Steven Van Zandt is a man of many hats. Or in his case, bandannas, babushkas, and hairpieces.
The New Jersey guitarist has been most visible as “Miami” Steve Van Zandt, right-hand man to the Boss in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. As Silvio Dante, he was consigliere to James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano in HBO’s The Sopranos, and wore a similar toupee as an American mobster in Norway on the Netflix series Lilyhammer.
Back in the 1980s, he became Little Steven, leading the Disciples of Soul and earning a reputation as a firebrand with the 1985 antiapartheid protest song “Sun City.” His brand now also includes the Wicked Cool record label, and the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, whose TeachRock curriculum provides free lessons online for educators about the history of pop music and culture
Since 2002, he’s hosted Little Steven’s Underground Garage, with both a weekly syndicated show — it airs on WMGK-FM (102.9) Sundays at 10 p.m. — and a 24-hour SiriusXM satellite radio channel. He’s also program director of SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country station.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit home hard for the 69-year-old rocker as friends suffer urgent cases — two have died — and has brought much of his schedule to a halt. He’s now launched a 13-week series, culled from two decades of the Underground Garage, to help fans get through self-isolation.
Van Zandt calls the new best-of series the Qoolest Quarantine Collection and hosts under a new Jersey alias: Trenton Quarantino.
QQC kicked off April 5 with the first installment of a three-part conversation between Van Zandt and Springsteen. (One highlight: a discussion of the sounds of Philadelphia that influenced them in the early 1960s.) It will air Sunday nights through June 28 and stream on LittleSteven.com, with a who’s who of classic rockers.
Van Zandt called to talk about it — “Hey, it’s Stevie” — from New York, where he lives with his wife, Maureen, and their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, named after Edie Sedgwick. This conversation has been edited.
How’s your quarantine?
I’ve lost some friends already, and I’ve got another friend in a coma. So there’s the medical anxiety. It feels like we’re in some zombie apocalypse horror movie, with it coming through the vents in the house. You’re always worried.
That anxiety is more than enough. But I must say that, coming to a complete halt after 20 years of going nonstop, I’m kind of enjoying it. I hate to admit that.
You know, every single day, I got a million things going on. I just did a three-year tour. So this forced Zen meditation thing, I’m finding to be quite a healthy thing for me.
You’ve been able to mellow out, not needing to keep all those balls in the air?
Yeah, the educational part is already online. There are over 200 lessons at TeachRock.org. On Sirius, all my DJs work at home. And with the syndicated show, we’re doing these best-of-the-best interviews.
We’re starting it out with me and Bruce, having a conversation which we’d never done publicly. And then the next week is Paul McCartney. We’re stringing them all together: Peter Wolf, Brian Wilson, Keith Richards, Ray Davies, Ringo. Just to help people get through this time. I think people will get a kick out of it.
Last weekend on Sirius you talked about Albert Camus and existentialism before playing the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to the Center of the Mind.”
[Laughs]. Live every day like it’s your first day, and like it’s your last day, and you’re going to have a fulfilling life. That’s the essence. There’s nothing but right now.
On “Until the Good Is Gone,” there’s a line “Always in the background, after everybody’s gone, there was something on the radio, saying ‘Come on, come on.’ “
That’s exactly what we try to capture on the Underground Garage. The whole ethos is about returning to those days when the DJ was your friend and you trusted the relationship.
That relationship gave you a sense of belonging, a sense that you weren’t lonely, you weren’t too isolated. I think that’s important. And we’re trying to maintain that same kind of relationship with people, where they’re not alone.
When you interviewed Bruce, did you learn anything?
I didn’t know what a big Four Seasons fan he was. I certainly was, but I didn’t know that about him. Of course, we used the glockenspiel riff from “Dawn” in “Hungry Heart,” but I thought that was just coincidental.
I want to ask about two legendary shows you played with the E Street Band in Philadelphia in 1980. The night John Lennon died, and the following night. What do you remember?
I remember being very shook up. Surprisingly so. You don’t realize how much impact the Beatles had on you. My whole life was changed by them. There’s a closeness you can’t even measure.
That second night, I was very upset. I said to him, ‘How can we go on?’ And he says, ‘This is what we’re here for. This is part of our purpose, to provide some sort of comfort in moments like this.’
You know, some sort of shared catharsis, to help us get through this. Us and the audience. And that was profound. Realizing our job is beyond what we feel personally. We have a responsibility to give some solace in a situation like that. That was a revelation.
I’ve always questioned that concept of ‘The show must go on.’ It’s a phrase invented by a promoter. The money must be made. But there are cases where the show must go on, and it’s not just economics. It’s emotional.
That said, at this moment, the show can’t go on. What are we missing, spiritually and emotionally?
We have to make adjustments, for sure. People are going to be reaching out online. That’s just the way it’s going to have to be, for the next six months, or really until there’s a vaccine.
This first stage has to be everybody finding a way to be online, and do that. And then once we have a legitimate test that says whether you have the virus, or the antibodies, then you’ll be ready for the second stage. Which is concerts and sporting events happening with no audience, or the audience at home.
So you think that’ll happen ...
Once there’s a guaranteed workable test. That’ll be the next phase. And that could happen, who knows: the next 3, 4, 5, 6 months? But there won’t be anything close to back to normal until there’s a vaccine.
Bruce was expected to tour with the E Street Band in 2020. But an announcement never came. Was that because of coronavirus fears?
[The tour] was something we talked about. It wasn’t a real definite plan, but we considered it. I think instinctively he thought, ‘No reason to rush into these things.’ So at the last minute, it was ‘Wait till next year.’ And it turned out to be a very good decision, because we would have been canceling everything.
But you’re confident something will happen next year?
I’m confident that something will happen eventually. We’re going to be at the mercy of this thing. If they get a vaccine together by the first quarter of next year, then I think the summer of ’21 starts to open up. But that’s if everything goes right.