Last night (October 16) New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom hosted a gala affair paying tribute to E Street Band guitarist/actor/garage rock champion/activist Little Steven Van Zandt. Elvis Costello, Southside Johnny and Rage Against The Machine‘s Tom Morello were all on the bill. Bruce Springsteen was not… but very few people were surprised (although everyone in the room was thrilled) when he showed up to present his consigliere with Little Kids Rock’s Big Man Of The Year Award.
(Little Steven, Maureen Van Zandt, Max Weinberg and Michael Johns with kids from Little Kids Rock before the concert)
The occasion was Little Kids Rock‘s annual Right2Rock event, celebrating the organization’s 10th anniversary. Little Kids Rock works to restore and revitalize music education programs in U.S. public schools, mainly disadvantaged public schools that are threatened by budget cuts. Learn more about Little Kids Rock here.
There were a few speeches early in the night, and it turns out that Springsteen and Van Zandt aren’t the only charismatic members of the E Street Band: drummer Max Weinberg, who co-chaired the event with Steven’s wife Maureen, could probably run for office if he wanted to. Discussing Steven’s tireless advocacy of music education in schools, he noted that “Steve’s view is that music is essential. It’s not an ‘extra.'” That line got a rousing response from the audience, who clearly feel the same way, and put their money where their mouths were: the auction made the high rollers dig deep: three people paid $15,000 each for dinner with the Van Zandts; three others bid $14,000 each to jam on stage during the show’s encore.
But as anyone who has watched a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony knows, no one gives a speech like Bruce Springsteen. He was introduced by Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence Clemons (whom the “Big Man Of The Year” award was named for), who has been playing saxophone on the E Street Band’s current tour. Springsteen, as always, managed to be both funny and moving. He talked about the early days of their friendship: “We drank the same Kool-Aid, and in the same quantities,” and mentioned how they’d debate topics such as whether or not Led Zeppelin was better than The Jeff Beck Group.
He related how their friendship almost ended when they decided to become roommates in a small attic apartment in Asbury Park. Their cots, he said, were “six steps away” from each other. “I was privy to every sneeze, every cough, every romantic liaison. And everything I did was done under his watchful gaze!”
After a while, “Golden friendships warp into the familiarity of ‘roomies.’ My recollection is that Steve was a slob. No clothes picked up, no dishes washed, top off of the toothpaste, piss on the toilet seat! He was an ‘Oscar’ who forced me, unwillingly, into the ‘Felix’ role. One day, the dishes are piled into a slight calamity in the sink. ‘Steve will never do the dishes, so someone has to.’ So I get the detergent out, I get the suds goin’ pretty good, and the phone rings. It’s my girlfriend, she’s disappointed in me in some way. And a forty-five minute discussion ensues. Interrupted only by loud banging at our door. I open the door, and it’s the guy who lives beneath us,” who asked him to come downstairs.
“I go to his apartment, and it is pissing water, it’s like Niagra Falls! And I realized I had left the sink running! So … we had to move out. I recount this incident only because I believe it saved our relationship,” he joked. “It’s the only reason I’m here today!”
On a more serious note, he said that Van Zandt is the first person he plays his songs to when he writes them. “I always think ‘What’s steve gonna think?’ I may not always take his advice, but I am always wondering what his opinion is. Whether he was alongside me in the band, or whether he wasn’t, that part of our friendship always endured.”
Van Zandt, seemingly humbled by the entire event, kept the focus on the importance of music education, saying “We have left our progeny no means to make to make a living making music,” but pointed out that “against all reason” children still love to play music. Noting that he also started the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation to teach music appreciation in schools, he said “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world without rock and roll!” He ended by thanking Little Kids Rock “for preventing kids from becoming computer nerds and stock brokers,” before looking out at the audience (which likely included some of each) and adding, “No offense!”
(Jake Clemons and Aaliyah Baez)
The night was more about playing music than talking about it, and the first performers were the children who benefitted from Little Kids Rock’s efforts. Students from I.S. 129 in the Bronx played “Black Magic Woman” and an instrumental take on Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” (with all the students getting a turn to solo — teaching improvisation is an important part of Little Kids Rock). After that, a 15 year old student named Aaliyah Baez performed an original, “Daddy’s Little Girl.” She was joined by Jake Clemons, who played a sax solo during the song. It demonstrated the importance of music: her teacher explained to the audience that she wrote the lyrics when she was 8 after her father had died, and it was her way of coping with what she’d been through.
Soon afterwards, the main program started as Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love took the stage to perform “Among The Believers” off of Van Zandt’s 1984 solo album, Voice Of America. Australian-born American Idol season 7 finalist Michael Johns followed up with “Salvation” from 1999’s Born Again Savage.
Jesse Malin, former frontman of punk rock band D Generation, was the first to really get the audience to its feet, jumping onto one of the tables in the front row to sing “Lyin’ In A Bed Of Fire,” the leadoff track from Van Zandt’s solo debut, 1982’s Men Without Women.
The Midtown Men were very reminiscent of The Four Seasons, from their suits and ties to their coordinated dance moves, and with a very good reason: they are the original cast members of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys, which tells the story of that group. They performed “All I Needed Was You,” one of many songs that Van Zandt wrote for Southside Johnny. That was followed by Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Standing In The Line Of Fire,” which Van Zandt wrote for him in 1984. He was followed by another American Idol alumni, season 8 winner Kris Allen, who performed “The Time Of Your Life,” from the 1995 film Nine Months (which Allen should consider adding to his live set).
Michael Des Barres went with a more recent song, playing “Soulfire,” one of several songs that Van Zandt has contributed to the garage rock bands on his label Wicked Cool Records (this song was written for The Breakers). Southside Johnny did “She’s Got Me Where She Wants Me,” which Van Zandt wrote for his 1977 album, This Time It’s For Real. Two legends joined forces when Dion and Reuben Blades sang “Bitter Fruit” from Van Zandt’s 1987 effort Freedom: No Compromise (Blades actually sang backing vocals on the original).
And then the show really kicked into high gear. Elvis Costello walked on stage to perform another song Van Zandt wrote for Southside Johnny, 1978’s “This Time Baby’s Gone For Good” (another one Elvis can add to his list of great covers).
Then, guitar god and friend of the E Street Band Tom Morello had his turn. He was the only performer to speak extensively about Van Zandt before playing, discussing the huge impact his 1985 all-star “Sun City” single had. The song (which featured Springsteen, Run-D.M.C., Bono, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Cliff, Bonnie Raitt, George Clinton and Miles Davis, among others) was, according to Morello, “the most revolutionary gathering of musicians ever on one song.” He noted that “Little Steven led Artists United Against Apartheid and supported Nelson Mandela at a time when Ronald Reagan referred to him as a terrorist.” (In fact, in 2008, George W. Bush signed a bill officially taking Mandela’s African National Congress party off the U.S. terrorist list) “It was literally a song that changed the world,” he said, referencing the fact that many people didn’t know about apartheid before hearing “Sun City.” He then performed a highly charged version of the song, punctuated by one of his signature solos.
(Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny)
And then: the moment everyone was waiting for. Steven Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen, without guitars, stepped to the microphones to sing “Until The Good Is Gone” from Men Without Women. Southside Johnny then returned to the stage for their classic “It’s Been A Long Time,” which the three sang together on Southside’s 1991 Better Days album. The show closed as most of the performers (both legends and students), along with former New York Yankee (and 2010 Big Man winner) Bernie Williams for “I Don’t Want To Go Home,” another classic Van Zandt penned for Southside. And while the song probably echoed the sentiment of many in the audience, it did indeed mark closing time. But the audience got to see many great performances and Little Kids Rock raised well into the six figures, so safe to say the night was a huge success.
— Brian Ives, CBS Local / all photos by Maria Ives