2017 Commencement Speaker
Steven Van Zandt
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts
Steven Van Zandt is an internationally known musician, songwriter, arranger, record producer, actor, writer, radio disc jockey, and human rights activist. Rutgers is proud to bestow upon Van Zandt an honorary doctor of fine arts degree.
Also known as Little Steven, Van Zandt is perhaps best recognized as a guitarist and influential member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and for his portrayal of Silvio Dante in HBO’s The Sopranos.
Van Zandt’s early friendships with Bruce Springsteen and other local musicians while growing up at the Jersey Shore provided a rich proving ground in which to parlay his talents into a lifelong career. In the early ‘70s, he played with Springsteen’s band Steel Mill, The Bruce Springsteen Band, The Dovells, and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Van Zandt rejoined Springsteen and was a member of the E Street Band from 1975 to 1984, working closely with him and coproducing the iconic albums The River (1980) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984). In 1982, he organized Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul and released Men Without Women that year. He left the E Street Band on amicable terms in April 1984 and released the second Disciples of Soul album, Voice of America, that spring. He later released three additional solo albums, often with political undercurrent: Freedom – No Compromise; Revolution; and Born Again Savage. After 15 years, he rejoined the E Street Band in 1999. In 2014, he and his fellow E Street Band members were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Van Zandt has continued to push his creative boundaries. In 1999, having no previous professional acting experience, he auditioned for the now iconic role of Silvio Dante in HBO’s The Sopranos, a role he played for all seven seasons of the hit series. In 2012, Van Zandt cowrote, executive produced, and starred in Netflix’s first original series, Lilyhammer. Van Zandt codirected and coproduced The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream, a theatrical rock concert on Broadway in 2013. The project was particularly special since The Rascals were the first band he ever saw live, an experience that inspired Van Zandt at an early age. He has written theme songs for film and television, including “All Alone on Christmas” from Home Alone 2 and “Lilyhammer Nocturne” from Lilyhammer. Each week, his broadcasts of Little Steven’s Underground Garage and Outlaw Country are heard by millions of listeners worldwide. Van Zandt’s Garage Rock label, Wicked Cool Records, which evolved from his radio show, is home to more than 25 bands and has released several critically acclaimed compilations featuring music from the Underground Garage.
Music is at the heart of Van Zandt’s philanthropic endeavors. In the 1980s, he produced a diverse group of musicians, Artists United Against Apartheid, who recorded the song Sun City to protest South Africa’s policy of racial segregation. He went on to create the Solidarity Foundation to promote the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and to foster economic development in harmony with the earth. He has been honored twice by the United Nations for his human rights achievements. Today, TeachRock.org, spearheaded by Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, works to inspire student creativity and artistry amidst cuts to arts funding in schools. The program offers interdisciplinary, arts-driven middle and high school curricula at no cost. In partnership with PBS, students can explore the history of music making across genres through archival material and interactive tools in the eight-part Soundbreaking series. Lessons are tailored for students in social studies, language arts, geography, science, and general music classes.