Episode 416: Stevie Van Zandt, John Prine, Guillermo del Toro

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Heard On BETA
Little Stevie Van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul in front of their plane
(C) Ryan Celli

The legendary rocker Stevie Van Zandt talks about making music with Bruce Springsteen and acting on “The Sopranos.” Also, music journalist Erin Osmon on the great folk singer/songwriter John Prine. And film critic Ian Nathan on the visionary director, Guillermo del Toro.

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  • Stevie Van Zandt is the King Midas of pop culture

    There are very few who can claim to be a significant part of rock ‘n’ roll history and a transcendent band. There are also few who can claim to be a part of television history and a transcendent show. And there is only one who can claim both: Stevie Van Zandt.

    Whether sharing a mic with Bruce Springsteen or sharing some advice for Tony Soprano, Van Zandt has endeared himself to multiple generations and fandoms. He recaps these golden moments of his life in his memoir, “Unrequited Infatuations: Odyssey of a Rock and Roll Consigliere.”

    The book logs Van Zandt’s fascinating journey of a Jersey kid who dedicated his life to music, arts, activism and education.

    Van Zandt tells WPR’s “BETA” that for him — like many other American kids from his generation — his path was lit when The Beatles took Ed Sullivan’s stage on a February night in 1964.

    “There were no bands in America virtually. You wouldn’t see four or five guys singing and playing. You just never saw that. If you went to your high school dance, it would be an instrumental band,” Van Zandt said. “Literally, the day after the Beatles play this variety show, that 72 million people watched, everybody had a band in the garage, and most of them mercifully stayed there.”

    Van Zandt did not. In fact, making music and arranging songs became a religion to him. His band, The Source, played nearly every event or battle of the bands in the tri-state area that they could. It was then that he met the leader of The Castiles, Bruce Springsteen.

    “It was a pretty freaky thing to do to be in a band in those days. It wasn’t that common. And you know, you were a separate tribe from what was normal society at that point. So, we became friendly that way, just from running into each other,” recalls Van Zandt.

    A few years later, Van Zandt began frequenting the famous Café Wha? in Greenwich Village for their Saturday afternoon showcases of bands. He quips that he was there to steal ideas from these more veteran bands. On one such afternoon, he looked across the room and saw Springsteen there doing the same thing.

    “At that point, I think we bonded doubly so,” Van Zandt said. “And then soon realized that we were both the only guys we knew for whom rock ‘n’ roll was everything; you know was a religion.”

    Van Zandt would go on to become a founding, and one of the most iconic, members of Springsteen’s E Street Band in addition to several successful acts on his own, including Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul. Years before becoming one of pop culture’s best-known consiglieres, Van Zandt was lending his thoughts and advice to another “Boss.”

    “Bruce was visiting, and he played me his new song, which was ‘Born to Run,’ and he was very, very, very excited about it. And it was quite different from what he had been doing,” he said. “And I just said to him, ‘I just, I love that. I love that minor chord change,’ and he’s like, ‘What minor chord change?’”

    “I just pointed out the fact that you can hear the note from where he was bending from, but you did not hear the note that he was bending to. And so, they had to redo it and redo the mix and redo the guitar parts and, you know, he credits me with saving his career at that point, and it wouldn’t be the last time,” Van Zandt quips.

    That ability to arrange is one Van Zandt has perfected in his musical career. He writes extensively about his process and cites another famous contribution when he reworked the horn arrangement on Springsteen’s hit, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.”

    Frustrated with the ’70s-era recording studios and their extensive padding, Van Zandt pulled the horn players out to give the song the sound it needed.

    “(Bruce) asked me my opinion. I said, ‘This really sucks.’ And he said, ‘Go in and fix it.’ And so I did. It was simple as that,” Van Zandt said. “I had already been arranging horns with the Jukes, obviously, so it came very naturally to me, and the horn players were just glad to get out of there.”

    While Van Zandt was known to a certain generation of fans for his trademarked headscarves, a new legion of fans would come to recognize him for his pompadour hair as Silvio Dante in David Chase’s transcendent HBO show, “The Sopranos.”

    Brought in initially to read for the lead of Tony, HBO went with longtime character actor James Gandolfini. Chase, however, was determined to get Van Zandt involved. When Van Zandt shared his apprehension about stealing a role from a working actor, Chase created the role of Tony’s best friend and consigliere.

    “I think David (Chase) picked up on the fact that me and Jimmy were bonding off screen,” Van Zandt said. “I think based on the fact that neither one of us particularly liked the spotlight. You know, he was a character actor, I was more of a side man. And had that similar sensibility.”

    Throughout the entire run of “The Sopranos,” Van Zandt would continue to tour with Springsteen and the E Street Band. He also became a global advocate for human rights and launched his own radio show, “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.”

    But what he might be most proud of after all he’s accomplished is the TeachRock education curriculum he established to preserve rock history and to integrate the arts into the classroom.

    “I think we will transform the educational process entirely by integrating the arts into the basic disciplines, not art as an after-school class. Not art as an extra class, but art in science,” Van Zandt said. “Combine art with math, with engineering and with technology. And if we keep going the way we’re going, I think that’s got a shot at completely transforming the entire educational experience.”

    It doesn’t take a mob consigliere to advise you that you’d be wrong to doubt one Stevie Van Zandt.

  • John Prine: The debut album that introduced a songwriting master

    On April 7, 2020, John Prine died a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic after a storied career as a singer/songwriter. His first album, John Prine, released in September 1971, marked the beginning of Prine’s long musical journey. But Prine’s start as a talented songwriter began years before that in Maywood, Illinois.

    The book series 33 1/3, which features various albums and artists from popular music genres, has just come out with “John Prine’s John Prine (33 1/3),” a book about the history leading up to Prine’s debut album by music journalist Erin Osmon. Osmon talked with WPR’s “BETA” about the brilliance of Prine’s songwriting and how he could write such memorable songs.

    “I think he did it because he kept it simple. When we think about great Midwestern songwriters, of course Bob Dylan comes to mind. But you know, many people compared Prine and Bob Dylan when Prine’s self-titled album came out,” Osmon said. “But with Prine, there was such a sense of simplicity and modesty. Prine never wanted to alienate the listener. On the contrary, he wanted to invite as many people as possible. That’s why he wrote such simple yet profound statements through his lyrics.”

    Prine’s musical experience began when his older brother Dave introduced him to the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. Prine met Ray Tate, the lead guitar teacher at OTS. Tate described Prine as a focused, dedicated student who wanted to learn fingerpicking and fingerstyle guitar.

    Later Tate, and other instructors at OTS founded a club called the 5th Peg right across the street from the Old Town School, which is the first place Prine appeared on stage. One night a young arts critic from the Chicago Sun-Times, by the name of Roger Ebert, happened into the 5th Peg and caught Prine’s set.

    “(Ebert) was the local arts critic, and he hung out at the bars in Old Town, ordering beer and shot specials and hanging out with folks like Shel Silverstein and Studs Terkel. Roger had gone to see a film to potentially review, and he thought it was so rotten that he walked out. So he walked down to the 5th Peg and happened upon Prine. He didn’t write about music that wasn’t his beat. But after Ebert saw Prine’s set, he felt moved enough to share the news of a new local talent,” Osmon recalled. “And from there, all of Chicago took notice because Roger was a respected critic by then. He was a Chicago personality, and that made Chicagoans take note. After Roger’s review, folks started trickling in. They wanted to be at the feet of the singing mailman.”

    Later, Prine’s good friend Steve Goodman introduced him to Kris Kristofferson and Paul Anka. After hearing a set from Prine, Anka encouraged the pair to come to New York and record some demos. Once in New York, things moved very quickly for Prine.

    “Steve and John got off the plane, and they picked up a copy of the Village Voice at the airport and saw that Kris Kristofferson was playing at the Bitter End that night. So, they headed to Greenwich Village to go check out the set. When they got there, Kristofferson saw them in the street, came over, and said, ‘You guys got to open for me.’ So, he insisted that Steve and John each do a couple of songs to open. But what he didn’t tell them — and I don’t know if it’s because he didn’t know or because he just didn’t want to freak them out — but that night there were label representatives in the audience,” she said.

    “What ended up happening is Jerry Wexler from Atlantic Records was in the audience at the Bitter End, and he decided to sign Prine,” Osmon continued. “It was their first folk artist signing. And it happened because of Kris Kristofferson’s generosity.”

    Once signed to Atlantic records, Prine was sent to Memphis to record his first album at American Sound Studios. The band for the recording was a studio session group called the Memphis Boys, the Memphis equivalent of the Los Angeles session band, the Wrecking Crew. The Memphis Boys played a prominent role in shaping the sound for Prine’s debut album.

    “They know that record labels hire them to make hits, and if they don’t deliver on that, they fail. So, they work hard to service the songs that are given to them. The way they describe it is they play by feel and fall in together, trying to foster the music as much as possible,” Osmon said. “They knew correctly that Prine’s stuff was really about the lyrics. So eventually, they all kind of dove into the songs and paid close attention to the lyrics, trying to highlight the words as much as they could.”

    The album became an instant hit with songs like “Illegal Smile,” “Hello In There,” “Sam Stone,” “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” and of course, the classic “Angel From Montgomery.”

    Osmon writes about the history of Prine’s musical beginnings right up to when his debut was released and how the importance of that record has grown, establishing Prine as one of America’s great songwriters.

  • 'The true monster is the human being': Critic explores Guillermo del Toro's fantastical films

    If you’re looking for magical, fantastical films that are unlike other movies, you should check out Guillermo del Toro’s work. He’s responsible for some of the most charismatic characters in modern cinema. Del Toro’s resume includes Academy Award-winning films “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water.”

    Ian Nathan is one of the United Kingdom’s best-known film writers. In his latest book, “Guillermo del Toro: The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work,” he explores del Toro’s life and his films. Nathan makes a convincing case that del Toro is one of the most imaginative and innovative film directors working today.

    “He’s got such an extraordinary mind, a capacity for detail and a tendency for detail that you ask him one thing, and he’ll answer 20 different things,” Nathan told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Nathan said that every film del Toro has ever made is built up from a sort of cornucopia of other films, books and comic books.

    Two of del Toro’s biggest influences are Alfred Hitchcock and the Spanish-Mexican surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel.

    “I think what you have is the two sides of del Toro’s muse,” Nathan explained.

    The way Nathan sees it, the Hitchcock side is del Toro as the trickster who plays with plot and suspense and loves to frighten his audience. del Toro is also fascinated with human psychology, corruption, and where murder comes from, the dark side of things.

    On the other side of del Toro’s muse is Buñuel.

    “He’s much more thematic,” Nathan said. “He’s full of politics and religion, but religion is a very big part of del Toro’s life and his art. He calls himself a lapsed Catholic, an atheist, but that still goes on in his head, that relationship with the past.”

    While del Toro was writing the screenplay for his third film, “The Devil’s Backbone,” he experienced the biggest crisis of his life — the kidnapping of his father in 1997.

    Federico del Toro Torres was abducted in Guadalajara, Mexico. He was held hostage for 72 days. del Toro’s fellow filmmaker James Cameron paid for the professional hostage negotiator who was hired to help del Toro. The entire ransom fee of half million dollars was made up entirely of five-dollar bills and one-dollar-bills because that is all that the Guadalajara bank had in its vault.

    “(Guillermo) tells of having to drop the money off and all these mistakes that were made,” Nathan said.

    “And the directions were wrong and the drivers wouldn’t go to places. If it wasn’t so horribly real, it would be comical,” he continued. “But that idea and that story, I think it stayed with him and is fed into his work. Fathers and sons, it’s a big theme that continues throughout his films. And I think he was profoundly changed by that experience.”

    Guillermo del Toro made the film “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006. It received Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film. It won Oscars for best art direction, best cinematography and best makeup.

    Del Toro married the concept of a fairy tale with a fantastic depiction of fascism at work in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Nathan said. The film begins in 1944, five years after General Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War has torn Spain apart. Eleven-year-old Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero) is traveling to live with her pregnant mother in an old mill. Ofelia has to deal with her cruel stepfather, Captain Vidal (played by Sergi López).

    “This came from a very personal place,” Nathan said, “and even though he’s Mexican, Spain has this very intimate connection with Mexico for historical reasons. So he’s very connected to Spain.”

    “It’s a beautifully expressive film, very sensitively done relationship between the two mothers and the one girl — her literal mother and the housekeeper who becomes her surrogate mother.”

    As Nathan writes in his book, del Toro wanted to make ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ because facism is definitely a male concern and a boy’s game so he wanted to oppose that with an eleven-year-old girl’s universe.

    del Toro’s 2017 film “The Shape of Water” won four Academy Awards: best score, best production design, best director and best picture. In his book, Nathan writes that “‘The Shape of Water’ inhabits a border country where realism and surrealism meet.”

    “He doesn’t stick to one thing. His films seem to be one thing and then the more you watch them, they become other things because he’s got all these levels. You unpeel them like an onion. There’s another film underneath,” Nathan told “BETA.”

    “The Shape of Water” is del Toro’s tribute to the 1954 monster horror movie, “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” It tells the story of a mute janitor named Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) who works at a military research lab in Baltimore. Elisa falls in love with an amphibious humanoid who has been removed from his home in the Amazon and is the subject of cruel experiments.

    “He was inverting a monster movie into a romance,” Nathan explained. “He’s always doing everything back to front. But he was doing a film within that about bringing people together, about inclusion. He was sort of attacking Trump’s universe at the time by saying, ‘Actually, look, you know, people can fall in love across species.’ It’s about coming together.

    And then there is the Michael Shannon character (Colonel Richard Strickland) who is a corrupted, separating force,” Nathan said. “He’s the fascist within this universe.”

    Del Toro always operates on this metaphorical level for every creature, for every fantastical element, Nathan said.

    “(Del Toro) says, ‘I love monsters and I want to do monsters.’ But he builds meaning into that presence. He won’t let them just be a ghoul within his story, and he wants them to have this resonance. And I think he wants us to see ourselves in these creatures.”

    Guillermo del Toro’s next film, coming this December, is “Nightmare Alley.” It marks a bit of a departure because it is a film noir based on a previous film version made in 1947 and a 1946 novel by WIlliam Lindsay Gresham.

    “A lot of it’s about carnies in the 1930s, about con men and about the crazy array of creatures and people that come with a traveling carnival,” Nathan said. “There’s a very famous film called ‘Freaks’ from the 1930s, which was banned at the time because they used real people with disabilities, who were thought of at the time as circus freaks. And he’s very influenced by that. So I think he’s really going to lean in to the carnival element of it.”

    All the chapters in Gresham’s novel relate to different cards so the ideas of destiny and prophecy loom large over the story, Nathan said.

    “Del Toro’s mother was a tarot reader, and she fully believed in it, and she taught him how to use the decks of tarot. So I think it’s going to be a film noir thriller about a con man whose con turns on him. But at the same time, I think it’s going to be filled with a lot of those familiar del Toro forces,” Nathan said. “You know, magic will run just beneath the surface.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Stevie Van Zandt Guest
  • Erin Osmon Guest
  • Ian Nathan Guest

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