The postscript on the jacket of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album reads Buon viaggio, mio fratello—in Italian, “Pleasant journey, my brother.” That’s the Boss’ parting salute to his guitarist and co-producer of seven years, fellow Jersey shore strummer “Miami” Steve Van Zandt. Van Zandt has nixed the “Miami,” calls himself Little Steven now and, while Springsteen continues his trek across America, has launched a month-long tour of Europe with his own band to promote his second album, Voice of America.
At a recent show in Jersey, Van Zandt, 33, led his five-piece outfit through a raucous 90-minute set that emphasized guitars and rhythm in Springsteen fashion but noticeably lacked the rollicking horns that were Van Zandt’s signature during his writing, producing and playing days with another old Jersey pal, Southside Johnny and his Asbury Jukes. “It was time to let those traditional elements go,” Van Zandt explains. “I don’t want to have anything remotely nostalgic at all.”
Whereas Springsteen hones in on the plights and victories of the common man, Van Zandt now traffics in world politics, wailing songs such as Solidarity and Checkpoint Charlie with angry urgency. “Although Bruce and I feel essentially the same, we’re coming from different places. I’m more international and he works from within. But he’s been the most encouraging of anyone. He heard the record and said, ‘This record’s too important. You’re gone! Don’t even think about bein’ in my band.’ ”
Those exact thoughts began occurring to Van Zandt after Bruce’s 1980 album, The River. During the four years before the next Springsteen band LP, Van Zandt put together his own band, the Disciples of Soul, including ex-Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir, whom he met through Gary U.S. Bonds. “I felt that my time with Bruce was very worthwhile, but that I’d gone as far as I could go with that contribution,” says Van Zandt.
Van Zandt’s first solo effort, Men Without Women, was released last year, but Steve didn’t leave the Boss high and dry. He had completed a large part of VOA before Bruce asked him back into the studio to help with Born in the U.S.A. “I felt he still wanted and needed me. But it’s time to move on.”
The going, he has discovered, is not always easy: “It’s been a tough fight for this record because it’s not exactly your mainstream pop. Political rock ‘n’ roll is a little bit out of synch with what’s going on.” The timing of Van Zandt’s LP—Bruce’s came out only four weeks after Voice of America—is also proving to be a little off. “For some reason people have trouble accepting the fact that Bruce can have a good record, and I can too. The record company thought it was strong enough to hold its own, though, and so do I.”