Q: Why did you leave the band?
A: Because for whatever reason, you know, Dan couldn’t give me any of the songwriting pie. We never ever even tried one of my songs, not for 30 seconds. And I recognize the validity of one argument, which was he established himself in such a way that another presence wouldn’t make sense. But at the same time it’s, like, no. I would have been pretty satisfied with a couple of tunes. I didn’t even have a mike at that show.
Q: I noticed.
A: Look, I’m not going to ask for one. If he wants to look around the stage and go, “Hmm, how can we make this better by using every voice?” Woody and I both sing. But at the same time we had a lot to do and we were doing it the way we did it. And to go into resentment about that now that would have been the biggest fuckup on the stage. I was at peace with that, in that it was what it was. It was formative for me. And the fact that I was in that band still opens a bunch of doors for me. When I’m sitting in a room on a project and I’m meeting a team who’s doing a documentary or something, there’s often one or two guys there who are like, “Oh man, I remember the Del Fuegos.” And it lends me a certain authenticity that helps me in my workplace. It’s of value. But I’d still characterize it as a fuckup. We were a very fearful bunch of dudes, and so we didn’t have the comfort where we could sit in the room and go, “Okay, what are all of our assets? Let’s use every single one of them.” The bands that really get powerful do that. Who can sing? Who can play a second instrument? Who could play a third? Let’s use it all. Who can write? Let’s hear your songs.
Q: So you’re saying there was fear within the group that prevented you from –
A: From really doing it, yeah. I would say it happens to more bands than not. I was telling Graham Parker about this idea, and he was saying that the one thing that really stuck with him from when he worked with Jack Nietzsche was Nietzsche saying that the Stones really put egos aside. I mean, you had the Jagger/Richards songwriting monopoly, but when it came down to making the song as good as it could be, anything was possible. Just let the best shit come to the fore. And our fear kept us from doing that. We were young.
Q: Do you reflect on that now as a group or as brothers? Do you guys talk about it?
A: I’m the most verbose, I would say. I talk about it and people nod. I talk about it a little with Dan. I don’t know if it’s because of my years of teaching or what, but I’m the chatterbox.
Q: Let me ask you about that. You went to school after your run in the band. You have two masters degrees and a doctorate. Where were you headed? Where were you thinking your life was going to go?
A: I was going to be a university professor. It was really the only way it would go. I was applying for jobs and then the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame called me. And there was suddenly this one job where they wanted both sides of me. They wanted the guy who played music and they wanted the academic. So it changed things for me in a really good way. And from there on out interesting things just kept coming my way, you know, from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to getting signed by the Dust Brothers to working with Little Steven to working on the George Harrison documentary for Martin Scorsese to the Petty book [Zanes is writing an authorized biography of Tom Petty], all of it.
Q: So what are your plans for the new record? You’ve got a day job. You’re a single dad raising two kids. Now you’ve got this musical document of your midlife trauma. What kind of life do you imagine the album will have?
A: Well, I’ll probably do a handful of shows in the fall, but mostly it’s kind of let’s see what happens. Records have a different life now. They have a longer life, which is a good thing, because as we know, everything has changed. You can be active with a quote unquote product for a longer period of time. I’m obviously not an aiming for the top of the charts kind of guy, and I’m not going to be doing a lot of touring. But you just don’t know. If the right song hits the right person and it gets in a show or something, it can have this interesting life. I don’t have a great answer for the question. But when I listened to it the other day I felt really good about what I’d made.
Q: Do you have a to-do list?
A: The Petty book is important to me. I think rock and roll became a presence so quickly that we just accepted it as a part of the landscape and didn’t really think that much about how strange it is, and how strange what it does is, and the Petty book affords me the opportunity to really look at that. Because there he is: he’s a kid, he dug ’50s rock and roll but really he came of age after the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. He’s one of those baby boomer guys who put all his chips on rock and roll. Couldn’t connect with his father. Wasn’t into hunting and fishing. He’s down there in Florida. He messed up so many things. The only thing he could really do was rock and roll, and he did it really well. But he didn’t do it really well right out of the box. He learned how to do it. There’s a bigger historical moment to look at in that, and we will never see it again. So I want to look at that in that book. And then Little Steven’s project, wherever that goes, it’s going to be great. It’s a middle and high school history of rock and roll curriculum. Again, it’s a story that needs to be told. I’ve had so many university classes where kids don’t know who Bob Dylan is. It freaks me out, of course, as it should. The next intense musical moment is out there, it’s being developed out in the margin somewhere by some kid in a basement. It’s just like it always has been, but young people need to know that that’s the pattern. If they want to be a part of it, they first need to know that it happens. And so I think that’s one reason to tell the story. The other reason to tell the story of rock and roll is that it’s an amazing story about race, and our racial problems seem to me like they’re on the increase rather than the decrease. This is an amazing story about mostly young white people connecting with black culture and creating something that really changed the world because of it. What a story to tell. That’s meaningful to me. And there’s the class thing. It’s the shit kickers of the world who really contributed the most to rock and roll. It’s the disempowered, racially, class-wise. Not gender-wise, though. That’s where rock n’ roll disappoints.
Q: No kidding.
A: I hate it. I’m not going to name names, but there’s a book about how rock and roll changed gender. Bullshit. It changed some things but it’s as regressive as it can get in relation to gender.
Q: To this day.
A: It’s always been my point not to gloss that one over. Because we can talk about the revolutionary effects of rock and roll but let’s not get into bullshit. The greatest essay that I read as an undergrad that was titled “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” It was all about the institutional structures that disallowed the involvement of women.
Q: Just the fact that we have to put it under the banner of women in rock, I mean, there are no Rolling Stone special issues dedicated to the men of rock.
A: Yeah, exactly. You’re right. I’m working on a project on backup singers right now. They all talk about the challenges of having to get into really fucking short skirts and having to dance while they sing. And it’s just like okay, here’s the territory of the feminine.
Q: I don’t know where you find the time to do everything you do. Time does not feel like a friend to me.
A: Me either.
Q: And yet this growing sense of mortality that comes in midlife is a positive. I feel like it’s juice and that it gives me energy and urgency to do things. I think that’s actually one of the gifts of age, the feeling like you have to be in a hurry to accomplish things.
A: I’ve felt so slothful lately. I mean, the truth is my productivity went way down. I will always be proud of how I really fucking focused on my kids in this time. But my work –it got a lot tougher, in part because being left offered that opportunity to devalue myself. And I did. And my work went with it. And I think that’s one reason people should talk about things like divorce, because that’s a real pitfall. You have been rejected. It’s a truth. Don’t obscure it behind a needlepoint saying. You’ve got to keep on keeping on, but your productivity is going to go down. And it’s been hard to reconcile myself with that.