This interview originally appeared in September 2017.
Sergio Leone would have loved to have captured the colorful moment on Spaghetti-Western celluloid. One chilly San Francisco night in the winter of 1982, an obscure Australian metal band called Haven was rocking out at the city’s then-thriving nightclub The Old Waldorf. A few songs into its set, however – and you could almost hear a Charles Bronson-eerie harmonica playing in the background – the front doors swung open saloon-like to reveal a group of street-tough characters all wearing matching leather dusters, led by a wiry, beetle-browed fellow in a biker’s bandanna, who led his men up to the bar for a round of beers. Matching embroidered patches in Gothic lettering on the backs of all the coats spelled out who they were – The Disciples of Soul, a band then recently assembled by former Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes guitarist (and freshly-minted E Street Band alum, behind Bruce Springsteen) Steven Van Zandt, who had just issued his retro-rock-and-soul debut as Little Steven and – you guessed it – The Disciples of Soul, the classic Men Without Women.
But no barroom brawl broke out – Van Zandt, 66, who also answered to “Miami Steve” – had just dropped by with his bandmates to check out the venue’s sound system, since they were actually playing there later in the week. Heaven never knew what hit them that night – the musician and his ominous retinue disappeared into the night after another round of drinks, satisfied that the speakers could handle their music. Van Zandt went on to have a storied career that included Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014, and long-running dramatic TV turns as ruthless mob enforcer Silvio Dante on The Sopranos from 1999 to 2007, and a self-scripted, three-season run on English/Norwegian series Lilyhammer. He also launched his own vintage-themed radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, which gradually expanded into an entire Sirius radio station, that now employs as DJs showbiz legends like Kid Leo from WMMS and The Dictators; Handsome Dick Manitoba. He’s also just released a new Disciples of Soul effort, Soulfire, his first in 18 years, which features some fuel-injected updates of some of his Asbury Jukes standards, like “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” “I Don’t Want to Go Home,” and “Love On the Wrong Side of Town” alongside newer material.
ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: How did you create that whole leather-duster look for your Disciples of Soul?
LITTLE STEVEN: Well, I was about to do (Springsteen’s) Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, coming up on ’78, and I needed an outfit, an original look for this tour. And I thought, “What’s never been done before?” And I’d just seen this movie The Long Riders, and I thought, “That would be a cool thing to do.” So I had the coat made for that tour – and by the way, that was the year that Prince first came to see us, and I think he stole my idea. So then, of course, I continued the long-coat thing as sort of my trademark, and then with The Disciples, I put the log on the back, like the Hell’s Angels wore. Which we heard about from the Hell’s Angels, by the way – some of them got angry. But I ended up getting their permission – I had to straighten that out, so I got permission from the boss because I did a similar logo. Which Bon Jovi later stole. But at least he admitted it. When I confronted Prince, he just gave me this smirk. And that was an 11-piece band back then, so when you see 11 of us coming through those swinging doors? There really was a presence.
IE: Plus, you had Jean Beauvoir in the band back then – an ex-Plasmatic with a white Mohawk.
LS: Yeah! We were kind of making a statement. We wanted to be something unusual, something completely original, which we were. So I’ve gone back to that. When it came time for a new record, I thought, “You know what? I’m going back to that which really defines me – that rock and roll and soul thing that I started with The Jukes and which was on my first album. So I did. And I’ll stay there now. I’m not going to be as schizophrenic as I used to be. I’m going to be more consistent and stay with that sound in the future.
IE: Because those first three Southside albums are just about perfect.
LS: Yeah. I’m really proud of them. Did you ever hear the fourth one we did, Better Days? I’m really happy with that record, too. I thought that was the best out of all of them. Although the second one (This Time It’s For Real, 1977) has a special place in my heart because we reunited The Coasters. And Ronnie Spector was on the first one (I Don’t Want to Go Home, 1976) – she and Lee Dorsey. I was always very conscious of showing my gratitude to those pioneers, and I wanted to make sure that people knew that they were still around, and still as talented as they ever were. And we did that with Gary U.S. Bonds a few years later – we were always trying to show our gratitude because, without them, we wouldn’t be here.
IE: Is there just something in the Asbury Park water?
LS: Well, I dunno. We just grew up staying close to the roots, so I dunno what it was. We were third generation rock and roll, and we just felt very close to those first two generations. And we didn’t think twice about wearing those roots right on our sleeves and showing people where we were coming from. It’s just how we were – that was our thing.
IE: Songs from your second solo album, 1984’s Voice of America, were more political, and – like “I Am a Patriot” – still resonate today. Maybe even more so.
LS: Yeah. And it’s been going over big live; I’ve got to tell you. It really has. And I don’t even have to say anything anymore – it’s all built into the song. And it’s kind of scary how relevant these songs are. But that was on reason why I didn’t feel the need to revisit a lot of those themes (with Soulfire) because I knew they were going to hold up just fine in the live show. So I was able to feel liberated with this new album, and just kind of go in a completely different direction for the first time and have the music come first, without the politics coming first for once. That was a new idea for me. Because, these days, the politics? That’s taking care of itself. I don’t have to say a word about that.
IE: Every day, I give thanks for Underground Garage, the coolest radio station on the planet. How did you come up with the concept?
LS: I remember listening to the radio one day and thinking, “Wait a minute – this isn’t right. Why should we be the last generation that has any fun? We’re taking all the fun with us here!” And what I consider to be a Renaissance period – 1951 to 1971 – this is a musical era that will be studied for hundreds of years. So why not let future generations hear the greatest music ever made? So I started my weekly radio show a few years before satellite came along, and then when Sirius came along, I didn’t have to change a thing, because, in my two-hour show, I had created that new format, in every way. I had hand-picked at the time over 3,000 songs, and I was only playing five a week out of 3,000. So it was wonderful that it went 24/7 because I had the songs already picked, I had the whole thing figured out. I said, “Look – I’m going to do all 60 years of rock and roll, and I’m going to play the roots of rock and roll, and I’m going to connect the dots.” And everybody said, “You can’t do that! It’s impossible!” And I said, “No, it can be done. If you get the right songs.” So now Underground Garage is an institution, you know? Nobody wanted it. Nobody thought that it would work, And now it’s the only place you’re ever going to hear real rock and roll. And not only the great old stuff, like album tracks from The Kinks and The Yardbirds, but you’re also hearing over 700 new bands. So you’re getting the best of both worlds, and I hand-picked every single song, to my own taste.
IE: Plus, you get to tell your Paul-Harvey-ish rock reminiscences.
LS: Ha! That’s the thing – be careful what you wish for. When you have complete freedom, it’s freaky. You’ve got to think about that for a moment, like, “What exactly do I want to do here?” But it turned out good. And I’m constantly messing with it, always trying to improve it.
IE: You’re always finding cool new Scandinavian girl groups to work with. Is there a tie-in with how you got Lilyhammer?
LS: Yeah. I was producing The Cocktail Slippers, mixing their record in Bergen, Norway, when somebody said, “A husband and wife are here to say hello.” I went down to see them, and they said, “We wrote a TV show for you.” So the two are definitely related. But Norway – and Scandinavia, in general – is just the rock and roll capital of the world, and they’re kind of freaks about it. They know more about America than we do.
IE: It was weird that there was such controversy over The Sopranos finale. From your conversation in the boat, it was pretty clear.
LS: Did you see that Vanity Fair article? They went back and interviewed all the people years later, and I think I ended the article. The interviewer said to me, “How did it really end?” And I said, “Okay – I’m gonna tell you once and for all how it ended.” And the writer leans in like we’re sharing a secret, and I said, “You really wanna know how it ended? The director yelled ‘Cut,’ and the actors went home! And that was it!”
IE: Well, it must feel great to be part of so many different brotherhoods.
LS: Yeah! And that was the whole idea of being in a band in the first place. And that’s the difference between pop music – which is about solo artists – and bands, which are about rock and roll. Where you’re talking about family, friendship, brotherhood, the gang.
IE: Leather jackets optional?
LS: Definitely. Leather jackets optional!
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