The voluble Van Zandt sat down with Billboard before the show to talk about the five crafts of rock and roll, Tom Petty, Donald Trump The Boss and their early recordings, and his eternal quest for greatness.
This must bring back memories from playing with Bruce Springsteen here in 1975.
I remember looking down [from the stage] when we first came here and there’s Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, Cher…Everywhere you looked there was a star.
Was it intimidating playing in front of them?
No. By the time the world discovered us, we were well on our way. We were working the clubs and getting really good at what we did and suddenly the business discovers you and we’d been killing people for years, because we had to in order to pay the rent [laughs].
When you first start you think it’s one craft -- you think, “I play guitar, I’ll be okay,” but there’s actually five crafts in rock and roll.
What are the other four after learning your instrument?
The second craft is you start to analyze records so can learn them, that’s the start of becoming an arranger. The third craft is live performance. That’s the stage lot of folks are skipping now -- the bar band stage of your career. You’re playing your favorite songs that you’ve learned and analyzed, you’re learning how to interact with your band, how to interact with an audience. You’re setting your standard for the fourth craft, which is composition. If you just start writing the minute you learn how to play, you’re not doing your homework. You learn from the masters.
The fifth craft is recording and it took [Springsteen and The E Street Band] a long time. It took us essentially five albums. It didn’t feel comfortable until The River. Oh yeah, Bruce had put together an interesting album with the third album, Born to Run. That certainly has a quality all of its own, but it was really bent into shape. It was a lot of work. I only visited those sessions occasionally.
The River is really your baby since you co-produced it.
Yeah, but it was also the band’s coming out party because we finally had an environment that felt good. We didn’t have to work to make it sound good. That takes up a lot of your energy, man. You don't want that. You want to walk in, sit down and start to record. You don’t want to be banging on the drums for half an hour trying to get a sound. It blows the fucking vibe, man. That was the first time with the right studio, the right engineer and we had finally realized that it was the room sound that mattered. We managed to make a damn good record with Born to Run, but the process wasn’t as much fun.
You’re so used to producing other people. It is hard to produce yourself as you did here again on Soulfire?
I tell people you shouldn’t produce yourself and you really shouldn’t. I did not produce myself the way I would produce someone else -- it was the artist producing instead of the producer producing, which is suicide [laughs]. All five of my solo albums are virtually five different musical genres, which I would never allow as a producer. That’s no way you have a career. You can’t have a career doing that, putz!
Your past albums focused largely on politics and social issues. Soulfire is all about heart and soul.
Previously, politics was 100 percent my mission; the music came second. This one was the first one where the concept was me doing me. Me as a songwriter, as a guitar player, as an arranger, a producer. I never did that before. It’s complicated because I’m doing songs that I wrote for other people. The next few records are the ones that are going to be interesting for me.
You already know what’s coming?
No and I’m anxious to learn what’s coming because I never evolved any of my five musical genres that I did to the next level. I always changed with the next album. This is the first time I’m going to stay consistent with this sound and see where it goes.
You wrote the songs for Soulfire over a 40-year period. How did your songwriting process change over that time?
I’m not sure I know what my process is. I don’t know if there was a pattern to the early stuff. Usually it starts with music, a riff or a melody. It’s nice when lyrics come first because the worst thing in the world is having a great melody and you can’t find the lyrics. So anytime you can have the lyrics first, even just the title first, the chorus second, you’re way ahead of the game. I’ve done this and I know Bruce has done this, where it’s just a fantastic song and you just can’t find the words. It’s very frustrating. With [1984's] “I Am a Patriot,” I swear to you, I looked at that title no less than a year. Every day for a year.
Are you bummed that the word “patriot” has been appropriated by The Right politically?
That’s always been the case, which is one reason I wanted to do it. I wanted to reclaim it for the true meaning. It’s completely changed to some meaning that is just wrong, incorrect. We’re in quite a situation at the moment.
Most people have been asking me, “You were Mr. Politics and now it’s time for the political album” and I’m like, “No, I’m liberated from that.” I had to explain things in the '80s, no one was political then. Now, it’s not necessary to explain Donald Trump. He does it better than I could every day of the week... I said what people need right now is spiritual nourishment that comes from musicality. I grew up in a world where greatness could sell. I’m chasing greatness my whole life. That’s all I’m doing. I look for it, I seek it out, I support it when I find it and I try and create it.
Do you feel you achieved greatness on any project?
I felt I got there [in 2015] with the Darlene Love album [Introducing Darlene Love]. It might be my biggest disappointment in my life. It’s in that ballpark, top 5. I thought without a doubt, I had just made the album of the year. I can’t be mad at Columbia and I will defend Rob Stringer until the day he dies for signing her. You sign a 73-year old woman for a debut album, the guy is my fucking hero. He is and he always will be. But, under him, for whatever reason, there was no campaign. So it wasn’t even nominated [for a Grammy] and I thought, “Wow, I cannot do any better than that. I’ve got the greatest singer in the world.” And I really believe she is. I got the best writers in the world to write her songs and did the production of my life and nobody came. But at that moment I felt I had achieved some evolution of my craft.
You’ve joked about how you’re hoping to reach the point where you break even. Taking a 15-piece band on the road is not how you get there.
Now you tell me! Greatness. That’s what it’s all about and unfortunately, it’s expensive and [budget] is the last thing I think about. Thank you to Citi for sponsoring the tour otherwise I couldn’t leave my block with this band. We’d be rehearsing at Joey’s Pizza Parlor and we’d still be there every Tuesday night.
I think it’s going to take two or three tours, two or three albums before I can reconnect with an audience... If I can reconnect with an audience. That’s still an unknown.
People know you from the E Street Band, from acting in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer and your Sirius XM station, Underground Garage. Do you feel they don’t know you as an artist?
Yes. 100 percent. You look out in an audience and you can tell what’s familiar and what’s not. I’m talking about 20 percent, maybe 25 percent at the most are familiar with any song I’m doing, whether through me or Southside Johnny or from Eddie Vedder or Jackson Browne doing “Patriot”... 75 to 80 percent of that audience is there out of curiosity and we have to win them over every song, which we are. But it’s half-filled clubs everywhere, so you treat it like a first album, first tour. I hope we’re getting to people where they bring their friends next time.
You tweeted something really lovely about Tom Petty when he died. What was your relationship?
It was a very odd relationship. I don’t think I ever had a conversation with him. Maybe very early I saw him at the Bottom Line and we may have had a conversation that night. I felt close to him always. We have similar influences, same age. He did me a favor for Lilyhammer. I didn’t have the budget and I wanted it to be the greatest soundtrack ever so I got all my friends to give me songs for free and he was one of them. We were really friendly without ever talking and that’s kind of weird, but I felt very close to him. My favorite song was “Even the Losers.” I’ve been opening my shows with it.
The tour ends in December and you’re said your 2018 plans depend upon if you get a new TV show going and what Bruce Springsteen does. What’s the update on both of those?
I have five scripts that I’ve written so I’m trying to create my own show. I have two scripts that my production company controls and I’ve had some offers for some other shows. I love TV and I want to keep doing it.
Bruce’s thing is fluid at the moment. He’s done [on Broadway] in February. It’s such a remarkable show. I saw it twice. My hope, and I haven’t spoke to him about this, but I would hope for the rest of the world to get the chance to see it, maybe he would take it on the road a little bit. This is not inside information. For all I know he may stay on Broadway forever or not or say, “Let’s do an E Street Band tour.”
You don’t get much warning when he wants to go back on the road, do you?
No. It will never beat last year. Thanksgiving, he says, “take next year off. We’re definitely off. Without a doubt.” I said, "You’re sure?" he said, "Absolutely sure.” ... We’re on stage Jan. 15. People can’t understand this, you’ve got 100 crew members, you’ve got to find busses, hotels, it’s like moving an army around. Six weeks [later], we were on the road. After that, anything goes.