It's easy to throw throw the "R" word around when it comes to Little Steven (Steven Van Zandt).
You could go with "revolutionary" for the way he helped bring apartheid into the national conversation during the mid-1980s. Or you could go with "rebellious" because Van Zandt has never been one to go with the flow.
And to many, he's a Renaissance man for his work as a longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and for his acting chops on the HBO breakout hit "The Sopranos" and his "Lilyhammer" on Netflix or his hosting skills on "Little Steven's Underground Garage," his syndicated radio show. If that’s not enough, he's also a DJ, teacher, Broadway producer, TV producer and historian — he's a busy man.
But the Boston native who grew up near the Jersey Shore has taken on a new role in his celebrated career and that's master of harmony. Van Zandt has stepped away from his political activism to educate the masses about the music of the 1950s-60s and take his soul review, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, from city to city to preach the message of peace and harmony.
If you want a sample of what to expect when the Disciples of Soul roll through the Coast, check out "Soul Fire Live," Van Zandt's latest record.
You name check The Temptations on "Soul Fire Live" and praise David Ruffin. Do you remember the first Temptations song you heard that really blew your mind?
It was all a part of the mix of growing up in that Renaissance period when you had one great thing after another coming out every single week in the 60s. It was the most extraordinary time to grow up — you just missed it. It was a time when the greatest music being made was also the most commercial. You had this amazing stuff on the radio all of the time. It was on AM radio and then FM radio would start later.
The first song, I don't know, maybe "My Girl." It was part of the fabric of everything that was coming out with the British Invasion and the great American stuff like The Byrds and Bob Dylan and all of the soul stuff — Motown, Chicago, New Orleans, Memphis. It was quite an amazing time.
You mentioned the music of New Orleans. So much great soul came out of New Orleans — The Meters, Ernie K. Doe, Lee Dorsey — what do you think is its place in American music history?
It's one of the five or six centers from where that music was coming from. New Orleans is one of those cities, it just is. You could argue it was the first musical city. It's been pumping out great stuff since the 1920s.
Allen Toussaint, to me, was the center of it all. The Meters is absolutely one of my favorite bands. We used to play "Hey Pocky Way" and some others when I was in Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes. I got Lee Dorsey out of retirement to sing on the first Jukes album. He's singing with Southside on the very first album. Lee Dorsey had become a mechanic and we pulled him out from under a car and got him back in the business.
New Orleans played an important role. Irma Thomas has an amazing voice. She was not too thrilled when the Rolling Stones released their version of "Time Is On My Side." She thought they stole it from her. Her version was moving up the charts and it's absolutely stunning — it's amazing. But the Stones beat her to the charts.
When the E Street Band first started, we had a lot of friends in New Orleans. I remember marching in a second line and having a great time, man. I have some very very fond memories of New Orleans, let me tell you — very fond.
You talked about growing up in the 50s and 60s. For me, I grew up in the 70s — The Street Band, Chicago, The Spinners, Stevie Wonder. You half-jokingly say during a speech on "Soul Fire Live" that all of the great songs were written in the 50s and 60s. In the days of the internet and autotune, do you see that statement as being more relevant than ever?
I am only joking. I do feel that the best music ever made was made in the 1950s and 1960s. But I think there were certainly some good things after that. But the template of what we now basically still use was created in those decades that I call the "Renaissance" period. We were still doing what was invented then but every decade gets further and further diluted and gets away from the source.
I encourage people to go back and study the 50s and 60s. If you want to really form an identity that is your own, you're better off starting at the roots. You will develop your identity much more significantly if you have strong roots.
You’ve never been afraid to be political. But at the same time, you also make a speech during the mid-section of “Until the Good is Gone” where you call music venues “cathedrals” and see music the great unifier. Is it cathartic for you to get up on that stage, night after night and watch people from different political ideologies put it down and just move to the music?
I really feel that's how I am most useful right now. I was extremely political and that's what I did. I was doing that because most of the politics was hidden. It wasn't in our every day lives and I thought it was important to politicize everyone as much as we could and make them realize what was going on because it was way way different. Months would go by and you wouldn't even think about the government — nothing would happen for months and now something happens every half hour and you cannot escape it.
The most useful thing I can do now is not put more politics in people's faces but allow them to escape from it for two hours and let them relax and gather their strength to go back into the world because it's tough out there, man. It's onslaught on the senses on an hourly basis — it just doesn't stop.
We need to center ourselves; we need to get to our spiritual center and get away from all of this conflict. Let's just concentrate on what we have in common for two hours.
"The Sopranos was groundbreaking in so many ways, especially the way it used music as something of a Greek chorus. A couple of my favorite musical moments were “It Was A Very Good Year” during the first episode of season 2 and “Living On a Thin Line” by The Kinks from 2001. What is one of your favorite musical moments from the show?
I agree with you on both of those moments which were spectacular. I also loved the Otis Redding song, I can't remember which one it was, but it was used a lot in the plot. I also loved Johnny Thunders coming in with "You Can't Put Your Arm Around a Memory."
David Chase is one of the most musical writers and directors in the world. He was in a band. The "Not Fade Away" movie he did was part autobiographical. He only did one movie. He's just a very musical guy. It was wonderful using nothing but source songs because there was no score in that entire series.
Hear the complete interview with Little Steven on the podcast "Fifteen Minutes With."