Little Steven Interview: Going Back to School

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Little Steven

Little Steven (aka Miami Steve) Van Zandt has a lot to be remembered for. He’s a co-producer and indispensable influence on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—he’s also a longtime guitarist in the band—and with Southside Johnny. He has a rich catalog of solo tracks, from the poppy “Forever” to the life-questioning mind games of “Face of God.” As an actor he had a brilliant stint as mob consigliere Silvio Dante in The Sopranos and plenty of action since then, including the lead role in the Netflix series Lilyhammer. He’s the political activist behind the celebrity-studded “Sun City” single battling apartheid in the ’80s, and much more.

But all that, he said, isn’t what his legacy will be. Instead, it’ll be keeping music alive, either through his satellite radio channels Outlaw Country and Underground Rock on Sirius/XM, or his latest crusade: using music as a teaching tool in classrooms nationwide through his TeachRock.org foundation.

Related: Little Steven was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2018–by an old friend

“I hope some things continue,” Van Zandt said. “This curriculum is going to be a big part of my legacy if we can get it entrenched. We need to have an arts presence in the DNA of the (educational) system.”

Pretty interesting from a guy who co-produced a Springsteen song with the line “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

Ten years in the making but soft-launched a year or so ago, TeachRock.org’s founders board includes Van Zandt, Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Martin Scorsese and Bono. If you go to the website, teachers can find more than 100 in-class lesson plans focusing on music, arts and their role in American history.

Arts, Van Zandt says, is just as important as other parts of the curriculum. A modern-day push on STEM schools (science, technology, engineering and math) is a great thing; just don’t forget to include the arts, adding the “A” to make it STEAM, he said.

Van Zandt has never been one to back down from a challenge. On Little Steven’s first solo album, 1982’s Men Without Women, the song “Save Me” laid the ground rules: “You make more money, baby, by lying down/But I ain’t lying down for no one.” At times his take-no-prisoners attitude has come at a great cost; after co-producing Bruce Springsteen’s multi-platinum Born in the USA album, Van Zandt split with the band and the mega-millions payday that came with the 1984 tour.

In 2017, some 35 years after Men Without Women and 18 past his fifth solo album, Born Again Savage, Van Zandt released Soulfire, followed by a companion live album last year. Both still have the same stance: To quote Tom Petty, “I won’t back down.”

“‘Save Me’ was more about the concern of losing one’s sense of identity and morality in the face of success,” Van Zandt said. That theme of never giving up “is in all of my stuff in some ways.”

Listen to “Save Me”

It connects with the title track of Soulfire, which features the lines “When you’ve lost your way in the wilderness/scared, confused and on your own/feeling betrayed, feeling abandoned/you’re not alone, we’ll find our way home.”

“‘Save Me’ is the smaller personal version, whereas ‘Soulfire’ is bigger—we’re all connected at soul levels. What concerns any of us concerns all of us,” he said.

That album and the live release mark a unique musical trail. Van Zandt made a series of concept albums—religion, politics and love among them—that each had their charms, but they were all over the map.

“I really wasn’t paying attention at all musically for my own identity, which is quite foolish if you’re trying to have a career, and I foolishly wasn’t,” he said with a laugh. “I was on an artistic adventure and very naively so. The music was a soundtrack to different parts of my life. They were very different musically but lyrically they were very thematic and consistent.”

In approaching Soulfire, he said, he had to ask himself, “Who am I? Who am I going to be this time? So I got back to where I started and found out I got it right the first time.”

In a return to rock/R&B with a healthy horn section, Soulfire sounds like late ’70s/early ’80 classic Van Zandt. He decided to take it on the road, resulting in Soulfire Live, featuring Springsteen and Southside on some tracks. Be sure to spring for the Deluxe Edition, which has a third disc of live cover songs ranging from AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” to Tom Petty’s “Even the Losers,” given the full horn treatment.

Some was happenstance; Petty died as Van Zandt’s tour got underway. “It hit me hard, harder than I would have expected,” he said. “We were friendly. I don’t know if we had three conversations in our entire lives, but I felt very close to him. Similar age, similar background.”

Watch Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play “Even the Losers”

Van Zandt’s focus now, however, is TeachRock. He did a nationwide tour where teachers—any teachers—were invited to come to the show for free. They got a workshop on using music in the classroom, then two tickets to the show immediately after.

“Art is actually good business. We never discuss that, ever,” he said. “What’s America’s biggest export? Movies, TV and music.”

It also helps switch up what school can be about. “The precision required for science, engineering, technology and math can be intimidating,” he noted. “The arts aren’t. ‘What’s your favorite song?’ has no wrong answer.”

Why teachers though? Why now? “Why now?” was because Van Zandt didn’t want to roll out something insubstantial. “I just wanted 100 (classroom) lessons at least before I went public with it. It took a long time, 10 years, to get it done. We had a lot of false starts and I just wasn’t happy,” he said. “It had to be perfect, and we were only going to get one chance at this. It’s gotta be great. I don’t want a sort of after-school special thing. I wanted it to be something to use in the classroom, that meets the state standards, and be designed in a way that teachers can have creativity with it themselves. I was more concerned with getting the teachers excited by this than the students. That enthusiasm will be transferred form the teachers to the students.”

Many districts have taken the same tack, depending on teachers to spread excitement and enthusiasm for their subject to get student buy-in. “There’s a far more important thing going on, the ability to get kids’ attention, to get them engaged. It’s an extraordinary challenge with this generation,” he said. “They’re different…they’re quicker, they’re smarter and they are not patient. They want it now, now, now. So how on earth are teachers supposed to teach?

“The answer is music. Every kid’s into music, thank God. Instead of dragging them to our curriculum, we go to them. ‘Who’s your favorite artist? What’s your favorite song?’ Everybody has one. Everyone’s an expert in one thing, and that’s their own taste.”

The lessons on TeachRock.org are designed to be interactive, dynamic and to trace musical history. “OK, we’re going to trace that artist back,” he said. “That song came from this one, that came from another one, that’s why it was written. These are the circumstances in society at the time, and boom, they’re in! I mean in. You have their attention.”

Watch Van Zandt with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing “Glory Days” in 2013

TeachRock.org is very in touch with current thinking on education, now that smartphones have all the answers at the tip of our fingers. Finding the answers is one thing; how does one use that information?

“I sincerely believe now it’s important to teach kids how to think instead of what to think,” Van Zandt said. “The arts is connecting the dots. It has to do with instinct and emotion and imagination, the things that every kid possesses. Statistics show that it helps them in science and math, by the way.”

Given that he was touring anyway, suddenly matching the two up was obvious. “We finally went public with it and I happened to be touring,” he said. “We’re talking to school boards, we talk to administration, so let’s talk to the teachers directly. Why not? I booked the tour according to where the teachers were striking or almost striking. There’s trouble in Phoenix, trouble in Seattle. Wherever there was trouble, we went to those cities to show people how important teachers are. The community should support them.”

Watch the official “Sun City” video

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Mark Brown

Mark Brown

Mark Brown's misguided youth and decision to buy music instead of food in college led to a life covering the music industry. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Orange County Register, Rocky Mountain News, San Francisco Chronicle, Trouser Press, Addicted to Noise, MSN Entertainment, Harp and countless newspapers worldwide.
Mark Brown
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