By Jeff Moses
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Lots of music fans have a cult-favorite band, and lots of those cult members certainly believe they'd spend 30 years of their life, on and off, trying to get them back together. E Street Band guitarist and Rascals fan Steven Van Zandt was part of an even smaller subset — a fan with the resources and connections to actually test that devotion.
After a string of R&B hits like "Good Lovin'" and "A Beautiful Morning" and a struggle to evolve in more experimental directions, The Rascals broke up for good in the early '70s. "I was trying to reunite them starting in — 1982," Van Zandt says, seeming to count backward from his final, successful attempt. "They weren't ready. So I stayed in touch with them. Every five years, 10 years, you know, 'Are you guys ready yet?' 'No.'"
In print, Van Zandt makes those first 25 years of feelers and rejections seem casual, almost leisurely — a few disinterested phone calls in each direction, a couple of times a decade, no big deal. In person, it's different; in person, everything he says is suffused with an unmistakable enthusiasm for the band's work.
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That enthusiasm went public in 1997, when he began a speech marking their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by declaring The Rascals "the first rock band in the world" and ended it by bringing all the original members onto the same stage — the closest he'd come yet.
But again, things didn't quite work. "They're very idealistic," Van Zandt says. "They take their legacy and their work seriously." It wasn't until 2010 that he was able to present something that would appeal to that idealism and that seriousness at the same time; that year's benefit for the Kristen Ann Carr fund seemed to speak to that idealism.
At the time, though, it could have been another one-off. It would take another idea to appeal to The Rascals' carefulness with their own legacy.
"If I'm going to do a reunion," Van Zandt says, reaching back to 2010, "I need a real tour." But preliminary conversations about a national tour fizzled out. Younger promoters didn't remember them like he did; they didn't see the draw. "The more we talked about it, the more we realized that this reunion is not going to work for the industry economically, and it's probably not going to work for the Rascals artistically."
But after 30 years, it would take more than a lack of recognition to phase the band and their most active fan. The solution — the one that ended up on Broadway and is touring through Phoenix this month — is a striking hybrid of stage-show acting, documentary filmmaking, and live performance. If too few people remembered The Rascals, the history would have to come to them.
Van Zandt is excited about The Rascals — the set list is a precise mix of hits and lost album tracks — and he's excited about the show. But he ends our conversation just as excited about an unintended side effect of his unwillingness to abandon the past. "What started to come through to me after I saw the show a few times was that people were leaving with this beatific, sort of enlightened look on their face, like they'd just been to some religious experience, you know? And I found that very curious at first . . . But I think I get it. They're experiencing optimism for the first time."
Amid all the social tumult of the '60s, he says, trying to read on my face whether I was born in the '80s or the '90s, "You still had this incredible air of hope and optimism.
"Now we're walking around totally depressed — all the time, all of us. And we're in denial about it, of course. This show is sort of like a cleansing of the bullshit and the bad news, and a little reminder that such a thing as hope and optimism once existed and should again . . . we put you in the '60s for two hours."
Which is nothing more or less than what he's been trying to do since the early '80s.