Steven Van Zandt: the soundtrack of my life

Steven Van Zandt headshot
(Image credit: Heidi Gutman)

Steven Van Zandt co-founded Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and leads his own band Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul. He also starred in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, but is most familiar for his decades-long tenure in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. 

“Being in a band is an extremely vivid, emotional connection,” says Van Zandt, who has just published an enthralling memoir, Unrequited Infatuations. “It’s friendship, it’s family, the posse, the gang, the team and ultimately community. That’s what’s always appealed to me.”


The first music I remember hearing

I must have been seven or eight, and I was at summer camp. There was a jukebox outside that echoed throughout the entire camp, and I heard Yakety Yak by The Coasters. I remember it to this day, hearing that song with the echo, sort of far away, and thinking: “What is that?” The call of the wild!

The first song I performed live

As a young teenager I joined a band as a singer, before I could actually play guitar, and the first thing I did on stage was Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone. It was either with The Mates or The Shadows. I guess it must’ve looked like a cool thing to do at the time, but I’ve never been crazy about the spotlight. I was never in need of being a front guy.

The guitar hero

In the long run it has to be Jeff Beck. I see him at least once a year and he’s always got something up his sleeve. He’s amazing. I’ve never seen anybody change the tone of a guitar using just his fingers. My favourite era is when pop met rock in the mid-sixties. You’d have The Yardbirds having hit singles, with a fucking fantastic fifteen-second guitar solo in the middle of a two minute-and-fifty song.

The singer

It alternates between Sam Cooke and David Ruffin. I happened to catch Little Richard do a sound-check once, and he sang like I’ve never heard him do on record. He was one of the most amazing singers that ever lived.

The songwriter

It all starts with Leiber and Stoller. They were the godfathers. And Mike [Stoller] is still with us. He actually introduced my band on the Soulfire Live! DVD [2008]. They set the template as songwriter-producers.

The live album

I've never been a big fan of live albums, unless they’re changing the arrangements or doing something substantial artistically. But there have been some real exceptions, like The Who’s Live At Leeds. It was ground-breaking at the time. And when they introduce new songs, it really does justify its existence. That was the first time we heard them do Summertime Blues, for instance.

The greatest album of all time

The Who’s Tommy is the highest pinnacle of the art form, but my favourite of all time is 12 X 5 [The Rolling Stones, 1964]. Which unfortunately doesn’t exist in England. I love their early stuff in particular, when they were just starting to emerge from being a covers band. That was a magical moment for me.

The best record I've made

Introducing Darlene Love only came out six years ago, but in a way it was really the debut album of a 73-year-old legend. What a tough life she had. Her first number one record was The Crystals’ He’s A Rebel in 1962, then by the seventies she was out of the business. I called all my friends to write songs for her, and everybody delivered. And I think I rose to the occasion. When you’re producing the greatest female singer of all time, you want to bring your A-game.

The worst record I've made

Probably the first Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes album [I Don’t Want To Go Home, 1976]. It’s not terrible, but I was certainly learning on the job as a producer. Which has been my whole life story, actually. I think I was a little too conservative. I should’ve turned the guitar up more, and there are a few tricks that I hadn’t learned yet.

The song that makes me cry

It’s the big productions that get me. I love MacArthur Park by Richard Harris, the whole sound of that thing. And that’s a real dramatic ending. As a producer and arranger, and as a songwriter, I enjoy every aspect of that song. 

My 'in the mood for love' album

Marvin Gaye’s I Want You [1976] is part of what I think is the greatest run of albums, certainly on the soul side of things. Beginning with What’s Going On, then Trouble Man and on to Let’s Get It On, which is incredible. I Want You is just the sexiest album ever made.

The most underrated band ever

It’s embarrassing that Procol Harum are not in the Hall Of Fame. For me they define what prog should be, along with the Left Banke. Moby Grape are so underrated too. The first album [Moby Grape, 1967] is as good as it gets, but Columbia, in their wisdom, released five singles at once. They were trying to make a statement that every song was a great hit single, but, man, it killed the band.

The song I want played at my funeral

[Laughing] How about the number-one record that I haven’t had yet? I’ll take a top ten, actually! Man, I dunno. What a terrible question! How about I Can Only Give You Everything by Them.

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.