Lunch with Steven Van Zandt by Chaunce Hayden

Lunch with Steven Van Zandt by Chaunce Hayden

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Chaunce Hayden: It’s not every day I get to speak to a rock legend.

Steven Van Zandt: (Laughs) Thank you! Thank you! So how are things?

Never mind how things are with me. Lets talk about rock n’ roll. Are you surprised by the demand for rock music in an era where pop music seems to rule the radio airwaves?
I can’t be too surprised, because on the last tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band we did 60 sold out arenas and 60 sold out stadiums! That’s just from our band. U2 is doing the same thing and so is Metallica and Bon Jovi and of course, The Stones. So, we know there are millions of rock n’ roll fans out there.

So why isn’t radio playing more of it to meet the demand?
What happened, oddly enough, is that the industry decided not to support it. This is why I started the Underground Garage Radio Show in the first place. There was a new generation of rock n’ roll bands out there and no major record company would sign them.
Plus, no radio station would play them.

Does that shock you?
It’s extremely shocking to me! I went to radio syndicators… there’s only a few in the country, and I said, “Listen, I have a bit of celebrity capital right now. I have a very hot TV show and I’m back touring with the E Street Band. Let me spend my celebrity capital on a radio show. Nothing too crazy, just two hours a week and I’ll take the worst slot on the dial which is Sunday night at 10pm. I just want to play some of the rock bands that nobody is playing and some of the old stuff I don’t hear anymore,” but all the syndicators said, “Sorry, but we can’t put rock n’ roll on the radio anymore.” I couldn’t believe it! So I tried to syndicate
myself and they were right. Every single radio station said no.

Does that tell you that rock n’ roll is dead or at the very least a dying art?
It was! We joke about it. When we started this thing, it was dead. It was simply dead. The art of rock never died. But certainly in terms of the music industry it was dead. There was no infrastructure to support it. So, we jumped into this word that has told us that only hiphop and pop matter and said, “That’s not acceptable!” I wasn’t taking no for an answer, so we fought our way
on to 23 stations and when the first rating book came out, the show’s ratings were ridiculously sky high! That made everyone relax a little bit and now we’re on 132 stations in 180 markets. We’ve proven a couple of things. Number one, people do, indeed, love rock n’ roll and, number two, all ages and genders love rock n’ roll. Fifty percent of my emails are from women. And a
good 30 to 40 percent are from kids 11 years old to 16.

So you’ve proven there’s a demand for rock n’ roll. But, that said, why wouldn’t mainstream radio go back to playing rock?
That’s a difficult question. I can only say that they’re probably still scared to death. We’re in this new corporate culture, with so many mergers going on, that they just need a very consistent bottom line. They’re afraid to jeopardize that, even though it’s become a lowest common denominator world. Even their revenues are pretty much rock bottom, but they’re consistent, so they’re afraid to mess with that.

Do television shows like “American Idol” only make it harder for radio stations to gamble on rock music?
It doesn’t help, but there’s always going to be a place for pop. That’s okay. I have nothing against hard rock or hip-hop either, but let’s give everybody the same amount of choices that we had. Why should the next generation be limited to three choices when we had 10? It’s not right! I’m just not a person to sit around and complain about these things. I need to do something
about it, and I am!

What effect do you think the success of your syndicated radio show has had on rock n’ roll’s popularity in terms of the demand for more of it?
Look, we are having a very positive effect on the industry right now. It’s sort of slow motion but it’s happening compared to three years ago when no rock bands were on major labels. Now about 14 of our bands are. Five of them broke through last year and
two went platinum. That’s quite an accomplishment, even though it’s been slow. You can see things starting to change! We’re starting to affect the other radio formats. You have to understand something… we have a format for everything in America except rock n’ roll. Now, suddenly, the next big thing is “Garage Rock,” no question about it! Here come all these bands. You used
to hear a little of the White Stripes for a month and the Hives for two weeks or The Strokes for a minute, but then the stations couldn’t continue to play them because they didn’t fit in their formats. Now, you’re starting to see a difference. Now the stations have to play them. They’re adjusting their format to fit these bands. Not a lot, but a little bit. It’s starting to loosen up which will, in effect, change the infrastructure again to support this music.

Have you heard of any radio shows that are copying what you do on the Underground Garage Radio Show, and playing “garage rock,” as you put it?
There’s a new station in L.A. that’s absolutely copying my show. It’s a mainstream station, too, so we’re starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully, the festival on Saturday [Garage Rock Tour] will take things a few steps forward.

Well if you can change Apartheid in South Africa, I’m sure you can bring back rock n’ roll.
(Laughs) It’s a similar sort of energy! I took all that political energy and dedicated it to this particular revolution, which is equally difficult. The stakes are obviously much more pleasant. Nobody is dying here. It’s not life and death, obviously, but I do take it quite seriously. I really do.

It’s a passion for you.
Yes! I just feel rock n’ roll, philosophically speaking, is different. I really do. I’m a bit of a student of these things, and I just feel that the emotional communication from rock n’ roll bands is different.

Define rock n’ roll.
The simplest definition is the same I use for garage rock and rock n’ roll, which is, “white kids trying to play black R&B and failing wonderfully.”

I like that.
(Laughs) Thanks. Basically, the roots are more obvious. The 50s and 60s were the renaissance, and the more you study the renaissance and the masters, the better you’re going to be. The higher your standards will be. One of the reasons I started the radio show was to try to raise people’s standards again so they could hear what greatness actually sounds like.

You’ve done that and more. Probably the greatest thing of all is that you have introduced rock n’ roll to children who probably would not have any access to it otherwise, thus assuring rock’s survival.
I get dozens of emails from kids thanking me more for turning me on to The Kinks. I get email like, “Who are these crazy guys called, ‘The Animals?’” It’s just so much fun to read that stuff, yet sad at the same time. Know what I mean? I mean, I thought this stuff was forever, but it’s not!

While you work at saving rock n’ roll, is it odd to have equally as much fame for playing a mobster on “The Sopranos”? Talk about two different worlds.
I think it’s very important to have that balance. I really do enjoy having those different muscles that I can work. As you say, the two worlds could not be more different.

I don’t see you as a Hollywood kind of guy.
Well, we have the New Jersey version of Hollywood, which is certainly more tolerable than the nonsense you get out of Hollywood mostly. We do have higher standards and best writers in the world, not to mention one of the most extraordinary visionaries in David Chase. So, it’s nothing but a pleasure to be part of that world. It’s a bit of a vacation, if you will, from the revolution.

What have you learned from David Chase?
He’s reinforced things that I’ve known or experienced. He’s the kind of guy who will not compromise one iota. I must give HBO credit for supporting people like him. No other studio in the world is as hands-off as HBO. They literally engage these artistic visionaries and let them actually do their thing. It’s remarkable to see it. David actually turned down every single network and
vice versa because he insisted on filming the show in New Jersey, and the big studios wouldn’t do it. They said, “What, are you kidding me? We don’t do that!” Even “NYPD Blue” only visits New York once a month for exterior shots. They don’t actually film “NYPD Blue” in New York! Why would you want to see that? (laughs)  It’s just different when you film something in the setting where it’s supposed to be. Our whole society has become so used to mediocrity, selling out, and compromise. Nobody has any balls! Nobody has vision! Nobody says, “What a minute! Every detail does count!” It’s so refreshing to see someone like David Chase who, by the way, is very similar to Bruce Springsteen. It really was deja vu all over again for me.

How so?
Can you imagine New Jersey becoming fashionable.

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