The chats Steven Van Zandt has with icons such as Sir Paul McCartney, Iggy Pop and his longtime bandmate Bruce Springsteen during “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” radio show are more casual and less interview.
“They’re all friends, so it comes off as natural,” Van Zandt said while calling from his New York apartment on Monday.
Fans of Van Zandt’s syndicated show on KPND (95.3 FM), which airs Sundays from 8-10 p.m. and on SiriusXM, can experience an array of interviews and myriad songs. For the next 12 weeks, fans can catch his “Qoolest Quarantine Qollection.” (SiriusXM is allowing free streaming through May 15 at siriusxm.com/offers/free-listen.)
Speaking with Van Zandt, 69, who also is well-known for starring in “The Sopranos,” is akin to chatting with a living, breathing rock museum. Van Zandt emotes like a cerebral and passionate fan. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer absorbed music as a child and lived it while breathing rarified air along with the Boss.
The E Street Band’s rhythm guitarist plays an unpredictable sonic potpourri ranging from British Invasion, power pop and psychedelia to surf rock and Motown. Van Zandt tells why it’s better to be successful later in life, when Springsteen and the E Street Band’s next album will drop and reveals what album is “the most unifying piece of art in history.”
How is everything in the “Underground Garage”?
Good. I’m dealing with the zombie apocalypse like everybody else. I’m just trying to entertain listeners. I’m trying to provide as much fun for my affiliates, like KPND. I’m having some fun interviewing my friends. Last week was Bruce (Springsteen), and this week is Paul McCartney.
Your interviews are so relaxed that you remind me of Johnny Carson, who listened to his guests, which is uncommon for many high-profile talk show hosts.
It’s true. A lot of interviewers forget to listen. I remember when I was on Charlie Rose, who had a great reputation as an interviewer. I didn’t like him. He wasn’t listening. He would ask me a question when I was talking about something that was far more interesting than his question (laughs).
Fame hit a bit later for you, Bruce and the E Street Band. Was there an advantage to grabbing the brass ring in your 30s?
I think so. When you become a star early, I don’t see how that doesn’t mess you up. For us not having a hit until we were 30, that’s old in the rock and roll business.
Henry Rollins once told me that it’s important to suffer before you have success. Do you agree?
I think it’s a good thing to pay your dues so you get better and you appreciate success. You don’t take it for granted when you have success later on in life. But you don’t want to make it when you’re old because you might become bitter. I think it’s ideal to make it between 25 and 35.
How did you pay your dues with the E Street Band?
The E Street Band would play five sets a night from 10 p.m.-3 a.m. at the Stone Pony. That’s quite a lot of work. On top of that, we would rehearse during the day. Studying records was also part of the job.
Obviously you put in much more than the 10,000 hours author Malcolm Gladwell wrote that you need to do in terms of honing your skills in his book “Outliers.”
We put in much more than 10,000 hours working on music before we hit.
Compare that to the work the Beatles put in during their early days in Liverpool and Hamburg.
The Beatles paid more dues than anybody. When they were in Hamburg, they played 12 hours a day, 7 nights a week. By the time we learned about the Beatles, they were halfway through their career. They were polished.
Much of the “Underground Garage” is comprised of tracks from the 1960s. What was it like for a kid from middle-class New Jersey when you were first hit by the wave of music from the British Invasion?
My whole life changed. You have to understand that before that period, we didn’t have bands in American music. It was solo artists or groups, but when the bands arrived from England, that appealed to me and so many people. A bands is a gang, a posse, family.
With your radio show, you’re reliving your youth?
Absolutely. I can’t tell you how much I listened to records as a kid, and I’m doing it today. What I do justifies my wayward youth. I play the songs I love on the radio. I want the greatest music ever made to be accessible to the next generation.
You’re not just playing obscurities on the “Underground Garage.” You also play the Beatles.
I love the Beatles. They are so significant. They were a huge part of the ’60s renaissance. They did something no one did before them, which is to evolve. Each record they put out was different. That was a totally new concept. Bands would put out an album and then follow with an album that sounded just like that album, but the Beatles were so creative.
And when they got bored, they just made something totally different. Every album was better than the last, well, if not better, each album was different than the last all the way through “Magical Mystery Tour,” or you can say “Abbey Road.” With “Let It Be,” they went back to their roots for the hell of it.
During an interview with Steven Hyden, author of “Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock,” he said that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is overrated. However, he wasn’t even born when the album changed the world in 1967. I can only imagine how “Sgt. Pepper” blew people away when it was released. That album, which changed everything, can’t be overrated. What’s your take?
He (Hyden) is so wrong. “Sgt. Pepper” blew people’s minds. The reality is that “Sgt. Pepper” is the most important record of all time. It’s not the best record. The Beatles’ “Revolver” is the better album. However, “Sgt. Pepper” singlehandledly changed the path of the musical evolution process. It looked different. It sounded different. “Sgt. Pepper” is the most unifying piece of art in the history of art.
You could walk down any street the first week of June in 1967 and you would hear “Sgt. Pepper.” If you walked down a street in New Jersey, New York or London, you would hear those songs coming out of cars, homes, salons, clothing stores. “Sgt. Pepper” is underrated and extraordinary. The Beatles were incredible. Growing up, it was the Beatles and the Stones.
Well, then I have to hit you with a list from a rock journalist who ranked those in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He placed the Rolling Stones at 15.
(Laughs hysterically) Are you serious? Alright, aside from the Beatles, who were the 14 bands ahead of the Stones?
I’ll give you two bands both you and I love, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. But how can you place either ahead of the Stones? The Sex Pistols made the Rock Hall courtesy of one album!
To place the Stones at 15 is embarrassing! There’s no way the Stones are 15th in any list. It’s the Beatles and the Stones, and the debate starts for who is No. 3 on the list.
I agree. The Stones’ 200th best song is better than most bands’ best song. Also, the Beatles aren’t tops on that rock writer’s list.
What (laughs)? Who is?
Those in the first generation of rock and in the second generation of rock can’t be on the same list. It’s like apples and oranges. Chuck Berry was very consistent. His great 28 are very different than what the Beatles did. The guys from the ’50s were novelty artists. They were great.
But if the ’60s didn’t happen the way it did, rock would have gone the way of the hula hoop and the yo-yo. The ’60s was such an amazing artistic period. I’m glad I lived through that. But the pioneers of rock are significant. How cool is it that Little Richard still walks the earth? He invented rock and roll, and it’s still alive.
Speaking of rock still being alive, when will the next Springsteen and the E Street Band drop?
I guarantee you that there will be a new album when we tour again whether that will be this year or next year.
Van Zandt also discussed the upcoming “The Sopranos” movie prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” which includes the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, portraying his father as a young Tony Soprano. The chat will run as the film release nears.