Why Stevie Van Zandt's Unrequited Infatuations is one of the best music memoirs I've ever read.
A review and appreciation.
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I profiled Stevie Van Zandt for the Wall Street Journal. The piece ran 10 days ago and you can read it here. I don’t generally fan-boy out, which is why I’ve been pretty good what I do, but Stevie is a big figure to me, having been intimately involved in the creation of some of my favorite art. The Sopranos is the best TV show ever made. The first five Bruce Springsteen albums were central to my development, musical and otherwise. They sort of got me through high school. I got off that bus when Stevie did in 1984, and I got back on when he did as well– when the E Street Band reformed in 1999. I never really connected these two things, but it’s an interesting fact; maybe my perspective was always more aligned with Miami Steve’s than I realized.
“The book is an insightful look not just into the epochal art Mr. Van Zandt has helped create, from Born to Run to Silvio Dante but more broadly into the creation of art itself.”
Still, the real reason I was so excited to interview Stevie is that his book Unrequited Infatuations, released yesterday, is one of the best musician’s memoir I’ve ever read. There is surely some recency bias involved in this opinion, but the book is deeply wonderful. It is an insightful look not just into the epochal art Mr. Van Zandt has helped create, from “Born to Run” to Silvio Dante but more broadly into the creation of art itself. Van Zandt is profoundly insightful about Springsteen’s drive, artistic direction and willingness to try on different personas until he found the one that stuck. Unrequited Infatuations is decidedly not a biography of Bruce, but it is a deeply knowledgeable peak into his art, and into the creation, production, triumphs and difficulties of The Sopranos, as well as Lilyhammer, the joint production with Norwegian TV which he starred in, executive produced and often wrote. It was Netflix’ first original streaming show.
Even while tackling wider issues, the book covers his own life, of course, starting in earnest with moving from Boston to Middletown, NJ when he was 8 years old and having his life changed seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Rolling Stones on the Dean Martin-hosted Hollywood Palace. “Goodbye school, grades, any thoughts of college, straight jobs, family unity and American monoculture,” he writes.
From there, he’s off to the races, living a life dedicated to the church of rock and roll. But even as he details his own journey, Van Zandt consistently displays the type of insightful analysis of music – both his and Bruce’s and that of their heroes – band dynamics, and the greater music business ecosystem that made him so valuable to Bruce, often one of the only guys who could speak truth to power.
He and Bruce played in a variety of bands together, but when the latter signed to Columbia Records in 1972, it was as a solo artist. He showed up in the studio with a band that included a saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, annoying label executives, and when Stevie appeared, a second guitarist was too much for the label and Bruce’s manager Mike Appel. Angry and hurt that Mr. Springsteen didn’t stand up for him and certain that rock’s golden era was past anyhow, he quit the music world and spent two years working construction for his uncle.
“I thought the renaissance was over,” he told me. “I really thought I was done. And it kind of was.”
He could not work a jackhammer after dislocating a finger in a flag football game, and thought playing guitar would be good PT, or so he says. It’s hard to imagine that he wasn’t missing the stage. He joined a bar band, which led to a gig with the Dovells, a doo wop group working the oldies circuit, and he was soon playing gigs with Bo Diddley, Little Richard, the Drifters and other heroes of his. Van Zandt was back in New Jersey working with a new band he had formed, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, when Bruce asked him to come to a New York studio to hear “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” a new song with a problematic horn chart even with an A team section that included the Brecker Brothers.
“That fucking sucks,” was his blunt summation. “Go fix it,” Springsteen replied and Miami Steve was soon back on the E Street frontline, forming a rock and roll Rat Pack with Bruce and Clarence. It was their seeming closeness and friendship that drew me in as a young man almost as much as the music.I had a poster of Bruce and Miami Steve when I was a kid; they were sharing a mic, which made a big impression.
“Nobody should take a band for granted,” he writes. “Bands are miracles.”
Van Zandt also deserves major props for what he pulled off with “Sun City,” his all star anthem against apartheid which had a profound impact on turning the world against the evils going on in South Africa. It brought together an insane batch of people, from Miles Davis to Bruce, is the only video where you’ll see John Oates and Lou Reed side by side, and he presciently included rappers like Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash at a time when most thought ht emusic was alfash in the pan.
A last note: we did the interview at his Renegade Nation office, which includes his entire umbrella of companies, including a record label, management company, movie, TV and theater production firm, live event production, two SiriusXM stations, the syndicated Underground Garage radio show, an annual Outlaw Country music cruise, foundations that support music education and raise money for children with special needs, and a health and wellness company. They’re all tied together by Mr. Van Zandt’s passions, which are also displayed on the walls and shelves. The space is overflowing with framed posters and knickknacks from B movies, The Sopranos, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and countless other cultural touchstones. A Texas E Street band license plate sits next to a box of shot glasses featuring mugshots of infamous gangsters and a jar of his own branded tomato sauce. A mini guitar case signifying that he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits casually next to a set of dominos. You won’t see any of these things in Unrequited Infatuations but you’ll feel them. (And you can see them right here.) You can check out or buy the book here.
Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions. He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.