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Little Steven on the Apartheid-Smashing ‘Sun City’ — and Trading Fiery Polemics for Fun

Bruce Springsteen’s consigliere discusses his incendiary, politicized '80s solo work, the real-life triumph of the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City," and why his current music goes back to his apolitical, good-time roots.

Little Steven Recalls 'Sun City,' and
Heidi Gutman

Despite being known for his collaborative role as Bruce Springsteen’s teenage Jersey Shore pal-turned-guitarist, producer and consigliere, Little Steven Van Zandt has long had an explicit solo vision. And in the Reagan-era climate of the 1980s, Van Zandt’s voice was a scathingly political one, something rare for the era of good-time jingoism, patriotism, MTV and glossy rock.

Along with the journalistic rage contained in solo Van Zandt efforts such as 1984’s “Voice of America,” Van Zandt yearned to effect real change where apartheid-era South Africa and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela were concerned. He sought to create a cultural economic boycott of the Sun City Casino Resort in South Africa where many famed international music artists played. To that end, he wrote and produced 1985’s single and album “Sun City” and formed an activist union of musical comrades, Artists United Against Apartheid, to sing “Sun City” and other songs on the album, including Bob Dylan, Springsteen, U2, Pete Townshend, Joey Ramone, Miles Davis, Tom Petty and Run DMC.

“Sun City” had its impact of aiding the boycott, ending apartheid and getting Mandela out of jail. In that respect, it is the modern era’s first true protest anthem. “Sun City” may also have been part of what destroyed Van Zandt’s livelihood as a solo artist, as his political rants were too much for the scared and sensitive label CEOs of the day. It wasn’t until Springsteen brought him back to the E Street fold in 1999, and his acting career’s start in “The Sopranos,” also in 1999, that Van Zandt’s career  was resurrected from the dead.

Van Zandt recently re-released “Sun City” as part of a rarities-filled box set, “Rock N Roll Rebel,” that includes the entirety of his solo ’80s output. With 2020 marking the 30th anniversary of Mandela’s release from jail and the 35th anniversary of “Sun City,” and also promising to see the recording of a new E Street album with Springsteen, Van Zandt spoke with Variety about the one-time pains of being a political artist and why his solo music has a gentler tone now.

VARIETY: How did you form your socially conscious outlook?

VAN ZANDT: It was quite a surprise to me. There was no obvious evidence of it, really, in anything I did when I was younger. It was, eventually, part of our evolving rock ‘n’ roll culture, to be conscious. Once Bob Dylan brought such subject matter into the pop music idiom, it was a fresh idea, (even though) those thoughts, those lyrics, lived in the folk world before him. The very first line of his “Subterranean Homesick Blues” said it all. That sentence changed the world. “Johnny’s in the basement / Mixing up the medicine / I’m on the pavement / Thinking about the government.” What are you talking about? None of us ever thought about the government! It was a simple sentence, but it was the Big Bang of political involvement where rock ‘n’ roll was concerned. … Then other bands like Jefferson Airplane came with “Volunteers,” then Stephen Stills with “For What It’s Worth” — a rash of songs, all of which culminated in Neil Young and CSNY’s “Ohio.” That was the ultimate.

Haven’t you said you were on tour with Springsteen for “The River” in 1980-81 when you had an awakening?

I had some significant blinders on during the most turbulent period of our history — or perhaps until now. Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights, black rights: We knew, but really I was trying to find my way artistically. By 1974, with the Asbury Jukes, I finally settled on this rock ‘n’ roll sound with horns. This was (rock’s) post-renaissance period, and the best you could be was an interesting hybrid. Mine was mixing rock with soul. Until that tour with “The River,” I had blinders on. Then I finally woke up to the fact that I was a citizen of the world.

Through my early adult life, I was concerned with making it in the rock ‘n’ roll world and trying to find my way artistically. (In rock’s) post-renaissance period, the best you could be was an interesting hybrid. Mine was mixing rock with soul. Until that tour with “The River,” I had blinders on. During the European leg of that tour, a kid came up to me and asked me why I was putting missiles in his country, in Germany. “Don’t be silly. I’m a guitar player. I’m not putting missiles anywhere.” Later, though, I realized that this kid didn’t see me as a guitarist, a Democrat or a Republican — he only saw me as an American. Seeing yourself through another person’s eyes, suddenly realizing that I was an American, you then have to wonder what obligations does that come with? So I started to educate myself about our foreign policies, post-World War II. I was shocked at what I found out. I grew up thinking we were the heroes of democracy worldwide, then found out we really weren’t. Especially with the extremely horrible things going on in Latin America, with our backing: murdering innocent people in the name of big business, cloaked in anti-communist justification.

I felt like a German citizen in the 30s, watching my Jewish neighbors being carried off to who-knows-where, and I’m not saying anything about it. I needed to say something about what I was witnessing going on around me. I fell into that… Every artist needs an identity, so I figured that I would be the political guy. I knew that it might not be a fantastic career move, but right then, I wasn’t thinking about a career. That sounds naive. It was naive. But I wanted it and I got it: I became an artist-slash-journalist. Much to my surprise, I found that I was good at it.

When you signed with EMI America in 1981, did they know they were getting a political artist?

No, they didn’t know what they were getting, and looking back on it now, EMI could not have been too happy about it. Being political wasn’t an accepted part of the business back then — not really. Around the time of “Sun City,” I was considering leaving the company and had four record labels negotiating for my services. After “Sun City” hit, all four deals went away. The more publicly successful I was in terms of politics… “blackballed” might be too strong a term, but, at that point, the labels certainly didn’t want to know me.

How long were you in that doghouse? 

I literally disappeared for seven years after my contract ran out. Now, I call that my “walking my dog” years. I went out into the wasteland and just kept walking my dog until seven years passed. That’s not much of an exaggeration. By the time that I came back, I came back as an actor. More political activity had taken place in the business by then. The subject matter became more acceptable. It wasn’t a great career move, but it was a good influence; I’ve spoken to many artists who said that “Sun City” was their gateway into politics, awareness, involvement and social consciousness.

The music world had songs like “Say It Loud, I’m Black & I’m Proud,” “Ball of Confusion,” “What’s Going On” and the Isleys’ “Fight the Power.” Then there’s almost nothing after the early ’70s in America, until “Sun City,” the first true protest anthem of the modern era. 

“Sun City” was originally going to be just a song on the album “Freedom of Compromise.” Once I went down there to South Africa to do the research, I decided to pull “Sun City” off that record and make its own thing.

What kind of research?

I went down there twice and started interviewing everyone that I could. It was not so easy, as conversations were illegal. Luckily, my rock ‘n’ roll identity — physically — helped, because the people I spoke with may have thought that the government was sneaky and wily and scary, but this guy’s too much. You could never believe that a guy like me worked for the government, the way that I looked.

I knew that boycotts were extremely complicated and often hurt the very people they were supposed to help. So I went there to see if there were reforms going on. I talked to every single faction —  the unions, government people, activists who could get away with it, religious people. I met with some very violent people. Violence was not the answer because this government couldn’t wait for someone to pick up a gun against them. I went to Zimbabwe to meet with the ANC [African National Congress, the Republic of South Africa’s governing political party, post-apartheid]. I realized that this thing could not be reformed or fixed. So my question became, how do we bring down this government?

The United Nations by that point had already established boycotts. 

We made everyone aware of how much more miserable their life might get before it got better, and to a person, they were for it, as long as it strangled the apartheid system. Economic boycotts, sports boycotts (already existed); all that was left were cultural boycotts. I asked for a few months, and if my way didn’t work, the insurgents could go back to blowing up radio stations. We won this war on TV, even though these were people in Soweto who had no electricity and probably never saw a TV.

As this was the mid-’80s, you and “Sun City” and Artists United Against Apartheid were on MTV, even if radio didn’t play it and it didn’t sell through the roof.

Kids were being made aware of it and went back to their parents: “Hey, what is this South African thing?” Sure enough, we created such an awareness that … we had enough votes in Congress to overturn Reagan’s veto on economic sanctions. And then apartheid fell like dominoes. The evil axis of the time — Reagan, Thatcher and Cole; America, England and Germany— those three powers were all supporting an apartheid system, which is incredible to believe. A complete victory in international liberation politics like this is rare. It’s always an inch here, an inch there. But we shut them down overnight after “Sun City.”

Was gathering the names you got for “Sun City” and the Artists United Against Apartheid album difficult or easy? 

I very much had help from (ABC News journalist) Danny Schechter – my partner in crime, who is no longer with us – as well as Arthur Baker, who was a huge help in the gathering of people. I hate asking people for favors, honestly. Arthur had produced everyone at that point and had a great phonebook. Tommy Silverman (from Tommy Boy Records) was helpful. We started with all the rappers: Run DMC, DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel. I knew Miles Davis’ soundman, so when Miles walked in at 2 a.m., it was a miracle. Gil Scott-Heron was on the lam at that time, so I had to contact him at a particular phone booth. Some were more difficult than others. Only a few people turned me down; I won’t say who. And there were a dozen more people who would have done it had I asked.

You were originally going for one artist from each genre, and wound up with over 50 participants. How’d that work out?

It was difficult fitting people in. I was barely able to give everyone their own line – by the end, I was doubling artists up on a given line. Dylan and Jackson Browne had the same line, with one on delay on it, so it sounds like one is singing it after the other. Each artist was chosen because they said something within their work and were trying to do something a bit more ambitious. We introduced Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil to the world. I got toasters like Big Youth. I wish we would have had one of the Last Poets but we had Gil Scott. There were some guys who might not have been someone else’s first choice for a political record, like Joey Ramone, Michael Monroe, Stiv Bators, even Lou Reed.

When do you finally meet Nelson Mandela?

I didn’t meet him until we did two shows for him at Wembley with Simple Minds, Peter Gabriel and a bunch of people. One was to get him out of jail, and one was to celebrate him getting out of jail. It was at that second one that we met backstage. We only met one other time after that, when he came to America for fundraising; me, Bobby DeNiro, Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy threw an event for him in downtown New York at Bobby’s film center. He was a humble and amazing human being. Never met anyone else like him. He had an inner glow, a thing that was just different, as if he was a Moses type of guy. Tragically for me, I don’t think that one single photo exists of him and me together. I never think about those things That’s a shame.

You’re not singing about anything political on your newest solo album, “Summer of Sorcery.”

Then (in the ’80s), there was no mass political consciousness whatsoever. It was an actor playing the role of a grandfatherly cowboy leading the country upwards, and fighting against the evil empire. Everything was behind the scenes. Today, it’s the complete opposite. Nothing is hidden. We have an administration that brags about putting people in cages to keep the immigrants away,  and people supporting that idea. No journalist had to dig to get that information. There’s not so much to say.

So you went the opposite way on your latest album.

Yeah. I found it more useful to give people a bit of an escape from this madness, because it is 24/7. In the ’80s it was lack of information, and now it’s too much information — it’s depressing. Now, all we can do is organize, organize, organize, and get people out to vote. There is no need for consciousness raising. We know. [Laughs.]

Religious extremism, white supremacy, isolationism – and it’s not just here. I know why, too. Most of the world is disappointed and they’re looking for someone to blame. Look, we have people who are working two full-time jobs and are still homeless. Does that not suggest that there is something deeply wrong with the system? The demagogues then blame The Other: the black guy, the brown guy. And the masses buy that nonsense because they’re looking for someone to blame. It’s horrifying. So how can I be useful now? Help people find common ground. You don’t have to take sides listening to my album or coming to my show, as long as you’re listening. Let’s enjoy the common ground — our connection — beyond political opinions.

Do you feel you’re funneling your political and social ideals into your educational programs and your non-profits — the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and its TeachRock project — rather than your music?

All of my political energy goes there. I realized 25 years ago that rock ‘n’ roll was an endangered species, and that preserving it and giving new generations access to it — that renaissance period from 1951 to 1971 that I feel so strongly about — that’s my obligation, my mission. Rock ‘n’ roll is not only my occupation. It is my passion, my religion. I feel that this is the most useful thing to do, and we have over 175 lessons on line at TeachRock.org for free for students and teachers to access. It puts this music in historical context.

This generation gap is bigger than the one I faced — more subtle. Nobody’s at war with their parents anymore. They’re living with them until they’re 45! But the technological revolution that is going on separates the generations. This generation is smarter than us, faster than us, and has no patience whatsoever. Teachers are tearing their hair out. And yet our curriculum works. It’s music. The kids might not be buying it, but they’re into it. Rather than trying to drag them into our ideas, the teachers are asking the students, “Who is your favorite artist? Let’s trace them back.” We just started last year and have 30,000-plus teachers registered. It’s the most effective thing I can do.

You once told me that before “Sun City,” “Voice of America” and such, Bruce Springsteen was not so socially conscious as a lyricist, and that, more recently, there’s been a “Freaky Friday” role reversal between you.

[Laughs.] Part of my mission back then was to politicize everyone that I knew. I didn’t expect everyone to be as extreme as I was, but we needed to politicize the industry and politicize the consciousness of the artists to get things done. Not on a big scale always either; I wanted to make sure that local bar bands took care of a community issue. I wanted to put into people’s heads that musicians are not just here to entertain — which is important — but that we have the ability to accomplish things and transmit information.

What is going on currently with Bruce and the E Street Band? He’s already said that 2020 is going to be an E Street year, which presumably means the next several years will be, too.

We’re going to do a new record, and eventually tour with it. Nothing has been announced yet, so I don’t want to make any news here, other than to say it will be a lot of fun. 

But you’re not in the studio working on the new Springsteen album now?

No.

Did you release this box of serious hardcore political rants, the likes of which no one makes anymore, to remind us what political rock should sound like?

[Laughs.] That’s a bit of a simplification. There are guys like Pearl Jam and Neil Young and Jackson Browne and U2 who do it now and then. You can’t expect anyone to make a full-time career out of that. It was a suicidal move then, career-wise. … Maybe there will be a mass movement toward engaging artists to rally around environmental issues. The wonderful Greta Thunberg leading those school boycotts on Fridays is extremely inspiring. I hope I’m around to see this next generation turn of voting age. Hopefully, we’ll still have a planet by then.

You don’t endorse or deride any presidential candidates, do you? 

No. I stopped being political years ago, when I started my education thing. I don’t focus on the president. I didn’t endorse Obama and I have not criticized Trump. But it is necessary that we have at least two political parties that function, and we don’t. If I was to spend any political capital it would be on trying to save the Republican party of my father. How can they call themselves a political party when they don’t believe in democracy or equality? Spending all that time suppressing the vote? How can that be? Certain IDs, addresses to send those IDs… that’s what we saw in apartheid South Africa. Someone needs to explain to them what it means to be an American. We have this amazing country that we never quite finished the job. The founding fathers were geniuses, but they weren’t perfect. They made a couple of mistakes here and there — like slavery. But we fix them as we go, There’s just more fixing that needs to be done, starting with equality and democracy. There’s too much focus on Trump. The problems are far greater than one man.

What does your solo career look like, going forward?

That’s a good question. I wanted to take these last few years to reconnect with my own life’s work, which I pretty much abandoned for the last 20 to 30 years. I’m happy the opportunity came. I’m not sure it can ever be viable, but I wanted to get that done, show what I am capable of doing, and reestablish that rock-meets-soul identity that I started with the Asbury Jukes and go full circle to where I was most unique. It was quite expensive. Part of it was paid for. A lot of it wasn’t, and it wound up costing me money, more than I can do or spend on a regular basis. If we do this again, it’s going to have to be with a sponsor. I’d love to find a way to achieve my life-long goal of breaking even.