Little Steven speaks

Steven Van Zandt talks about "The Sopranos," Springsteen and saving rock 'n' roll.


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Salon Staff
June 9, 2007 11:01AM (UTC)

With Tony Soprano's fate about to be determined and rumors running rampant of an upcoming Springsteen album and tour, it seemed like the perfect time to check in with the man who plays Silvio Dante on "The Sopranos" and holds down the lead guitar slot in Springsteen's E Street Band -- Steven Van Zandt.

Van Zandt spoke with Salon on the phone from New York.

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The question everyone wants to know: What are you going to do with the Silvio wig?

Well, the big mystery is how I get all that hair under my bandanna. The key is that it's not a wig. At least that's what we tell everybody.

Distinctive headgear isn't all you and Silvio have in common. You're both dedicated to something whose cultural moment has passed: Silvio with the mob, you with rock music as the host of your syndicated radio show, "Little Steven's Underground Garage."

Yeah, you could look at it that way. I'm trying to let people realize that rock is still alive and well; it just happens to have been driven underground. <a href="Rock 'n' roll is forever and when young kids get access to it, they're going to like it the same way we did. It's just not easy to find. I'm doing everything I can to change that; it's not something I'm doing for nostalgic purposes. Traditional rock 'n' roll -- garage rock -- is as inspiring as it's ever been.

Its position in the culture has certainly changed.

The rock era is over. I clock it pretty much from "Like a Rolling Stone" to Kurt Cobain's death. We're back in a sort of a pre-Beatles pop era, and that's probably where we're going to stay for a while. Rock is never going to be mainstream again, but at this point we're fighting to even find it a niche. When we started the radio show, there wasn't one rock band signed to a major label. Now there's about 15. Five or six have broken through nicely -- the White Stripes, the Hives -- but if the Rolling Stones came out today, there's no format that would play them except for my show.

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Isn't that normal? Tastes change.

There are specialty shows for the blues. There are specialty shows for folk. But you can't find rock 'n' roll, it doesn't exist. How it disappeared after being the mainstream for 30 years is horrifying. It's not an Oliver Stone conspiracy, but it makes you wonder. Rock 'n' roll is how we communicate; it's how we learned everything we know. Nobody's learning very much from hip-hop or hard rock -- all due respect. But rock-'n'-rollers aren't the homogenized artists you find in other genres, so it's not so easy for the record companies to deal with them. Put the Ramones on today. Put Eddie Cochran on. Put the early Beatles on -- The Ronettes, the Clash, Bo Diddley -- it's fucking great, but kids don't have access to it.

But don't fans of rap feel the same way about that music that you do about rock? Is it just a matter of taste?

I don't think people respond the same way to hip-hop that they did to rock 'n' roll. I think it's background music to most people. How deep is the emotional connection? I don't see people having their lives changed by hip-hop records very often. Everybody I know, my entire generation, had their life changed by rock 'n' roll. They depended on it. They couldn't get through the day without it. Techno and whatever else is going on -- that hip-hop thing -- has its own value and its own legitimacy, but can anybody say it's not homogenized? How do you differentiate between the hip-hoppers?

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Was Silvio's life was changed by rock 'n' roll?

The last rock-'n'-roller Silvio liked was Dion -- because they had the same hair. He's a Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra guy.

Did you know guys like him growing up?

All the clubs in Jersey had someone similar to him. You didn't know whether they were the real thing or wannabes, but it didn't matter -- they were equally scary. But they didn't influence my performance that much. I went back and watched all the old movies again. I took some of the basic persona from gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Frank Costello plus a bit of Robert Montgomery. But my main concern was making him as different as possible from me. I didn't want people to see the show and think, "Didn't I just see him play in Montreal last week?"

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What are you going to miss the most about the show?

I'm going to miss the guys. I'm going to miss being a part of such high-quality work. I'm going to miss David Chase -- hopefully we'll still see each other. I'm going to miss Silvio. I'm going to miss being him two, three days a week. It's really a wonderful escape for me. I'm fighting 18 hours a day, fighting sponsors and trying to convince people that rock radio has value. It's a constant war.

I've read that Springsteen's down in Atlanta recording.

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What people fail to mention is that he's always recording. He's had a relationship now with [producer] Brendan O'Brien for, oh my god, five, six, seven years, and Atlanta is where Brendan lives and where his studio is. Bruce goes down there just for the hell of it and cranks out a couple demos. He's always recording, always got something going, always got an album in his pocket. We're just starting to talk about what we're going to do this year. I'm pretty optimistic, but nothing's been decided yet.

Is Paulie Walnuts going to kill Tony?

[Laughs] That's what you're bettin', huh?

Either that or the Russian's coming back to do it.

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Tune in, my friend!

-- David Marchese


Salon Staff

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