Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Steven Van Zandt laughs heartily when asked what kind of student he was at New Jersey’s Middleton High School in the 1960s.
“The worst!” replied the veteran solo artist, Sirius XM radio host and longtime Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band mainstay.
“I couldn’t have cared less about school. I didn’t care about anything, except sex and rock ’n’ roll. I didn’t even get into drugs until later!”
Did Van Zandt — who gained a new audience through his role as Silvio Dante on the HBO TV series “The Sopranos” — graduate?
“I got kicked out of high school,” he replied. “I felt bad for my mother. So I went back and graduated. Just barely.”
Van Zandt, who plays Tuesday at House of Blues with his brassy band, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul, laughed again.
“I tell the audience that we’re doing this tour for a number of reasons, one of which is I’m making up for all the sh– I put my teachers through in high school — and that’s true.”
His guilt has prompted this devoted guitarist and singer to make up for his years of scholastic apathy in a very big way.
Van Zandt’s ongoing “Teacher Solidarity Tour” is as much of an educational undertaking as a conventional concert trek. The tour is promoting TeachRock, the comprehensive, free online curriculum being championed by Van Zandt and his nonprofit Rock and Roll Forever Foundation.
Each show on his current tour is preceded by a free workshop on the history of music. It’s billed as a professional development service for teachers, who can also bring a friend, gratis.
Educators who sign up online for the free professional development sessions in advance will receive complimentary tickets to that night’s concert.
Rock and Roll Forever’s board of founders includes Van Zandt, Springsteen, U2’s Bono, Jackson Browne and film director Martin Scorsese. The foundation’s advisory board includes San Diego’s David Peck, the head of the 27-year-old Reelin’ In The Years Productions, a top archival music-video company.
TeachRock’s mission statement describes it as a “standards-aligned, arts integration curriculum that uses the history of popular music and culture to help teachers engage students.”
One lesson, for example, focuses on two landmark events that took place in 1954 — the release of Elvis Presley’s recording of African-American blues artist Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s song “That’s All Right Mama” and the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which declared the then-widespread racial segregation of American schools to be unconstitutional.
Another lesson traces some of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s biggest artistic influences. Other lessons explore such varied topics as the work of Aretha Franklin, “girl groups” and how the rise of MTV in the 1980s helped to blur gender identity in music videos (take a bow, Boy George).
TeachRock has been endorsed by the New Jersey School Boards Association, the National Association for Music Education, the National Council for Geographic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies.
“We’ve been working on this curriculum for 10 years now and I didn’t want to go public until we had 100 lessons online. Now, we have 140,” Van Zandt said from a recent tour stop in Denver.
“We’ve finally gone public and are talking to school boards and principals. But we also want to talk directly to teachers, who are the most underfunded, underappreciated people in the working class. I put them in the same category as our military and police. Teachers are on the front lines in the war against ignorance, which is the biggest war we’re fighting right now.
“Mostly, TeachRock is all about the fact that many schools are teaching the kids STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. One of our goals is make STEM into STEAM and put the arts into the curriculum, which just happened in New Jersey, where they are using our curriculum.
“I want to do that in every state. Because arts affect a different part of kids’ brains. There’s no wrong answers in the arts. You ask them what do they like — and whatever they answer is the right answer.”
Van Zandt spoke to the Union-Tribune for 45 minutes last week. Here are edited excerpts from that interview.
Q: How are the tour and TeachRock going?
A: It’s really been great. We get hundreds of teachers at every show. We just hit 14,000 teachers who have registered this year alone, who are teaching our curriculum. And they are a terrific concert audience. I don’t think they get out much — they are usually home at night, grading papers!
Q: Are your concerts and workshops on the “Teacher Solidarity” tour free only for music teachers, or for all teachers?
A: All teachers, all grades. The curriculum is quite adjustable and meets all the state standards. It can be taught from kindergarten to college. We connect the music to what was going on culturally in history — connect a lot of the dots — and then let teachers add their own creativity to it, which they love. Our lessons are quite cross-curricular between music, English, social studies and more.
Q: How would TeachRock have impacted you if it was available when you were a student?
A: It would have been wonderful. Kids are smarter these days, and faster, and teachers can have a tough time getting their attention. This gets their attention, just like it would have gotten mine. If kids like one single class or teacher, they’ll come and enjoy it. We have everything covered, from the early blues guys to modern-day pop stars. We want to make sure we hit kids where they live, rather than drag them through some (stodgy) curriculum. We can ask: “Who’s your favorite artist?” And then we can trace that artist’s influences, discuss who wrote what song, and the kids are immediately engaged.
Q: Do you recall the first music teacher you had in school, and is there any cause and effect between that and your creating TeachRock?
A: Nah, not really. I had a pretty cool music teacher. But, in those days, it wasn’t what they were teaching, so much as what they would tolerate. She allowed me to come in and play the first Who album for the other students. But there was no such thing as a rock ‘n’ roll consciousness, or popular music consciousness, in school at that time. My teacher was nice, but she had no significant impact on me.
Q: Was this a music appreciation class?
A: Geez, that’s a good question. It must have been something like that, because there weren’t any instruments.
Q: In 2017, you did your first tour with The Disciples of Soul in nearly 20 years. You told me last year — prior to your San Diego concert at Humphreys — that you were losing $15,000 a show, even on nights that were sold out. You said: “It will probably take two more tours before I even break even, but I’m able to do that.” How do you see things now, a year later?
A: I was a bit optimistic. … I wasn’t too sure what was going to happen, after decades of not touring on my own. And, as it turns out, it was quite different. With the whole rock culture and infrastructure, nothing is as it was when I left the touring business. The E Street Band is a whole other thing. But on the ground level, the lower level, I encountered a new world. When we were coming up, going out to a rock ’n’ roll show was something everybody did — all the time — and they don’t do that anymore. Maybe there are just too many TV shows on Netflix.
Q: What else has changed?
A: The culture has changed, to the point where people will come and see huge bands, like the Stones, U2 and a handful of others. But it’s not like they come out regularly anymore to hear smaller bands. I realized I don’t have the money to do this with those kinds of small numbers of people coming. So I had to evaluate my thing, and say: “OK, does this still have value, or not? Judging from the enthusiasm of the audiences, I’ve concluded: “This seems to have value — certainly, artistic value. But commercial value? Maybe not.”
So, what does that mean? What it means, I think, is that what I’m doing is a traveling museum — I’m like some kind of throwback to a time when music mattered, when music was what people depended on to get through the day. It’s a value that is a little bit of an intangible. It’s not quite easy to quantify, in terms of the old way, where we measured things by: How many people are coming out to see you, and can that make money?”
Q: How have you dealt with that?
A: What happened was that, first, we got a (corporate) sponsor for a minute for the first tour last year. That was a life-saver and enabled us to get started. After that, I decided: “Let’s connect it to the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, and use the tour as the teacher-outreach program, so that the donors that contribute to the foundation now are supporting the tour as a way of teacher-outreach. And that’s worked out quite well. We’re sort of a living embodiment of the curriculum. You gotta be creative and find ways to do things, because starting over — from scratch — is just not financially feasible.
Q: Would something like, say, the oft-rumored movie version of “The Sopranos” help raise your profile?
A: Well, yeah, there’s that whole side of the celebrity thing. The amount of people coming out to our shows is probably not helped by the fact that my capital is probably at an all-time low. I have not had a TV show since “Lilyhammer” (2012-2014). So, after 15 years of being on TV on that and “The Sopranos,” I’ve been off for the air for several years and the E Street Band hasn’t toured for several years. A new TV show would bring my profile up, although — truthfully — I’m not sure that would translate to people coming out to see the concerts.
Q: Is a movie of “The Sopranos” pending?
A: Well, we’re talking to people. “The Sopranos” movie is a prequel, and it will happen. But none of us (from the original TV cast) will be in it, because it’s set 20 years before our time. I have five TV scripts I’m considering, but it’s gotta be the right thing. I’ve never done anything in my life for the money. I’ve always been very lucky.
Q: You have a new album coming out next spring. Will you tour to support it, or will Bruce be reactivating the E Street Band?
A: I have a feeling he may take next year off. I’m just guessing; we haven’t talked about it. So he’ll be the first priority. If he calls, I’ll drop (my tour plans), happily. If not, I won’t wait around. I go full steam ahead — sometimes, it’s into a wall.
On Tuesday, Springsteen issued the following post on his Twitter page: “Just a note to quell some of the rumors over here on E Street. While we hope to be back with you soon, the E Street Band won’t be touring in 2019. Before I go back to my day job, the year will be consumed with a break after our Broadway run and various recording projects I’ve been working on. We do hope to see you soon, and until then, we have some mighty E Streeters out there regularly performing with their own projects who’d love and deserve your support.”
Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul’s “Teacher Solidarity Tour”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11
Where: House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave., Gaslamp Quarter
Tickets: $45, plus service charges
Phone: (800) 745-3000