Stevie Van Zandt Teaches Chuck Berry And Dylan

Arts & Celebrities

As an accomplished actor, Stevie Van Zandt is used to dual identities. Rock star by day, Tony Soprano’s right-hand man on The Sopranos by night. So, Van Zandt’s unique recent L.A. visit wasn’t so unusual to him.

The night of April 4, he played his usual role as the guitarist for the “legendary, earth-shaking, history making” E Street Band, joining Bruce Springsteen and the rest of his mates for a nearly four-hour show. The next day, Van Zandt made his way to the Grammy Museum in Downtown L.A. to spend the day there as the coolest music teacher you’ll ever have.

There as part of his TeachRock curriculum, a program designed to highlight and ensure students have access to arts education, Van Zandt gave a music history lesson that dazzled the kids. From Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan to Beyonce, Van Zandt waxed poetically on the music that inspired and still inspires him.

After his “guest lecture” I spoke with him about his many different projects, how an artist is always searching for their identity, why he loves speaking with kids and the joy he gets from going from the stage to the classroom.

Steve Baltin: My favorite thing in that entire conversation was what you said about Chuck Berry because I will argue no one has written a better rock song ever than “Johnny B. Goode.” People have written songs as good but no one’s ever written a better one.

Steven Van Zandt: He was a storyteller. There’s no equal to him, not until Bob Dylan. Bob took what Chuck Berry had started and took it to that next level of personalizing it. Chuck Berry already an older cat when he was writing that teenage stuff. But he institutionalized the teenager, I’m telling you, man. It wasn’t that clear what a teenager was yet, but he was very astute to look at what’s going on and then turn that into like, “All right, you want to know what these kids are doing, I’m going to tell you what they’re doing. Drop a coin right into that jukebox and get in that car and all that cool stuff.”

Baltin: How much fun is it to do something like this because these are probably not things you think about until you’re asked these questions?

Van Zandt: True, that’s what’s fun about these things. The rest of my life is different and you’re doing different things, but I love the way the kids think, they’re smart. This is a very smart group. Wonderful questions, weren’t they?

Baltin: They often have no agenda other than just wanting to learn with their questions.

Van Zandt: I know that feeling. I don’t feel that far removed from that searching for one’s identity thing which we all went through. Man, it’s the most dramatic time of your life because you’re searching for who you are, who you’re going to be for the next 60, 70 years.

Baltin: As an artist, do you ever feel like you get that permanent sense of identity? Isn’t it always in transit?

Van Zandt: I’s true, it’s always evolving, certainly, and you never stop learning, you never stop using what you learn, and you can change identities. You learn your sense of morality; you learn certain things that stay consistent. What is truth to you? What is what you respect? But specifics can change. Like I was saying, we had a different band and a different genre every year through the ’60s. And then I discovered the rock meets soul thing would become my identity, but it was an experiment at first. It was just another experiment until it became, “This feels like me. It feels like the most unique version of me.” So, I’m going to do that not necessarily all the time, but certainly when I go back to that rock and soul which I did for my last two albums. I returned to that 30 years later, more, almost 40 years later because I felt that thing with the horns meets rock guitar was uniquely my contribution. So, I kind of returned to that but I’m not married to it at the same time.

Baltin: I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to come here and hear these questions and talk with them. It inspires you because it makes you think about these things and it’s also like just you pick up on their vitality.

Van Zandt: Yes, and we’re always taking input too from the teachers who may find a little gap in our curriculum and we will fix it overnight. That’s the nice thing about the digital world. One of the few things that’s good about digital world. We don’t have to wait for a book to be printed anymore. That is a good thing cause you need to adapt quickly now. And we do, we keep up with that and sometimes the questions from kids will inspire something new in the curriculum, so it’s a full circle. It’s a constant mutual exchange of energy.

Baltin: We talked about Chuck Berry, you mentioned Bob Dylan in there. I just did an interview with Black Keys, their new record’s really great and it’s called Ohio Players.

Van Zandt: Yeah, we’re playing it all the time. Heavy rotation for weeks.

Baltin: I talked with them the other day about the first song anyone should listen to from the Ohio Players. What are the three songs that people should listen to for an introduction to the core of TeachRock?

Van Zandt: Little Richard always comes to mind. To me, he’s the voice of liberation. He’s a more primal version that would later become the Chuck Berry storyteller. Richard opens his mouth and out comes liberation. That primal scream, if you will, starts there for me. I would certainly say a song like “Satisfaction” comes to mind, a song such as “Like a Rolling Stone” comes to mind in addition to Chuck Berry, take your pick. It could be “Johnny B. Goode,” it could be “Nadine.” And somewhere in there, Beatles. Again, take your pick. Probably “She Loves You” or something like that. I drift towards more of an “Eight Days a Week” or a “You’re Going to Lose That Girl.” “Help” ss a good example…

Baltin: How much does that mix of being on stage with Bruce last night and then coming here keep things fresh for you and keep you inspired?

Van Zandt: I love that. I had ADD long before it was fashionable. So, I get bored quickly and I like a changeup. That’s why I’ve got five different companies all doing different things and five different crafts and I’m always working on in different ways. I like going from an arena to a classroom because it’s all connected, obviously, to me in my mind. So, one leads to the other.

Baltin: What are the five things you are working on now?

Van Zandt: Right now, we’re always evolving this thing. I’m always improving the radio network, adding stations or improving the actual content. I’m always working on my record company. I’ve got 20 acts, I check the demos, I check the recording and I check the mix of all 20 acts. So, that’s a constant. Right now, I want to get back on TV. We’ve got another year of touring here. So, I’ve got a bunch of ideas. I’ve got four scripts finished for a TV series, four different TV series pilots. I’ve got two other pilot ideas, which we’re shopping this week. One’s a variety show, one is like a travel show, so a little bit smaller in scope. But the four scripts are pretty big. So, come 2025, I want to get back on TV. Other than that, we’ll see what else. I’ve I got a bunch of ideas always.


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