In the early days of the Reagan administration, Steve Van Zandt started writing a doo-wop song called "The City Weeps Tonight." The goal was total authenticity, something that "could have been by the Students or the Jive Five," and he was getting pretty close, until he got stuck on the final verse. As Van Zandt threw himself into the improbable arc of the next 36 years of his life – leaving the E Street Band to launch an activism-fueled solo career; helping to establish a pivotal cultural boycott of South Africa with "Sun City"; then falling into a post-Eighties showbiz limbo that consisted mostly of walking his dog, only to find himself, all at once, starring on The Sopranos, touring the world again with Bruce Springsteen, and becoming the world's leading and only garage-rock evangelist – that song somehow never left his mind.
"Every couple of years," he says, "I'd see if I could finish that last verse. I'm not kiddin'. I'd have pages and pages of words. ... 'Not yet, that's not quite it.' " He laughs, offsetting the heavy-lidded sternness of a default expression you might call Resting Silvio Face. ("Steven is a kindhearted guy," says his longtime collaborator Southside Johnny Lyon, "but he can be very intimidating, because he's so focused.")
Van Zandt is, for the first time in many years, focused on his lapsed solo career. In October, Van Zandt was fresh from a yearlong E Street Band tour when a friend persuaded him to play a show of his songs in London, where he had to win over an audience filled with as many "curiosity-seekers" as fans. "It was a revelation," says Van Zandt. "The stuff held up so well. It was nice to feel that, the strength of those songs."
Thanks in part to his proximity to Springsteen and his habit of giving away some of his best songs to other artists (Southside Johnny, Gary U.S. Bonds and, recently, Darlene Love), Van Zandt is among the most underrated songwriters of the rock era, and it's hard not to think that even Van Zandt had started to undervalue his work. "He really is a great writer," says Jackson Browne, who recorded and frequently performed Van Zandt's protest song "I Am a Patriot" (also a favorite of Eddie Vedder's), and credits him with inspiring the political bent of his own Eighties work. Browne notes that Van Zandt's second album, Voice of America, was "more recognizably political than Born in the U.S.A.," released a month later. "And Little Steven's songs could not be misunderstood. It really was a huge influence on me, and Bruce became more and more political from that point on."
At the moment, Van Zandt is in a rehearsal studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan, preparing for an upcoming Asbury Park show with a new incarnation of his backing band, the Disciples of Soul – this one 15 musicians strong, barely fitting in the room, not to mention forming a substantial collective payroll. "Still strugglin' to achieve my lifelong goal of breaking even," he half-jokes. (He's particularly excited about having recruited former Youngbloods keyboardist Lowell "Banana" Levinger, charmingly assuming he's a household name: "Did you see Banana?")
In the past few months, that missing verse to the doo-wop song at last came to Van Zandt ("You told me you'd pray for me," it begins, capturing the Fifties innocence he'd sought), just in time for him to record the song for Soulfire, his first solo album in 18 years. "The City Weeps Tonight" isn't the only genre exercise on Soulfire, which is largely drawn from songs Van Zandt wrote for other artists over the years. Most prominently, there's the first real song he ever wrote, the dead-on Drifters homage "I Don't Want to Go Home," which he used to introduce as an actual Drifters song in early performances. "We always have to establish our identity in some original way," he says. "But just as challenging, or just below it, is a real genre song that holds up in that genre. I'm always proud when that happens."
But Van Zandt has come to realize that he does have a genre all his own, a brand of soul rock once known as the Jersey Shore sound. He helped create the style – where Stax-Volt horn-section blasts collide with power chords and Motown hooks – as songwriter, producer and guitarist for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a role he mostly maintained in the studio for a few years even after joining the E Street Band. The sound – which also creeps in and out of Springsteen's own records – reached its apotheosis on Southside's 1978 classic, Hearts of Stone, and on Van Zandt's own debut, 1982's Men Without Women. He and Springsteen both took stylistic cues from Jersey shows by Sam and Dave, of "Soul Man" fame. "I said, 'Aha! Me and Southside will be the white Sam and Dave,' " says Van Zandt. "The great thing about rock & roll, in terms of identity, was it's white guys trying to be black. And failing gloriously, right? So we took the Sam and Dave thing, but I wanted to keep the rock-guitar part of it."
But aside from helming Southside's 1991 comeback, Better Days, Van Zandt had mostly put that style aside, veering between various sounds – reggae, Eighties synth anthems, hard rock – on his solo albums. "I didn't worry about consistency," he says. "Of course, if I was someone's manager or producer, I would never allow them to do that. That's career suicide before it starts. You can't have five different identities musically, OK?"
Soulfire is Van Zandt's first album since Men Without Women to embrace his signature style. "I was thinking, 'Who do I want to be?' " he says. "I'm like, 'Who am I really?' And the thing most identified with me, and the thing that is most unique, is that soul-meets-rock thing. So I went back to that."
Van Zandt started his career as a frontman, covering the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders with his high school band, the Shadows, in Middletown, New Jersey, just a bit to the east of Springsteen's Freehold. He never had the prettiest voice in the world, but he's a compelling vocalist: "The emotional commitment carries you along," says Southside, always the best pure singer on the Shore scene. In a high school of 3,000 students, Van Zandt was, as he tells it, the only kid with long hair. He got thrown out of the school and his own house for it, though he eventually made his way back to both. "My father was an ex-Marine Goldwater Republican," he says. "We were the generation gap. It was rough. My identity was an embarrassment to him. He figured 'You're just a gay drug-addict criminal,' you know, whatever the worst thing was in their heads." Steve actually wasn't on drugs, at least until "Nazi" local cops planted weed on him and arrested him for it. "After that, I'm like, 'Well, fuck this! If I'm gonna be punished, might as well smoke dope!' So I started smoking dope."
His musical success, he says, "wasn't out of determination or courage or persistence, it was because I was a complete fuck-up at everything else. That's true of Bruce too. That's the one thing we had in common. When chances came, everybody took them. College, military, job, whatever. The only two left standing from New Jersey was me and him. Why? Because we were complete freaks, misfits, outcasts, that's why! There was no place else where we fit."
By 1983 or so, Van Zandt didn't even feel at home in the E Street Band anymore, thanks to now-resolved tensions with Springsteen and manager Jon Landau. (In his autobiography, Springsteen writes about playing the two men off each other to yield creative sparks.) Van Zandt left, pursuing an increasingly political direction: " 'Does the world really need a bunch of new love songs from a sideman? I don't think so.' And I started studying politics."
He went to South Africa to research a song, and was shaken by the brutalities of apartheid. Van Zandt persuasively argues that the activism that followed, most publicly with the all-star "Sun City" song and album, was a significant factor in the fall of the regime. That said, he couldn't help wondering if he had erred in leaving Springsteen's orbit right before the Born in the U.S.A. tour thundered through stadiums. "At some point I just started to feel a little bit stupid," Van Zandt says, smiling a bit, "when they're all buying mansions and I'm hiding under a blanket in Soweto. But that's how life goes, man."
He's convinced that labels blackballed him after the fall of apartheid. "They're looking at me like, 'Whoa, this guy's a little bit dangerous,' and they just disappeared. So I just went out into the desert, man, and just thought about stuff."
Before they got back together for good in 1999, the E Street Band had a quick trial reunion in '95 – and Springsteen wrote that Van Zandt more or less invited himself back into the band at that point. Van Zandt has to think hard about that account before he nods. "I think I felt like, 'Hey, there's gonna be an E Street Band reunion, I should be there.' Right? I had as much to do with that success as anybody." He smiles. "Maybe more. Some things got left out of the book. But I'll deal with that later."
Now, he wants to do solo work between every
Springsteen tour, along with more acting and a long list of other ideas and
projects. "It might be kind of late," says Van Zandt, who turns 67
this year, "but I'm hoping for a big fourth quarter."