Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Rock and Roll Forever: Little Steven on The Rascals, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, 'Lillyhammer' and The Underground Garage

The Springsteen sideman and TV gangster's Broadway show, 'The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream,' is at the Academy of Music through Saturday.

Rock and Roll Forever: Little Steven on The Rascals, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, 'Lillyhammer' and The Underground Garage

At the start of The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, the Broadway 'bio-musical' that wraps up its stand at the Academy of Music on Saturday night, the voice of the show's creator, Steven Van Zandt, comes over the PA system to inform the crowd that if they want to take out their smart phones and take pictures and shoot video to their hearts content, they should go right ahead and do so. 

With that, Van Zandt shuts up and goes away, and let's the music and the members of The Rascals do the talking. Shortly before the show opened in Philadelphia however, Van Zandt took the time for an interview to talk up his creation, and he had plenty to say, not only about Once Upon A Dream, but also his day job as guitarist and consigliere in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, his role as a witness protected gangster living in Norway in the Netflix series Lillyhammer, his Sirius/XM satellite radio channel The Underground Garage, and his views on the history and current state of rock and roll.

Much of what Van Zandt, who played Tony Soprano's second in command Sylvio Dante in The Sopranos, had to say about The Rascals is in my story on Once Upon A Dream that ran in Sunday Inquirer A & E section. You can read that by going to Inquirer.com here and using promo code  R71V, or by clicking here.

An edited version of a long, more wide ranging interview follows, conducted over the phone from Van Zandt's home in New York where he was on a break for an E Street tour that was set to resume three days later in Naples, Italy. "It's Stevie," he says when he calls, and goes on to speak for an hour, interrrupted only by the occasional barking of his King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, named Edie after Edie Sedgwick, who he described as "a little devil." Below the interview are clips of a TV ad for Once Upon A Dream, a Lillyhammer trailer, and Springsteen and Van Zandt doing "Out in the Street."
    
Q: What was your personal experience with The Rascals? Why were they important, and why were they important to you?
 
A: They were were the first rock band I ever saw and they were considered a Jersey band. The British Invasion had already happened and gotten me into rock and roll...
 
 Q: When was this?

A: Well, the British Invasion was '64, the Rascals came in '65, end of '65. I went to see them...

Q: Where?

A: The Keyport Rollerdrome, which is where a lot of bands played. It was was a battle of the bands, and it was a very very exciting night. So up until that moment, the British Invasion had completely taken over. The Beatles and the Stones and Yardibrds and The Who were dominating our turntables and the radio. And then suddenly there was a group that was actually kind of home grown, from New Jersey. And that was extremely important and exciting because it sort of opened up the possibilities that local guys could make it, that you ddn't have to be English to make it.

That was a big revelation, and then seeing them, they were just phenomenal. They were the most exiciting live band ever - literally.They were extremely exciting. Eddie Brigati was the most exciting white front man in the business. He made Mick Jagger look like he was standing still - this constant blur of movement and dance moves. Incredible.

And Dino Danelli was literally the greatest and most exciting drummer in all of rock and roll. Everybody who came to town went and studied Dino, including Keith Moon and all the rest.  And Felix introducing the whole B3 organ thing, Gene was a great guitar player.

They were individually great, and together they were the first white soul band. So we were getting at that great soul music, very very close to the source. Which was a wonderful way to translate it to us young white kids.

Of course, just a  year later, we’d be getting into the original guys. The Temptations, and Sam & Dave and all the rest… But at that point, it was strictly a new kind of music. We didn’t know where it was was coming from. We wouldn’t know where it was coming from until later. But at that point, It was the most exciting live band ever,
playing very soulful music with two of the greatest lead singers, and then they started writing and became phenomenal writers on top of that.     They had it all all. And the influence remains. You can trace the E Street Band directly back to the Rascals.

Q: How so? Just because they were from New Jersey, or musically as well?

A. There's the Jersey thing, which is superficial. But the musical thing is quite deep. The B3 organ alone was something straight out of the church. So you have that combination of gospel and soul music right there, in
that instrument which, of course, we had with Danny Federici. One of the few guys in Jersey who had a B3, and once he got to know it, and knowing a B3 is like the equivalent of a sitar for a guitar player, It's very very complex, there's a million subtleties to it, a lot of different sounds and and textures to it, and when you get good at it, youre really quite unique. And Danny was coming to it, of course, diirectly from Felix Cavaliere. That’s where that came from.

Once we had the organ and piano, that immediately changed the genre from rock to gospel-based and soul-based. Rock bands didn’t have two keyboards, if they had any. Rock bands by definition were guitar based
Maybe would have occasional complimentary keyboards on the record. But the Stones were the archetypal rock band: Two guitars, bass and drums, and occasionally add some keyboards. To have the keyboard as a main part added to the instrumentation put it into another category.

Q: That's how you guys got into soul music?
A: Yes, which is all over the show this year.

Q: Was that the bridge for Bruce as much as you?
A: I believe so, yes.

Q: It was the window into Motown and Stax ...?

A: Absolutely, yes. And Eddie and Felix, sort of like the Sam and Dave, the white Sam and Dave.

Q: Felix and Eddie's voices are in excellent shape.
A: They really are. And they’re playing great. It's hard to believe. But I guess you go into suspended animation, in a way. When they came back together it was like they never were apart. It sent chills up your spine at rehearsal.

Q: You've now been involved with two recent projects about bands who got their start in New Jersey in the '60s. Are the Rascals the band that the fictional guys in David Chase's Not Fade Away, which you were in charge of the music for, could have become?

A: That’s a funny question. There is a connection there. In Not Fade Away, David so wonderfully portrayed the way after the Beatles played Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9 1964, it just exploded. Everybody joined a band.

The Rascals had a little less of a struggle breaking through the fear barrier of getting on stage and performing. The Not Fade Away guys would have been a little bit younger. By the time the Rascals got together, they were seasoned performers who had been around in other bands.

Q: When I saw Not Fade Away, I thought about something you told David Remnick in his Springsteen profile in The New Yorker last year, about how fathers in the '60s came to hate their sons for what they had become. How they had gone to war, and built this post-war suburban paradise for their families, only to have it thrown back in their faces.    

That story is usually told from the perspective of the agents of change, and is sympathetic to youth culture. So that's a pretty powerful idea, that you've built this world, and then suddenly you have aliens living in your house and you don't understand how they got there. Was that real, for you?
  
A: Very very much so. And very accurately portrayed by Jimmy [Gandolfini, who played the bandleader's father in the movie]. You know, just this complete revulsion at this incomprehensible behavior. Where did this freak come from? Maybe the only time in history that’s ever happened. Just a complete break, a real generation gap, as it was called. And it was a grand canyon.

Looking back, I just feel so sorry for what we  we put our parents through. It must have been so horrible. Embarassing, a constant embarassment for them.

Q: There was self-righteousness, too, coming from you guys.

A: Oh yeah, we knew better than them. And to a certain extent we were correct, that rock and roll did turn
out to be important, at least for our generation. I'm not so sure anymore. But  I think for our generation it did mean a lot.

Q: You were right about a lot of things. The war, for instance.

 A: A lot of the idealism of the Sixties was spot on, from the environmentalism, to the war, to the Civil Rights movement, the women's rights movement, you name it.

We were correct about most of that stuff. And that was the first time the government was ever challenged. You know, it was like 'My country, right or wrong,' until then. The government said something, you did it. Eisenhower
was like a beloved grandfatherly figure. There was no questioning of the government.

Q: And were The Rascals part of that whole social culture upheaval, part of the counter culture?

A: Yeah. You pretty much had to be. You had to almost work at it not to be in those days. Remember, rock and roll, and what would become rock, staged a coup in that mid-'60s period. Rock and roll until then was a cult. And then when the Beatles hit, rock and roll took over the charts and took over pop, or certainly fused with it for the next five years or so. There were a whole new set of rules. It    wasn’t just going to be  be background music anymore. And once Bob Dylan introduced real lyrics...

And all that came together pretty much by '65 with "Like A Rolling Stone," The Beatles' "Help," the Stones with "Satisfaction."  By '65, lyrics meant something. So all bets are off. Everything changed. Music was not just entertainment. It was informing you about life. And that was a whole new idea, that's pretty much gone now.
Q: In the mainstream maybe. It's still out there.

A: It went back to a pop era. The rules went back to how they were. The rock era, which lasted a good 30 years really,  from "Like A Rolling Stone" to Kurt Cobain's death, which is how I clock it. A 30 year period of the rock era. A magical era, a Renaissance period. We'll probably never see it again, or if we do, not for a long time,  where the most commercial music is also the best.

Q: Have you ever thought of getting Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul back together, the band you fronted (with Dino Danelli on drums) as a solo vehicle  in the 1980s?

A: Through the years, I've almost done it. I played around with the idea of touring with a soul revue, with Smokey Robinson, Sam Moore, Darlene Love, people like that. We  did a little taste of it at the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I've got so many other things I'm into now.

Whatever other music things I'm doing now I'm doing as part of the TV show. I no longer believe that music stands on its own, lke it did for our generation.  it has to be attached to something, to have a use. It has no use, has no obvious use in our society as it stands now, in our culture.
Q: Elaborate on that.
 
A: It was a fuel that got us through the day, something we looked forward to, talked about it. It was a huge part of our lives. That's just no longer the case.

So I'll use it in the Not Fade Away movie, I'll use it in Lillyhammer. You find uses for it. Or even in The Rascalscase, when it came time for a reunion, I said, you know what?  A reunion is not enough. I want to do something that I know is going to get some attention. Again, that means finding a use for the Rascals music, and we put it into a Broadway show. It just happens to be autobiographical. That’s almost coincidental. In five years or ten years, I'll rewrite it and do it with actors and it'll be a very good show in and of itself.

That kind of thing that everywhere now. When you see them, they're f---ing great. But you have to get people there first.

Q: The other day I was listening to Men Without Women, you're first solo album from 1982 - which is a great album by the way...
A: Thank you.
 
Q: And one of the things about that record that's impressive and kind of inspiring is that all those songs, to me, are about getting older and trying to find the faith to carry on, to still believe in rock and roll. As you put it in "Inside Of Me" "Now I know we're a little bit older now, but that don't mean there's nothing new left to say."
And now here it is 30 years later, and with all these things you're doing - the Rascals reunion, the Underground Garage, your program to teach a music in schools - you're putting those concepts into practice. And all of those ideas are embedded in that record.

A:  You're absolutely right. I'm  boringly consistent. You can look exactly and what I'm saying in 1982, and I'm saying the same things now.

But in the end, it isn’t what you say, it's what you do.  You are what you do. And I'm still doing it, still dedicating myself to this craft. Now, a little more of my time is spent making sure it gets passed on, making sure it actually survives, which is a turn I didn’t expect it to take. We thought it would be around forever.

Who would have thought in the last 20 years, Im probably the only guy in America playing the Beatles on the radio, let alone the Ramones or the Yardbirds or the Shangri-La or Little Richard? What we call traditional rock and roll. And thank god for Sirius XM radio. The only way people can hear, the greatest music ever made on the Underground Garage

That was an unexpected development. One day I turned the radio on. I couldn’t find any music. I couldn't find anything. A typical kid growing up has no chance. So I started the station to establish a set of standards.This is what greatness sounds like. One great song after another, and I'm playing 60 years of it. A track from a Rolling Stones album and a Kinks album and stuff people have never heard before

It required me handpicking the songs, It's my opinion, my taste. It's not a science.  But it adds up. You will get a real sense of the history of rock and roll.

Q: It's not as well known that you oversee the Outlaw Country channel on Sirius/XM.
A: That’s my station also. Same story on the country side. The best music in the world doesn’t have a format.
Once Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings are not cool on country radio, it's time for a new format. I did that, and then I threw in the country leaning stuff from rock bands, like the Stones, the Byrds, The Band. The Band are a great example, one of the great America bands, with no format for their music. 
   
Q:  What's up with Lillyhammer?

A: We've finished principal photography for Season 2. I'm going to do the score as well this time, if I have time.
It should be on in January.
Q: Still on Netflix?
A: We're proud to be first original programming they ever did, the first show to have all 8 shows up at once. We created the identity of Netflix original programming. It's a very creative show that made history.
 
It's also the only international show ever in history to be played on a mainstream American network simultaneously and in the same form as it played in the orginal country. That's never happened before.  Any success in Europe gets remade.

Q: So House of Cards gets the pub, but Lillyhammer was there first.
A: We broke the ground.

Q: How did the show happen in the first place?

A: I was mixing one of my Norwegian girl groups in Bergen, Norway. And these two producers, a husband and wife team, approached me and pitched me on the show. I said alright, I'll hear it. Five words: "Gangster, witness protection, Lillyhammer, Norway."
I'm like, 'Jesus Christ!' I  was not planning on playing a gangster again. I just played one for 10 years. But I cannot resist this idea.  It's a brilliant, brilaint idea. I said, well, if I can figure out the logistics...

  I became one of the writers, one of the producers. I jumped in against the advice of everyone I know. 'What are you, nuts?"  But once I became one of the writers and producers, I figured I could control it enough to be safe. And then I met the actors over there, who are all great, and I knew it was going to be fine.

Q: What's your Scandinavian connection?

A: None. Just playing there over the years. And I noticed a lot of the new rock and roll bands I was playing on my radio show were Scandinavian. I didn't understand it then, and I'm not sure I do now. But in Scandinavia, they grew up with subititles rather than dubbing. In southern Europe, they du b everything on TV. In Scandinavia, all subtitles.
 
Which means they grow up speaking English. And they have  a high taste for Americana in Scandinaivia. There's more great rock and roll coming out of Scandinavia than most places.

Q: So you missed the Australian E Street Band tour this winter because you were shooting Lillyhammer?

A: That’s right. I made a two season deal, before there was a tour. Once I agreed, Bruce called. [Laughs.]  Same thing with The Sopranos. I agreed to do the show, and Bruce called, for the first time in 18 years. He has a sixth sense for when I'm actually getting a job.  Once I thought I was out, he pulls me back in.

Q: You're back with the band now, though, touring though the summer.

A: Europe all summer. Then finally, South America in September. Then I have no idea what.

We’ll see what happens after that.  I hope the E Street Band goes out every single summer. It's a wonderful way to spend the summer, as far as I’m concerned.

Q: And you've played a lot of outdoor festivals in the last few years.
A: That’s right, that's been a new thing for us. And it's been nothing but fun. You're winning people over rather than playing to your own crowd. It's very different and it's a lot of fun.

Q: You're not going to break the news to me that there's a new Bruce album coming in a month that you've been secretly recording, are you?

A: [Laughs]. No I am not.   All I do is get on the bus and go where it takes me.

Q: What segment of Springsteen's career do you wish the band paid more attention to live?

A: Right now,  and we were just talking about this last week, the only album that has been totally ignored is what I think is one of the best albums hes ever done, which is The Promise. It's right there for me with that disc two of the Tracks box. Those two are my favorite records we've ever done

Q: More than anything that was officially released?

A: Absolutely. Because that's all the pop rock stuff I love so much that was rejected because it was in a way
either too British Invasion-related when he was focused on establishing a new Americana identity, or not quite the right lyrics.

Q: Or too much fun?

A: Maybe, maybe something as simple as that. Every song a lost argument, of course… The entire Promise album is absolutely remarkable. I'm hoping we start playing it. But I don't know, that might be another lost argument. And the fact that we’re going around a second time lends itself to giving it another consideration, adding another dimension. But on the other hand, we played 200 songs this tour already.  

Q: How about The River? Isn't that one of your faves too?

A: The River was very special to me. The first one I co-produced. My thing is all over it, what I like, which is a band sound. The challenge at that point in the game was can we finally capture what we’re doing live on a record. That's why he came to me to co-produce it. He knew that was my sensibility.
 
A lot of those things are outtakes from The Promise. There were no shortage of fun things on there. "Crush On You," "I'm a Rocker."  Some of those things made it on there as comic relief. It might have been what week it was
that he turned the album in [that determined what songs wound up on the record], whatever mood he was in. If he had waited a week, it might have been a whole another set of songs. [Laughs.] But yeah, that is far and away one of my favorites we've ever done. We  never do that one live.

Q: Do you ever get annoyed at Nils Lofgren or Tom Morello when he's sitting in, for hogging all the guitar solos?
 
A: I'm not in the band to express myself. I have plenty of other places to do that. I'm there to be strictly what Bruce needs me to be at any given moment. I don’t care. I'll go five shows without a solo. It doesn’t bother me in the least. Tom can play. Nils can play. Because that's how they express themselves. They really need to do that.
That’s fine. I really don’t.

 You want me to do a solo? I'll do a solo. Whatever's necessary and is needed or wanted at any given moment, that’s my job. I'm there to help Bruce realize his creative vision. And  we have a terrific relationship with the audience, of course, and me and Bruce are the only ones who are able to spend time with the audience. That's a big part of the job. Audience relations,  whatever that might be. I'm there to help satisfy his vision and help him express himself.

And of course, I endorse everything he’s doing  so that certainly expresses my feelings and my emotions are all expressed in his music, very very accurately I think, even though they’re written by him. I very much appreciate and relate to almost everything he writes so that's a form of expression itself.
 
So that's very satisfying as a gig, as a job. It’s a very satisfying job because you're proud of the work being
created and proud of the way it's communicated and I'm happy to help communicate it. I'm not there to say 'Look at me, look how good I am, look how smart I am, look at how good I can play guitar.' That’s not my job.

Q: The other day, I interviewed Don Was, the record producer who now runs Blue Note Records. He said, "There are two kinds of music: selfish music and generous music" where "selfish" music says 'Look how awesome I am," and "generous" music is more concerned with offering something to the audience.
 
A: I can understand what he’s talking about. That almost could be the delineation between pop and rock. Pop being solo, 'Look at me!,' and rock is a band thing, which is communicating community, friendship, family.
Q: Though there's a lot of self indulgent rock music out there, too.

A: Sure, but I'm talking about modern pop. The pop music of the '60s I consider the highwest evolution of our art, from 1964 to '68 on the pop charts. On the pop charts.

  To me, a two and half minute "Gloria" is much more diffiult to write than Pink Floyd's The Wall. As far as i'm concerned that's far more meaningful, has far more impact and it's far more diffiicult to write a 2 12 minute masterpiece than a 10 minute sort of ... whatever.

Q: And for you, The Rascals are a key part of that '64 to '68 peak period?

A: Oh yeah, the highest form of our art and our craft. It pretty much peaked in that period. I'm interested in learning from it and trying to reach those standards.

Q: Was it hard to get the Rascals back together?

A: It took a while. I just had to wait till they were ready. I tried every five years since 1982. I would bring it up every five or ten years. Then in 2010, there was a Kristen Ann Carr benefit that honored me and my wife.   She said 'Why don’t you give another try to The Rascals?' They said yes, because it was a cancer benefit. Something special, rather than just for the money, which they were never interested in.
 
And they were so great at this beneift it was ridiculous. I thought people have got to see this group. It's just not right. My sense of justice was offended by the fact that nobody had ever seen these guys. They had that special magic chemistry that is such a cliché but is absolutely true. When you see it, you know it. It's like, 'This is special.'
It needs to be treated in a special way, and seen and heard.

Q: There's a point in the show where, in one of the interview segments, Eddie Brigati says, 'Isn't every band a miracle, really?"

A: Yeah, I wrote that. I wrote the show. I'd done expensive interviews with them. A lot of is recycled things that were said to me.

Q: What's going on with your music in the schools program, Rock and Roll Forever?

A: We're getting the pilot program started this fall. We've got 100 lesson plans ready. It's coming along nicely. And
off we go. This is the first year we're going to try it out.

Q: Are you doing it in high schools?
A: Most high schools are hung up on No Child Left Behind, causing them to be obsessed with testing. It's an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind legislation. So we’ll go to middle schools first. We eventually want to be in every single grade.
 
Q: What's it called, if people want to check it out?

A: It's the Rock and Roll Forever foundation. 

Q: Do you have anything else going on that I don't know about?

A: There are probably several things I don’t even know about. The main thing is The Rascals, coming to a theater near you.
 
Q: Have fun in Naples, you rat.

A: It'll be tough. But I’ll try.

Previously: Patty Griffin at the Kimmel Center Follow In The Mix on Twitter

Dan DeLuca Inquirer Music Critic
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