Steven Van Zandt Talks Asbury Park History, Bruce Springsteen & The Future Of E Street Band: Gothamist
Asbury Park in New Jersey has become synonymous with the rich musical scene which thrived there in the 1970s and still exists now—and nobody knows more about that scene than Steven Van Zandt, who lived there in the early ’70s helping establish the bar band sound that would come to define the area. Alongside Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and other E Street Band members and associates, they helped fuse rock and soul that helped revitalize the region.
Asbury Park: Riot, Redemption, Rock n Roll, a new documentary directed by Rumson, NJ native Tom Jones that dives into the history of the area, is being released this week. We spoke to Van Zandt about his memories of the area, how the music scene coalesced, his first new album of solo material in over two decades Summer of Sorcery, the current status of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band, and how to capture his unique look.
What are your earliest memories of Asbury Park? Did you go there as a kid when it was still flourishing as a seaside resort? No, I didn’t go there until just after the riots or just before the riots—we were there before the riots, I think. That’s sort of how we delineated the era. At the end of the ’60s it pretty much become at least half a ghost town by then. The rides were still on the boardwalk for a while, but most of the weekend business was minimal, and nothing during the week really.
Were you there playing with Steel Mill at that point? The first thing we did was Bruce had discovered this club called Upstage, which was where we would all end up spending our time. It was for kids, I think 16 and up, no booze, and it was open from eight at night until five in the morning, which is quite unusual. There’s never been anything like it before or since. And so he mentioned it to me one day and we ended up moving to Asbury Park and we actually lived together for a while off and on. Me and Bruce lived together and then me and Southside Johnny moved in, and then a couple of other guys. It was just kind of very loose and things would last for a few months and then change.
That was the beginning of meeting quite a few of the people that would be in our lives, like Garry Tallent and Southside Johnny and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez and Danny Federici and a bunch of other characters that people may not know as well—but that’s where we would end up spending the next five, six years, really.
And those people of course ended up joining your band, which turned into the E Street band. Yeah, we had a different band every three or four months really. Various types of configurations. Sometimes Bruce would play in my band. Sometimes I’d be in his band. I played bass in one band. We had the whole town in one band, you know, just for fun. We were kind of developing ourselves and learning our craft really. And those were still very important formative years, and we wouldn’t begin to really lock in on our identities for a few years. Somewhere in that ’73, ’74, ’75 period, we started to lock into who we were going to be. Bruce went his way, and I started Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes with Johnny, and we started combining rock and soul music together.
Eventually, Bruce got a record deal, and then right after that, Southside Johnny got a record deal. And then a few years later I would get my own record deal. And you know, we created that scene in the early-to-mid ’70s, at first at the Upstage Club and then we moved over to the Stone Pony where we established a residency. And that was really crazy, the scene that the people remember.
Was all the socializing at the time based around those clubs and that music scene? Yeah, it was really 100% that. There wasn’t anything else to do to be honest. We mostly were playing all the time and we were at Upstage from eight o’clock at night until five in the morning, and then we might go to a show or something, or just stay home and listen to records, if we weren’t playing. And we’d work on our craft, that’s really all there was to do in those days. There was no internet or cell phones or video games or anything. All we did was we were working on our craft.
After the riots, obviously Asbury Park went through a depression economically. Was the music scene always thriving or did it take a couple of years for it to come back and to redevelop? Well, I wouldn’t say thriving but the Stone Pony remained throughout. All through those years it stayed open and it’s still there now. Everything else kind of came and went and there was always a couple of clubs open, but the rides and the boardwalk really would close down soon after that. That might’ve lasted until maybe the end of the ’70s or so. And then the town got rather quiet for a couple of decades really. And it’s just coming back these last five years or so. And now it’s doing quite well again. But I think the Stone Pony was one of the few clubs that really survived all those years.
I don’t go down there that often, I’m not really connected to it at all anymore. But it seems quite healthy. Every time I visit… I went down for a film festival, I guess two years ago now, and was really surprised as how alive the scene seemed. It was really seemed to be quite healthy again, so I’m glad about that.
Do you have any particularly favorite memories being there during that period? Looking back on it now, it was quite a lot of fun. We really helped reinvent what a bar band was. We redefined the entire bar band scene without knowing we were doing that. It was Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. We were the first band in the history of New Jersey to be able to play without doing the top 40. And it was only because we found this Stone Pony club. The roof had caved in and they were going to close any minute and they managed to stay open for another month and they let us play whatever we wanted to. We told them we’d take the door, you take the bar, and we just thought, “Well, we’re not going to play top 40.” And they said, “Yeah, go ahead.” They didn’t care, they were going to close it anyway. And suddenly, we started to attract an audience, and they ended up staying open, and not only fixing the roof, but expanding the club. And at our peak, we were doing three nights a week at like 1,000 people a night. It was quite a healthy residency, one of the most successful, possibly, in rock history.
I was a rock guitar player, and we combined that with horns, so we had this rock meets soul sort of hybrid identity that would become very, very popular in terms of redefining what bar bands sound like. And we actually made the term bar band quite respectable for the first time. We ended up in Rolling Stone magazine before we even had a record deal, talking about us and how we were redefining the bar band sound, making rock and soul.
That combination would become the classic bar band sound up and down the East Coast. But we didn’t know we were doing that, but it was quite a scene though. All of North Jersey would come down on the weekend, and it was a very, very, very fun time socially. It was the height of the sexual revolution really, and the height of women’s liberation. Yeah, there was a lot of… not so much drugs, but we had a lot of sex and then everyone wanted to rock and roll. You know, that was good. It was a lot of fun.
Was it all word of mouth that really grew that scene? 100%. Bruce had started a record career, but his first two records hadn’t netted very much. So his career looked like it was really coming to a very quick end and he was hanging around with us, because he couldn’t really work that much.
So he was there with us and the Jukes were really very good, and Bruce would jam with us every night and he was very good, and we made a living as live bands up until then. Basically, we were a dance band. People were dancing to rock and roll still in the mid-’70s. Disco really hadn’t taken total hold yet, so it was very classic residency just like the Rolling Stones had the Crawdaddy Club, or the Beatles had in Hamburg or the Cavern. It was one of those things where people would come and dance and have a good time. And the music we were playing was quite unusual.
How did you get involved with the documentary? I know it’s been in the works for over a decade now… Well, I was glad they were doing it. I didn’t realize they’ve been working on it that long to be honest. I thought they needed a little bit of encouragement and I thought I was one of the first interviews actually, but if they’ve been working on it for 10 years, then I certainly wasn’t one of the first.
But I just thought it was a good thing to document and it was an interesting time in history, and I think what we accomplished there could be a good template for other bands to find themselves a residency, find a bar on an off-night and kind of take it over every week. I think that’s still something that could work for bands, so it’s still relevant. And I thought, “Let’s try and encourage this thing and maybe it’ll turn into the movie.”
So you have a new album that just came out as well, and there are a lot of songs on the album that musically seemed like they came out of that same period, with a similar mix of rock and soul. Was that a conscious attempt at capturing some of that vibe? Well, my ’50s and mostly ’60s influences are always in my work., and I do that consciously. I like to keep the influences present and with the hopes that people connect the dots, and go back and listen to the original artists.
The new Summer of Sorcery album is my first original music really in 20 years, and at this point, my influences are pretty integrated. I’ve developed my own style through the years, but you certainly will hear various ’60s influences when I want you to hear them. And I like that really. It’s part of the reason why I pick the songs I pick for my radio format. I like to hear where things are coming from most of the time. So it’s just a very natural thing with me and I’ve always been that way, and I probably always will be.
Much of your solo work has been known for being political—you haven’t beaten around the bush too much about where you stand politically, but this album is a little different in that regard. I was very deliberately changing that particular part of my work this time, and hopefully forevermore. We’ll see where things go, but basically, the Soulfire album was two years ago, and it was a transitional album. It was the first record I’ve done of my own in 20 years, and I wasn’t prepared to really write a whole new album at that moment—I just felt, let me do some of the songs I’ve written for other people. I write very differently for other people when I do for myself because all of my solo records of the ’80s were very autobiographical and very political as you say, and I thought, it’s time to change that as far as the autobiographical nature of it.
I said what I wanted to say, I learned what I wanted to learn, and I’m kind of done with me, I’m sick of me, I’ve had enough already. And politically, I thought it was very useful for me at the time in the ’80s to point out certain things that were very much hidden behind the scenes, that’s were politics was back then. It’s hard to imagine now, but we would go months without even thinking about the government back then! And everybody was very happy with this cowboy, grandfather Ronald Regan, but meanwhile, we were supporting half the dictators around the world, and I just felt it was useful for me to point that out and try and bring to light some of these things that needed attention.
Now, politically there’s just nothing hidden, everything is very much out front, we are inundated 24/7, and I just think my usefulness right now is really to try and find some common ground. And I’ve never seen our society so divided. I think we’re even more divided in some ways than the Vietnam era, which, well, I never thought would ever be that bad again, but I think we are. And we’re heading in a very bad direction, so I think my usefulness right now is trying to provide some common ground so that Republicans and Democrats alike can come to my shows and enjoy them, and not feel humiliated or insulted, and maybe realize that music can be a common ground between us. And maybe it’s the beginning of a common dialogue that we can start to have, because we’re dangerously divided at this point. I just don’t see any point in pointing out what’s going on politically when it’s so obvious really.
So I decided this album will be just 12 little movies and I’m going to play a different character in each one, and it’s going to be fiction. I’m going to fictionalize my work from now on and it was really quite liberating to be honest. It was really a lot less pressure than every word being life and death.
Bruce put out his autobiography and did the Broadway show in recent years. Have you been tempted, or interested, in diving into your past in a similar fashion, with a book like that? I did the Broadway show with The Rascals a few years, which I wrote and directed and produced. That was a great experience. As far as a book goes, I started writing one, maybe 10 years ago, and I wrote quite a bit and realized, I’m not ready for this. I realized that I didn’t have an ending for this book. It needs to be some kind of structure where it goes somewhere. And I couldn’t decide where I was going. I’m still trying to find a steady job. So I ended up just giving the money back and saying it’s too soon, come back in 20 years, we’ll see where we are, you know?
Right, might be worth revisiting at some other point in your life. Yeah, maybe, maybe. Right now I’m very, very happy. I reconnected with my own work these last couple of years, and it’s a little something that was not on my mind at all. I wasn’t standing around saying, “I wish I could do a solo album.” I really had no intention at all for that, and it just happened by weird circumstance. A guy just asked me a few years ago, “Throw a band together and play at Blues Festival just for fun.” And it started with that. It was worth revisiting, and I’m very glad I did that, and I’m going to continue doing it now forever more. And I’ll balance it between whatever Bruce wants to do with the band, and at some point I’ll find my way back on TV because I really did enjoy that with The Sopranos and Lillyhammer. I want to get back to that eventually. But I wanted to spend a couple of years reconnecting with my own work and that’s what I’ve done now and it’s really been very satisfying.
Speaking of regular gigs, I saw that Bruce announced about a week ago that he had written a new E Street album. Have you heard the songs or talked to him about that all? Well we talk off and on about lots of things. We’ll see what he decides, you know it hasn’t been an absolute decision yet as to when…if and when we’ll do something. I feel quite confident we will come back and do something at some point. I booked this Summer of Sorcery tour until November, at the Beacon Theater. At that point, I’ll see what Bruce wants to do. Bruce will always have priority with me, and if he wants to do an E Street Band record we’ll jump in and do that. And if not, maybe I’ll look for another TV show or continue with the Disciples. But at least until November I’ll be doing this and then we’ll see what he wants to do.
What would excite you more: recording another album with the E Street Band or going back on tour with the E Street Band? I think we want to both, really. You know at this point, I think it’d be exciting for the fans to have a new album and it feels like the appropriate thing. We wouldn’t necessarily have to do that. There’s plenty of songs we never really played live that I wish we would have. From The River outtakes and the Darkness outtakes, they were two fantastic albums of outtakes.
And we very rarely played any of those songs live, which is a bit of shame. So, we wouldn’t necessarily have to have a new album because there’s plenty of songs we actually have never played live. It would be nice to have a new album, and I think that’s very possible especially if he has written an entire album—I haven’t even discussed that with him. But if that’s true, then I’m sure we’ll probably do a record before the tour. It’d be fun.
What are some of those songs that you would love to play live that haven’t gotten played much? Well if you look at those two outtake [collections], there was hardly anything done from either one. Especially the Darkness stuff, like “The Little Things (My Baby Does),” “Spanish Eyes” and “Wrong Side of the Street.” That entire album called The Promise, it’s just terrific stuff. Great, great stuff.
And even though a lot of The River outtakes very rarely got done, we would do “Loose Ends” every now and then. But “Restless Nights” got done like, once, you know. “Where The Bands Are” a couple of times. Not often, you know? “Take ‘Em As They Come.” There’s just a bunch of great, great things that we could do a tour of just the outtakes.
I would certainly love to see that live. And it would be very fresh. It would be wonderful. But you know, whatever Bruce feels like doing, obviously we’ll be 100% enthusiastic about and it’ll be in like three, four, five years in between [since the last tour] so hopefully we can reach a whole new generation when we do go out.
I am quite positive the fans would go crazy for any sort of rarities tour. Are we ever going to hear the E Street Band takes on Nebraska? I’m not sure how many of those actually got done…I don’t think it was the whole album. It might have been, but I don’t think so. We’ll see what he wants to put out this year. This new album, Western Stars, is a surprise for most people, and it’s a wonderful album. He may have some other surprises up his sleeves, you never know with him. So we’ll see what he feels like putting out. He’s very, very prolific, and not just with things that are still in the vault from the old days,—which I don’t think there’s too much left, but there might be. He’s been recording off and on for years, so there’s a lot of things that hopefully will come out. We’ll all find out together.
Thank you so much for talking with me today. I have one last silly question to ask: my girlfriend and I both love you, and are planning on dressing up as you and Bruce for Halloween this year. So do you have any suggestions or tips on what we need to pull that off? [Laughs for awhile] Well I’m pretty simple I guess, you know? Put a bandana on or get Silvio hair. Either way, I’ll be pretty recognizable.
Do you have a specific bandana salesperson you go to in particular? [Laughs more] Nah, I’ve always made my own. Like my wardrobe people make them. Mostly my sister-in-law.
That’s nice, keeping it in the family. My sister and brother-in-law. They manufacture all the clothes for the bands I’ve been in.
Do you typically wear one when you’re playing live? Or do you wear more than one? [Laughs] Well, just one. One on my head and another long one around my neck. But you know, it shouldn’t be too difficult for you.