Steven Van Zandt is one of pop culture’s coolest sidekicks. Over the past 45 years, he’s toured the world with Bruce Springsteen as a guitarist and singer in the E Street Band. And from 1999 to 2007, he was second-in-command to James Gandolfini’s mob boss on the classic HBO show The Sopranos. But there have been tough times, too, for the guy known as Little Steven.
As a teenager, he went crashing through the windshield in a near-fatal car accident, and he covered the resulting hair loss with his famed bandanas. “It reconfirmed my philosophy, which is to live every day in the moment, and do everything you can in that moment,” Steven, 69, reveals to Closer.
It also helped him appreciate his wife of nearly 38 years, Maureen, 69, solo work with his Disciples of Soul band, and helping kids through his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation (soon to be renamed the Rock and Soul Foundation). “Treat every day like there’s no yesterday and no tomorrow, and try and get the most out of it,” he adds. “I pretty much live that way.”
Tell us about your foundation.
Our mission is three things: Keep the arts in the DNA of the public education system; discover and use a new methodology to teach the younger generation, which we’ve done; and once we have distribution into every grade level and school, to start affecting the dropout rate, which is an epidemic nobody really talks about, but it’s close to 50 percent in poor neighborhoods. And it’s directly connected with kids ending up in the prison system.
Why are you teaming with New York Edge to give NYC students new programming?
To reach their 40,000 students. Our music history curriculum (available at teachrock.org) has almost 200 lessons online, and we’ve registered 30,000 teachers. We’re already prepared for everybody homeschooling now! We exist to help teachers with tools and fun lessons that meet school standards.
Your foundation’s been around for about 15 years, and your “Sun City” antiapartheid single came out 35 years ago. Did that song inspire you to help people?
I’d been writing political music for a few years before that, and had a different foundation which dealt mostly with Native Americans. At some point, you become emotionally involved and want to make things better, not just write about them.
We all love your work with the E Street Band. How did you connect with Bruce?
Anyone who was in a band [in the early ’70s] were friends, because only a dozen or so bands got out of the garage. So Bruce and I became friends because I had a band and he had his. He put out two records that didn’t do so well, and then his third [1975’s Born to Run] was going to be his last unless something remarkable happened, so he asked if I would play guitar. At that point, I had started Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, so I left them and went with the E Street Band. We’ve been together off and on ever since.
Anything wild or funny happen onstage?
Well, we have big ’60s bands that join us as guests from time to time. Or a fan might come dressed as Elvis or someone, and we’ll put him onstage. We amuse ourselves that way. Bruce was the best man at your wedding. What makes him such a good friend? We share a lot of the same feelings, taste and opinions. We’re not exactly the same, but we’re pretty close! Our bond happened almost immediately, because in those days, it really was a long shot to make a living in rock ’n’ roll, and me and him were the only two guys that I know of who were totally dedicated to it. It made you feel, “Maybe I’m not completely crazy.”
Little Richard just passed away. How did you get him to officiate your wedding?
We just called him. Of course, he lied and said he had done it before. [Laughs] But he was completely wild and improvised the whole thing. He had a preacher’s style that was quite humorous. We had Percy Sledge sing “When a Man Loves a Woman” when we walked down the aisle. And we got the band that was in the Godfather movie [to play]. It was wild!
Speaking of mobsters, how did you end up on The Sopranos?
[Creator] David Chase saw me induct the Rascals into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and offered me the role. I said, “I’d love to, but I’m not an actor.” He said, “You are — you just don’t realize it yet.” It was a remarkable gift. The E Street Band was not a bunch of faceless, nameless side men. We’re all characters — very smart on Bruce’s part — and David Chase picked up on that.
What are you proudest of as an actor?
I’m very proud of Lilyhammer. I cowrote it, coproduced it, did the theme song and all the music after the first season. And then I directed the final episode, which I’m most proud of. It was Bruce Springsteen’s acting debut.
When’d you know you had music talent?
Just before I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 when I was 13, which made me want to do music, my grandfather was teaching me a song on his guitar from his village in Calabria, Italy. I had some kind of natural talent for it.
Any secret to your lasting marriage?
Putting up with me, number one. Luckily Maureen has a theater group and her own life. As I always say, the way to stay together is to stay apart. [Laughs] There’s a comfort zone with us, and we give each other space.
Ever wish you had kids, or adopted?
I think about it sometimes, but my regret is that I never had a steady job and felt economically stable enough to have kids. I know that sounds odd, because I’ve been somewhat successful my whole life, but it’s not a success you can depend on. I’ve got 40 people working for me on my radio stations, the foundation and all that. Any added pressure of a kid, I just couldn’t do it. I probably have some arrested development, too. I never really grew up.
You’ll turn 70 in November. Anything you’d still like to accomplish?
In my mind, I’m about 25, maybe 30. It’s impossible to even conceive being that old. So I don’t really think about it. It’s shocking to even hear you say it!
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Reporting by Diana Cooper