Stevie Van Zandt’s Unrequited Infatuations is the best biography of a rock & roller that I’ve ever read. He avoids the pitfalls of tedium and banality that typically plague similar books. That is, they spend inordinate pages on aspects of their life conveying nothing about the magic of their success as a musician. And when they get to the good stuff, we’ve heard it all before.
Even Springsteen’s Born to Run autobiography, brave as it was for revealing his battles with depression, spent way too much time on his childhood and adult family life and far too little on how he created his best music. Instead, as is typical, when it came to the music we got banal repetition of stories we, for the most part, already knew.
Not with Stevie. Perhaps because he isn’t “as famous” as many rock stars who write autobiographies, his achievements are not as well chronicled. His work against Apartheid, beyond the Sun City record, is not well known. And he tells it with relish, thrillingly conveying the danger to life and career that he braved. And there’s precious little about the ordinary aspects of his life.
When he gets to the music he’s made with his own band as well as with Southside, Bruce, and a host of others, there’s fresh revelation at every turn. Even when he tells a familiar story, he adds nuance that previous tellers didn’t appreciate or perhaps even know.
To sample just a bit, he tells the familiar story of great live performers making their bones playing multiple sets every night of the week for peanuts. Instead of sprinkling it with tales of drugs and sexual exploits, he paints a reality in which these musicians were generally too tired for that. And when he gets to the story of how he built the Asbury Jukes from the kindling of local talent and cajoled the Stone Pony to let them play, it’s pure joy. He explores nuance and detail that is not only fresh but somehow also bristling with a unitary excitement emanating simultaneously from both the young man who lived it and the wise old one whose telling it.
Van Zandt’s conversation with Frank Zappa about the Sun City record is classic. “Why would I want to participate in your meaningless bullshit record . . .,” Zappa told him. Among scores of other intriguing insights are that David Chase originally wanted him to play Tony Saprano, but HBO wouldn’t go along. And that he was screwed financially on the apparently successful Lillyhammer show. Over and over, when he came out on top, and when he screwed up – it’s all there and it comes across as honest.
Probably the most reported on parts of Van Zandt’s music career involve his friendship with Springsteen. Yet, he makes it fresh, over and over again, providing stories and anecdotes that I’d never heard before and avoids repeating those I had. Other reviews have made much of Van Zandt’s regret that he left the E Street Band in the mid-80s. But there is so much more.
In the early 70s, Steve was actually more successful than Bruce, touring with an oldies’ circuit while Springsteen tried desperately to get a record deal without a band.
After Springsteen was signed, Van Zandt went to the studio to help record Greetings from Asbury Park. He’d worked out some slide guitar parts. But the producers unceremoniously dismissed him after a couple of takes. And he doesn’t hold back in expressing his disappointment that Bruce didn’t fight to keep him on the record. He avoids repeating the well-worn trope that he is on the record, sort of, hitting an amplifier to produce feedback that appears on “Lost in the Flood.”
Columbia was considering dropping Springsteen, Van Zandt reveals, even after the “Born to Run” single started receiving significant airplay in advance of the album release. The label even told stations, Van Zandt reports, to stop playing it and play Billy Joel instead!
Post-BTR, Springsteen was involved in a legal dispute with his manager and had no money to pay the band. Van Zandt, he says, had to convince the E Streeters to stick together when they were to a man ready to bolt on the Boss. Stevie saved the day by arranging for the E Street Band to earn some dough by recording a single with Ronnie Spector. To be sure, Van Zandt’s account ignores all the dates that the band played in 1976 and 1977, including some with a horn section. Was it really the chance to do the single with Ronnie that held things together? Who knows. Memories fade, reform, and evolve. We’ll never know the reality of those days. But Stevie gives us an interesting take that I hadn’t heard before.
Van Zandt takes credit – and believably so — for encouraging Springsteen to complete first top-10 hit, Hungry Heart, but admits to giving the Boss bad advice about “Dancing in the Dark” and other songs as well.
My favorite passage involved Bruce playing Van Zandt his Tunnel of Love album. When Steve heard “Ain’t Got You,” the opening track, he was incredulous. The singer is a man with filthy wealth, who can have everything but the girl he’s pursuing. Bruce justified it by saying “I’m just being honest about my life.” Van Zandt responded, “I hate to tell you this, but nobody gives a fuck about your life. Your gift, your job, your genius is telling people about their lives. . . . Letting them know that you understand what they’re going through and that they are not alone. . . . We yelled and screamed for a while, and then he threw me out.” Time proved Stevie right, I think even Bruce would admit.
Van Zandt evocatively describes the pair’s “complementary relationship” this way: “He [Springsteen] was . . . a year older, and very much a mentor when it came to Art and the Business. But there were some things that I did better, like arranging songs, and I always had more street smarts. I was—I am—much more connected to the social world, because I had to work in it, where he was always a bit distant, focusing on creating his own world and living in it.”
Describing his role in the E Street Band, Van Zandt wrote that a star like Springsteen can “find the talent” and “buy the loyalty.” “But you can’t replace the history. And believe me, when it’s a bad night—tough conditions, new audience, rainy and cold—or even a particularly good one, you don’t want to look to your left and see a gun for hire. You want to see me.” Where Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello stand on the scale of “hired gun to me,” he leaves unsaid.
Of course, it isn’t all roses. I could have done without the thankfully few tidbits about his sexual exploits, particularly with respect to his wife. I get it that he’s just conveying how much he loves her, and it’s not as bad as Bruce’s “tires rotating” metaphor. But still, we know musicians get their share. We don’t need details. Maybe, I’m something of a prude?
Worse than that are the complaints. By all measures, Van Zandt has had more success as a musician than most of us can dream about. Yet, he describes a top 40 hit as if nobody bought it, because it wasn’t top 10. And he bemoans that his band can only play clubs and small theaters, and asks plaintively – paraphrasing here – why can’t my band get 10% of the crowd Bruce does? At one level, I can understand this, because I have similar thoughts about my band. But he’s way more successful. He doesn’t get to think that way!
Much as I enjoyed the book, it does remind me of a documentary I saw about Woody Allen, which I also very much enjoyed. At the end, Woody is reminiscing about his life, recounting how he wanted to write comedy, do standup, act in and direct movies, even play in a jazz band. And he was able to do all of those things with tremendous success. “And yet,” Allen says apparently without hint of irony, “somehow, I feel like I’ve been screwed.”
Discover more here: https://www.littlesteven.com
Read a show review of Little Steven, here: Show Review: Little Steven Van Zandt Was Funk, Soul, Rock ‘n Roll Entertainment at OKC’s Tower Theatre