OK Rufus, today I am going to talk to you about the first Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul album, Men Without Women.
Yes, I am aware you are a dog. You’re my dog, which means you should be well versed in awesome music and this album qualifies as awesome.
Huh? Why was it called “Men Without Women”? I dunno, all I know is that it was named after the book of short stories by Earnest Hemingway.
In January of 1983, I made my first trip to New York City, the big apple, to celebrate my grandmothers 75 birthday.
What? Yes, OK, it wasn’t Manhattan proper, it was Westchester.
And even though we were only going for a weekend, I was beyond excited. Being from Ohio, New York City always seemed like the epicenter of cool and hip. I could only base that off movies and television (I had yet to really discover NYC music)…and my perception of my Westchester relatives (who were definitely way cooler that my Ohio bumpkin ass).
As my family drove from the airport to the little hotel in the tony enclave of Chappaqua, New York, I was riding shotgun. I was noodling around on the radio trying to find something to listen to and just as I felt my father was about to snap I heard the organ intro to a song. It sounded “rockish” so I stopped thinking it best not to rattle my fathers cage so I paused.
The song? “Black Coffee in Bed” by Squeeze.
Clearly, I was hooked.
I’ll get to Little Steven, relax dog! No, I don’t really know why the song hooked me? I didn’t drink coffee back then but it just seemed just enough of a sentiment that my burgeoning sexuality could understand.
The weekend in Westchester remains kind a of a blur but I recall going into “the city” for the first time (my grandmother telling me to put my money in my shoe…seriously, NYC was still kind of edgy). Being such a short visit, and one that was rather liquid, I don’t remember too much about the weekend because it was a short visit, but I know it was A LOT of fun and the whole family celebrated…it didn’t hurt that one might have thought my aunt and uncles basement was home to a sit-in of Rastafarians.
But familial festivities aside, I had my musical tastes taken to the cleaners that weekend.
I had been raised on a mixture of southern rock (Molly Hatchet, Lynyrd Synyrd) and crappy rock (Styx, Kansas) and even though I read A LOT about music (Rolling Stone, Creem) and I genuinely liked a lot of that music, to say my musical tastes were limited in scope was an understatement.
On this particular weekend, my cousins gave me a solid education in musical taste. Albeit indirectly and probably unknowingly. First, they taught me it was OK to like a bunch of different things. You didn’t need to only like one genre. It was OK to like The Stray Cats, Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin. Good music is good music.
No dummy, it wasn’t a formal schooling, I just looked, nay studied, their record collection.
Secondly, they introduced me to Bruce Springsteen. Now, of course, I knew of him, but hadn’t really considered him before. I didn’t get it (and wouldn’t until Tunnel of Love).
Lastly, they introduced me to Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul, fronted by Steve Van Zandt, aka Miami Steve, guitarist and producer for Springsteen’s E Street Band. I remember pulling the album out and looking at the cover and was struck by the way it looked. It was simple and interesting. It’s a great example of how important graphic design is to an album. I was intrigued.
I wasn’t hip to the fact that members of other bands would, or even could, go out on their own and make records. That wasn’t something I had read about back then. Of course, that eventually became quite the trend, but back then, it seemed foreign to me.
I have no recollection of actually hearing the album that weekend (it’s possible, but the whole weekend is filled with happy hazy memories). However, I do recall seeing the video for “Forever” that weekend, which seemed to perfectly marry the sights, sound and vibe of New York City back then. A good quality video of the song is hard to find because it seems as though someone is keeping a tight fist around his work but click here to see a shitty version of the video – keen eyes will see E Streeters Max Weinberg and the late Danny Federici).
“The hardest lesson to learn girl, is how to take it inside”
Of course, New York City has changed dramatically and is a far cry from what it looked like in that video, but if you listen to the album, you can still hear the best of what New York City was about back then. You can feel the artistry. Music used to be about art first and commerce second. Not so much anymore.
Why? Well, 1983 saw NYC coming out of its most statistically violent year and seemed to be divided into three classes, the rich, the poor and the artists. Now, it’s just the rich and the poor…most artists have been pushed either way out into Brooklyn, upstate or out-of-state.
I’ve read over the years that Van Zandt recorded this album by having the band in one room playing in a circle so they could all see one another to help capture the vibe of the songs and perpetuate the solidarity of the band. It was a recording technique that had grown out of favor as recording technology developed (just because you have 48 tracks, doesn’t mean you need to use them). I’d also read that he did very few overdubs. If you know even a scintilla about recording, you know that not only is recording like that a pretty big undertaking and but to do it with a minimal amount of overdubbing? One step away from incredible.
After the lost weekend of my grandmother’s 75th birthday, it shouldn’t come as a shock that it would take a few months for me to remember the name of the album. It eventually came to me after seeing the video again on MTV. I had to “special order” it from my record store and waited impatiently for it to come in.
And when it did and I got to hear the whole album? Of course, it stirred up a lot of the fond memories of that weekend and that obviously influenced the way I heard the album, but there was something…classically modern about the way it sounded. It was the spirit of do-wop and the sound of garage rock, rock and roll, some blues and even pop thrown in for good measure.
It was like a musical bouillabaisse made specifically for me! More importantly, it connected me to New York. A connection that would take a few years for me to fully realize.
Most certainly, it was unlike anything I had, or would, ever hear on the radio in Ohio.
As I look back on albums I have really loved, I tend to think about how many times, and in what different forms of media, I have owned them. Like the Lone Justice album (that Van Zandt played on and produced) I’ve owned Men Without Women on vinyl, cassette and twice on CD (the last time paying $20 for a Japanese import – I moved a lot and had a tendency to misplace things).
Van Zandt would stay on with the Springsteen and the E Street Band to record and produce the monumentally successful Born in the U.S.A. in 1984 before completely embracing his solo career (he would re-join the E Street Band in 1999). During that time he became, and remains, an activist, a producer, Sirius DJ, entrepreneur and showrunner (Netflix’s FIRST original show Lilyhammer) and God knows the things I have no idea about. Makes me wonder when this guy actually sleeps.
Despite all the amazing work he did in music (and there really is a lot to dig into and so much of it is truly amazing), Steven Van Zandt became best known as playing consigliere (and titty bar owner) Silvio Dante on HBO’s The Soprano’s. If one believes show creator David Chase, a role that was specifically written for Van Zandt despite virtually no acting experience.
BUT, if you take a beat and think about the Silvio Dante role you realize just how perfectly it suited Van Zandt; it’s not too far off mark from the various hats he has worn in his musical career, but perhaps most prominently worn with the E Street Band.
So, as summer finally begins to creep up on us and if you have never heard Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul album Men Without Women, you should.
It’s as classic a New York City rock and roll album as any other you have heard of.