Times Pop Music Critic

Steve Van Zandt has gone from radical outcast to hero in the record business. But is that going to help him sell albums?

Van Zandt had a hard time even getting a record contract two years ago when he put together the "Sun City" single, a blistering attack on apartheid in South Africa. His two solo LPs had raised suspicions among record executives that Van Zandt was too political to attract more than a cult following.

Lighten up , execs told him. No one wants to hear about what's going on in South Africa and Latin America. Do a few benefits if you must, but don't throw your career away .

But "Sun City"--which brought together an all-star lineup including Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Bruce Springsteen, U2's Bono Hewson and Ruben Blades--sold well enough to crack the Top 40 and was hailed by many pop critics as 1985's most compelling single.

Yet the record industry still exhibited little interest in signing Van Zandt, who was once a mainstay in Springsteen's E Street Band as lead guitarist.

"The funny thing about 'Sun City' was that it confirmed (industry) people's worst fears about me," Van Zandt said recently, sitting in the patio of a West Hollywood hotel.

"I think that a lot of companies felt there was a limited audience for what I was doing, which I disagreed with completely. I'm not doing what I do for a cult audience. I believe that this is the kind of thing a lot of people are thinking about.

"They're gonna be thinking more about it because we had gotten to a point in (pop music) where the pendulum had swung so far (from social comment) that it had hit a wall."

Van Zandt, 36, is hopeful the pendulum is swinging back fast enough for radio to give his new album (just released by Manhattan Records) the kind of wide exposure denied his last two collections.

As its title suggests, "Freedom--No Compromise" is no retreat on Van Zandt's part. In the eight songs, Van Zandt touches on U.S. involvement in Central America, the treatment of Native Americans and--once more--apartheid.

"I think the environment's changed significantly in the last three years for the album to have a better chance of being accepted," he said. "A lot of things have happened to make people aware there are problems in this world that need addressing. . . . The Amnesty International tour last year, Live Aid and the headlines every day in the paper.

"A lot of this goes to prove that the line between social concerns and political concerns is very small, really. In most people's minds they're even one and the same, which I think is good. In other words, whether it's political, like South Africa, or social things, like hunger, it's people talking about life . . . reality. "

Van Zandt--who records under the name Little Steven and looks like a Gypsy with his trademark bandanna and colorful, flowing shirts--identifies strongly with the social consciousness of '60s rock, though he wasn't an activist during his teen years. He was trying to get his own band started in New Jersey, where he played many of the same clubs as Springsteen.

But he has since come to respect the role rock played in shaping and reflecting social concerns in the '60s, and he has dedicated his own career to reviving some of that flame. His second solo album, 1984's "Voice of America," was an especially stark reflection on world tensions.

The new "Freedom--No Compromise" is equally committed, but the music is more accessible.

About the more accessible tone of the new LP, Van Zandt said, "I wanted more space . . . more rhythm this time. I didn't want to have to fill up every song with lyrics. But the records also reflect some changes in me.

"In the past I had so much I wanted to say, so quickly and so urgently. . . . I didn't know when--or if--I'd be able to make another record and I wanted to get it all out.

"This time, I've been out looking at these things now for six or seven years so I have a little distance from them in terms of political maturity. And I feel confident that there is a place for me. . . . I can see more albums."

Van Zandt wrote "Sun City" in 1985 at the same time he wrote most of the songs on this album. But he decided to release it as a single because of its timeliness. It became a rallying point and morale booster for anti-apartheid forces in this country.

"I hoped that it would give a shot in the arm to the whole economic boycott and divestment movement, which it did," said Van Zandt.

"It was also designed to tell the South Africans (opposed to apartheid) that there are people in America who care about them, which was very important because we are looked upon as part of the reason why they were being oppressed. But they are also very sophisticated about separating the government from the people."

Van Zandt, who is joined by Springsteen on one track on the new album, laughs about the tabloid report a few weeks ago that his pal is considering running for governor of New Jersey.

Despite the increased commentary in the works of artists like Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Van Zandt, he can't picture a songwriter running for office.

"The two worlds seem contradictory to me," he said. "There's a certain built-in compromise in a politician's life that is the opposite of what an artist is supposed to do. The politician's job is to go from city to city and have a different rap for each audience to win their votes. The artist is to supposed to go from city to city and have the same rap."

Van Zandt is waiting to see how the record is received before deciding if he'll form a band and tour.

"The interesting thing I find is time works for me," he said. "If this album had come out January of '85, who knows? I don't know if people would have been any more receptive than they were to 'Voice of America.' But now I think it has a chance. The odd thing--the sad thing--is that these songs are every bit as relevant now as they were in 1985."

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