Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The River’: Steven Van Zandt Looks Back
“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?”