“It’s Been An Odyssey”: Stevie Van Zandt on “Sun City,” Silvio Dante, Springsteen and A Second Life for ‘Lilyhammer’

Dean Budnick on October 20, 2021
“It’s Been An Odyssey”: Stevie Van Zandt on “Sun City,” Silvio Dante, Springsteen and A Second Life for ‘Lilyhammer’

photo credit: Kristi Hovde


“From the start, I wanted to make it more useful than just a story about me. I find my own personal narrative to be the least interesting part,” Stevie Van Zandt says of Unrequited Infatuations. In his new book, Van Zandt offers a fair share of anecdotes from his days with Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and his own Disciples of Soul, as well as his work on The Sopranos, Lilyhammer and Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Beyond this, though, he shares some broader musings and observations on history, society and culture.

“I’m obviously not an academic but I wanted to create something that would be almost like a reference book for people who weren’t there,” he adds. “I’m the vehicle for these things that happened to me or with me. But in many cases, I just happened to be there so I wanted to focus on what was going on around me.”

One important point you make early in the book, which would later apply to your own career, is that The Beatles really invented the concept of musical evolution.

Everybody takes it for granted now but—when you go back and really look at the situation—the idea at time was that, if you had a hit, it was a miracle. You should be very grateful and then come back with something that’s very similar. At that point, the pop-music audience had found you and defined you. So then it was just a matter of keeping them.

The Beatles had been around for a while, starting in ‘57 and breaking through in ‘62—playing six sets a night, seven nights a week in Hamburg for months at a time, which is incredible. Only The E Street Band’s gestation period from birth to success was longer. I think that caused two things: They really learned their craft well, and they got really bored playing the same old chord changes. So when they started writing, they said, “Let’s do something different.” That’s already tricky because now they are going outside of the norm to be creative, but they had the standard set high by doing those songs over and over again.

You also have to keep in mind that there weren’t that many records out. Everybody already knew every record that had been released. All the bands were playing the same songs because there were only a finite number of songs and there were a hundred bands in Liverpool.

So they started being very creative about their writing and, at the same time, maintaining those standards. But they also couldn’t do anything that creative or complicated because they didn’t want to turn off their audience.

Because of that, The Beatles started being creative within the songs and then from album to album. Maybe it was a combination of boredom and early, undiagnosed ADD, but the growth they experienced between the first and second albums alone was mind-blowing. And then with the third album, A Hard Day’s Night, they decided to write the whole thing themselves. Those songs are incredible and it goes from there. Next comes Beatles for Sale, which I call their Everly Brothers album—there’s harmony on basically every song—and then Help!, which is on another level entirely and is influenced by Bob Dylan.

That’s when Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Stones and The Byrds all started to influence each other. It might not have been recognized until 1967 with Sgt. Pepper, but making an album really became an art form in ‘65. Dylan’s going electric because of The Beatles. And they’re writing Help! because of him. The Stones wrote “Satisfaction” because of Dylan. And The Byrds invented multiple subgenres within three albums—folk-rock, psychedelic-rock, country-rock, space-rock. Everybody was influencing everybody and, suddenly, it became normal for artists to evolve. It was a remarkable moment in history.

In describing your affection for the groups that preceded The Beatles, you note that “oldies” radio wasn’t meant to be chronological, which is something you later rectified by creating your own channel.

This going to sound incredible, but I had never heard of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley or Little Richard until The Beatles introduced them to me. I missed them by a couple of years and things had evolved so quickly that the ‘50s artists were starting to be looked at as gimmicks or some kind of teenage distraction. It was the British Invasion groups who reintroduced our teenage culture to those artists.

Meanwhile, the ‘60s evolutions were incredible and, because things were changing so fast, nobody quite recognized what was happening. When we started out, we were very much a monoculture and then, year by year, everything changed. The British Invasion of ‘64 is followed by folk-rock in ‘65, blues-rock in ‘66, psychedelic[1]rock in ‘67, country-rock in ‘68 and Southern white-soul in ‘69. What that meant is that, by 1970, everything was fragmented and the monoculture was no more. Then came the singer[1]songwriters on one side and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath on the other—and it’s all happening simultaneously with what would become disco, punk, hip-hop and everything else.

But, with this explosion, came some nostalgia. It’s actually funny when you think about it—we were evolving so fast that people were like, “Wait a minute, I kind of miss that innocence of the ‘50s.” CBS-FM started playing the first generation of rock-and-roll, which a lot of us had never experienced firsthand. George Lucas did American Graffiti in 1973. Happy Days came on in 1974. Richard Nader started producing all these oldies shows and he also did that movie, Let the Good Times Roll in 1973.

This was when I joined an oldies band and really finished my education, touring the circuit with The Dovells and later with Dion [in 1973-74]. The first time I played Madison Square Garden was on an oldies show.

Of course, everybody on the oldies circuit hated that expression because it felt like they were being put out to pasture while they were still in their 40s. But, I was out there loving every minute of it because I was meeting all of these heroes and legends that I didn’t know that much about.

Tragically, and unfairly, they were the only generation that got cut off. If you had two hits when The Beatles came, then you played those two hits the rest of your life. It’s ironic because it was The Beatles who originally helped call attention to these artists who were now seen as novelties. It was an unintended consequence.

But, the reality is that those guys were the naissance of a renaissance, not just some novelty item. Those artists represented a fair amount of the renaissance period that ends around 1969. Everything after that point was a hybrid. You can trace everything that happened after ‘69 to something that happened before ‘69. And what has come to be known as oldies represents 40- 50% of that period.

Cut to 20 or 30 years later, and the oldies stations started to think that it has to do with chronology. So they started playing music from the ‘80s. Oldies was not about that. I mean, what happened to the first half of the renaissance? It disappeared into the ether.

So I was like, “This just is not right.” But thank God that Sirius Satellite came along just in time. I began talking to them about programming [ultimately creating Underground Garage as well as Outlaw Country], which helped this stuff continue to exist so that people would have access to it. What we call oldies really is at the heart of the renaissance.

Following your days with Dion, you co-founded Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. You describe how the group redefined “bar band” to mean “soul-based rock, usually with horns.” Were you able to appreciate your status as innovators at the time or more in retrospect?

No, we didn’t really appreciate it. What happened was that, within two or three years of the first album [1976’s I Don’t Want to Go Home], we started to look at reviews referring to people as “bar bands” and, suddenly, that was a positive thing. It had previously been an epithet, some kind of insult, and that changed. Then, after the Jukes, came Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds and, suddenly, the term bar band was being used in a new way. In England, it became known as pub rock, but it was the same thing. And I think the Jukes were the first ones to be viewed that way. Dave Marsh recognized it in a Rolling Stone review before we’d even recorded, which was really weird. [Laughs.]

After a year or two of watching that happen, we realized that we were onto something but you never fully appreciate those moments unless they are spectacularly successful commercially. That’s just how life is, man. We can pretend otherwise, but commercial success changes everything. And, all of a sudden, things that were casual become important; things that were incidental become historically significant. But there was no way to enjoy it and recognize it at the time. We were just struggling to survive.

Moving to your solo career, until I read your book, I didn’t appreciate the complex ideas regarding individuals and social institutions that informed your first five records. How difficult was it to communicate those concepts at the time?

I did extensive interviews to make sure that people understood what was happening. I even shared a reading list on some of the records to show where the albums’ ideas were coming from.

Unfortunately, my second record, Voice of America, was smothered at birth because Born in the U.S.A. came out just four weeks later, and it had all of the same imagery. I didn’t know Bruce was going to call his album Born in the U.S.A. and have flags on it because I had left. And then it was like, “Here I come” with Voice of America. I had the same flags and red, white and blue, so my album got completely ignored.

I realized, as I was talking to the American press, that they weren’t getting it and that the country didn’t want to hear it. We all know that part of the reason why Born in the U.S.A. was such a big success was because people misinterpreted it. Well, I was direct about what I was talking about. There was no misinterpreting my record, unfortunately. [Laughs.]

So I started going to Europe very early. The European press was more politically astute than the press in America. Even the rock press, the entertainment press, was extremely sophisticated when it came to politics. I would do weeks of interviews before a record came out and they liked what I was doing. They liked the politics. I never got that feeling in America. It was always a struggle.

That’s also why I kept that extreme position throughout my solo career in the ‘80s. I was hoping to politicize the industry to the point where you could talk about these things and it wouldn’t be a big deal. I wanted that to be a normal part of the art form. Occasionally, you’d hear a song here and there—I point those out in the book—but I felt the need to be a full-time political artist.

I remained extreme with the hope that other people would be influenced by this approach. This art form is a wonderful form of communication so let’s use it for something in addition to entertainment, without removing the entertainment value. I feel that my records and my shows were extremely entertaining but, at the same time, they were saying something that I felt should be a normal part of our business. So I gravitated toward Europe for most of the ‘80s.

Your “Sun City” project played a major role in raising awareness about the oppressive government in South Africa and led to the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, in which Congress overturned President Reagan’s veto to impose sanctions on the country. When you started, did you have a sense that you might be able to attain that goal?

Well, at that point, I was all in. I got so pissed off when I went down there and saw it firsthand. I’ve hated bullies my whole life and the arrogance of these people was just off the charts. I just wanted to destroy them.

So I came back very determined and Danny Schechter [a journalist then working for ABC News] was so encouraging and helped pass along the information to the media. Then, we got [producer] Arthur Baker so into it that he gave me the studio, the engineers and the musicians. For some reason, and I confess this stupidity in the book, we didn’t think to call publicists or managers or record companies. So if we didn’t have somebody’s phone number, we didn’t call them. Luckily, Arthur Baker had a really good rolodex. I called a few people, but the first three people I called turned me down, so I was like, “I’m not calling anybody else. I can’t do this.” After that, Arthur made all the phone calls and everybody said yes to Arthur.

The fourth musketeer was [filmmaker] Hart Perry. We would call him at 2 a.m. and say, “Hey, Miles Davis just walked in. Get over here with the camera.” And he’d head right over.

I needed all the help I could get because it was completely unorganized. People came in one or two at a time. I think the night Miles Davis showed up, Bonnie Raitt happened to be there but that was a coincidence. Quincy Jones and Bob Geldof’s versions of those multi-artist records were completely organized. Everybody was there at the same time and their lines were designated. But I had half the people sing the whole song because we didn’t know how many people we were going to end up with. We ended up with too many artists to sing all the lines but we didn’t know that in the beginning.

We had to educate almost everybody as they came in because it wasn’t an issue in America. There were a couple of people, like Randall Robinson, boycotting the various companies who were doing business down there, but only a few people knew about it.

In the song, I named Ronald Reagan as the reason why there was a problem. It was quite a radical move because I can’t overemphasize how popular he was at the time. So it took courage and some people thought this could be end of their career. Luckily, I didn’t have a career to worry about, so I decided to go full-steam ahead.

But, did we know that it was going to work or that there would be that complete of a victory? No, we couldn’t know that. But, by the time we got to Wembley—the first concert where we were trying to get Mandela out of jail—we had some real hope. The English were so into it So, basically, our job was to stimulate what was going on in Europe and then turn America onto it. We managed to raise enough consciousness that the senators and congressmen were able to override Reagan’s veto when the sanctions bill came up. That was a complete victory. You’re not gonna see that ever again in your lifetime.

It was an instance where I thought out a strategy, executed that strategy and it worked beyond what I could have imagined. Those things happen once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.

In Unrequited Infatuations, I also learned that you created the character of Silvio Dante before you portrayed him in The Sopranos. To what extent did your initial formulation differ from the character that David Chase and the writers put on paper?

In my head, I’m ageless, but it was pointed out to me that my character was so much older than Jimmy [Gandolfini’s] character that they couldn’t have grown up together. So that shifted. But that was about it.

In the end, it became obvious that my character was fulfilling a role that David hadn’t originally written. We didn’t really have an under boss, a consigliere, so I moved into that role very comfortably. I basically drew on my relationship with Bruce Springsteen because I knew those dynamics. I talked to David and the writers about it, and it became an evolution of the character. All the other characters are vying for that position—they want to be the boss. But my character was the only one who didn’t want to be the boss. Everything was pretty much locked in by the second season, but that hadn’t been there in the pilot.

I carried that in from my own mixed feelings about my career. I’ve never wanted to be the front guy. I had to learn how to do it in the ‘80s and I got good at it, but it was never my inclination. So I was able to bring that into the show and it was really helpful because this was my first acting job. I wanted to be convincing and authentic to the character, and I was able to use some things from my life that really came in handy. Sometimes I was the only guy who could bring bad news to the boss. He’s gonna get mad at you because that’s what bosses do and then he’s gonna get over it because you have that kind of solid relationship—it’s not going to end the relationship and you’re going to survive it.

Everybody was very complimentary to me right away, and I was thankful for that. It’s why I changed my appearance as much as I possibly could. I went to the gym and put on 30 pounds of muscle and, obviously, there was the hair. I also changed my facial expressions—the way I laugh—so that there would be no baggage coming from me being a rock star for 25 years. I didn’t want people looking at me in The Sopranos, saying, “Wait a minute. I just saw him playing Cleveland.”

Speaking of dealing with the boss, you describe a moment where you tried to convince Bruce to allow you to remix Darkness on the Edge of Town when it was reissued in 2010. That seems like a tough sell. Did it feel like an attainable goal?

Well, you’ve got to take a shot now and then. [Laughs.] It wasn’t something that I really ever expected would actually happen, but it had just always bothered me. I never really liked the production on that album and it’s some of his best songs. It was probably the way that it was recorded; it was probably beyond help. I’m not sure how I could have fixed it if I remixed it but I had a fantasy of just making it better—making the sound equal to the songs a little bit more.

But, of course, he was right when he said, “People have been listening to it this way for 30 years. Now, you’re going to change it? Are you out of your fucking mind?” [Laughs.]

On the subject of being behind the scenes, at one point, you mention writing a few songs for Lone Justice’s Shelter album. I thought those were the highlights of the record, which made me wonder: What are some of your favorite songs that you’ve written for other artists?

I actually took my own riff from one of the Lone Justice songs. Steve Jordan came over my house one day and said, “I got a session with Jimmy Barnes and I promised them a song, so I’m not leaving the house until you write it.” We ended up stealing my riff from “I Found Love” and then I wrote “Ride the Night Away” while he was standing there. I think it turned out to be one of my best. I later cut a cool version with Southside Johnny and I cut it myself on Soulfire. So that was one that I got some good mileage out of.

Another one I really like is a song called “St. Valentine’s Day.” I wrote it for Nancy Sinatra but, for some reason, we didn’t get a chance to do it. I did it with the Cocktail Slippers and it became the centerpiece for David Chase’s movie Not Fade Away, which is about a young band—that was their first original song. So we did it in the movie, and I also later cut it for Soulfire. I regard that as my Bob Dylan song, even though it might not be obvious.

“I Don’t Want to Go Home” is also always going to have a special place in my heart because it was the first song I ever wrote that I liked. I wrote it for Ben E. King, but I didn’t give it to him, and then I rearranged it for Southside’s first album. I went back to the original arrangement when I cut it on Soulfire with the background vocals answering because that’s how I would have done it with Ben E. King and The Drifters. I don’t know why I didn’t do it with Ben E. King after Southside. I had plenty of time. I brought in Ben E. King in to sing on the Gary Bonds album and I should have done it then. Around that time, I even tried to talk Bruce into starting a business with me where we did nothing but back those singers—we’d write for them and produce them. Ben E. King would have been the first one after Gary Bonds.

Did you write “Jesus Is the Rock (That Keeps Me Rollin’)” specifically for Introducing Darlene Love? That was a wonderful album although it seemed like it might have fallen through the cracks a bit.

What I’ll do sometimes—I did it on the Gary Bonds albums—is wait until we’re almost done and then say, “OK, what else does the album need?” In this case, we had “Marvelous,” which is an incredible gospel song and was the reason why I finally did the album with Darlene. I was like, “People have got to hear Darlene sing this song, ‘Marvelous.’” That was my main reason for getting in there and finally doing it. But in the end, I thought we could use one more gospel song. So I just stayed up all night listening to the Soul Stirrers and various gospel records, just kind of absorbing them all. Then, I wrote it the next day.

One of the biggest disappointments of my life is that she didn’t win the Grammy for Album of the Year. I mean, if you look at 20 Feet From Stardom, which won an Oscar, then this was the perfect ending, the perfect complement to that movie. She comes back and makes this incredible record and then wins the Grammy. Showbiz loves those kinds of stories but, man, it didn’t even get nominated.

I had called all these amazing people to write songs and they all came through. I wanted to make an album that was equal to Darlene’s greatness but also the fact that she waited 30 fucking years for me; I talked her into moving to New York from LA in 1981, and we finally had a chance to do the record in 2013. So she waited a long time and I wanted it to be really special.

Then, once Sony signed her, I thought, “Well, my work here is done. Sony is signing a 73-year-old with this amazing backstory. Of course, they’re going to do a campaign for Album of the Year.”

My takeaway from that experience was: My job is never done. I can’t go 80 or 90%. I’ve got to do it all the way.” I should have hung in there as if I was her manager and kept the pressure on about the campaign for the Grammys. It was a real lesson—if you’re gonna do somebody a favor, then you’ve got to go all the way. Because I knew it was the Album of the Year, and I defy anyone to tell me it wasn’t. [Laughs.]

In 2012, I was in Norway at a music conference, and it seemed like the entire country was swept up in Lilyhammer. Were you able to enjoy that success given all the work that comes with serving as writer, director, producer and star? Would you be interested in taking on another series?

I was certainly pleasantly surprised that a fifth of the country watched the show every week. [Laughs.] The prime minister would tweet, “Don’t bother me. I’m watching Lilyhammer.” But I also have to say that it was a struggle. That began with the company that bought it in Norway wanting a family comedy. But, I was told by the production company that they wanted Sopranos for Norway. [Laughs.] I was fine with that sort of mixture, that dramedy kind of thing, but it was a challenge. Then, I sold it to Netflix as their first show and they wanted a cable show with sex and violence. So balancing all of that was an amazing triumph.

I’m certainly proud of the fact that we won the award for best show in Monte Carlo [at the Monte-Carlo Television Festival] for our second and third seasons— and that I won the award for best actor. We also won at the Norwegian awards, which was incredible because Norway’s very insular. A lot of people assumed that if we were going to sell the show to 130 countries like we did, that we were going to have to dilute it for the Norwegian audience. But, we didn’t. We made the Norwegian audience happy and we made everybody else happy at the same time. That was a challenge, and I give Eilif [Skodvin] and Anne [Bjørnstad] 99% of the credit. They really were brilliant. I’m very proud of it and people are still discovering it. To be honest, I think it’s the best stuff on Netflix. [Laughs.]

I love doing TV and I would go back to it in a minute. I’ve got 25 treatments and five completed scripts. I also would also like to go back and continue doing Lilyhammer. We’ve been talking about straightening out some of the legal problems with that show. We’re still figuring some of that stuff out, but we could very conceivably go back and do more Lilyhammer.

There is so much going on in the book. When you finally finished writing it, what was your takeaway?

One of the reasons why I wrote the book was that I was hoping it would explain my life to me. It was tough to revisit my mistakes, some of which were life-changing, and wonder if I could have done something different at the time. But, looking back on it now, I can see the inner logic of what I did.

It’s been an odyssey to try and find out where I fit in. I think there are certain moments that I’ve created—be it from craft or circumstance—that justify my existence. But, I don’t feel like I’ve found my purpose quite yet. Then again, maybe I have and I’m not recognizing it. That’s why I ended the book on a positive note with that moment where I write that, at any given time, wherever I was, maybe I did belong there after all.

But, I don’t feel like I’m done yet. One of these days, I might actually even find a steady job.