ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 17, 1987
By Steve Newton
Little Steven Van Zandt has carved out a significant niche for himself in the music world by putting his politics front and centre on his records.
But it was not always so for the former member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who plays a central role in the “Sun City” single and video and the Artists United Against Apartheid album.
Van Zandt first became interested in the political possibilities of rock seven years ago when, as a member of the E Street Band, he toured Europe.
“It was the first time I’d been out of the country” explains Steven, on the line from New York. “And you really can see more clearly from a distance. Up until then I was just typically American, which means very unaware politically and very isolated.”
As well as playing all over such Springsteen discs as The River and Darkness On the Edge of Town, Van Zandt co-produced the breakthrough Born in the USA record, as well as adding acoustic guitar, mandolin, and some vocals to it. Then he left the band, before the album really hit it big. That may not have been such a clever move financially, but Steven had his reasons. “It’s because I had something to say that was important to me and that’s what I’m saying right now.”
Van Zandt got a little help from his former bandmate and friend Springsteen on his new album Freedom–No Compromise. Bruce and Steven shared the lead vocals on a track called “Native American”, the lyrics of which strike hard at the manipulation of this continent’s first peoples. “Life was forever when we were young/The land was protected for everyone/Forever as long as the rivers run/But now the water no longer comes/And now all that remains/Is darkness, a poisoned earth/And now before it’s too late/We must provide our own new birth.”
“Bruce is as interested in the subject as I am,” says Steven. “I mean, the genocide has never stopped against Native Americans. Sovereignty is just a word, you know. We’ve broken every treaty, we’ve made them economically dependent on us. We’re still stealing their land–we’re still mining and polluting it. And we’ve imposed these tribal councils on them, instead of traditional leadership. It’s an absolute crime.”
For emphasis, Steven included the line “Ho ka hey wah nah woh,” which is a Sioux war cry meaning “Let’s go–now.”
“We wanted to do something on the record in a different language, ” says Steven, “just to reinforce the fact that we’re all the same, you know. We’ve all got the same needs.”
As well as exploring the struggle of American Indians, Van Zandt takes aim on Freedom–No Compromise at the plight of Latin American workers exploited by U.S. multinationals and the apartheid system in South Africa. Steven is best known in the latter context: his popular “Sun City” single and video, and Artists United Against Apartheid album, were scathing attacks on apartheid.
An Italian American, given a Dutch name when his mother remarried, Van Zandt says that his family history has little to do with his role in trying to elicit changes in the world.
“I’m just naturally interested in things international,” he explains before going on to applaud the charitable endeavours of Irishman Bob Geldof. “I think he’s a phenomenal person who accomplished an incredible thing. And I really think that he has helped rekindle everybody’s interest in being more socially conscious.”
Using Geldof’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” method of gathering famous musicians together to sing different parts of a song, Little Steven united people like Springsteen, Lou Reed, and Bob Dylan for his Artists United Against Apartheid LP and its “Sun City” single. Steven is more than pleased with the way the project panned out.
“It was completely successful,” he says. “It accomplished everything we set out to do, which was, first of all, to stop people going down to play–which we did completely–and also to politicize people and let them know here that it’s our responsibility that apartheid continues. You know, it’s our business, our economic relationship that keeps that government alive And we are the one in a position to change it. It’s not just something so far away–it’s right here!”
On the day that Steven called the Straight, the Ford Motor Company had announced its plans to pull out of South Africa. Steven had heard them too, but he was a little wary of the move.
“I’m hearin’ some good things this week, but you gotta watch out, because a lot of companies that have said they pulled out, really haven’t. Their products are still going in, they still have economic relationship–they just took their name off the door. So that’s phony divestment. And that’s unfortunately what most of the companies have done.”
While Little Steven Van Zandt’s devotion to oppressed people in South Africa, Latin America, and the U.S. burns in the grooves of Freedom–No Compromise, he also realizes that the real world is something else entirely.
“It’s holding steadily at bad,” Steven says about the current situation in South Africa. “It’s not getting better at all, and that’s because we have yet to impose any serious economic sanctions. We still haven’t done anything, and until we do, nothing will change down there.”