The E Street Band’s Steven Van Zandt is known for the social commentary in his solo work, so it’s surprising, and a little ironic, that as he releases his first LP of new material in 20 years — during what he describes as “a dark time in our civilization” when we’re “seeing the rise of nationalism and fascism everywhere” and are “very close to a civil war” — it’s actually his least overtly political album.
“In the ’80s, when I was very political, I felt that was me being at my most useful, which was pointing out things that people weren't seeing. All the politics were hidden back then,” explains Van Zandt, sitting with Yahoo Entertainment to discuss his new anthemic party album, Summer of Sorcery. “You literally had to explain Ronald Reagan. He looked like everybody's cowboy grandfather — meanwhile, we were supporting half of the dictators around the world back then, you know? Nobody knew that; it wasn't very obvious. They didn't brag about it. … As opposed to now, where [politicians] are bragging about kidnapping children as a deterrent for immigration, you know? What do I need to explain about that, exactly? … But anyway, so now it's in your face 24/7, and I felt it's no longer useful or no longer needed to explain what's going on politically.”
While Van Zandt, speaking about the current political climate, does lament, “It’s the first time in my life I feel like we are really going backwards,” perhaps the overall celebratory vibe of Summer of Sorcery is related to the sense of hope he gets from younger, more enlightened generations: the millennials and Gen Z kids. They’re the inspiration for the album’s only political track, “Superfly Terraplane,” sung from the point of view of a 17-year-old who’s “disgusted with us for blowing a hole in the sky. … Basically being disgusted with those of us [boomers] who have messed up this planet and they are saying, ‘Get out of the way and let us fix this’ — which I hope we do soon.”
Says Van Zandt optimistically of today’s youth: “Aside from being smarter than us and faster than us… they also are very naturally green. Very environmentally conscious. All the kids I've ever talked to, for some reason, have that. It just seems to be naturally not understanding why everybody is not an environmentalist, you know? It's a little hard for them to understand — me too, by the way. They are naturally green. They are naturally not prejudiced; they have no consciousness about black, white, gay, straight. It’s amazing, and very, very encouraging. They are anti-guns, and half of them are vegan already. Really, I think they are a more evolved species than we were. So, it is very encouraging.”
Van Zandt is all about the kids, which why he launched TeachRock.org to promote arts education in public schools (“We are the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury; it's not a luxury, it is an absolute essential part of our quality of life”) and “create a new methodology to deal with the millennial generation, which are very different then we were. I visited a couple of schools, and they are teaching them the same way they taught me — and look at what a mess I am! I barely made it through high school. But [today’s youth] are so much faster and smarter and have no patience. … Let's stop pretending that it's 50 years ago, folks, and let’s do something for these kids.
“So instead of dragging them to our old ideas, we go to them,” Van Zandt explains. “‘Who is your favorite artist?’ Every kid has one, and then let's trace them back. ‘Who do you like? You like Beyoncé? Well, Beyoncé comes from Aretha Franklin and Aretha Franklin comes from Detroit, so let's talk about Detroit. She comes from the gospel church; let's talk about that. She got involved with civil rights legislation and the civil rights movement; let's talk about that.’ And what happens is that the kids are completely engaged, because you are talking about something that they are comfortable with. … Statistics show that if a kid likes one single class or one single teacher they'll come to school, so we want to be that class. I saw a study last week, they said if we improve the graduation rate of young males by 5 percent, we save society $18.5 billion in crime costs. … Kids should be given a chance to succeed and realize their potential, because it's going to help all of us.”
Teachers can sign up through TeachRock to see Van Zandt in concert for free as he tours for Summer of Sorcery, and he’s hoping that his uplifting live shows can help bring people together — without being preachy. “I think my usefulness right now is to try and find some common ground and see if we can continue to have some kind of conversation with each other,” he says. “Just saying, ‘Let's leave the politics outside and be transformed for a couple of hours with pure music from this fantastic band.’ It's escape, but more like sanctuary. I call it ‘two hours of spiritual nourishment while we recover.’ It’s like rehab more than an escape. It has a purpose, not just mindless escape. It’s purposeful escape. So I'm hoping that people can come together and leave the partisanship outside and maybe realize that we have something in common still. Music really is the universal language that way.”
Says Van Zandt, “I'm trying to be non-partisan at the moment, because I don't want my education program to be affected by it. I've been very careful. I didn't endorse Obama, and I haven't criticized Trump, You'll see me occasionally go off on the environment — which I just don't understand why that's political – and you may see me go off on Brexit because it's in England. … But I try to stay cool in America right now, because, like I say, I think I'm more useful trying to provide some common ground. I want Republicans, Democrats, independents, whoever, to be welcome when they come to my show. They're not going to be embarrassed. They're not going to be insulted. I respect everybody and their opinions. We just have to find a way to talk to each other soon, before it gets any worse.”
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