It’s that time of year: we’re getting closer to the announcement of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s induction class of 2020. Get ready to argue: everyone has their own opinions about who should and shouldn’t get in. One person whose opinion has mattered a lot over the years is Steven Van Zandt; he has been a tireless campaigner for artists who have been looked over, and he’s also made some pretty incredible speeches at the induction ceremonies. In fact, his speech about the Rascals is, legendarily, what launched him into acting: when David Chase saw it, he decided to cast Van Zandt on something he was working on at the time – The Sopranos.
We spoke with Van Zandt about some of the Rock Hall’s (relatively) younger inductees, and his take on one of the most controversial inductees: KISS.
You’ve advocated for a lot of legendary acts to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: the Rascals, the Dave Clark Five, Darlene Love, the Hollies. But are you getting turned on to relatively younger bands, as groups like the Cure and Radiohead get inducted?
I’m not opposed to checking things out. It’s just mostly they don’t speak to me. I don’t make a value judgment on it. I may not love something but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I got no problem with any of that. They might just not be something that necessarily speaks to me.
Like the bands I am still trying to get people into like Johnny Burnette and the Rock ‘n Roll Trio and Procol Harum, The J. Geils Band. I’m still trying to get into the basic obvious bands that should be in for historic reasons. The difference is, when it comes to the Radioheads and the Cures, and those kinds of bands, I tend to think more chronologically. It’s not that they shouldn’t be in, but I just think the ones that without whom they wouldn’t exist, we need to get them in first. These are the ones that really created this thing that we are all still making a living from, you know. That includes some doo-wop groups and others that should be in.
I think that Tom Morello turned a lot of people’s heads with his speech at KISS’s induction. It was as passionate as his speeches about worker’s rights. I know a lot of people on the nominating committee had it in for KISS. Did any of that change, in your mind, when he made that speech?
I liked them and I had seen them. I had happened to go, Doc [McGhee], the manager, called me to come down and check them out. For some reason, I had never seen them. And I went to a show. I thought this was like maybe 20 years ago. I was quite surprised by how many good songs they had. There was one good song after the other.
Now, a lot of these things have to do with context and perspective. When they came out we were all coming out of the Renaissance period of the ’50s and ’60s. We weren’t going to judge them the same way because that was at the beginning of the early ’70s and the beginning of the fragmentation [of rock and roll], and the beginning and the hybrids and theatricality and the beginning of so many things that were now going to go against tradition. Those of us who were traditionalists were not necessarily ready for it or put it into perspective. But you know 20-30 years later, I look at them compared to even groups of the ’80s and certainly in the ’90s. And you say, you know what, they had a bunch of really good songs. And they are
great performers. So no, I had absolutely no problem with KISS going in.
Some people were a little bit upset about it. But you know it’s tough. It’s tough to get in that Hall of Fame. And I get very upset when people don’t show up for it.
Like Radiohead or the Sex Pistols.
Yeah.. I don’t like it. It’s going to be the first line in your epitaph, man. You know what I mean?
On the last E Street Band tour, you guys paid tribute to a lot of artists, who tragically died during that tour. The performance of Prince’s “Purple Rain” was pretty stunning.
We played a lot of dedications that year. Even when my [solo] Soul Fire tour was on, we lost lots of people. Tom Petty, right before the tour started. I decided to open the show with “Even The Losers” for the first six months to keep his music alive.
But yeah, on that last E Street tour I think it started with Prince going and ended with David Bowie going. It’s sad. It’s always very emotional especially with someone like Prince who is an enormous loss. A true absolute genius. It was really quite emotional. You try and just salute them on their journey.
I wanted to ask you about the song “Sun City.” When that record came out, it was the first time I’d ever heard about apartheid. Do you hear that a lot?
Yeah. I’ve heard it a lot. We really did perform a useful function there. We turned a lot of people on to politics in general with that reference. It makes you proud especially when [you hear it from] Tom Morello who went on to become quite politically active himself.
Bono, Joey Ramone, Lou Reed, everyone on that record became more political and politically active after that record. I am proud of that. That was part of my mission at the time was to politicize all my friends. And politicize the industry, and make it okay to talk about politics in an informed way. Or any issue. It doesn’t have to be politics, but any issue. It just wasn’t part of the business. It wasn’t a normal part of the business and I wanted to make it a normal
part of the business. So I think we did. I think it’s very much a part of the whole business now.
Besides that, I have had hundreds and hundreds and people come up to me and say they had never thought about South Africa until that moment, or politics until that moment. So I’m proud of that.
You produced Darlene Love’s 2015 album, Introducing Darlene Love. Will you guys do another one?
I was really happy about that record. Maybe one of the bigger disappointments of my life,
certainly in the top 20 [that it wasn’t commercially successful]. I thought it was going to win Album of the Year at the Grammys. And it wasn’t even nominated for a Grammy or anything. It was completely ignored and I just couldn’t believe it.
I thought there’s no better album than that, that year. I’m sorry. There’s no better singer than her. I had the best songwriters in the world on that record writing new songs for her [Bruce Springsteen wrote two songs for the album, and hitmaker Linda Perry and Elvis Costello wrote one each]. We did everything right. I can’t make a better record than that and I don’t think anyone else can either, to be honest. But it was just ignored. It became another cult item.
Everybody [who heard it] loved it, but not enough people heard it. I am just hoping that someone like Taylor Swift, or Beyoncé, or an Adele will hear it somehow and tweet about it. And that would have been all the marketing we needed.
But no luck. No luck. It will be there forever. People will discover it. And it will blow their minds.