Silvio Dante, the owner of the Bada Bing strip club on the critically acclaimed HBO show "The Sopranos," sports a slicked-back pompadour and wears silk shirts and gold chains. He's the kind of guy you picture driving down the main drag in a '73 Cadillac convertible, listening to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
But Little Steven Van Zandt, the musician/actor who plays Dante, favors silk scarves on his balding head and wears paisley tunics and leather pants. And the spiritually charged, hard-rocking music on Van Zandt's fifth solo album, Born Again Savage, isn't the type you're likely to find among most wise guys' record collections.
"I wanted to do a modern version of a 1960s hard-rock record," said Van Zandt, who's still best-known as a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. "I didn't want to copy that style or imitate it, but I wanted to have that same structure, the same kind of arrangements and an emphasis on electric guitar."
Born Again Savage was released on Van Zandt's Web site (www.littlesteven.com) in September and in stores in November. It sounds little like anything you'll hear on the moody "Sopranos" soundtrack, or from the E Street Band, for that matter. "Guns, Drugs and Gasoline" echoes the MC5's manic punk energy, and the album's raging guitars and thundering drums have more in common with the Stooges and the Rolling Stones than with Springsteen's Born to Run.
As Springsteen's highly publicized reunion tour was revving up in the United States in June, Van Zandt, 49, was finishing up the artwork for the album. On his days off, he'd fly back to New York to shoot scenes for the second season of "The Sopranos."
"Last year was a little bit crazy," Van Zandt said.
His schedule shows no signs of slowing. Though "The Sopranos" doesn't begin shooting its third season until July, Van Zandt just returned from a two-week, seven-country tour of Europe for Born Again Savage. He'll hit the road again with Springsteen on Sunday in State College, Pa., for the next leg of the reunion tour.
(To see a story about the reunion tour, click here.)
The songs for Born Again Savage were written in 1989, but Van Zandt didn't make the final recordings until 1994. U2's Adam Clayton plays bass and Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, plays drums.
Van Zandt says the album which explores difficult issues of spirituality and politics, all set to raging guitars and thundering drums is rooted in the 1960s rock of Cream and the MC5. That was when music was an important part of our culture, he said, adding that he thinks that time has passed.
"The music is still on occasion great and occasionally important, but the rock era is over," Van Zandt said. "We're back in a pop era, and modern pop is completely wallpaper."
Van Zandt's examination of religion on Born Again Savage explores what he calls a "personal spirituality," one that draws from many religious traditions, including Christianity, Taoism and Buddhism. "Religion is not something that can be handed down from parent to child," he said. "If these are the most personal and unique ideas we have, and I believe they are, how can they be inherited? And how can they be organized?"
Songs such as "Face of God" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Salvation" (RealAudio excerpt) explore crises of faith, and Van Zandt writes in the album's liner notes that working for your own soul is "all the salvation you're ever gonna get."
Van Zandt said he likes the juxtaposition of singing about spirituality "something that's associated with quiet, whispering and dark places" in the context of loud rock music. "I think it's time we bring these ideas out into the light."
But that's a tough sell to the mainstream audience, said Paul Fischer, associate professor in the Department of Recording Technology at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. "It's very hard to get that message across if it isn't melodic and doesn't feel uplifting," he said.
Fischer added that Van Zandt benefits from his association with Springsteen, whose listeners, he said, approach music with an "open mind and open heart."
Van Zandt just hopes the album's listeners will take his suggestion to explore different approaches to their own spirituality.
"We have to get out of this 'football team' mentality when it comes to religion," he said. "You're on the Catholic team, or you're on the Jewish team, and you've got to win, you know?
"There's so much more common ground than differences."
Coming Full Circle
Born Again Savage is the final installment in a series Van Zandt conceived when he recorded his first solo album, 1982's Men Without Women. In an essay on his Web site, he wrote that he planned the 1982 record to be the first of five albums focusing on the individual, the family, the state, economics and religion.
The three other albums in the series 1984's Voice of America, 1987's Freedom No Compromise and 1989's Revolution are out of print.
Along the way, Van Zandt, following trips he made to South Africa in 1984, formed the group Artists United Against Apartheid, which included Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2 singer Bono, Lou Reed, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis and George Clinton. The group recorded Van Zandt's "Sun City," which developed into an album, video and concert. All of that helped concentrate attention on the cultural boycott of South Africa mounted to protest its separatist policies, which some entertainers, including Linda Ronstadt and Sinatra, had broken by playing Sun City, a Las Vegas-style South African resort.