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Renaissance man - interwiew with Steven Van Zandt

It seems a long way from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s roots in the New Jersey beach resort of Asbury Park to the fjords and mountains of Norway. But the Norwegian link with Steven Van Zandt is not to be denied, a musical and cultural exchange that benefits the already strong Oslo music scene.

A renaissance is classically defined as a revival of intellectual or artistic achievements and activity. Within modern music, it is commonly accepted that a primary renaissance took place between 1951 and 1971. Steven Van Zandt, guitarist Little Steven to his music fans, and Silvio Dante to his “Soprano” fans, was part of those roots, continues to work on the cutting-edge of creative work that will last for generations.

The Oslo connection is a strong one, with the first band on his Wicked Records recording label coming from this city. The band, the Cocktail Slippers, consists of five musicians from Oslo who first played at Van Zandt’s Underground Garage Festival in New York. With straight-forward rock, harmonies and melodies, the Cocktail Slippers are quickly beginning to establish themselves on both sides of the Atlantic. This is one important aspect of the music here that gives Van Zandt reason to believe that Oslo is on the shores of a music renaissance. In his continuing quest to bring the heart of rock and roll to the people – especially youth – he views Norway as a fertile ground for the development of up and coming musicians.

Oslo Calling
Van Zandt and Oslo Teknopol’s CEO Knut Halvorsen share a love for music, and have had ongoing discussions concerning the recently opened “Rehearsal Hotel” (see the article “The Sound of Oslo” in this issue) centring on a major international studio being developed here. Regarding the establishment of such a major state-of-the-art music studio as part of the Rehearsal Hotel, Van Zandt is cautiously optimistic, “I am impatient, I want things to happen quickly – and move a hundred miles an hour – but you have to do it right. Oslo has major musical possibilities, but you only get one chance in this industry – and it has to work the first time.”
“Little Steven” knows the international music world, and continues in no uncertain terms concerning the possibilities here, “The Oslo studio must be one that will not only gain the attention of international bands – but will have the quality to bring them back to the city. We have the international contact network, but only the top quality is good enough.”

The Cocktail Slippers.

The Jersey Shore Sound
This love of musical diversity came early to Van Zandt. Growing up in the state of New Jersey in the United States, Jersey Shore – the beach counties – was his home. Early memories included spending hours listening to the radio; first as a child and then a young man.

His destiny was defined, but there was much work to be done. When asked if he knew at the time that the music he was part of creating - the ‘Jersey Shore Sound’ – Little Steven replied, “The electricity was in the air, and a lot happened very quickly, especially at The Upstage in Asbury Park, an alcohol-free club that allowed musicians to jam together until five in the morning. If you were good enough, you got paid. I wanted to play music, and the only way to get there was hard work.”

Van Zandt took that inspiration and learned his art of music with a creative fury, assuming a central role in the development of the Jersey Shore Sound, best defined as a fusion of pre-Beatles rock and pre-Motown rhythm and blues. He was one of the co-founders of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, a band that brought a new twist to the rock genre by bringing in a horn section, bringing soul into the mainstream of rock and roll.

Then, as they say, fate came calling. Van Zandt met Bruce Springsteen, later teaming up as a rock solid part of the E Street Band making music that would define a generation. Van Zandt felt destiny in the air, “I knew then that I was going to be rock star. When I first started playing with Bruce, Southside Johnny and some of the E Street members, it was not a question of if we were going to make it – it was when. Things were happening quickly and we all wanted to be a part of it.”

Beyond the Music
Van Zandt has always been more than his music, an engaging, complicated, creative and outspoken advocate of causes and ideas. In the 1980’s he worked closely with the anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought Nelson Mandela to leadership in South Africa, something of which Van Zandt is understandably proud.

Instrumental in the establishment in “Artists United Against Apartheid”, organized as an active protest against the Sun City resort in South Africa, Van Zandt brought together the top recording artists of the mid-1980’s to record his song “Sun City”. Nearly fifty recording artists that included Springsteen, U2 and Bob Dylan assembled to record the song as well as the album of the same name. All involved in the project vowed to never play at the resort of the same name, which at the time was a bastion for apartheid in South Africa. This was the solidarity that defines Steven Van Zandt.

This is the type of solidarity and fellowship possibilities that interest Van Zandt when it comes to the city of Oslo and the Oslo music scene. According to Van Zandt, “The working climate of Scandinavia allows people the possibilities to explore their creativity – a positive balance that the city of Oslo has taken into account in their efforts to bring music into the creative lives of people living here. The roots of music are important – this is what motivates me, and this is where I see Oslo as potentially an important international music centre.”

Silvio Dante and the Underground Garage
Spreading the word of the roots of rock through his internationally syndicated weekly radio show “Underground Garage” is one of the passions that drives Van Zandt. The programme features rock and roll – old and new – dedicated to bringing roots of rock closer to youth and aging alike. According to Van Zandt, “Keeping rock and roll alive is my new activism, communicating what I first experienced when I saw the Beatles or listened to bands such as the Dave Clark 5 – the feeling of community, brotherhood, solidarity – and great music. It is my way of saying thank you, and to celebrate a career that has come full circle back to the roots of rock.”

To all generations of people who watch television, Steven Van Zandt is synonymous with Silvio Dante, the loyal, tough and thinking right-hand man to the top boss in the show ‘Sopranos’. For those familiar with this hit show, Silvio is known for his quiet confidence who says things like, “Last year I made bail so fast, my soup was still warm when I got home.”

Full Circle
Things indeed do come full circle. At the age of 13 he was given a guitar by his grandfather – a guitar that quickly and mysteriously disappeared for over 40 years until it was returned to him in 2008. The guitar had evidently been passed along to a number of ‘owners’ until it made its way back to Van Zandt. In all the years of music since he first had picked up that treasured guitar as a teenager, Van Zandt hasn’t changed – he is still creative, restless, and he still wants to change the world through his work.

With such an illustrious career achieved within music, acting and service to society, the final question to Van Zandt was almost obvious – What in the world is left to achieve for this Renaissance man? “I have learned from the American Indian’s philosophy of ‘Seven Generation Thinking’ that many things do take time. It is only when you hold out and are willing to totally commit that greatness can eventually arrive. Even so, I have only accomplished 1% of what is in my head, so there is a lot left to do.” There are many people in Oslo that look forward to Steven Van Zandt accomplishing some of that here in Norway’s capital.

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