Steven Van Zandt Says E Street Band Hit Stride on Fifth LP

Steven Van Zandt believes that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band didn’t get into their stride until Springsteen’s fifth album, The River, which was released in 1980.

The guitarist took the opportunity of an interview with Billboard to reflect on the five elements of being a musician, which he’s learned through years of experience. Speaking during a promotional session for his latest Little Steven solo album, Soulfire, Van Zandt noted, “When you first start you think it’s one craft – you think, ‘I play guitar, I’ll be okay,’ but there’s actually five crafts in rock ‘n’ roll.”

He said the “second craft” is when artists start to analyze records to learn them. “That’s the start of becoming an arranger,” he said. “The third craft is live performance. That’s the stage lot of folks are skipping now – the bar-band stage of your career. You’re playing your favorite songs that you’ve learned and analyzed, you’re learning how to interact with your band, how to interact with an audience.”

The fourth craft, he said, is composition. “If you just start writing the minute you learn how to play, you’re not doing your homework,” he explained. “You learn from the masters. The fifth craft is recording, and it took [Springsteen and the E Street Band] a long time. It took us essentially five albums. It didn’t feel comfortable until The River. Oh yeah, Bruce had put together an interesting album with the third album, Born to Run. That certainly has a quality all of its own, but it was really bent into shape. It was a lot of work. I only visited those sessions occasionally.”

He said he thinks of The River as his “baby,” since he co-produced it. “It was also the band’s coming-out party, because we finally had an environment that felt good,” he said. “We didn’t have to work to make it sound good. That takes up a lot of your energy, man. You don’t want that. You want to walk in, sit down and start to record. You don’t want to be banging on the drums for half an hour trying to get a sound. It blows the f—ing vibe, man. That was the first time with the right studio, the right engineer and we had finally realized that it was the room sound that mattered. We managed to make a damn good record with Born to Run, but the process wasn’t as much fun.”

Springsteen has always given the E Street Band notoriously short notice when he decides to regroup with them — even if he tells them something else. “It will never beat last year,” Van Zandt said. “Thanksgiving, he says, ‘Take next year off. We’re definitely off. Without a doubt.’ I said, ‘You’re sure?’ he said, ‘Absolutely sure.’ We’re onstage Jan. 15. Six weeks [later], we were on the road. After that, anything goes.”

He described Springsteen’s current working plans as “fluid” and speculated that the Boss could take his Broadway show on the road or maybe even recall the E Street Band to work. Springsteen recently discussed plans to release a solo album he’s kept under wraps for several years.

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