Stevie Van Zandt’s Unrequited Infatuations and the Persistence of Memory

The beloved New Jersey musician and actor’s memoir is also a syllabus of rock history, a thesis on the art of collaboration, a political manifesto, a settling of grievances and a grab bag of opinions

Little Steven from the cover art of 1984’s Voice of America (Image: Amazon)

Stevie Van Zandt has very specific ideas about how rock music, at its best, functions, what its essential values are.

He told Esquire magazine, “To have an impact in two minutes and thirty seconds – that’s very hard to do. It’s much easier to write Pink Floyd’s The Wall than it is to write ‘Louie Louie’.”

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He’s right about that, just as he is when he declares how the only Moody Blues album of any real value is the one that has “Go Now” on it (1965’s The Magnificent Moodies). His belief in the romance of pop isn’t only about the romance in its lyrics, but the romance of the process. You get the feeling that his ideal gig would have been to be a modern Bert Berns, writing and producing for the Drifters, the Exciters and the Isley Brothers (he narrates the Berns documentary Bang!), or that he would have loved for he and Springsteen to have had an office at 1619 Broadway coming up with hit songs on demand, and operate as one of those legendary teams like Leiber & Stoller or Pomus & Shuman.

 

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His newly-published book Unrequited Infatuations is subtitled “A Memoir,” and that’s certainly part of what it is, a narrative that takes him from his New Jersey childhood to his longtime alliance with Bruce Springsteen, his second act as a solo artist and political activist, his surprising emergence as an actor in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer. But it’s also a syllabus of rock history, a thesis on the art of collaboration, a political manifesto, a settling of grievances and a grab bag of opinions that are not so much posed as opinions, but as Unassailable Truths.

Unrequited Infatuations by Steven Van Zandt (Image: Hachette Books)

That’s what makes Van Zandt’s Twitter presence so endlessly entertaining: He weighs in everything from golf to cinema (he’s irrationally fond of Robin and the Seven Hoods, a tossed-off Rat Pack musical), to the failures of the current Democratic Party, to, in particular, music. These are, he announces, the five best Who songs, these are the ten most influential bands ever, this is the most underrated Beatles record (“Hey Bulldog”; second place: “And Your Bird Can Sing”). He’s definitive about such things, which is fine with me, because we are the same age, grew up listening to the same music and watching the same movies, and our tastes overlap to a shocking degree (he also wrote the liner notes for a Dion album I was involved with, so: thanks). He can pontificate all he likes, because mostly he’s correct.

Although he’s been a rock frontman, a leading actor, the prime mover behind the radio show and Sirius XM channel Underground Garage (where his distinctive rock sensibility takes full flight), he is best known to the public as the quintessential sidekick to Springsteen and to Tony Soprano, and we get in Unrequited Infatuations a guide to how to serve The Boss. Which is, as Van Zandt sees it, being unafraid to weigh in when he thinks it matters. He lost a bunch of battles: he didn’t think “Dancing in the Dark” belonged on the Born in the U.S.A. album, and told Springsteen as much (he did prevail in his insistence that “No Surrender” not be relegated to a B-side); his ideas about what songs belonged on The River were overruled (his favorite Springsteen “album” is the River outtakes that make up disc two of the Tracks box). The one futile argument he had with Sopranos creator David Chase was over the series’ concluding song. Van Zandt couldn’t comprehend why a show that had featured such inspired song choices throughout its run should end with Journey. Fair enough. 

 

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The book zips along, candidly and conversationally, through his years as the auteur behind Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes; his projects with Gary U.S. Bonds, Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector; his anti-apartheid campaign and “Sun City” protest song. Van Zandt has some harsh words to say about the fracture within the Rascals that derailed their Broadway reunion, and about the induction process at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that has kept some of his beloved artists outside the gates.

 

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And he’s not shy about expressing his disappointment that some of his creative efforts as a solo artist and producer haven’t gotten the acclaim and commercial success he believes they deserve (the Darlene Love album is elaborately staged and entertaining, but Van Zandt says he expected it to win the Grammy for Album of the Year, and that’s kind of far-fetched). What’s fun about the book, aside from the vividly recounted anecdotes, is that he throws in pronouncements that are sure to start debate. About the Beatles: “They invented the concept of musical evolution” (italics his). Well, sure, if you don’t count Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. Let’s assume he means “pop music evolution,” and still, didn’t Sinatra progress from the Dorsey years to the Capitol years with Riddle?

 

 

Van Zandt has the ability to articulate how rock ’n’ roll works, and what it meant to the generation that was coming of age around the time of A Hard Day’s Night and 12 X 5. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Van Zandt and Springsteen happier on stage than when the E Street Band encored with the Beatles’ “Tell Me Why” on stage in Atlantic City; it was as though everything they might have imagined when they were inspired to pick up guitars was captured in those three minutes, and what could be more “requited” than that? At the end of Van Zandt’s memoirfesto, he describes two recent career moments, playing crooner Jerry Vale in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishmen, and sharing a stage with Paul McCartney at the Roundhouse in London.

“He thought back to when he was thirteen,” Van Zandt writes of himself, “listening to the first albums he ever bought, trying to learn the chords to play along with them, trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe.” How did he end up there? How did a fan of James Cagney gangster movies wind up playing consigliere to television’s most dynamic mob boss?

Unrequited Infatuations is, like many of Van Zandt’s best songs, an attempt to connect to events and ideals formed in the past, like he’s always flipping through old photos and old 45s.

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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