Stevie Van Zandt’s official memoir arrived for sale on September 28th, and while a pretty full book tour is underway to support the release, the special day was marked by a pre-recorded livestream event where, for the first time, Van Zandt was interviewed by friend and bandmate Bruce Springsteen about his life and work. The memoir, titled Unrequited Infatuations, has been getting plenty of mainstream press attention, both serious and humorous, due to the confessional nature of the book. Some outlets have been picking up on Van Zandt’s straightforward musings on the regret he felt and still feels to have left the E Street Band in the 80s, and some have been picking up on his more rollicking 70s exploits of a sexual nature.
But the online book launch on the 28th took a very different tone, actually, as quite a serious and emotional discussion of Van Zandt and Springsteen’s friendship and the ways in which Springsteen feels that Van Zandt has led an eminently “successful” life. For fans of music history, the interview was a goldmine. For fans of Van Zandt’s acting roles in The Sopranos and Lillyhammer, there was also plenty to dig into. It was incredibly refreshing and moving to hear all of Van Zandt’s many endeavors pulled together for discussion in one sitting and the range of topics they covered does say a lot about what a fascinating read the new memoir must be.
A few highlights from the hour plus interview included:
-Tales of Van Zandt and Springsteen first becoming aware of each other as fellow music geeks of a level no one else around seemed to match. This included bumping into each other in New Jersey and in the Village enough that they went from eyeing each other cautiously to discussing their shared certainty that the Village would be essential to ever being “discovered” as a musician. It was a way of thinking totally foreign to their Jersey context at the time.
-Springsteen and Van Zandt both escalating in terms of their passion for Rock ‘n Roll music to the point that they recognized what Springsteen described as a “life and death. This or nothing” attitude in each other. Van Zandt described this mindset as “No Plan B”. They both laughed calling each other “freaks” in this regard because in the 60s, music was “freaky” and it was really only in the 70s that they saw a “music biz” develop.
-Reflecting that the fact that they “found each other was a miracle”, Springsteen asked Van Zandt to lay out the “5 Crafts of Rock ‘n Roll” that we will find in the new memoir. According to Van Zandt, they are the early stages of learning an instrument and finding a band of people with the same tastes, then the craft of learning songs and starting to analyze them as an “arranger”, then the craft of learning to be a performer, playing for other people, followed by the craft of composition, and lastly, the craft of recording, which Van Zandt feels took him five albums to learn properly. Van Zandt added that when “We don’t fit into the normal world”, we have to “create a new world” and to do that, learning the five crafts helps put a musician in control of their own destiny.
-Tales of early performances and venues in New Jersey, including the vast reluctance of club owners to let bands choose their own music despite the financial opportunities for them and also the struggle to get audiences up and dancing, since dancing seemed to fade out of popularity for a time. Van Zandt shared a story of finally getting to choose his band’s own music at a caved in and soon to close Stone Pony, a “big moment” for them.
-This “bonding of souls” between Springsteen and Van Zandt included Springsteen taking note of Van Zandt’s development of the “Asbury Sound” by boldly bringing in horn sections, which was just about “forbidden” in Rock ‘n Roll at the time.
-Van Zandt’s invaluable contribution to the recording of “Born To Run” when he pointed out that Springsteen wasn’t actually playing the notes he thought he was playing. Playing the song endlessly for months to try to create the best recording had actually skewed Springsteen’s ability to hear the notes clearly. Their coming together, finally, to work in the same band together was a process of finding a way for Van Zandt, who had long been a “boss” in his own world, to become a useful part of a system where Springsteen was the boss. He feels that he became more of a writer-producer with a focus on performance and also a kind of “underboss” advising Springsteen.
-Much discussion of Van Zandt’s extensive work as an activist and commentator on politics in the 80s after leaving the E Street Band (to pursue that role more fully). He had grown up with a former Marine father believing in American exceptionalism and only after touring the world, around age 30 did he “wake up” to America’s complicated legacy and the need for personal activism. Feeling that music was a form of useful storytelling, Van Zandt brought social ideas into his solo albums in a structured way, focusing on themes on certain albums, like the family, the state, economics, and religion.
-Van Zandt’s passion for preserving Rock music and its history, worried at times that it’s an “endangered species” but one that communicates “substance” in which no other genre can. To that end, he applied himself to the TeachRock organization bringing music history curriculum into schools. 40,000 teachers currently subscribe the program.
During the final conversation of the interview, Springsteen laid out a fairly impassioned series of reasons for Van Zandt sharing this book with the world. He said that the book is infused with the “spirit of Rock ‘n Roll, self-creation” which leads to a “full life” for someone whether people are “watching” or not. He pointed out that current life is so much about “being seen” on social media, but Van Zandt’s life in Unrequited Infatuations counterbalances that with a life well lived on and off the social radar. He also described the spirit of the book as a “loving” which made him proud to be Van Zandt’s “best friend”.