Steve Van Zandt is trying to stay busy. “I’ve been producing records, and executive-producing records over the phone, believe it or not,” he says from his Greenwich Village home. “But I am looking for something to do in a semi-permanent way, you know?”
Van Zandt’s latest project is Little Steven’s Roadshow, a podcast that begins tonight. It benefits TeachRock, an organization he launched with Bono, Martin Scorsese, Jackson Browne, and Bruce Springsteen, which provides online music history courses, among other resources, to kids whose classrooms have been robbed of arts programs. TeachRock has more than 200 free lessons online, from the Birth of Rock to the Roots of Hip-Hop; it provides free distance learning to students in 100 New York City public schools.
Van Zandt helped start TeachRock after the No Child Left Behind bill put a stop to music courses across the country in 2002. “They canceled all the arts classes in America so that they could test kids in math and science constantly,” says Van Zandt. “It’s just so misconceived.”
Now, to put a spotlight on TeachRock at a time when long-distance learning is more important than ever, Van Zandt is holding a series of “virtual roadshows,” where he’ll interview people in the worlds of music and education. The first episode is tonight at 8 p.m., focusing on the music of Cleveland, Ohio. Joined by his sidekick Drew Carey, Van Zandt will interview Cleveland characters such as Pat Benatar’s musical partner Neil Giraldo, plus the legendary disc jockey Kid Leo, Alan Freed’s son Lance, and activists like Rhonda Crowde, who founded Hough Reads, a group that has donated thousands of books to Cleveland schools. “We’re kind of winging it right now,” says Van Zandt. “This was really a spontaneous idea just a week or two ago. We’ll see what develops into a real show. I’m looking for something to do on a permanent basis. I gotta find a job!” To register to hear the show, head to TeachRock’s website.
It’s pretty great that you started an at-home music curriculum for kids before this pandemic even started.
Yeah, it really was completely built for this situation. And then the teachers are really appreciating it. I’m hearing from a lot of teachers. We have 30,000 teachers registered They already were quite aware of it. But as you say, it’s now it’s really convenient because all our stuff was already online.
I love the footage on your charity’s website of you going into classrooms and talking to the kids.
It’s fun. I’m trying to share [that] we’re really the luckiest generation. Just as our parents were the greatest generation, the World War II generation, we’re the luckiest generation, really. Because we grew up in that renaissance period of the Sixties. You want to share that. And kids eat it up. They really have a thing for the Sixties. I think there’s something about the Sixties that is literally forever. Something special that all came together in that decade. People are never going to get tired of the whole hippie thing, the colors and the psychedelic stuff, the freedom and liberation and the idealism, all of that. And kids feel like they missed the party. I hate to say it, but they kind of did, you know? So you wanna make that accessible to them. And that’s what the radio show is all about. That’s what my record company is all about. That’s what the whole music history curriculum is all about. It’s making that era and that sensibility accessible. There’s so many aspects of it. I could do a class every single day the rest of my life and never repeat myself.
But it’s all connected in a way, in a certain idealism, a certain optimism. When we did the Rascals Broadway show, the one thing people came out of that show with was: What happened to hope? Hope was something that was a daily expectation. We knew tomorrow was going to be better. We had optimism. We had idealism. And that is so gone that it’s shocking. People coming out of the show, after two hours of being transported back to the Sixties, they were coming out in shock. They were like, “Man, what happened? How did we get here?” And it’s a really good question that we need to keep asking ourselves. Maybe that’s the one good thing about this pandemic. Maybe we’re starting to ask ourselves some questions that should have been asked many decades ago.
It’s a really ambitious project, based on what I’ve seen of the videos and instructions in the curriculum.
I was a little bit naive about it. I think if I knew how much work it was gonna be, I wouldn’t have done it. But like like a lot of things in my life, it happened by accident. The legislature passed this thing called No Child Left Behind [in 2002]. And the consequence was, they canceled all the arts classes in America so that they could test kids in math and science constantly. It’s just so misconceived. I mean, first of all, testing is not learning, right? And so our whole thing is putting the arts back into the education system. Every aspect of education should have the arts integrated into it.
As we went along, we realized we need to create a new methodology for this generation, because they’re smarter than us and faster than us and have no patience whatsoever. We got to do something that works with them. And that turned out to be music. We could use music as a common ground. Eventually we want to start affecting the dropout rate, which is just an absolute scandal and nobody talks about it. But it’s close to 50 percent in some poor neighborhoods. Then 50 percent of those kids end up in the criminal justice system eventually, and that’s intolerable. That should not be happening in a country that calls itself civilized. If the kid likes one class, or one teacher, they’ll come to school. We want to be that class.
We kind of stumbled into it by accident, just as a favor for these teachers. Once I realized we’re not going to have music classes anymore, maybe ever again, I said, “Look, we’re not going to put instruments in kids’ hands, but we’re finding different ways to do that.” If we can’t actually have them playing instruments, let’s do the next best thing. In some ways, this turned out to be even better because you don’t have to be a musician. It’s a tough generation to teach. Can you imagine being a teacher every day and trying to impress somebody when they can give them the answer in 15 seconds on your device? We got to teach them and you give them something they can use now.
So we say, “Who’s your favorite artists?” They all have one. And then we trace it back, and we trace where they come from. And they stay completely interested and engaged, because it’s a subject that they’re comfortable with. There’s no wrong answers in art.
Are there one or two of your favorite lessons that in the curriculum?
We do everything from from older artists to the new ones. We have a newer Billie Eilish lesson, which has to do with her synesthesia, which is a condition where you see music. Your senses kind of get mixed up. I find it fascinating, and we’re doing variations of this thing. I’ve gone to the classroom and seen this: We’ll play music, and we’ll tell the kids to draw what they’re hearing, and it’s instrumental music. It’s just a feeling. We’re playing music to see what colors they choose, what shapes they make, what they draw. It’s fascinating. It really is. So I love that particular lesson.
There’s a math lesson that has to do with the Beatles, how many sets they played in Hamburg in one night. There’s like 200 lessons online. We try to keep expanding all the time to have every subject covered, so that that kids will find something that they like.
I was interviewing another artist who said his band would be looking at touring in Europe and Australia before the U.S., given the numbers here. Do you see shows opening up there before they do here?
Well, we couldn’t have handled the situation any worse. We’re pretty much the only country in the world that did not do a national quarantine, which is what it needed. And we still may have to do that. Because I don’t see any end in sight here. Just because the rest of the world is ahead of us and they opened up their restaurants and bars, doesn’t necessarily mean you want to do a stadium show. I’m not so sure about that. Certainly, you know, places like like Norway, Denmark, they’re doing quite well — but you got Sweden, which is a disaster because [their government] did not do a quarantine. Brazil’s a disaster. It’s coming back in China, it’s coming back in Italy. I’m not so optimistic about that.
I laid it out months ago. I said, it’s gonna be three stages. The first stage, everything’s online. We all know about that. The second stage would be people going back to work if there was an effective, very fast test, which never happened. That was, to me, necessary for a second stage, at which point you could go back to work in the sense of a band playing a drive-in theater. That would be the second stage. And then the third stage being the vaccine, and then you may go back to [playing for] masses again. Maybe that may never happen again. Frankly, vaccines are 50 percent effective. So everybody thinking that that’s the answer — they’re gonna be feeling a bit a little bit disappointed if and when that happens. That’s the best-case scenario. But we can’t even get to the second stage. That’s what’s concerning me, because of our complete incompetence in getting a test together.
I don’t think people can grasp this, to be honest with you. I honestly feel we have dumbed down to the point where people can’t grasp this. I think everybody sending their kids to school are nuts. They’re crazy. They’re gonna kill off everybody’s grandparents at the very least. I don’t know what to say. I wish I could be more optimistic. But I laid out a simple three-part plan. I laid it out in March every day on Twitter. Every single day. This is what we have to do. Okay, we got to do a national quarantine. Three simple things. I talked to senators, I talked to representatives and mayors and governors, and I got nowhere.
I feel like they should say, “For the next two months, no one’s going anywhere.”
You’re not wrong, man. We might have to go right back to square one. My plan was just under three trillion. Now they’ve spent seven. And for what? They got nowhere. I mean, are they gonna spend another three trillion? Not with this Republican Congress. This fuckin’ McConnell doesn’t give a shit about anybody, this sick fuck. He’s collaborating with this with this murder that’s going on. It’s murder.
Switching subjects, Nils Lofgren recently called the new Bruce album “as great a record in the works as I ever heard Bruce make and that’s saying a lot.”
Nils said that, huh? [Laughs.] Uh, I have no comment on that whatsoever. I don’t know what he’s referring to. I have no idea what he’s referring to. I mean, he must be talking about something from the archives, I guess.
How is Bruce doing? His radio shows have been incredible.
Yeah, they’ve been terrific, haven’t they? I’ve really enjoyed them a lot. I would say 75, 80 percent of what he plays, I don’t even know, I’ve never heard before. So he’s turning me on to all kinds of new things. I mean, he’ll play a song, I don’t know where he finds it. All kinds of different genres. Of course we had a lot of fun — me, him, and Southside the other day, show number seven. But yeah, he’s doing great and everybody’s trying to figure it out, like I said. The government is not helping.
Have you have you heard from a lot of people who are new Sopranos fans during the quarantine?
Yeah, I must say — and even more Lillyhammer fans. You know, Sopranos people are rewatching Sopranos. But Lillyhammer, a lot of people are just discovering it. So that’s been pretty exciting, that’s nice.
Is New York feeling any better these days?
A little bit. One cool thing that’s happening here in the Village where I live is, they’ve taken half the street and made them into extended restaurants. They’re building little wooden fences and bushes and flowers and canopies. They’re taking over halfway across the street, and they’re popping up all over the place, and I really love that. I hope they keep this every summer, even after the pandemic. It feels like Paris. I love eating outside anyway. From my old smoking days.
That’s one nice thing that’s happening, and maybe some good will come out of it… And getting rid of the confederate statues and flags and Washington Redskins. There are some good things coming out of this, so let’s hope that it’s not completely one big waste of energy here.