If the name “Supermensch” hadn’t already been taken, it might have been a good title for the new documentary about Steven Van Zandt. (Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon is a documentary about Alice Cooper’s longtime and much-beloved manager.) “Mensch,” if you didn’t know, is a Yiddish term that refers to someone with a great sense of honor and integrity, who does the right thing, and who is a solid and supportive friend. That describes Steven Van Zandt, who often puts a crazy amount of time and money into projects just because he believes in them (not necessarily because he believes they’ll be profitable). Usually, these are projects involving his friends, the preservation of rock and roll, social justice, or all of the above.

So, we’re looking forward to seeing some of these projects addressed in Stevie Van Zandt: Disciple. As we previously reported, it’s premiering on HBO on June 22. Many of these stories come up in his 2021 memoir, Unrequited Infactuations.

Steven Van Zandt is a guy who makes things happen. He always seems to be at the center of the action, but he often points the spotlight at someone else. He’s the guy who drags unjustly forgotten artists back into the public eye, but he also champions new acts as well. You might see him in a small club watching one of the bands on his Wicked Cool Records label or sitting in the audience at a huge theater or arena concert. (This writer has personally sat near him and his wife Maureen at Queen, Rod Stewart and Paul Rodgers concerts.) He gives invaluable advice to rookies and legends alike.  

He’s the ultimate consigliere, but his star power draws your attention whenever he’s in the room. But for all his talent as a producer, songwriter and musician, some of his coolest moments have been him making an idea happen. Here, we’ve assembled a list of just some of the cool stuff he’s done, not including his two most famous gigs: as Bruce Springsteen’s wingman in the E Street Band and as Tony Soprano’s sidekick, Silvio Dante, in HBO’s classic series The Sopranos.

  • He Masterminded The “Sun City” Record, Teaching Many Americans What Apartheid Was

     

    In 1983, while sitting in a movie theater waiting for the feature, Van Zandt heard a song he’d never heard by an artist he wasn’t familiar with: Peter Gabriel’s “Biko.” This led him to research America’s contribution to South Africa’s apartheid system, and that led him to want to do something about it. There’s a whole chapter in Unrequited Infactuations about just how involved he got when he traveled to South Africa. But back in the U.S.A., he wrote, produced, and organized an all-star charity single and album to raise awareness of apartheid. The song “Sun City” featured a mind-blowing cast of musicians combining artists from rock, reggae, hip-hop, jazz and R&B: Run-D.M.C., Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, Daryl Hall and John Oates, Pat Benatar, Bono, George Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff, Springsteen and Peter Gabriel were all on the song. The backing track featured guitar by Pete Townshend, drums by Ringo Starr and his young son Zak Starkey, trumpet by Miles Davis, and saxophone by the “Big Man,” Clarence Clemons.

    The song, released in 1985, was the first time this writer heard of apartheid, and I was horrified when I learned of the racism that still existed in South Africa. It wasn’t just me: a lot of Americans were unfamiliar with apartheid. As Tom Morello told me in a 2015 interview, “It’s a song that changed the world. It’s a song that put the spotlight on the horrors of apartheid and helped broadcast them around the planet.” The song, he noted, was very effective: “One of the levers that ended apartheid was the international sanctions. And those sanctions were helped to be put in place by public opinion. And the public was moved by a number of things. One of those things was that song. There aren’t many songs that create change, and that song is one of them.”

  • He Brought Darlene Love Back To The Spotlight

    Darlene Love was a seminal singer in the early rock and roll era. She was done wrong, like many other women, by Phil Spector (we’ll recommend the excellent 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, which tells the story). Her biggest hit is “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but she also sang “He’s A Rebel” and “He’s Sure The Boy I Love.” But by the end of the ‘70s, she was working as a house cleaner.

    Steven met her and convinced her to move from Los Angeles to New York, which she did, and he helped get her some roles in off-Broadway shows, which then led to some Broadway shows. And that led to her getting the role as Danny Glover’s character’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films. Years later, Van Zandt wrote another Christmas classic for her, “All Alone On Christmas,” from 1992’s Home Alone 2: Lost In New York. He was a tireless advocate for her over the years, lobbying for her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which finally happened in 2011. In 2015, she released an album produced by Steven, Introducing Darlene Love, featuring songs written for her by Steven, Bruce Springsteen, and, on the single “Forbidden Nights,” Elvis Costello. 

  • He Champions New Rock And Roll Bands

    Steven doesn’t just work with legends: he also lends his talents as a producer and songwriter to lots of young bands that he signs to his label, Wicked Cool Records. Among those artists are the Cocktail Slippers, Kris Rodgers, and Soraia, as well as legendary garage rockers like the Chesterfield Kings, Richard and the Young Lions, Slim Jim Phantom of the Stray Cats, and Shadows of Knight. 

  • He Produced A Blues Rock Supergroup That You May Have Forgotten (Or Never Heard Of In The First Place)

    As he often points out, Steve kept something of a low profile in the ‘90s; he’d left the E Street Band years earlier, and he put his solo career on hiatus. But he did produce an Austin blues-rock supergroup: the Arc Angels.

    In some ways, they continued the legacy of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. The band featured solo act Charlie Sexton, another Austin-based guitar player/singer/songwriter. There was the rhythm section from Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, Chris Layton (drums) and Tommy Shannon (bass). It included another guitarist/singer/songwriter, Doyle Bramhall II, the son of Doyle Bramhall, a collaborator of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Unfortunately, SVZ and DBII didn’t get along. They made a great album, but the band broke up shortly after it was released.

  • He Resurrected the Rascals… But, Hey: Being A Nice Guy Doesn’t Always Pay Off

    Steven’s speech presenting the Rascals at their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is legendary. Indeed, it was so epic that when David Chase saw it on VH1, he reached out to Steven to ask him to be in his new TV show, a little drama called The Sopranos. This was despite the fact that SVZ had no acting experience. 

    Steven’s Rascals speech was so great because it was done out of love for a band that had, sadly, mostly faded from the mainstream. About two decades after the Rock Hall, Steve wrote and produced a stageshow that reunited the original Rascals – singer/keyboardist Felix Cavaliere, guitarist Gene Cornish, singer Eddie Brigati and drummer Dino Danelli. It wasn’t just a concert. Yes, the band performed (and was amazing), but it was a multimedia experience that also featured film segments that told the band’s story. If you were lucky enough to have seen the show, you know it really pointed out how great they were. The show took them from the “where are they now” oldies package tour circuit to somewhat larger venues and even Broadway. Van Zandt called it “the best creative work I’ve ever done.” 

    Sadly, it was a very “Steven Van Zandt moment.” He put his heart, soul – and, by the way, money – into an idea that was a tough sell, only to have it blow up in his face. As he wrote in Unrequited Infatuations, “Felix Cavaliere, who I’d thought of as a friend, had seemingly decided the money he was making – more money than he’d ever made in his life – wasn’t enough. He got two of the other guys, Dino Danelli (who had been in [Steve’s backing band], the Disciples of Soul for two years), and Gene Cornish (whose rent I’d paid for more than a year to keep him from literal homelessness) to go along with him.” It was great while it lasted. 

  • He Saved Bob Dylan From A Terrible Idea

    In the ‘80s, Dylan’s management approached Steven to produce a record for him; it didn’t work out. In the ‘90s, they called again. Steven showed up to the studio and Dylan and his band were working through covers of songs by the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, and Procol Harum. He asked Steven for his opinion. “You cannot do this,” Van Zandt told him. “Unless you’re planning on playing someone’s bar mitzvah, you cannot do these songs. I know you’re always seeking ways to have less celebrity, to be a normal guy. But you can’t be this normal.”

    He suggested instead to do covers of early folk songs that had been made famous by Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. And that’s just what Dylan did on his next two albums: 1992’s Good As I Been To You and 1993’s World Gone Wrong. Too bad Van Zandt wasn’t around Bob to prevent him from recording his “Great American Songbook” albums of the 2010s: Shadows In The Night (2015), Fallen Angels (2016), and the triple album (!) Triplicate (2017). 

  • ‘Nebraska’ Might Have Sounded Very Different Without Steve

    OK, we said that we weren’t including any E Street stuff, but this is a Bruce Springsteen solo project. When Springsteen was writing songs for the follow-up to The River, he called Van Zandt over to play him what he’d done. The intent, as usual, was to have the E Street Band record the songs. Van Zandt’s advice was unconventional and surprising: forget the band and release the demos as the album.

    Ultimately, Springsteen agreed. It certainly wasn’t what the label wanted: The River had a massive pop hit with “Hungry Heart,” and they wanted more. This album of four-track demos wouldn’t provide them with chart-topping singles. It really wasn’t likely to get on the radio at all. However, the follow-up album, Born In The U.S.A. had the pop hits the label wanted and made Springsteen one of the biggest artists of the ‘80s. Over the years, though, the E Street Band has played rock versions of Nebraska songs live, and maybe one day, we’ll hear the versions that the band tried out in the studio.

  • Teach Rock

    Steven founded TeachRock as a teacher’s aid that incorporates music history into school curriculums. As , “The arts are not a luxury item. They are an essential part of the quality of life. There are kids who may not be completely comfortable with the usual kind of curriculum. When it comes to science and math, they may feel a bit uncomfortable with that. But they are quite comfortable when discussing the arts. The arts, of course, being the only class where there’s no wrong answers. It’s a different part of the brain. It’s just a scientific fact. Instead of everything having to do with precision and memorizing various types of information that you may or may not use in your life, this has to do with instinct and imagination and emotion and parts of your brain that actually stimulate the other part of your brain. It actually has been proven that those who are engaged in the arts usually do better in math and the sciences, ironically.”

    Per their website, “From The Beatles to Beyoncé, from kindergarten to AP History, in the classroom or remotely, TeachRock offers meaningful lesson plans all at no cost to teachers, students, and families, inspiring deeper learning and understanding through the power of music. TeachRock.org is an open educational resource of hundreds of units and lesson plans, Student Editions, and musician bios. TeachRock’s ‘Rock and Soul of America’ high school history course is taught throughout California, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere. More than 60,000 educators representing over 30,000 schools in all 50 U.S. states, England, Spain, Norway and elsewhere are registered with Teachrock.org.”

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