Steven Van Zandt recalls Spark who lit ‘Sun City’ All-Star LP
1985 Star Album City of the sun came from an unexpected place. In his new book Unrequited fads, Steven Van Zandt remembers sitting in a Los Angeles movie theater waiting for Jean-Luc Godard’s film Breathless to begin with, and a song started playing that knocked him out.
After the movie ended, he knocked on the projectionist’s door to find out who performed the song. “Peter Gabriel”, they told Van Zandt. “Biko.” “I had never heard of any of them,” he admitted.
With a little research, Van Zandt uncovered the story of the two people. He was troubled by the story of Stephen Biko in particular, a black anti-apartheid activist in South Africa who was assassinated in 1977 while in prison.
Van Zandt, who had previously compiled a “list of America’s questionable and mostly hidden alien entanglements since World War II,” added South Africa to his list and got to work.
He writes in depth in Unrequited fads on how the Artists United Against Apartheid album City of the sun emerged from a session for a single song. Van Zandt was able to enlist almost everyone on his wishlist for the single and LP, with a few exceptions – including Frank Zappa, who told Van Zandt he didn’t want to be part of his “recording of insane bullshit “. He got a different negative response from Paul Simon, who then questioned Van Zandt’s support for Nelson Mandela, wondering how the former E Street Band guitarist could support someone who “was clearly a Communist”.
Van Zandt shares other memories of the project with the UCR.
When you did City of the sun, at what point have you thought about being potentially blacklisted by the industry for the whole thing?
I haven’t really thought about it. I was getting death threats and that sort of thing, which you would expect. White supremacists were already there and existed. They’ve only come out of the shadows for the past four years, and all of a sudden they’re celebrating their white supremacy. But they were there even then. I hadn’t realized how dangerous I had become in the eyes of companies. Feeding Africans is one thing; bringing down governments, you know, that makes people a little nervous. [Laughs] And we did. These 50 artists and all these engineers who worked for free, and all these musicians. Man, that was a global movement. We just kind of gave a little spark.
We gave him a spark that really got him across the finish line. But it was already there for years and [was] very strong in Europe. It wasn’t much of a problem in America, however. That’s kind of how we sneaked up on it, I think. People didn’t see us coming. But all over the world it was huge. I mean, unions in Europe, man – if you were on that UN blacklist you weren’t going to work. They were really serious. We kind of jumped on that train that was already moving, but like I said, we gave it that last kick that I think got it over the finish line.
I didn’t know how organically City of the sun became a real album. It seems like it would have been cool to watch those moments, which were originally envisioned as guest appearances on a track evolve into their own songs.
Yeah yeah. We have a documentary that came out at that time. In fact, we won the International Documentary Association Award. Now we are talking about really updating it. [We now have] hours of footage that should be seen, interviews with everyone on this recording. And half of them are gone, man. I definitely want to update this documentary. I’m talking to Hart Perry, who made the original [film] and others who can. It’s just a great moment in time, and it really documents how it became an album from a song in a totally organic way. You are so right.
Watch “The Creation of Sun City”
It seems like anyone who has met Miles Davis has some great stories. Your experience was no exception.
I really couldn’t believe it when he walked in. I mean, he’s just one of those guys that’s just a real mythological dude. He’s just one of those very, very rare cats that is something else. Some other species. I had it on my list right away. I was lucky – one of my former sound recorders was his sound recordist. I had this path and discovered something that turned out to be a very big passion for him – [something] that you couldn’t really know. We had some luck with it, but he was really, really into it. To show up, I mean, he walked in at, like, two in the morning, and he just doesn’t do these things. I can’t think of another example of something multi-artist he was involved in. I think it could have been the only one. But he was really, really serious about it.
He played for about five minutes. I had 10 seconds of him in the intro and 10 seconds in the middle. I’m like, “I’m not leaving four and a half minutes of Miles Davis on the floor, what are you, crazy?” [Laughs] We got lucky and called Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and said, ‘Do you want to come in? They were also in the subject and the problem, and they entered. They played what he played, and boom there was another full song. Completely legitimate and really very artistically interesting. This is how it happened. The Rappers – Miss Mel raps, boom, Arthur Baker made a song out of it. Gil Scott-Heron, rapper, we made a montage of news footage and cool stuff.
Peter Gabriel came in and just started singing. A strange African song, out of nowhere. It simply expresses the pure and painful emotion. It was his song “Biko” that got me into it in the first place. He just got that cry from the soul. Then he started to harmonize with himself and then Tom Lord-Alge, I think he did, and the drummer, come in at night and put some drums on it. Boom, there’s another song. Bono wrote a song for the occasion. So it turned out to be the ultimate organic artistic endeavor, which we hadn’t anticipated at all. We were hoping to have five or six artists participating in the single. One of each kind, you know, just so everyone’s kind of represented. And boom, it turned into 50 artists. Danny Schechter, Arthur Baker and Hart Perry, without these three guys it wouldn’t have happened.
Listen to “The Struggle Continues” by Miles Davis
You have almost everyone you’ve contacted: Gabriel, Davis, Bob Dylan. It’s really impressive to come out of it.
We just got very lucky, I think. I mean, it’s just the right timing. Lots of life is good timing. We just hit the right topic at the right time, even though we were sort of educating a lot of people who were on it. We were sort of educating [them] as we were going. Some had heard of it. They knew a bit more, but in the end we all made them experts in the field. Everyone wanted to participate in this question. Prejudice continues to be a huge factor in our own country, which is one of the reasons we have done it. But it was pretty much slavery [in South Africa]. It was so unpleasant that people wanted to participate, and I was lucky. I think they felt that I was a results oriented guy. I had ADD long before it was all the rage, man. I don’t have the patience, and I totally respect anyone who has the patience to feed the Africans, and then they starve again next week and you feed them again. And you still feed them. I say to myself, “Why are they starving? Let’s fix it. This is how I think. I don’t have the patience to gain two inches and back up an inch. I always feel like I’m trying to catch up. I’m a little late and I don’t have time. I hate wasting time.
You write in the book that you weren’t familiar with the music of Peter Gabriel until you heard “Biko,” which is about something that I hear a lot from artists: you’re so busy. work that sometimes you can have someone like Gabriel, who was with Genesis and had a solo career, but until you heard “Biko” he wasn’t on your radar.
Yeah, it just happens to be a genre that I’ve never been in, all that progressive rock stuff. I probably appreciate it more now. But at that point, you are who you love and you are building your identity. They just didn’t fit in. They were in this muso world, the world of more sophisticated musicians which, frankly, did not interest me. I’m a songwriter. I am focused on the song. I start to lose my patience after two and a half minutes. [Laughs]
Back to ADD.
[Laughs] Yes. This is how I am, and this is how I program my radio stations. This is how I go through life. I’m just, like, “Action, man! Let’s keep moving here! Life is just too boring! Let’s do something, please!
The book reveals a pretty big beef with Paul Simon. How surprised were you when this fell?
I really like Paul. I really do. We have had great conversations over the years. I totally respect his work. He is one of the great writers of the second generation. You know, for him to compete with the British invasion, like he did and hold on, I mean, that’s quite an accomplishment in the 60s. But it was just a problem. we just couldn’t agree on. To this day, he still thinks he’s right. You know, it’s like, “Paul, we proved we were right and you were wrong!” He just doesn’t want to hear it. Because he has a different philosophy on things. I understand that, but going against Nelson Mandela and going against the ANC, PAC, AZAPO … you know, the whole anti-apartheid movement and say that you know better than them? It was a bit arrogant. A little.
So he has a bit of arrogance in him, as we all do from time to time. I was trying to keep the music family together. That’s why I ended up not criticizing the artists who had performed in Sun City, you know? I said, “No, no. They have been manipulated. They were duped into doing so. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and until they come back, let’s forget about it. That’s what we did. Everyone has been withdrawn. I removed from the UN boycott list all those who had played there. I said, “You know, they’ve been manipulated, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt.” In the end, we kind of kept the musical family pretty close together with the exception of Paul, who left on his own.
He was making great music, but at that time the priority was not to bring South African music to the world. The priority was to free South Africa from slavery, [the time could come] later for South African music. We had a few South Africans on the record ourselves. But that was just one of those things. He was the only exception. I was never mad at him, really. I like it.
Watch the full UCR interview with ‘little’ Steven Van Zandt
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