Little Steven Van Zandt sees "Sun City," his antiapartheid album, as more than just another rock cause. For him, it represents a new politicizing of pop music.
The Band Aid to Live Aid to Farm Aid progression was "a step in the right direction," Van Zandt says, but beyond that, "they have absolutely kicked open the door for people to realize just what music can accomplish . . .
"All of a sudden people are saying, we can do that? We can feed people. We can be concerned. We can express our own personal social concerns or political beliefs in music. This is a new thing for a lot of people. And I think just finding that voice, people are going to start using it."
Despite its collection of 50 superstars, "Sun City" is not a glossy, pop production like "We Are the World." It is much more street-oriented, full of tough rhythms and urgent declamation. That may end up limiting its exposure, since radio shies away from playing anything that sounds like political comment. And "Sun City's" lyrics offer sharp political comment.
Van Zandt says that " 'Sun City' is less important as a fundraiser than as a consciousness-raiser.
"Obviously if it's a success, there is going to be some money and that money will go to doing good things through the Africa Fund. But it's more important that people focus on the issue of apartheid and learn more about it. Music is an incredible communication in and of itself and hasn't been used much for that."
Van Zandt, 36 and partial to a gypsy look that suggests a misfortune teller, used to be known as Miami Steve Van Zandt in the decade he was Bruce Springsteen's lead guitarist and right-hand man. But he left the E Street Band in 1983, just as Springsteen was about to reach his greatest popularity, to pursue a solo career.
"My only regret is that I don't see him and the band very often," Van Zandt insists. "That's the nature of our business. You don't see anybody you don't work with. That's really the only drag. The rest is a very natural thing and I really feel very happy with the work that I've done since I've left, which could not have been done if I'd stayed."
Van Zandt's most recent solo album, "Voice of America," was awash with impassioned political commentary; radio stayed away from it like the plague and he and his record company parted company. He currently has no contract outside the "Sun City" project with Manhattan Records.
"Making a record for me is not a casual thing, and there seemed to be great difficulty in getting what I was doing across. Obviously I was out of synch, so I just had to wait. I knew what I was doing, that there was a place for it."
"Sun City," which focuses on the sports and entertainment complex in the "homeland" of Bophuthatswana as a symbol for apartheid, was one of several songs inspired by two trips Van Zandt made to South Africa last year. Originally, the idea was to call some comrades in ohms for company in the studio.
"We turned out to have a lot of friends," Van Zandt chuckles. Eventually, the list would include Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Clinton, Ringo Starr, Jackson Browne, Herbie Hancock and Bono of U2, this despite the fact that there was no secure record deal.
On the original demo of the song, Van Zandt named names of pop performers who had ignored the U.N.-sanctioned cultural boycott of South Africa to play Sun City. That undoubtedly made some labels hesitant, but Van Zandt says he finally "decided that it was not important or even useful to make a value judgment on people who'd played there. What really is important is that people don't go back, so I took it out. I thought the record was saying enough without it.
"The lyrics are actually quite explicit in the verses as far as the antiapartheid message. I don't expect people to ever get all the lyrics but I think the more successful the record is, the more that they will get it. At first maybe they'll dance to it and then they'll start singing along a bit and eventually . . . that's the way to do it, rather than putting a bunch of lyrics in somebody's face."
Van Zandt's political consciousness began expanding during his touring days with Springsteen. "Europe was really the beginning of turning my head around as far as getting a perspective on America and what it means around the world.
"Just from talking to people on the street, I got a real sense of how isolated we are here and how little we focus on what goes on beyond our borders. Since then, my concerns have been focused on three major areas of the world -- Africa, Latin America and the American Indian movement. That's what my next album is about -- if it ever gets made."
Van Zandt says his aim is to "focus on specific political issues or situations around the world and try and humanize them and let people realize that although something may be taking place 6,000 miles away, it very much affects you and it's partly your responsibility to understand that. Not only on the humanity level, but because of our government's incredible influence around the world. I know it's a generalization but I absolutely stand by it -- a good deal of the unrest and problems around the world are a direct result of our foreign policy going back 40 years."
He is aware that rock 'n' rollers making political statements often sound naive -- and tend to be dismissed.
"I don't ever take the position that I'm capable or arrogant enough to think I can solve somebody else's problems," he says. "That's what our government does. I just go in asking questions on very human concerns. I try and understand all sides of an issue and research it to great extremes before I ever talk about it, before it ever becomes a song."
His solo "Voice of America" followed trips to Central America and East Germany and South Africa, where he spent more than a month meeting with antiapartheid groups.
"I had a lot of trouble trying to set up meetings, particularly with the black community," he says. "Being an American, we are very much the enemy now. Being white doesn't help and on top of that I have a Dutch name, even though I'm 100 percent Italian. So I had three strikes going against me. It took a while but eventually I got most of the meetings that I wanted and by the end of the meetings, no matter how difficult the beginnings, there was a lot of mutual respect and they realized I was sincere."
And, Van Zandt adds, the lessons learned apply at home.
"The more one focuses on South Africa and sees that exaggerated racism, the more I hope people are able to see the same thing going on here in a subtle way. They have black neighborhoods by law. We have black neighborhoods in every urban city in America. Well, isn't that odd? They don't educate their minorities -- in their case majority -- they don't educate the poor. Our education has gotten terribly behind . . .
"There are so many parallels, which is part of the interlocking themes which my other album was about. So yes, I hope that it's time to absolutely refocus on our own racial problems and racism. We've only had a civil rights act for 20 years. It's not like we're the great shining example of humanity here."
While Live Aid's Bob Geldof recently confessed to suffering from "compassion fatigue," Van Zandt isn't worried about burnout from artists or audiences.
"I do think the multiartists things are going to slow down a bit. That's because things have been quiet so long. This voice of concern has been dormant and people have just rediscovered it this year and so they want to use it. That's perfectly natural. I think it's going to level off a bit and there will be maybe one or two of these type of things a year.
"But more importantly artists individually will begin to integrate whatever particular social concern they have into their work. Even if it's just a song or two on an album or a minute or two during a show. And that will become permanent. I don't think people will feel inundated by this odd phenomenon as much as get used to it being a natural part of the business, which it should be."
Van Zandt points to his pal, Springsteen, and his efforts to give attention, as well as money, to food banks in all the towns where he peforms.
"There's a thin line between political concern and social concern. Peoples' attempting to politicize Bruce is not quite accurate. I think his concerns are socially based. And he does get right up against that line, because there is an overlap. But his work has always reflected that. And I think it's natural that the more success one gets, the more one is able to use success to accomplish something in those areas. It was a very natural, very wonderful thing and I hope it sets an example to all the other artists.
"Just that minute or two it took in Bruce's show to give to the food bank or whatever, helps these organizations exist. And they do great work and it continues after you leave town. It really doesn't take that much time. You don't have to worry about boring the audience or whatever. I mean, it's literally a minute. I'm hoping all other artists, particularly ones that are in a position of success, have the money to do it or whatever, will start integrating that 60 seconds into a show. Because it will make a phenomenal difference.
"The more that infiltrates the industry at the artist level, the rest of the industry has to follow. And it will one day become commercially viable. And that's the name of the game, isn't it? I mean, once it sells, it's cool."