Steven Van Zandt opens up about cannabis, Springsteen, and a ‘Sopranos’ sequel
Steven Van Zandt has lived a million lives. In the early seventies he was a mainstay on the Jersey Shore club circuit, where his penchant for wearing Hawaiian shirts, even in the dead of winter, earned him the nickname “Miami Steve.”
He was then recruited by an old friend, Bruce Springsteen, to play guitar in his backing band and help them cut an album. That album happened to be Born to Run and it was the start of a long and legendary partnership.
His new brand of pre-roll joints, Little Steven’s Underground Apothecary, sends a little touch to NORML with every sale.
In 1985, he assembled an all-star lineup that included Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Lou Reed, Keith Richards and more for an apartheid protest album called Sun City.
Years later he’d go on to play Silvio Dante, Tony Soprano’s right-hand man in the iconic television series The Sopranos—the gig for which much of America’s post-Gen X generations may know him best. Along the way, he continued to gig with the E Street Band, tour with the Disciples of Soul, run an album label, and host his own satellite radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage.
And he ain’t stopping. His recent memoir, Unrequited Infatuations, earned him the title of New York Times bestselling author. Now he’s taking on a new challenge.
Get your weed from Little Steve
Van Zandt recently partnered with the award-winning Massachusetts dispensary Canna Provisions to launch Little Steven’s Underground Apothecary, a line of pre-roll joints with 10% of the profits going to the National Organization for Marijuana Legalization (NORML). The pre-rolls are available at Canna Provisions stores in Holyoke and Lee.
I recently spoke on the phone with Van Zandt and discussed cannabis, his relationship with Bruce Springsteen, and the legacy of The Sopranos.
Legalize it already
Steven Van Zandt: Hey it’s Little Steven Van Zandt here.
Leafly: Hey Steven. How’s it going?
Steven Van Zandt: I’m great man.
Leafly: So I want to talk about a bunch of things but first what made you want to get into the cannabis business?
Steven Van Zandt: Well, the main thing is that it’s just ridiculous that it continues to be illegal. I mean compare it to fentanyl or alcohol, it’s crazy. So when you combine that with the medical properties and the leisure aspect of it, it just seemed like a great thing. And some of the proceeds from every sale are going to NORML, which is great.
Our whole Underground Apothecary vision came to [me and my partners] during the pandemic. We thought we could make products that can help people, or strengthen the immune system, or just be useful.
‘Music was my religion, it had be taken seriously.’
Leafly: When I think of the E Street Band, I think of this American musical institution that has a fairly wholesome reputation in contrast with the hedonism usually associated with rock and roll. Did cannabis ever factor into your musical life?
Steven Van Zandt: No, no. I go into this in great detail in my book, but it never played a major role in my life at all. You know in the seventies I did some coke. In the sixties I did a couple of hits of acid and that was it. I haven’t done anything since then basically. Music to me wasn’t an escape or something like that, it was a religion and was to be taken very seriously.
An Italian family’s love was a strong foundation
Leafly: You’ve done a million things in your life, from acting to radio, producing on Broadway, political activism, and now this cannabis business. From the outside you appear to be fearless. What’s allowed you to be so prolific and confident in throwing yourself into these different worlds?
Steven Van Zandt: It’s a good question and I really don’t know the answer. But those early life experiences really do affect you. When I was two or three years old, my mother divorced my father, which you’d assume would be this traumatic thing that would make me more insecure as I grew up.
‘I carry my very high standards with me. That extends into the cannabis business.’
– Steven Van Zandt
But in my case we moved in with my grandparents and I was the first grandchild in an Italian family. So I was there with my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and I just got a lot of love and was spoiled terribly.
I think that kind of love at an early age makes you more secure, you know, in some fundamental way as you go through life. Also, I do have some attention deficit disorder—had it long before it was fashionable—so I don’t have a whole lot of patience but when I dedicate myself to something I’m completely dedicated to it.
And I carry my very, very high standards with me. That extends all the way into the cannabis business. We looked around for the highest quality stuff that was completely organic. We went to the people who have the highest reputations like Chemdog and Johnny Greenfingaz and everyone at Canna Provisions.
‘It’s hard to reach big groups of people, but I still try.’
Leafly: You grew up in the sixties and I’ve heard you talk so much about one of the defining aspects of that era being this political consciousness in popular music. That was clearly a big influence on you and the political activism you would later bring into your own music and projects like Sun City. What do you think keeps so many bands in this era from engaging with politics?
Steven Van Zandt: It’s complicated, you know, maybe it’s the social media thing. It’s added to the fragmentation of our society and we don’t have that mass shared experience anymore. So it’s hard to reach big groups of people and turn them on to something meaningful when everything has become extremely superficial and mediocre in terms of quality.
Everything is very disposable. It doesn’t add up to meaningful communication. But you know I still try. I just did a song about the climate with Bootsy Collins. It’s unlikely it’s ever gonna be like the old days, man. But I’ve directed a lot of my energy into the arts and music with my education program, TeachRock.org. I’m thinking a couple generations ahead.
Pandemic? ‘I stayed very busy.’
Leafly: For someone as busy as you, what was it like to be on lockdown?
Steven Van Zandt: I actually stayed very busy. I was working on my book and you know, that was a lot of work, man. I had to really transport myself back to those moments. So that was a lot of work but I also have a record company and we have 15 to 20 artists now. I’m very active with that, giving everyone feedback. So that took up a lot of time. I also did a class through my foundation.
Leafly: Did you miss playing live?
Steven Van Zandt: I didn’t really miss it because I had just done two world tours with the Disciples of Soul. We’d assembled one of the best bands ever, recorded two albums, and did three years on the road. So it was good timing to be off the road. But it will probably end up being the longest I’ve ever been home without traveling, for sure.
About that Bob Dylan blurb…
Leafly: I have to ask you about the blurb that Bob Dylan wrote for your memoir. It made the rounds online and was an incredible thing. What did you make of it?
Steven Van Zandt: It was absolutely amazing. The minute I got done with the book I sent it to Bruce and I sent it to Bob and I told them I wanted them to tell me if there was anything in the book they didn’t want me to reveal or that they’d be upset by. I wanted to make it truthful but I didn’t want there to be anything they’d object to or not want out there.
Neither one of them changed a word. And then Bob sends back this amazing blurb and nobody can remember him doing this for any other book ever. Maybe an Allen Ginsberg thing years ago. So it was an extraordinary honor. And you know, Paul McCartney also wrote something really nice. It’s an honor to know these guys and consider them friends.
How Silvio and ‘The Sopranos’ came about
Leafly: When I was growing up, every Sunday night after dinner my dad and my brother and I would crowd around the living room and watch The Sopranos. It was a major bonding activity in a way. Did you ever expect the show to have this longevity, and for it to resonate so much with younger people?
Steven Van Zandt: No, not really. It was eccentric. Some mob boss has ducks come into his pool and then they go away and he has a nervous breakdown? It didn’t feel particularly commercial.
“Some mob boss has ducks come into his pool and then he has a nervous breakdown? It didn’t feel particularly commercial.”
– Van Zandt on The Sopranos pilot
David Chase was extremely uncompromising. There was no seductive camera movements. Not a lot of music. I tried talking him into putting a few more songs into the pilot because there was almost no music. There seemed to be too many characters and subplots. It was breaking every rule in the book.
But after a couple weeks on the air people started stopping me and it wasn’t to talk about rock and roll anymore—it was to talk about the show. The E Street Band had just reunited around that time, and Bruce would introduce me on stage as Silvio from The Sopranos. The first couple of times it was quiet, but as the tour went on the applause got bigger and bigger.
Leafly: What did you make of The Many Saints of Newark and John Magaro’s performance as a younger Silvio?
Steven Van Zandt: I love the whole movie and I love John Magaro. He’s a good friend. We worked together on David Chase’s first movie Not Fade Away.
Leafly: Which is a great movie people don’t talk about very often.
Steven Van Zandt: It really is great and it’s a shame people didn’t give it it’s due. It wasn’t marketed at all. But John was the star of that, and I did the music for the movie. We got very close, and then it was just terrific and hilarious and to see him as Silvio. People have to go see it in theaters, it’s a different experience to sit there with a bunch of Sopranos fanatics and everybody is going crazy. A lot of fun.
A ‘Sopranos’ sequel script
Leafly: I’ve heard that you have a script kicking around for a Sopranos sequel. Is that true and if so what is the premise of that?
Steven Van Zandt: Yeah I’ve had it for some time. Basically, originally, David wanted me to play Tony Soprano. But HBO said they couldn’t cast someone in the lead who had never acted before. So David decided to write me a part in the show and asked me what I’d like to do.
I had never thought about acting really but I had thought about writing and directing someday. I had this treatment about a guy named Silvio Dante who ran a club like the old Copacabana club with big bands and Catskill comics and dancing girls. It was about this guy living in the past but it’s present day. David said it was an interesting idea, went to HBO, and came back and said we can’t afford that but how about a strip club. That was the birth of the Bada Bing.
But the script now is basically the story of Silvio coming out of his coma, getting revenge and running the club.
Springsteen: ‘He and I were the only freaks in town’
Leafly: I love that. What’s your friendship and collaborative partnership like with Bruce all these years later? It’s an extremely rare thing in the music business you guys have. So many bands aren’t on speaking terms or are in legal battles with each other. What’s made this last relationship possible?
Steven Van Zandt: Our bond from the beginning was unique. We were the only guys we knew back then who believed 100% in rock and roll. It wasn’t a weekend hobby. It was a religion from the beginning.
It was freaky to be in a band in the sixties. It didn’t really become a business till the seventies. We were the only two freaks in town. And through life we had problems and fights, but we recovered from them really quickly because that bond is so strong. Today we’re as close as we ever were, nothing has really changed with us.
Leafly: People are going back to seeing live music again and it feels like one of the most joyous post-pandemic shows one could see would be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Are there any plans for some show or a tour?
Steven Van Zandt: No plans right now. If Bruce decides he wants to go out with the E Street Band I’ll give him first priority. I’d like to get the Disciples of Soul together too and maybe do more TV. It’s gonna depend on a lot of things. Nothing is definite yet.