A fascinating and fun memoir from one of rock’s great guitarists and characters
Uncover never-before-told stories in this epic tale of self-discovery by a Rock n Roll disciple and member of the E Street Band.
What story begins in a bedroom in suburban New Jersey in the early ’60s, unfolds on some of the country’s largest stages, and then ranges across the globe, demonstrating over and over again how Rock and Roll has the power to change the world for the better? This story.
The first true heartbeat of Unrequited Infatuations is the moment when Stevie Van Zandt trades in his devotion to the Baptist religion for an obsession with Rock and Roll. Groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones created new ideas of community, creative risk, and principled rebellion. They changed him forever. While still a teenager, he met Bruce Springsteen, a like-minded outcast/true believer who became one of his most important friends and bandmates. As Miami Steve, Van Zandt anchored the E Street Band as they conquered the Rock and Roll world.
And then, in the early ’80s, Van Zandt stepped away from E Street to embark on his own odyssey. He refashioned himself as Little Steven, a political songwriter and performer, fell in love with Maureen Santoro who greatly expanded his artistic palette, and visited the world’s hot spots as an artist/journalist to not just better understand them, but to help change them. Most famously, he masterminded the recording of “Sun City,” an anti-apartheid anthem that sped the demise of South Africa’s institutionalized racism and helped get Nelson Mandela out of prison.
By the ’90s, Van Zandt had lived at least two lives — one as a mainstream rocker, one as a hardcore activist. It was time for a third. David Chase invited Van Zandt to be a part of his new television show, the Sopranos — as Silvio Dante, he was the unconditionally loyal consiglieri who sat at the right hand of Tony Soprano (a relationship that oddly mirrored his real-life relationship with Bruce Springsteen).
Underlying all of Van Zandt’s various incarnations was a devotion to preserving the centrality of the arts, especially the endangered species of Rock. In the twenty-first century, Van Zandt founded a groundbreaking radio show (Little Steven’s Underground Garage), created the first two 24/7 branded music channels on SiriusXM (Underground Garage and Outlaw Country), started a fiercely independent record label (Wicked Cool), and developed a curriculum to teach students of all ages through the medium of music history. He also rejoined the E Street Band for what has now been a twenty-year victory lap.
Guitarist in the E Street Band, long-time friend of Bruce Springsteen, Silvio Dante in The Sopranos, political activist, standard bearer for rock ‘n’ roll. Stevie Van Zandt has been, and still is, many things. As evidenced by this memoir, he is also a great storyteller. I had high hopes for Unrequited Infatuations, but it absolutely exceeded them. Fascinating and fun, I really enjoyed this.
Van Zandt doesn’t take himself too seriously, is honest about his shortcomings and mistakes, and the memoir is woven throughout with an endearing slight self-deprecating humour. However, it does not come at the expense of some honest appraisals of what he has achieved and his many successes. He’s lived such a varied and interesting life, and seems to have found himself at the right place at the right time for so many things (although not, strangely, some of his solo music projects — many of which sat on the shelf for years before finding an outlet). While he’s not shy about sharing his successes, he is also extremely generous: the book is filled with praise for his collaborators, friends, colleagues, and also people whose talents and contributions he just respects. It’s a generous and warm-hearted book.
Of course, his long friendship and working relationship with Bruce Springsteen gets plenty of attention, but it is not really the focus of the book. He covers their early years, coming up in the New Jersey music scene — the battles of the bands, the decision to team up, the shared experiences, and more. He also covers the painful break, when he left the band, but also the long respect and friendship that seems to have always been there. Springsteen’s Born in the USA was the first album I ever loved, and still do — it was funny to read Van Zandt’s memories of his advice for the album, and which things Springsteen ignored (and was right about) and which he took on board.
Van Zandt writes a lot about his political awakening, and how he often tried to weave his activism into his music and other artistic pursuits. He was also, in his youth, very happy to do the leg-work. There are a number of accounts of his political fieldwork (for want of a better phrase), as he heads off to various points on the globe to discover what’s really going on and to bring attention to issues — especially issues related to America’s overstepping or muscling other nations (especially during the Reagan years). His experiences in South Africa and his contributions to the fight to end apartheid, in particular, were incredible and his account is fascinating. It includes an amusing indictment of US elected officials: He met with some members of Congress to explain the situation and lobby for their support, but it was obvious to Van Zandt that many Senators “were hearing about the subject for the first time”, because “I had to point out where South Africa was on the map. And it’s a country with two clues in its name.”
There’s a clear nostalgia for “true” rock ‘n’ roll, but it is not presented in a way that looks down on contemporary or future generations of rockers and musicians. Sure, he misses certain aspects of the “classic” era (his inspirations and also his peers), but he never veers into dismissal of those who have come after. It’s just not his preferred type of music. Van Zandt talks about his frequent attempts to keep rock alive, including his efforts on satellite radio and more.
How can anyone forget Silvio Dante? Van Zandt’s incredible TV debut on The Sopranos was my first conscious introduction to his work (I’d listened to his music before, but hadn’t connected the two until my dad pointed it out while we watched the first episode of the HBO show — I was 16 at the time). There’s a lot in the memoir about the evolution of Hollywood and TV, as Van Zandt chronicles his experiences on The Sopranos, Lilyhammer, and others.
Overall, then, this is a fascinating and fun memoir. Packed with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll lore; interesting an informative observations about the entertainment industry; and also politics. Anyone who’s familiar with Van Zandt’s work — whether on screen or on records — should find plenty to love in Unrequited Infatuations. This is one of the best musician memoirs I’ve read (well, listened to) in quite some time.
Very highly recommended.