Steven Van Zandt: “We brought down apartheid through rock’n’roll”

Steven Van Zandt on the political and personal impact of releasing Sun City – and how a moment on tour led to his political awakening

When I was 16 I already had my first band, The Source. It was a wonderful time to grow up in America. We had a lot to do, a lot of places for the band to play – high schools, Catholic institutions, beach clubs, teenage nightclubs, VFW halls (Veterans of Foreign Wars). We’d only just seen the first real rock‘n’roll band, The Beatles. My parents were concerned about me being in a band but not as much as when I left school and they realised this was what I wanted to do with my life. Any nine-to-five job felt like a prison sentence.

I was quite a religious kid. I was born Catholic but I grew up a Baptist after my mother remarried. I would go to the Easter Sunrise service, which was a real test of your commitment – it was at six in the morning. That religious fervour I felt when I was a kid was transferred completely to rock‘n’roll when I saw The Beatles. I saw The Rolling Stones do Not Fade Away on TV four months later. Unlike The Beatles, they were not polished, with matching hair and perfect harmonies. That was an epiphany for me. Mick Jagger was the first pop star I ever saw who didn’t smile. It sounds a small thing, but it wasn’t to me. Because it said to me this isn’t just showbiz. This is about your life. I saw Jagger and I thought, ‘oh my God, I want some of that’.

I was a hippie guitar player – for my parents that was one step from being a criminal.

My family was extremely close. I grew up in an Italian family but when I was seven my mother remarried – a Dutch guy, who adopted me. He was an ex-marine, Goldwater Republican. So very, very conservative. A wonderful guy really, to marry my mother with a seven-year old-son – that was a big deal in the Fifties. I’m forever grateful to him. But he didn’t like it when I grew my hair long, which was unacceptable then. I got thrown out of school, then I got thrown out of my house. I had a very, very bad relationship with my father. I was a hippie guitar player – for my parents that was one step from being a criminal. In fact, they might have preferred me to be a criminal because that would have been steady work.

I had long hair which was associated with drugs, but I wasn’t doing that. But then a policeman planted marijuana in my cigarettes after he picked me up on the street. So I thought, well, if I’m going to be accused of doing drugs I might as well do them. I did about three LSD trips, all of which were very intense. I did them to try to gain enlightenment while I was also absorbing eastern philosophy, which George Harrison had brought into our lives. That was very appealing to me. But experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs was brief. I gained a lot of wisdom – you can get enlightened pretty quickly on one pill. Then after six months I stopped taking drugs and I never took them again.

I had my band, The Source. And Bruce (Springsteen) had his band, The Castiles. So we became friends. I saw in Bruce a similar sort of character to me, in that he was dedicated to rock‘n’roll. It was forever with him, as it was with me. So we got very close, and remain so to this day. He had a sort of folk part to his character as well as rock ‘n’ roll. He was attracted to singer songwriters like Dylan and Tim Buckley, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. I preferred the rock and pop world to the folk world.

I think the younger me would be shocked and perhaps depressed that I left the E Street Band the moment we succeeded. It was a crazy thing to do, looking back on it now. On one hand I deeply regret leaving (Springsteen’s band which van Zandt officially joined in 1975). On the other hand, everything I’ve accomplished I accomplished after I left.

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Everything changed for me when The E Street Band finally, after 15 years, had a hit with our fifth album The River. I’d been obsessed with rock‘n’roll, I couldn’t care less about the world around me. Then we went on our first European tour, in 1981, and a kid asked me, ‘why are you putting missiles in our country?’. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I realised that when you leave America, you’re no longer just a guitar player, you’re an American. I hadn’t thought of myself as an American before. It was an incredible eye-opener. So, of course, I started to look at the world around me and I realised that, as an American in a democratic country, I was in some way responsible for what my country was doing. So I better find out what America was fucking doing. I began to read, and I was shocked to find out we weren’t always the good guys. In fact we were on the wrong side of many conflicts. So I decided to leave the E Street Band and dedicate myself to putting this political information into my music. I became ‘the political guy’.

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With Springsteen in the E Street Band

A year after I left the band I wrote Sun City (the protest song against apartheid in South Africa. It led to a mass concert boycott by artists, followed by an economic boycott by the American government). We brought down the South African government, there is no question about that. We did it methodically and strategically. We brought down a bad government through rock ‘n’roll. People like Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) have said that’s why they got into politics. It wasn’t good for my career though. I was pretty much banned from the music industry.

Like most things in my life, acting in The Sopranos was totally unexpected. The show’s creator, David Chase, saw me on TV. He liked something about me. He called me and said, ‘do you want to be in my new TV show?’. I said, ‘thank you, no, I’m not an actor’. He said, ‘yes you are, you just don’t know it’. I had nothing else going on so I thought, ‘what the hell?’. So boom, I became an actor overnight. It was scary at first. But it turned out, working with David Chase, I was the luckiest person on earth. My first acting job was with one of the greatest writers of all time.

Soulfire by Little Steven is out now on CD and vinyl