It is the middle of the 1980s, and Stevie Van Zandt, having departed the E Street Band and left Bruce Springsteen’s side, is pursuing a solo career. He has also parlayed decades of experience playing in bar bands into a new and unusual role: international activist and campaigner against injustice. And so he finds himself, in company with Jackson Browne, in Nicaragua, against which the US is waging a proxy war.
He arranges a meeting with Rosario Murillo, the wife of Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, as he notes in his memoir, Unrequited Infatuations. “After a few drinks, I moved off the small talk and suddenly asked her if she loved her husband. She was taken a bit aback but said, Yes, señor, very much. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘you should spend as much time with him as possible, because he’s a dead man walking. It’s just a matter of time and time is running out’ … She was a very smart woman married to a revolutionary. But she was expecting a pleasant conversation about the arts, and the reality of what I was saying hit her hard.”
There are other encounters, too. He headed off to South Africa and persuaded the disputatious black nationalist groups to lay down arms while he explained to them how to end apartheid and recorded the single Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid. It’s a little surprising he didn’t end the cold war, too. The greatest miracle, though, is that none of the people he was going round lecturing told him to piss off.
“I’m sure they were thinking that,” Van Zandt says now, via Zoom. “In Nicaragua, I got her attention. I probably wasn’t telling her anything she didn’t already know or sense. But I know what Ronald Reagan was thinking. He couldn’t wait to invade Nicaragua. And her husband had a target on his forehead. So when I explained to her what was about to happen and how she could avoid it, she took that quite seriously and listened to my advice.”
And South Africa? “In the case of South Africa, they thought I was a little bit crazy and eccentric because of the way I looked – lots of earrings and bracelets – which was the only way I got away with anything. The tough part is when you’re in Soweto and there’s no electricity, telling people they’re going to win the war on TV. That was a bit of a stretch. So they probably thought I was such a lunatic I wasn’t worth killing.”
Van Zandt has an extraordinary life. Just to have been the right-hand man – consigliere, as he puts it – to Springsteen from 1975 to 1984, and then again since 1999, would be enough to assure his status. Add to that his starring roles in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. Then factor in the forming of, and writing, arranging and producing of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and his own solo career with Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. And don’t forget his ongoing cheerleading for rock’n’roll as a broadcaster for nearly 20 years, and his work campaigning for musical education. It’s tiring just reading about it.
It’s all down to tedium, he says. “I find the world extraordinarily boring. I don’t know how we got this boring, honestly. Everywhere you look it’s just boring. Why? The architecture’s boring. Everything. Why aren’t we being creative? We have all this wonderful creativity in the human species; why aren’t we using it? At the same time I am compelled by bullies and injustice and obvious gaps. And I’m thinking, ‘Why does nobody do a radio format that has this, this and this in? I’m going to have to do it myself.’ The South Africa thing I was just embarrassed by the policy. How could we be supporting slavery in the 1980s?”
I’ve interviewed Van Zandt before, and liked him. I enjoyed talking to him this time, too. He has the true zeal of an enthusiast, an overwhelming passion for the music of the mid-1960s – “the renaissance”, he calls it, the absolute zenith of human cultural endeavour – and he laughs easily. He talks easily, too, about life as the perpetual sideman, always in the shadows, never the spotlight.
In the beginning, he says, it was because he reckoned he had something Springsteen was missing. “I saw something in him that, frankly, nobody else saw. He was very quiet for many years. And very shy. But I just felt he had something. It wasn’t out of being philanthropic: if I make him the biggest star in the world, I’m going to be riding on that train. It was good for me. I didn’t have quite the ambition to be the front guy and take it all the way. I could have been signed as a solo act immediately, the same time we signed the Jukes for sure. But I didn’t have the ambition to do it, and Bruce was always very single-minded.” There’s also a more modest reason for sticking with Springsteen: “I do feel very strongly that every successful person should have one person from the old neighbourhood hanging around.”
Unrequited Infatuations, however, achieves the rare feat of making its author less likable: in trying to make himself more than Springsteen’s consigliere, he manages to make himself less. There are attitudes that seem frankly eyebrow-raising (the way to end misogyny is to ensure all men can buy sex). There’s a strong strain of “Needless to say, I had the last laugh” about it. When things go wrong, it is because Van Zandt was ignored; when they go right, it is because he was heeded. Quite plainly, he has no shortage of ideas but perhaps, I suggest to him, some of them were rejected for being terrible ideas.
Take, for example, his proposal to the US TV networks that he host a New Year’s special from the Playboy Mansion, with Playboy Bunnies dressed as go-go dancers, and a handpicked bill of his favourite bands. Honestly, I have no trouble understanding why that was rejected. It’s an awful idea.
“That was a long time ago,” he says, dismissively.
Not that long ago: second half of the last decade. Come on, Playboy Bunnies on a New Year’s Eve show?
“It’s before woke world. That’s your opinion. And I have my opinion. My opinion is instead of showing a repeat of some boring network show, maybe a few people would like to see Playboy bunnies doing go-go dancing in the Playboy Mansion with five or six fantastic bands playing. Call me crazy, but that would have been more of an attention-getter for the audience than some terrible network TV show. So I disagree with you, obviously.”
At which point, a voice comes on the line. My hour is up. So I don’t get to ask if it’s up to women to end misogyny by letting men pay for sex. Instead I say how much I hope the E Street Band will be back on the road next summer, how much I’m looking forward to the shows. Van Zandt’s face softens into a smile again.
No matter that I didn’t like his book, he’s still Stevie Van Zandt. He’s still the man stage-left at the Springsteen show, which is many magnitudes more than most musicians will ever achieve. I might doubt quite how central Sun City was to the collapse of apartheid, but he still got out and made the record happen. He’s still Miami Steve, Little Steven. He’s still Silvio. How many of us can look down our CV and say we came anywhere near close to what he’s managed?
And there’s more humility in the conversational Van Zandt than in the written one. At one point he starts explaining why it is worth people’s while taking his advice. They should do so, he says, “mostly because I’ve fucked up every possible way you could fuck up in this business. Usually when I give advice it’s because I didn’t take it. So I’m really somebody you should listen to.” He laughs, the most successful failure in rock history.
Unrequited Infatuations is published by White Rabbit on 28 September.