Little Steven on Bruce Springsteen, Sun City, The Sopranos, and his friends in Bali
(the following interview with Little Steven, a.k.a Steven Van Zandt, was done by Jason Anderson)
On a political level, do you feel renewed by what happened in Seattle at the WTO meetings?
“I was amazed. It was a refreshing thing to see. I was talking about the IMF and the World Bank back in the ’80s. It’s interesting that people would focus on that right now and be passionate about it, passionate enough to demonstrate. That’s pretty sophisticated, actually. So yeah, that’s gonna continue to happen and that’s great. You just hope that people have done their homework and have some strategies to get something done. In the end, even the act of demonstrating these days is a breath of fresh air.”
It must have been very isolating to be talking about these things in the ’80s.
“Very much so. I happened to get sort of politically enlightened at a time when the country had just moved all the way to the right. I was touring colleges in ’84 and was shocked to see everybody basically in business schools and business classes instead of the liberal arts. I saw no trace of rebellion. Looking back, I suppose it was a form of rebellion against hippie parents, becoming businesspeople, but I thought it was just genetic that you hit 18 years old and you want to explore and be a bit adventurous and get crazy for a minute. That wasn’t happening. I encountered an extraordinarily high percentage of journalists, like 9 out of 10, saying to me, ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing? What does politics have to do with rock ‘n’ roll? What do you think rock ‘n’ roll can accomplish? And what can an individual do, and more than that, what can you do? Who the hell are you?’ I’m listening to this all day, every day. I got so pissed off that I did ‘Sun City’ and said ‘I’ll show you.’ It all becomes very fucking personal, man. You’re putting down rock ‘n’ roll, you’re putting down the ’60s, you’re putting down the individual, you’re putting down me. That’s at least three out of four mistakes because I’m gonna show you. But it really pissed me off. It was like the ’60s never happened, like rock was never important, and this was only 12 or 15 years after it had happened. So I was like, man, whoever said rock ‘n’ roll never forgets was fucking wrong. Sorry, pop. Anyway, it was an interesting time because we were probably at our most engaged in supporting fascists and military dictators. It was a very dramatic time so there was plenty to talk about.”
Are you mad at the death of rock radio?
“There was still hope up through grunge. But then the self-destruction of grunge was the final nail in the coffin. I really do think that. The record business at that point said, you know what? Fuck artists, fuck art. Let’s get some pop kids we can control and replace when they get out of line. I just went to Europe for a couple of weeks to talk about the record, and you can’t believe what’s going on. There is not one single rock station in Europe, not one. We’re always complaining about radio here, but believe me, I ain’t complaining no more. We live in paradise, okay? I was like desperately looking for rock I hated. Gimme the worst shit, anything. You can’t hear the fucking Rolling Stones in Europe, never mind the new stuff. They’ll have a Sunday morning rock show in France, on Saturday night in London, but not one 24-hour-a-day station that plays any kind of rock. It’s all pop shit, disco, techno, fucking bullshit. I thought the last 35 years didn’t happen. I’m in the fucking twilight zone here, y’know. We don’t have that many art forms. To have that stolen away is fucking serious. It’s hard to figure out because I know there’s millions of fans in Europe. We just did 30 or so sold-out shows, Bon Jovi does 30 sold-out shows, Metallica does sold-out shows… all the rock bands go over there and do fantastic business. So how do you figure that? There’s millions of rock fans who can’t hear any rock on the radio. You look at the Stones, they came from pop and transformed it into the rock world but even they had mixed feelings about what they were doing. When we came along, we had no mixed feelings. Rock is a lifestyle, it’s an art form, it’s perfectly natural, and c’mon, let’s get on with it. We thought it would last forever, but it didn’t.”
What’s so powerful about the Bruce Springsteen shows [Little Steven played guitar on the tour] is that they’re like religious revivals – it told them that they weren’t fools for believing in that music, even if the rest of the culture has no interest any more.
“I agree with you. I think for three hours, we’re a community, a very vital community. There’s a kind of energy exchange that validates what you believe about community. I think that’s important right now because it’s hard to come by a mass shared experience… We’re talking about a very, very fragmented world we’re moving into, and it’s just the beginning. It’s going to become much more fragmented. That does two things simultaneously. It allows a lot more stuff to exist, which is great, and it makes the audience for each thing much, much smaller. So that’s what’s gonna be happening, so I think the mass shared experience is on the verge of going away. There’ll always be something, but generally speaking, it’ll be a very different world. It’ll be all these tribes popping up.”
With the Internet, it’s so much easier for people to get access to material.
“Oh God, yeah, it’s fantastic for that. The information age, so to speak, is wonderful for politics and research. I wish I had it. Are you kidding me, man? I had to go South Africa twice because I couldn’t find out anything about it. There were no books, no articles, there was nothing about it, basically. But anyway, I must say, the one thing that is bad about the information age and accessibility right now is when it comes to art — the spiritual component of art and how we participate. When you’re explaining everything about the process of making art, which is what’s going on right now, I think that diminishes the ability to receive it the way it was intended, which is with a bit of awe, a bit of mystery. But when you have every fucking TV show saying this is how we do the special effects in the movie… by the time you get to the movie, man, you ain’t gonna experience it the way it was intended. You’re gonna say, ‘That’s a miniature, that’s a bluescreen.’ I wanna go and I wanna be transported to this other place.”
It’s like the business of culture became more interesting than the products – and everyone wanted to be ‘insiders.’
“Which is perfectly natural. It’s a perfectly natural human characteristic. It’s funny to say this, but I think there’s some things that we shouldn’t get because we want them. When it comes to art, and only when it comes to art, and religion to an extent — the two are very connected — there’s too much information about it. It’s actually creating a very serious emotional problem in society, a spiritual bankruptcy. And the political consequence of that is this drifting through life that we all seem to be doing right now, with nothing to hold on to. There’s no foundation, there’s no connection between us. It’s all fragmented and alienated, yet at the same time we are being connected world-wide in a way we’ve never had. It’s wonderful to be able to talk to somebody in Bali, but what about your friends?”
It’s cool that you’re also involved with The Sopranos, which is tapping into that idea of getting all that you want out of life in America and it’s not cutting it.
“Right, right. That same spiritual bankruptcy thing. You don’t need these stereotypical everyman situations, be it in New York or L.A. or whatever, to have that common ground. Quite the contrary. Most people in the world are in the suburbs and in that kind of not very glamorous life and experiencing those not very glamorous things and not very romantic realities. But do you think Hollywood would learn from that? No way. All the major networks passed on the show because he insisted on filming in New Jersey — they were all like, ‘No way, are you nuts?’ We half-expected HBO to come down and shut us down once they started watching the dailies.”
(Check out www.littlesteven.com)