"He politicized rock and roll": Five fascinating facts from HBO's "Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple"

Tracing the career trajectory of the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band guitarist

By Nardos Haile

Staff Writer

Published June 26, 2024 4:29PM (EDT)

Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)

Steven Van Zandt is a rock and roll legend but one who has flown under the radar for decades.

You may mostly know him for his hilariously wise and sometimes obtuse "Sopranos" character Silvio Dante who was known on the show for his Michael Corleone impression. Outside of his infamous role, the rocker has made countless contributions to rock and roll, established in HBO's documentary "Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple." Directed by Bill Teck, the film takes audiences through the humble origins of Van Zandt to the heights of his career as a rock and roll star, producer and hitmaker.

Despite all of his different interests in music that led him to being a longtime member of close friend Bruce Springsteen's band the E Street Band, throughout the documentary, Van Zandt is also shown to be a person deeply connected to activism and human rights. His massive contributions to activism in the mid-'80s to protest apartheid South Africa helped tangibly globalize the conflict through his gift of music.

The musician, actor and overall renaissance man received his flowers in "Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple." Here are some of the most fascinating facts about Van Zandt's life experiences:

Van Zandt grew up in New Jersey and dominated the music scene there
Stevie Van Zandt: DiscipleStevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
The story and life of Steven "Stevie" Van Zandt begins in Middletown, New Jersey. As an Italian-American in New Jersey, he came from a humble background but Van Zandt was musically gifted.
As musically talented teens in New Jersey during the 1960s, Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen both had played in separate bands before they became friends. But rock groups really took off in 1964 when The Beatles debuted in America. Following The Beatles were The Rolling Stones, and thus Springsteen and Van Zandt were inspired. At Upstage Club in Ashbury Park, the pair meet South Side Johnny Lyon. They would move between different bands and experiment with different styles of music and instruments. 
Friendship and musical relationship with Bruce Springsteen
Stevie Van Zandt: DiscipleStevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
The relationship between Van Zandt and Springsteen would go on to last decades after they began playing music together in the 1970s.
"There was a mystical thing in the air that happens when you meet somebody who feels about something the same way with the kind of intensity that you feel about it. So he became my rock and roll brother instantly," Springsteen said about meeting Van Zandt for the first time.
They collaborated in many different bands, including Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and of course eventually Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. The pair would perform at Asbury Park with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes which helped push the New Jersey music scene even further than the friends had expected.
As Springsteen's popularity rose, there was a spot for Van Zandt in his friend's band to perform live and continue producing for Springsteen. Van Zandt said, "I went for seven gigs and I stayed for seven years."
"The friendship was so intense and I needed another sounding board and somebody with Stevie's creativity and things were going good. It was just a no-brainer. We were so close that I just wanted him near me, I wanted him at my side," Springsteen said.
Van Zandt was a staunch anti-apartheid activist and produced the song "Sun City"
Stevie Van Zandt: DiscipleStevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
Van Zandt and Springsteen were on tour in Germany during the 1980s when Van Zandt's political awakening began.
"When we first started out Stevie was no politics, no politics. That's not the way to go about it, that's wrong. Then he became all politics," Springsteen noted.
"I felt if I could shine a light on some of these things, maybe I could stimulate some thought which would stimulate some conversation, which would stimulate some action. We're supposed to be the heroes of democracy and freedom and we weren't," Van Zandt said.
His activism hit its height when violence in South Africa left anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko dead in police custody. "I hear this song 'Biko' by Peter Gabriel. The song was amazing. It really led to my engagement in with activism in general and specifically the apartheid regime of South Africa."
Van Zandt would visit segregated, violent areas in South Africa to tell people on the ground that he would "win the war on TV." He came back to America to begin his mission to record the political song "Sun City." The song and EP would unite rockers, rappers, musicians and many different artists to fight as a group called Artists United Against Apartheid.
"There's a certain political element in rock and roll anyway. It is you saying 'I'm doing this no matter what people think.' But when he started to actually do things and say things about politics, he politized rock and roll," Johnny Lyons said.
Van Zandt joined "The Sopranos" because he was broke
Stevie Van Zandt: DiscipleStevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
While Van Zandt had found his identity in politics and activism, it began to take its toll on his career.
He shifted gears in the '90s after doing a final political concert for Tiananmen Square. "No record company wanted to sign me anymore. I was done," Van Zandt said. "I went out into the wilderness and walked my dog for seven years."
"You start bringing down governments they start getting nervous. Maybe we're next?" Van Zandt joked. But his next real step would be the HBO hit series "The Sopranos." Creator David Chase noticed Van Zandt at a Rock and Roll Induction Ceremony. Some critics told Van Zandt his career would die if he went to television and acting, and he responded, "Well, I'm also broke." Thus, the iconic role of Silvio Dante was born.
Van Zandt's legacy as a formative rocker
Stevie Van Zandt: DiscipleStevie Van Zandt: Disciple (HBO)
As his career shot up because of "The Sopranos," Springsteen and Van Zandt would reunite to perform again in 1999.
Not only did he begin performing again but he created his own radio show "Little Stevie's Underground Garage" where he would put people on to new musicians from many different musical genres. The radio show eventually became the first branded satellite station across the country.
He was involved in building a new record label. He was on TV, radio and Broadway. Van Zandt also is passionate about educating young students about the history of rock and roll.
"I think he realizes if someone doesn't keep this going it may die," DJ Palmyra Delran said about Van Zandt.

"Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple" is now available to stream on Max. 

By Nardos Haile

Nardos Haile is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She’s previously covered all things entertainment, music, fashion and celebrity culture at The Associated Press. She resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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Bruce Springsteen Documentary Hbo List Music Stevie Van Zandt Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple