The Heart of Rock 'n' Roll: Guided By Steven Van Zandt, The Rascals Reunite on Broadway
By Judy Samelson
Dreams are about to come true for fans of The Rascals, one of the most influential and adored bands in rock history, as they reunite after 40 years in an unexpeced place — Broadway. Playbill taps into the passion and talks to the new show's shepherd, rocker Steven Van Zandt.
The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a 15-performance concert and theatrical event written, co-directed and co-produced by legendary rocker Steven Van Zandt, plays Broadway's Richard Rodgers Theatre April 15-May 5. Visit ticketmaster.com or RascalsBway.com for more information.
You're sitting alone in your car, bumper to bumper on the LIE or maybe it's the New Jersey Turnpike or the Santa Monica Freeway or any other jammed up roadway in between. To fight the increasing frustration, you dial the car radio to your favorite oldies station. And there it is: The smooth, Latin-flavored rhythm of a conga drum. You turn up the volume the better to hear deeply soulful voices extolling the pleasures of "Groovin' on a Sunday afternoon . . ." Then the DJ plays another. "I was feelin' so bad / I asked my family doctor just what I had . . ." Instantly, your paradigm shifts. You're still an immovable object, but the traffic is no longer the annoyance it was only moments ago. Now you can't stop yourself from singing out loud, under the spell of the irresistible force known as The Rascals.
Back when they first recorded those rock 'n' roll classics "Groovin'" (1967) and "Good Lovin'" (1966), respectively, the band went by the name of The Young Rascals. From 1965 to 1971, Felix Cavaliere (vocals and keyboard), Eddie Brigati (vocals, tambourine and maracas), Gene Cornish (guitar) and Dino Danelli (drums) mined a rich vein of R&B, Rock and Pop and stood toe to toe with those music-and-mind-altering Brit bands (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks, to name just a few) that had invaded our shores and music charts in 1964-65.
The four principal Young Rascals were products of the discos and clubs of New York City, New Jersey and Long Island where they honed their craft as a bar band. Premier exponents of authentic "blue-eyed soul," Rascals' music married a sexy, street-wise edge with an almost lyrical romanticism and optimism that rendered them instantly compelling. They also possessed, to borrow from Terrence McNally's Maria Callas in Master Class, "a look." Early on, dressed in their signature performance costumes of knickers and knee socks topped by round-collared shirts and school-boy ties, they had a style and bad-boy swagger that served them well with male and female fans. In their time together, that look gave way to facial hair, bell bottoms, flowered shirts, vests, and love beads.
But, of course, the look was secondary to the sound. The Rascals produced an aural explosion unlike any other popular band of the day, anchored — or, rather, propelled heavenward — by the glorious rumble of Cavaliere's Hammond B-3 organ at its center. As Gene Cornish explained in writer Lenny Kaye's article accompanying the 1992 Rhino Records CD release "The Rascals Anthology, 1965-1972," "Felix came up with the concept of our sound. He said we'd base everything on the organ. It would be a blanket. The drums and guitar would be the rhythm. Together the organ and guitar would be one complete sound as an orchestra." With Cornish's furious yet sweet guitar, Danelli's hard-driving drums and Brigati's & Cavaliere's impassioned vocals (aided in no small measure by Brigati's brother David), the experience of listening to The Young Rascals was — is — well . . . it's impossible to listen to them without moving or feeling — take your pick — soulful, sensual, hopeful, happy to be alive.
From the first all-white group signed to Atlantic Records, "Young" or otherwise, we got the visceral, sexy love-me-or-leave-me ultimatum ("I ain't gonna eat out my heart anymore / so QUIT IT"), an outpouring of undiluted joy ("It's a beautiful mornin' / I think I'll go outside for a while / an' just smile . . ."), and a tender, youthful uncertainty laced with optimism ("How can I be sure? / In a world that's constantly changing . . . I'm sure with you"). The Rascals gave us all of that plus an un-self-consciously upbeat anthem of tolerance during turbulent times: "All the world over, so easy to see / People everywhere just wanna be free . . ."
From the moment they were put on vinyl, the band's track record was impressive. They had hits with cover renditions ("Good Lovin'"), with original songs penned by writers Pam Sawyer and Laurie Burton ("I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore," "Baby Let's Wait") and, most significantly, with songs written by Brigati and Cavaliere ("You Better Run," "Groovin'," "How Can I Be Sure," "If You Knew," "I've Been Lonely Too Long," "A Girl Like You," "Rainy Day," "Silly Girl," "A Beautiful Morning," and on and on). By the time they released their fourth LP, "Once Upon a Dream," they dropped the youthful adjective and became known as, simply, The Rascals.
Deeply affected by the rapidly changing youth culture of the '60s and the tragic events that engulfed the latter part of the decade, including the assasinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, The Rascals evolved musically, artistically and politically, and this growth was reflected in the records they produced. As Cavaliere said when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, "More than Pop, we wanted our music to reach across racial and social barriers to make us understand each other better." As their music and their audience matured, they touched people because they never sacrificed one bit of their sense of optimism and hope.
The Rascals' hugely successful tenure at Atlantic Records ended in 1971. Discord splintered the band, and the four Rascals, as the world knew them, came to the end of an era. Brigati and Cornish left, while Cavaliere and Danelli carried on The Rascals' name at Columbia Records with a decidely more jazz-infused sound. By that time, though, it wasn't only the band's name, look or music that had changed. In Parke Puterbaugh's piece for "The Rascals Anthology 1965-1972," Cavaliere expressed his disenchantment with the sea change that, in his view, had begun to swell in the music business. He was dismayed with "this new '70s-type mentality that had come in: 'Hey, how many units did it sell?,' not 'Is there any artistic integrity to this?'" After two artistically fulfilling but commercially disappointing LP releases at Columbia, the reconstituted Rascals ended their recording career. And that was the last that fans saw of them. Until now.
Enter Steven Van Zandt, legendary guitarist, record producer, actor, writer, activist, and a man well-schooled in the three R's: Rock, Roll and Rascals. The first Rock concert Van Zandt ever attended was a Young Rascals gig at the Matawan-Keyport Roller Drome, a New Jersey skating rink known for showcasing local bands. Unbeknownst to him at the time, another Rascals fan was also in the audience. Soon after the two would meet and in time make a little noise of their own as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. But the Rock 'n' roll royalty currently on Van Zandt's mind are The Rascals.
When he inducted the band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Van Zandt laid it out plainly. "The Rascals," he declared in pure Jersey-speak, "were the first rock 'n' roll band." He then allowed with a shrug (and his tongue firmly planted in his cheek) for the existence of a few other bands like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but he stood by his declaration that when these four guys sang and played together, something indescribable happened. And when he brought Danelli, Cornish, Brigati and Cavaliere to the stage to accept the honor and play for fellow musicians and the industry crowd, they put a name to it. Call it chemistry. Or magic.
Still, for fans of The Rascals, a hoped for public appearance remained an unrealized dream. That is, until 15 years later when in December 2012 The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream debuted at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. What was to be a series of three shows was so successful that more were added to meet the audience demand. And now, even more seasoned fans will get the chance to rediscover The Rascals (and how they helped get us through the '60s), while younger converts are sure to be captured by the music, as this unique entertainment heads for a limited engagement on Broadway. Opening night is April 16 following a preview on April 15.
Van Zandt is the author of The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, as well as co-director (with the brilliant Marc Brickman, creator of the show's eye-popping stage, video and lighting design), and co-producer (with his wife of 30 years, actress Maureen Van Zandt, whom many will fondly remember as Gabriella Dante, married to Silvio Dante, the mobster Van Zandt played to perfection on HBO's acclaimed series, "The Sopranos"). The music and lyrics, of course, are by Felix Cavaliere and Eddie Brigati.
Van Zandt might well be dubbed the Ambassador of Rock 'n' Roll because of his own contribution to the music as well as his passionate belief in it and in its place in history. Recently he spoke with Playbill.com come about this great love, about The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream, and about the band he has called one of Rock's greatest.
The concept for The Rascals: Once Upon A Dream is intriguing. Can you describe it?
And what about the music in the show?
Before 2012, they hadn't played together in 40 years?
You have written and speak so passionately about the craft of making rock music and how frequently it goes missing from the current music scene, and also that it was time, maybe, for bands to hone the craft and let technology and even "art" take a back seat. In an essay on your site Little Steven's Underground Garage, you wrote that in the old days, the energy that went into creating the music was "a working class energy. Not an artistic intellectual waiting around for inspiration energy. It's a get up, go to work and kill energy. Rip it up or die trying." It seems like The Rascals were the embodiment of that kind of energy and craft. How do they measure up to your standard of craftsman?
You then begin writing after you absorb those songs and understand and analyze those songs, and pull them apart and put them back together. You then start composing, and, of course, you're going to be writing at a higher level because they need to be as good as the cover songs that you're playing. And they — The Stones, The Beatles, The Rascals, to a large extent Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes — all of us started off that way. And cover bands are basically dance bands. You know, people danced to rock 'n' roll, and [The Rascals] are the living example of that. We talk about this in the show. They were perhaps the greatest cover band of all time. Their first major national hit was a cover, "Good Lovin'." And they probably could have proceeded that way forever — or for quite a long time, anyway. But Felix had the creative ambition to be writing and Eddie, of course, was a lyricist. And they decided to take a slightly different path and began writing and became one of the great writing teams of all time. But the important part is starting off as a bar band which means a cover band which means you're learning your craft. That's the university. That's the school where you need to go in order to succeed, to have longevity, in order to accomplish anything. It all starts there, and that is typified by The Rascals.
The Rascals seem to have connected so viscerally to the '60s, the era when they achieved their greatest fame, which was a time of such turbulence and change. Do you think musicians are aware that they're writing something that will connect so powerfully to people at the time they're doing it?
Things got very esoteric, you know, the art form took over and all of a suddenly it becomes waiting for the muse and just expressing whatever it is that comes across your mind. And good things can come from that occasionally. But I much prefer writing a song that has a function. Whether that function is to make people dance, make people laugh or make people cry or express your own love for someone or sorrow that your love affair is over. Those all have very specific functions, and then truly tested in those days by whether it became a hit single or not.
There was a whole different way of measuring things back then. It was much more clear-cut. Much easier to understand. And on top of that, it was the only era in history that will ever be, I believe, when the best music being made was also the most commercial. We may never see that again. You had a very, very clear way of judging things — whether they were successful or not as craft and then satisfying or not as art. Those two things were much closer to each other in those days.
I guess it's only in hindsight that one can start to think about the impact of the band?
But The Rascals performed like a black band. Very, very, very exciting and a lot of movement, like they were coming right out of a gospel church. So they were very exciting. The most exciting live band that there was at the time. More exciting than The Stones. More exciting than anybody. And to this day, you can hear the influence of The Rascals on the E Street Band. That "roots of soul" is very, very much a big part of the E Street Band and my own solo work with the Jukes. All that, you could trace directly back to The Rascals.
Speaking of musical roots, can you talk a bit about this project you've spearheaded, the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation? What is it exactly?
Essentially we're telling kids [to] tell us what you're listening to and let's trace it back. So we have that common ground immediately with the kids. We're hoping that not only do we get a chance to inspire people and get them excited about music in general, but we're hoping to fight against the drop-out epidemic, which is out of control. Statistics show that if a kid likes one single class or one single teacher, they will come to school. And we want to be that class. And have a class that's fun. And again, we have that immediate common ground. Because that has to be established. That is the hardest part of any classroom, getting the kids interested and holding their interest. They're already into music, so we'll talk about what they're into and simply trace it back. And in tracing it back, they will learn the entire history of America and the 20th Century.
Getting back to The Rascals, what has this experience been like for them to be playing together again? Have they fallen into the same rhythms?
Marc Brickman, my partner, is one of the greatest modern staging and lighting guys in the business. We have a completely organic dimension to the technology. If you go see most rock acts or pop acts with any kind of video screens, it's all on a time code. They push a button at the beginning of the show and it just runs. This one is completely — every single song, every narration — manually operated and manually cued so the audience can participate. And so it's just a matter of the band getting used to working with the video screen and all that.
Will they play a consistent set every night?
That was going to be my next question.
While preparing for this interview, I've been listening to all my Rascals' records, and the thing that strikes me is that even though the times in which they were recording these great songs were difficult ones, there's not an ounce of cynicism in the music.
It all seems to have come directly from their hearts. It was genuine.
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