Steven Van Zandt reflects on his early days as a musician, the first time he met and performed with Bruce Springsteen and portraying his beloved character Silvio Dante on the Sopranos in the latest installment of “The First Time.”
Van Zandt traces the first time he played guitar to 1963, when his grandfather showed him a song from his village in Calabria, Italy. He notes this was a year before the Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. “So I got a little bit of a jump on everybody,” he cracks. Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was the first song Van Zandt sang live, in the summer of 1965 with his first band, the Shadows. “It must have been okay,” he laughs. “If I got booed, I probably would have gotten a legitimate job by now.”
He fondly remembers the first time he met Bruce Springsteen. “We hit it off right away,” he says, smiling. He points out that not many bands existed before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, so anyone in a band was automatically friends. “It was also weird to have long hair,” he says. “If you had long hair, you were friends. If you had long hair and you were in a band, you were best friends — which was the case with us.” Van Zandt chuckles, summarizing he and Springsteen’s close bond: “We were the only two guys that considered rock and roll to be everything, and that was a weird way to be back then, ’cause it wasn’t a legitimate business yet. It was still this bizarre teenage obsession that most kids grew out of … only we never grew out of it.”
Van Zandt tells the origins of his nickname, Little Steven. He discusses characters he had in his previous bands, such as the Miami Horns. He compares the E Street Band to a rock and roll version of the Rat Pack. “I was the Dean Martin character, the party guy. Of course, Bruce was Frank [Sinatra] and Clarence was Sammy [Davis Jr.] on steroids.” Van Zandt’s early musical inspirations were Little Anthony, Little Walter and Little Richard — who would eventually officiate Van Zandt’s wedding in 1982.
For getting into character as Silvio Dante in the Sopranos, Van Zandt wrote a biography on the mobster, detailing his history to make it feel as authentic as possible. Sporting a 1950s haircut, Dante was nostalgic for the early mafia days. “I went and found out where John Gotti had his clothes made…I felt if I could look in the mirror and see the guy, I could be the guy.” He recalls meeting James Gandolfini on the first read-through and how welcoming he was to Van Zandt, who had never acted before. “I really miss him every day,” he says, pausing to reflect. “We were very close.”
Elsewhere in the interview, Van Zandt details the first time he played with Paul McCartney — when the Beatle joined Springsteen and the E Street Band onstage in London’s Hyde Park in 2012, the historic show where London officials pulled the plug after the musicians played past curfew. However, Van Zandt’s highlight was when McCartney joined him onstage with his band Disciples of Soul in 2017. “Him coming on my stage, endorsing me and my music…that was big. This is the guy without whom I would not be doing this. For him to validate you…I must be doing something right.”
Additional reporting by Kory Grow.