CHICAGO _ Steven Van Zandt _ the 62-year-old guitarist for the E Street Band, a political activist who famously took action in the 1980s against the Sun City resort in South Africa and a late-in-life actor who played Silvio Dante on "The Sopranos" _ is, most passionately, a rock historian.
He's not a traditional rock 'n' roll academic, of course (although there are such things in today's world). Rather, Van Zandt is an activist, entrepreneurial, doo rag-wearing type of historian, obsessed with making sure that the cultural significance of classic rock, its impact on the history of America and the world, does not sink any further into the sands of time.
"1951 to 1970 was our version of the Renaissance," Van Zandt said to me over lunch the other day, his fingers drumming the table. "There was a unique confluence of events involving rock, film and art and including the birth of mass media. I swear, hundreds of years from now, they will be dividing world history based on whether it was pre-1960 or post-1960. I suppose I am a bit of a missionary. I want future generations not just to know that great music, but to understand its context. The music from that era _ and I include the best of Frank Sinatra or Miles Davis in this great rock 'n' roll era _ will be inspiring and motivating at least until they invent new instruments."
No doubt. But this is a missionary who senses unbelievers. While there are niche spots for jazz or classical music on your dial, or to pull down via satellite, old rockers aren't taken care of in the same way, Van Zandt insists. "There is a format for everything," he said, "except for rock and roll." As a consequence, he argues, young people don't know how these musicians and their songs changed the world. Van Zandt's solution? A complete rethinking of the nature of the rock concert.
Instead of just coming out and singing their songs, he argues, artists should also explore the original historical context of their work. They should do it live, and they should do it themselves. Otherwise, they're just another creaking oldies act.
"Seriously, how many rock musicians are really great, charismatic live performers? Almost none of them," said Van Zandt, allowing for two exceptions, Mick Jagger and his own boss, Bruce Springsteen. "The musicians who are very entertaining when seen live actually are very rare. Most of them just stand there and play their songs, which is fine. But why not add this dimension of biography?"
It's an interesting thought. There are a number of existing shows that tell the story of great rock groups in some kind of context: "Rain: A Tribute to The Beatles," also staged under the title "Let It Be," is one recent example. There are shows that focus on the cultural impact of, say, a record label, such as "Motown The Musical." But those shows don't feature the original musicians, who, you'd think, would not be caught dead near these things. The context of songs, as distinct from the actual songs, mostly is the province of dull lectures, or of parody shows like "We Will Rock You," which was authorized by Queen; or, occasionally, of tribute acts throwing in some background. Actually, most tribute acts shy away from direct visual representations of the real artists. They're usually scared of being closed down by lawyers. Or they don't want to throw the real artist in their audience's faces, lest they pale in comparison themselves.
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If great artists are talking about their past, they're generally doing it in the ear of a journalist, or into the rapacious cameras of a cable network. They are not doing it themselves in their own shows. And if they actually are doing narrative as part of their live act, they probably are arranging that narrative based on a particular album or other creative impulse. Plenty of rock acts have introduced theatrical elements into their shows, but those elements usually are to enhance the mood or the aesthetics, or to reflect a creative whim, or to make aged faces appear younger. You don't expect Jagger to prance around in front of a video of his younger self, doing what he no longer can do. You would not expect bands to come back to narrate their own breakups.
And you certainly would not expect Springsteen to stand there on stage as an actor plays the younger Springsteen, perhaps doing what he himself no longer can do, right next to him.
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Still, Van Zandt, being the entrepreneurial type, has put his idea into practice with one of music's most seminal bands: The Rascals. In the Broadway show _ or "concert event" _ "The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream," the actual, aging members of The Rascals, whose 1960s hits include "Good Lovin'," "Groovin'," and "A Beautiful Morning," perform their actual music live, even as (much younger) actors play the members of the band in the seminal moments of their influential years. The events being explored include the acrimonious breakup more than four decades ago.
It's hard to imagine anyone other than Van Zandt, who imbues any enterprise with immediate street cred, pulling this off. Even then, the show was a tough sell, because it did not fit into established categories of live entertainment.
"Nobody wanted this, or asked for this, or needed this," he said sardonically of his Rascals show, which arrives in Chicago next month. "Those guys had turned down, literally, hundreds of millions of dollars to reunite, any number of times, because they were protective of their legacy. Nobody has seen them in 40 years. As a result, their place in history now is not known. Their context is not known. That legacy should be enshrined. It should be set in concrete. A reunion, even if would have been a reunion _ which is exactly what they kept turning down _ just would not have been enough. But here's why it's me talking to you and not them. I am more famous now than they are. And that's wrong. I want to put that right."
Van Zandt said he had no idea whether people would accept his hybrid idea. But it went well, and thus The Rascals, who are in their 60s and 70s, are touring the country in a show about themselves, starring both themselves and those who play them. "I think this project just appealed to their artistic nature," Van Zandt said.
It's still hard to get your head around this notion of the actual band telling its own story, especially using actors external to the band. The usual gestalt of long-lasting bands still touring is to pretend in their shows that the years have not passed, the aim being to sound the same as in their glory days, which, happily for everyone, usually coincide with the glory days of their fans. That's the habit Van Zandt is trying to break.
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A few days after talking to Van Zandt, I had the chance to ask the former Queen guitarist Brian May, now a respected intellectual in Britain, whether the surviving members of Queen would tell their own story in a concert. He thought for a while. "It's an idea. You know, 'We Will Rock You' (the musical) started out being the story of Queen. But we just didn't feel comfortable being that serious about ourselves. Plus you would have had to end with the death of Freddie (Mercury), which would not have been a good place to finish." When there is death involved, Van Zandt's idea gets even harder to pull off.
And I had the chance to ask Sting the same question.
"Interesting," he said, explaining that his upcoming semi-autobiographical show, "The Last Ship" (trying out in Chicago next spring), came out of much soul-searching as to what a 62-year-old man really should be writing songs about. Unsurprisingly, he ended up writing about his youth and his broken community in Northeast England.
In some ways, these both are versions of what Van Zandt is talking about, but you can also sense the difficulties he faced in persuading The Rascals to do this thing in the first place. To some extent, Sting is hiding in plain sight, probably out of a desire not to seem overly egotistical. Maybe he should not worry.
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"They are the toughest characters you ever want to meet," Van Zandt said of The Rascals. "They allow for no compromise. They were very concerned by the idea of working together again after about 40 years of adversarial nonsense. I told them I was good at conflict resolution. I told them it was important we all looked to the future, since we were not going to solve the past. I asked them to trust me. I told them they could say hello to each other and 'How's the family?' but that would be all. The rest had to go through me. And I got them to see that it actually was useful to have actors doing the most painful parts of their story. With actors, you can do anything you want. And when you have the actual artists there, too, the audience realizes that time catches up with us all and that they now are witnessing, in that moment, the end of an incredible story."
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And so you have the history of The Rascals, as told by The Rascals, as coaxed out, prodded and contextualized by Steven Van Zandt, coming to a theater near you. Perchance it will be one of a kind, perchance some kind of new model for live performance.
Chris Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org
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