The Maestro of the Underground Garage
He’s not the only one, nor the oldest, nor the richest. But Little Stevie Van Zandt might currently be the planet’s most charismatic, dedicated and visible crusader scrapping to preserve the dirty purity of rock ‘n roll.
Born in Massachusetts, Van Zandt first met Springsteen in the early 1970s; the two became fast friends and Van Zandt was a member of a number of Springsteen’s early bands. But “Miami” Steve officially joined the E Street Band in 1975 after he and his soul-music expertise were called in to give a little love to the horn arrangements on “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — and, Springsteen reports in the Wings for Wheels documentary, partly contribute the signature riff of “Born to Run” to boot. Not a bad couple of days’ work.
Van Zandt stuck around as the primary guitarist (and colorful onstage foil / backing vocalist) for the Born to Run, Darkness, and River tours, and he shared production credit on Darkness, The River and Born in the U.S.A. But in 1984 he officially departed E Street Nation — Springsteen is said to have written “Bobby Jean” as a farewell — to invest himself more in solo recording, producing, and political activism as Little Steven, helming, among other projects, the Artists United Against Apartheid project in 1985.
Van Zandt, of course, returned to the E Street Band for their 1995 and 1999 reunions and onward, sharing guitar duties with Nils Lofgren, who took his place prior to the 1984-’85 World Tour.
But the 2000s also found Van Zandt making impacts in two entirely separate arenas. In 2000 — having never acted for a minute in his life — Van Zandt was courted by “Sopranos” creator David Chase and cast as consigliere Silvio Dante, a role he and his pretty awesome toupee kept for all of the show’s six seasons. Van Zandt also launched Little Steven’s Underground Garage, a throwback rock-radio show that found him spinning cuts by the likes of the Ramones, Carl Perkins, and the Amboy Dukes next to the Black Keys and White Stripes and cast him as a crusader for the history (and future) of scratchy, loud, and messy rock ‘n roll. In October 2011, the show marked its 500th episode.