22! What are you talking about? [Laughs] No … he's the opposite of a drug-created monster. [Laughs] He's in good shape by not doing drugs. It's something he doesn't have to preach about. He's a living example of what happens when you never do drugs your whole life. [Laughs

I mean, I'm sure he's taken a drink or two a few times in his life, but he was never a drinker either. And he eats right and he's in the gym. Well, that's what happens. [Laughs] Don't do drugs. Don't drink, eat right, go to the gym and you can rock & roll at 62, too. [Laughs] It isn't rocket science. This is real old fashioned common sense. [Laughs]

I've heard extremely unreliable rumors about a possible new Bruce album for next year. Do you know anything about that?
I don't, but I wouldn't be surprised.  He's always got an album in his pocket. He's one of those guys that's really, really irritating that way. It's really aggravating for us songwriters. He's always got, you know, 15, 20 great songs in his pocket. [Laughs] And the world, the system, the industry cannot possibly accommodate his speed at which he works. He's always an album or two ahead of what can be released.  [Laughs] I wouldn't be surprised. I have not discussed that with him. I don't know anything about it, but I would not be surprised. 

Do you think the four-hour barrier is going to be breached on this tour?
[Laughs] Again, I would not be the least bit surprised. Again, there's no planning this stuff. There's no way to predict it. And no one should be surprised if it happens.

You finally got Bruce to play "Restless Nights" on the last tour. What's your next dream song?
[Laughs] That was a big one, and it had to be my birthday to get it … At some point I think we'll start bringing in some of these songs from The Promise. The priority is, of course, the new album. But the material from The Promise has very rarely been played, so it'll be fun going into some of that stuff. I think it's some of our best things.

He played "Bishop Danced" recently, so it really feels like anything is possible.
Oh yes. Anything is possible. That goes without saying. What's nice about this particular show is that quite a few songs from the past sit remarkably well with this theme. He was just way ahead of everybody, way ahead of the circumstances, way ahead of this worldwide depression. The older songs fit in like a glove and that's really a remarkable thing.

It's interesting. The other day, we're fooling around with "Spirit in the Night" at soundcheck for some reason. I don't even know why. Maybe we hadn't played it in a while. Maybe we wanted to show it to the new singers, or the horn players or something. 

I don't know why, but we're fooling around with this song from 40 years ago. Bruce gets in this funny mood and he gets into this preacher kinda thing, with this call and response thing, totally spontaneously. It turns out really cool, and now it's a regular part of the the set. This is a song we rarely play, and now it closes out the first quarter of the show. What's interesting is how well that ties into the song "We Are Alive," which usually comes at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Interestingly, it connects so well with this song from 40 years ago. 

A part of the show is remembering those we lost, having to do with Clarence and Danny. Yes, we lost them physically, but certain elements of their life force continue through the living. So now that statement is reinforced by a 40-year-old song.

 Final question: I've always know that Governor Christie is a big fan, but I didn't know until recently he's seen you guys something like 174 times. How do you feel about that? Are you flattered?
I actually like the man, personally. I get along great with him. I am flattered by it, and I'm flattered by anybody that goes to the show more than once. [Laughs] I think that's always a compliment. You know, we may differ on some issues politically, but we also have some things in common, such as a passion for education, and things like that. So I don't have any problem with the guy. I like him. [Laughs

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