Friday, March 12, 2010

Steven Van Zandt: an homage

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul--"Save Me" (mp3)
Little Steven--"Voice Of America" (mp3)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"Without Love" (mp3)
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes--"This Time Baby's Gone For Good" (mp3)
Little Steve and various artists--"Sun City" (mp3)

Before there was Lil' Wayne or Lil' Bow Wow, there was Lil' Steven. Okay, well, actually, Little Steven aka Miami Steve aka Silvio Dante (on The Sopranos) aka second banana and onstage foil to Bruce Springsteen (especially as Clarence Clemons has gotten older and less mobile and more especially when wife Patti doesn't show up to the concert) aka the most famous bandana-wearing rocker this side of Axl Rose.

Most people would be thrilled to have just one nickname. When Van Zandt puts out a record, the performer is Little Steven and the producer is Miami Steve. From here on out, I'll refer to him as Miami Steve to avoid confusion.

If you read these pages regularly, you know of my fondness for guitarists who by all rights should have their own careers but play in someone else's band.

Miami Steve (as I will refer to him from here on out) is my favorite of the bunch. A gifted songwriter and producer, he possesses an infectious rock 'n roll spirit that seems to make anything that he is involved in better. Though Springsteen gets the credit for advancing Southside Johnny's career because he gave him "The Fever," if you check those great early records, most of the songs, including most of the title tracks, are songs written by Miami Steve. He also produces those records. Check, too, his production credits on Springsteen albums like The River. Plus, he plays the mandolin in the "Glory Days" video.

But there were brief, shining moments, before and after Miami Steve left the E-Street band in the mid-80's and ventured off into a career fronting his own band when he put out fiery, defiant rock 'n roll with an intensity that I'm not sure even Springsteen has ever matched. This move resulted in two classic records--Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul's Men Without Women and Little Steven's Voice of America-- plus that major, multi-artist, post-"We Are The World" political statement, "Sun City."

The guy oozes street cred, which is probably how he got The Sopranos part, and how he got guys like Lou Reed and Miles Davis for the Sun City sessions.

Like E-Street bandmate Nils Lofgren, Keith Richards is clearly an inspiration for Van Zandt. As a guitarist, Miami Steve can churn out Stones-like riffs with the best of them, but with a different purpose and with other gifts which allow him to front a band and forge a sound in ways that the legend can't.

Though not a great singer, Miami Steve is a great rock 'n roll singer, by which I mean that he can sell the words and the song with pure honesty and emotion. When you listen to him, you never feel like he is going through the motions--he believes what he says, even if it's simplistic, jingoistic, or naively idealistic. And, though his voice is somewhat thin, he is lucky enough to sound quite a bit like Keith Richards, though on-key and without the jaded ennui. His lines like "It never died inside of me" or "Undefeated, everybody goes home" or "As the things we want come closer, I feel the things we need slipping away" would not fit in a Stones song.

He can also play distinctive, idiosyncratic, searing lead guitar in a way that doesn't fit into Springsteen's sound, so when you hear his solo work, it is indeed a revelation. His high, melodic leads support the r + b based songs on Men Without Women as ably as they do the more 80's sounding, synthesizer poltical rock of Voice of America.

And he understands horns. This is no small gift. Miami Steve is, arguably, one of a handful of rock producers who know how to use horns in a song, who can write a horn chart to serve as a memorable main riff or a transition or a bridge. Horns are not window dressing to him, nor are they an experiment to try to alter a sound. The horns he heard on the Jersey shore all his life are indigenous to many of his compositions, and, coupled with his percussive rhythm guitar, the horns and guitar play off each other to push the songs to new heights. As a producer, I'm not sure he has an equal in maximizing the potential of horns and guitar interplay.

But perhaps most of all, his songwriting skills set him apart. When it comes to rock 'n roll, I have an unapologetic preference for a positive, life-affirming, defiant-in-the-face-off-all-odds stance. The common strand throughout Miami Steve's beach rhythm and blues for Southside Johnny, his own solo work, and even the song, "Sun City," is a never-quit, never-give-in attitude that pervades the music as much as the lyrics. The songs are a celebration of life, of country, of the power of music, even if everything doesn't work out. If you've seen him onstage with Bruce, then you know that fire hasn't gone out and he's still living that same dream.

All songs above written, arranged, and produced by Steven Van Zandt. Check out his wild, neo-Yardbirdsian solo on "Voice of America." Though the songs above have either been reformatted from LP or uploaded from old CD's, it would seem that is the best source for Little Steven tunes these days. Photos #2 and #4 are courtesy of the Troutking.


goofytakemyhand said...

Was this post ghostwritten?

Billy said...

I still remember my original reaction to "Sun City": If that skeezy-lookin' dude won't play Sun City, then why the hell would anyone want to?

Maybe that wasn't his intent, but it worked the same nonetheless, since I've never yet played Sun City. I did just re-watch the video... damn but Pat Benatar's voice kicks booty... I didn't really know 80% of the artists on this song when it originally came out. I was such a musical infant...

But I knew Peter Wolf, and I knew he was mostly just good for dancing like a goofy white guy.

troutking said...

Best post ever on BOTG! Little Steven rules!

Here he is bringing the soul to Bruce's last show in Buffalo (about 4 mins in):

Bob, you probably know that supposedly the way he joined the E Street Band was by scoring the horn lines in 10th Avenue Freezout.

My two darkest admissions from the 1980's. One, I loved President Reagan. Two, I didn't like Little Steven in the Glory Days video. I thought he was too over the top. What I didn't realize was that he really believed in the transforming power and resplendent glory of rock and roll. Now I realize it's at the heart of what makes a Bruce concert the event that it is. We love you, Stevie!!!

Bob said...

Amazingly, Billy, I had never seen that "Sun City" video. It's incredible--blows the doors off of "We Are The World," then or now.

Trout, I didn't know the "Tenth Avenue" horn story. I just knew Miami Steve barely had any presence on Born To Run and I figured Bruce added him to the touring band.

troutking said...

From Wikipedia: As stated by Springsteen in the Wings for Wheels documentary, the idea for the composition of the horn intro was Steven Van Zandt's.

Have you seen this DVD? It came with the 30th Anniversary Born to Run CD?

BeckEye said...

I actually saw Steve with the "Artists United Against Apartheid" in concert. (No recollection of what songs other than "Sun City" were played.) He was the 1st opening act for the Beach Boys. Who was the 2nd opening act, you ask? Why, Mr. John Cafferty and his band of brown beavers. Ah, the '80s. Happy times.

jed said...

not hard to blow the doors off "We Are The World."