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The Underground Garage: Home / Little Steven / Essays and Speeches / Rutgers University Graduation Commencement Speech
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Rutgers University Graduation Commencement Speech



Stevie Van Zandt
Rutgers University Graduation Commencement Speech
May 14, 2017

Thank you President Barchi, Greg Brown and the rest of the Rutgers Board, with a special thank you to Susan McCue, and the distinguished Chancellors, Deans, and Academic Leaders.
And my wife Maureen, who is still correcting my spelling on this speech as we speak.
I am honored to be here.
Here at the proud alma mater of James Gandolfini.
I finally get to go to college in my home state of New Jersey!
Just like my parents always hoped!
A little late but a nice gift on Mother's Day.
Top of the world, Ma!
I imagine most people asked to do a commencement speech have achieved some great success. Accomplished something wonderful. Done something heroic.
I'm here as a cautionary tale.
I am the worlds greatest advisor not because I'm smart. But because I have screwed up every kind of way possible.
So when I suggest something, I can speak with real authority because I most likely did the opposite with a not very good result.
After a late, but promising start, I found myself in 1990 unable to work.
I had been in one the most successful bands in the world, achieved a significant level of celebrity, and I couldn't work. I was informally, unofficially blackballed by my industry for my political activity.
I calmly accepted my fate, and my mind went into a lengthy meditation.
I had just been in the Sahara desert researching the Saharawi, the People of the Western Sahara who were fighting a war with Morocco.
That's what I did in those days. I'd identify an area of conflict where our government was involved, usually on the wrong side, go check it out, and then write about it.
That would be my last research trip for a while, because when I got home, I learned I had lost my record deal, and nobody else was interested, and thus I began my New York version of wandering the wasteland, my mind went back to the Sahara desert, and I did nothing but walk my dog for the next seven years.
Gives you time to think.
To reflect.
How did I get there?
I decided if I ever worked again, I would never stop.
As I analyzed my life and began to separate that which had become inseparable, the politics from the work, I realized how lucky I had been to grow up when I did.
It was a true Renaissance period where my standards would forever be set high. It was only after years of analyzing myself at that time  that I realized what truly motivated me, what inspired me, what attracted my attention, was Greatness.
It was all around me growing up but I hadn't felt it lately.
That's what separates the vitality of life from the mundane. Somewhere over the coarse of that seven years as I walked my dog I decided Greatness would be my business. My obsession.
If I ever worked again.
I've been chasing Greatness ever since.
Seeking it out. Supporting it when I find it. Creating it when I can.
I decided life was too short to tolerate and endorse the mediocrity that most of the world was drowning in back then. And it's worse now.
The whining, the complaining, the endless excuses that get made for all the reasons why things can't happen.
I knew I'd be running in quicksand but at least I'd be fighting to preserve the lifeforce that is driven by reaching for Greatness!
Now how I got there, wandering seven years in that desert, that's the cautionary part.
My generation and I had a great start.
We were the super rich leaders of the free world after World War 2.
You should have seen us!
Masters of the Universe!
We invented the suburbs!
We constructed the entire highway system!
Everybody had a car!
We were mobile. Free!
We invented Rock and Roll!
And then we invented teenagers to dance to it!
That's right. There was no such thing as teenagers before the 50s.
You were an adolescent, had a few awkward years in between, then you were an adult. That was it.
Suddenly there was the new species of human being called a teenager. And a whole new marketplace was born to serve them.
Starting with the music.
Now this Rock and Roll thing was interesting.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, it's an ancient primitive art form you can probably still find on You Tube or ask your grandparents about it.
Actually you had another Rocker here last year giving this speech as I recall?
Anyway, Rock was unique by being the only Artform ever created half by blacks and half by whites.
Europe meets Africa.
With healthy contributions by Latinos and women.
It was for the most part white kids trying to imitate black singers and failing gloriously, creating a new hybrid of music.
It is represented quite accurately by a Elvis Presley's first single.
A single being a piece of vinyl with a song on each side, ah it doesn't matter.  
On the one side was Blues the other was Hillbilly Country.  
There it was.
From the earliest records Rock would play a role in the future of American politics.
The mix of black and white that would eventually help define our country.  
Combined with the contributions of Latinos and women the melting pot would melt in the Arts long before it would melt in society.
We're still working on that melt in society and your generation is going to have to finish that job.
Because of the tax structure at the time, 90% at the top!, we had a huge middle class, very few rich people, very few poor people.
And are you ready for this?
At one point the dollar had so much value we were seriously talking about a 4 day work week, and that was with one parent working in most households.
Oh yeah ! We started strong baby!
My generation was gonna save the world. We literally thought Rock and Roll was going to change everything.
We came into our teenage years at the peak of a musical Renaissance, as I mentioned. Where the greatest music being made was also the most commercial.
It was actually a resurrection because just before that, in the early 60s, Rock and Roll had been declared dead.
The pioneers of the 1950s that created it were suddenly  all gone.
Little Richard thought the Russians launching Sputnik was a sign from God and joined the ministry.
Chuck Berry was in jail for transporting a minor across state lines.
Elvis Presley was in the army.
Buddy Holly and Richie Valens died in a plane crash.
Jerry Lee Lewis had married his 13 year old cousin and wondered why nobody was returning his phone calls.
Everybody thought Rock and Roll was a temporary teenage fad that had come and gone.
There were some good records still being made, but things were slow.
February 9, 1964 everything changes. I refer to it as the Big Bang.
A band called The Beatles comes from England and appears on the Ed Sullivan variety show which 70 million viewers tune in for and suddenly Rock and Roll is here to stay.
They made being in a band not only fun, but essential.
Next day everybody had one. A band I mean.
And here's where we enter the picture.
Only a handful of bands actually got out of their garage where they rehearsed and mine was one of them.
For a few years that's all we thought about.
Learning that craft.
Then suddenly high school was over and everybody started disappearing.
Everybody who had an option took it.
College, military, a legit job, moved away, whatever.
And when the dust cleared there were only two guys left standing in New Jersey.
Me...and Bruce Springsteen.
Now I'd like to tell you an inspiring type commencement story about how dedicated and persistent we were about following our dream against all the odds.
But the truth is, we were freaks, misfits, and outcasts, incapable of doing anything else.
We hung in there because we had no choice.
We strengthened each other by truly believing in it. Rock and Roll had literally become my religion by then and still is today. We believed in the redemptive salvation of Music.
Bands were all about friendship. Family. The Posse. The Gang. Bands communicated community.
To this day the friendship we communicate from the stage is real.
And because of our long friendship, as long as I'm standing next to Bruce Springsteen, it's a real band.
We would have the longest apprenticeship in the history of Craft. It would be 15 years from the first gigs we played as kids to the time we actually had a hit.
The Beatles did it in 5.
The Rolling Stones did it in 3!
We were a little slow.
But what we had was tunnel vision. When you're learning a craft, you need that. Any craft.
Focus. Everything else has to wait.
Not only that, and this is where coming from New Jersey, really helped. You need time to develop.
Greatness isn't born.
It's developed.
Greatness is a decision you make.
You make that decision every day.
With everything you do no matter how small.
It's a habit like anything else.
Are you being casual, are you distracted, or are you doing it right? 100%. Whatever it is.
If as you are in the learning process you think you're somehow inadequate. Not up to the task. Then you are not measuring correctly. You are using an inaccurate method of evaluation.
You cannot be inadequate while you are developing. Give yourself a chance.
Nobody is born Great.
But you look around today. How are you supposed to aspire to greatness when you have no access to it? If society has no place for it. No expectation of it.
Have you noticed how scarce Greatness is these days?
And by the way, I'm not talking about the kind of "great" you put on a baseball cap...
I'm talking about the real thing.
I mean our contemporary society has forgotten what it is because it has no time for it.
Nobody expects to experience true Greatness. We might not even recognize it if we see it anymore.
The reason Greatness is scarce is because development is scarce.
Development takes time.
Don't let the desperate panic of mediocrity that is all around you uncomfortably hurry your development process.
Anybody who needs an answer RIGHT NOW you say no.
You will make your own opportunities.
You will have the choice to choose the path to greatness in spite of our contemporary society's low expectations.
It will be up to you.
Attention Deficit Disorder is no longer a disorder. It is nothing less than a paradigm shift.
Your brains are faster than ours were. The next generation will be faster.
You will have to find a way to separate that which is most useful when functioning quickly, like a math problem, and that which is useful to best enjoy slowly,
like...Art.
What? You thought I was gonna say sex?
Another speech, for another time.
The Arts hold a special place in the human psyche. It is the common ground spiritual center of all of humanity.
We are able to communicate through Art regardless of our language differences.
Take every opportunity to seek it out and soak it up.
The great poet WB Yeats said, "The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."
Let me say that again.
"The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper."
Art is the highest most sacred part of us. It is the Divine, transcendent part of us.
And the more conversant you are with it, the younger one starts the better, the more you will understand it. And the more it helps you understand life.
Art illuminates life. It can inspire, it can motivate. Sometimes it exaggerates to help us understand.
And it's the gift that keeps on giving because it will tell you different things at different ages.
A book, a painting, a song, a movie will have an entirely different meaning to you at different times in your lives.  
But this relationship takes development. It takes familiarity.  Ultimately the better we understand the divinity within that Art illuminates, the more inspiration and motivation to achieve Greatness in your everyday lives. In your everyday work.
Let part of your brain relax and understand that certain things are best understood and enjoyed, slowly.
That's what Yeats was talking about. That's how your senses get sharper. By slowing down.
And that is how we will once again become a society that aspires to, and surrounds ourselves with, and honors, and recognizes, and achieves Greatness.
By slowing down.
We are the only country in the world where Art is considered a luxury.
You are going to have to change that.
You might have to change administrations, but you are the generation that will put Art back in the classroom.
And back as an essential part of our quality of life for all of society.
Meanwhile, growing up in New Jersey, on the 60s, the last thing in the world we thought about was Art.
We were just trying to survive. And we were lucky because we had less pressure simply by not being New York or Philadelphia.
We also had low expectations.
And more importantly the world had low expectations of us because we were from Jersey.
We were the underdogs that somehow overcame the odds.
Nobody saw us coming.
That is something to take note of. Stay under the radar until you're ready.
Then bam! You blow minds!
If you will allow me just one quick digression, I believe you have an expression here-Jersey Roots, Global Reach.
Let me show you how that is applied. That it's not just a clever expression.
A few years ago I take a crazy job starring in a Norwegian TV show called Lilyhammer. It was Netflix' first original show.
But it was going to be all done in Norway.
With subtitles.
Everybody thought I was crazy.
Now let me get this straight, my agent says. You're gonna do some cockamamie local show in Norway after being a principal actor in one of the biggest shows of all time, The Sopranos, right?
Right.
But here's the thing.
I become one of the writers along with the husband and wife that created the idea,  and they say Norway has never sold a show outside of Norway, like ever, so they want this to be the first, and of course I want this to be the first, so they asked me how can we make the show more universal.
I think for a minute and I tell them I know exactly how to do this.
We're going to do precisely  what I watched Bruce Springsteen do, and 20 years later, what Sopranos creator David Chase did.
The way to succeed universally is to be as local and as authentic as possible.
The more authentic detail we can get in, the more the world is going to be interested. Every Norwegian eccentricity, custom, tradition, embarrassment you can think of I want in this show.
Authenticity worked for Bruce. It worked for David Chase and the Sopranos, and it worked for Lilyhammer.
Which by the way, was sold to 130 countries, and won best Comedy in the world two years in a row at the Monte Carlo World TV Awards.
Just saying.
Can you imagine the record company's faces when Bruce went in to discuss the cover of his first album and he handed them a postcard that read, "Greetings From Asbury Park"!
Now there had been stars from New Jersey-Frank Sinatra, Count Basie-but their origins were not exactly bragged about.
I mean for the 1950s comedy team Abbot and Costello it was a laugh line. Where you from Lou? Patterson, New Jersey!
Big laughs! Funny!
So Jersey Roots, Global Reach, Bruce Springsteen, Sopranos, Lilyhammer, it works.
So embrace your Jersey roots, that authenticity, Jersey Strong! Doesn't matter where you're from. You're in the Jersey family now!
Ok. Back to 1980.
I co-arrange and co-produce an album called The River. And the E Street Band finally breaks through. And just in time. We're already old by then!
We achieve the impossible dream and suddenly the tunnel vision I told you about that you need when you're learning your craft, starts to fade.
And I start wondering what I've missed in those 15 years of struggling to make it.
Keep in mind back then there are no news channels. No CNN. No computers. No cell phones.
The News was something your parents watched at 6:00.
We didn't know what was going on in the world and we couldn't have cared less.
And ok we kind of missed a few of the little things our generation was busy with-
Civil Rights. Vietnam. The Summer Of Love. Woodstock.
So we're doing our first successful arena tour in Europe and a kid comes up to me in a park and he says "why are you putting missiles in my country."
I'm like what are you tripping? Ain't nothing but a fiddle in that case.
But days later I couldn't shake it.
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Once you leave America, you're not a guitar player or a taxi driver or a Democrat or a Republican, you're an American.
This was big news to me.
Wow. I'm an American!
Well what does that mean?
I guess it means I'm responsible for what my government does. Like putting Cruise Missiles in Germany.
I didn't know any history. I didn't know anything.
So I start reading books. Which was something new for me. I read everything possible about our foreign policy since World War 2 and I'm shocked at what I'm finding out.
We're not the heroes of democracy worldwide that I thought we were, in fact we're very often on the wrong side of the conflicts and I started getting emotionally engaged about it.
I wondered why isn't anybody talking about all the Dictators we're supporting all over the place.
Why aren't we living up to our American Ideals that our Founding Fathers intended?
So I decide since nobody else is doing it, this must be my job. My destiny.
I co-produce the next E Street album called Born In The USA, and after 15 years of work, and finally having our first success, I leave the band and to dedicate myself to international liberation politics.
A decision for the history books that will never be written and a featured spot in the museum of stupid, right?
First Advice-Never leave your power base. If you're lucky enough to have one.
Born In The USA comes out and sells a gazillian copies and while the rest of the band is getting rich and buying their mansions I'm hiding under a blanket in the back seat of a car sneaking past a military blockade in Soweto as I research what's going on in South Africa.
What a schmuck.
Much to my surprise I find out that I've got a part of my brain I never knew existed.
It was the opposite of the artistic side which is always trying to find order and truth out of chaos, which I believe is the root of all Artistic compulsion.
But I happen upon this other part of my brain that functions with effortless logic. Very complex political problems suddenly had obvious solutions to me.
I outlined 44 conflicts around the world America was involved in and started looking at them more closely.
Latin America was full of despicable Dictators on our payroll and I would write about that.
I researched our atrocities and ongoing injustices toward our own Native Americans, and I wrote about that. Including the unjustly imprisoned Leonard Peltier who's still in jail.
But there was one place on my list I couldn't find much about. That was South Africa.
I read they were going through major reforms in their Apartheid System of government which didn't allow Black people to vote, and I read they kept the black population contained in ghettos, strikingly similar to what we had always done in America, and that they were invulnerable, really strong, and that was about it.
Anyway I go down there twice hoping to see reforms and instead find modern day slavery only slightly disguised and I cannot believe our government is supporting this!   
What I see is totally intolerable and decide this South African government has got to go.
Ok. How do we do this.
It wasn't much of an issue in America. You'd see an occasional demonstration but the public apathy was pathetic. It was simply not on the public radar.
But there was much more consciousness about it worldwide. The United Nations had declared sanctions as one of their very first duties after being created.
Arthur Ashe, the great African-American tennis player, had strengthened the Sports boycott, and I knew the Economic boycott would be our end game. So our job was to hook up with what was already going on and strengthen the Cultural boycott as a bridge between the successful Sports Boycott and the all important Economic Boycott.
On the title track of my second album I asked, "Where's the voice of America?"
Well we were about to find out.
We formed Artists United Against Apartheid and produced Sun City with 50 Artists on it to make the issue undeniable and unavoidable in America.
We made a point to include early HipHop artists, called Rappers back then, against everybody's advice. This Rap thing will be gone in a year why bother I was told.
I disagreed. For the first time in history black artists were expressing themselves.   
Marvin Gaye had to fight for What's Going On. Stevie Wonder also had to fight his record company to express himself.
White artists were expected to express themselves ever since Bob Dylan introduced the idea, but that was not the case for black artists until the Rappers.
Me, Dannny Schector, and Arthur Baker put Melle Mel and Run DMC right next to Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and Miles Davis.
We were simultaneously making a statement to America about our own Apartheid.
In the end it was all about getting the Economic Boycott done. Supporting Ron Dellums' Anti-Apartheid legislation. We needed a strong enough groundswell to overcome a Ronald Reagan veto which we knew was coming.
And we pulled it off.
Suddenly college campuses just like this one came alive with protests.
The Senators' and Congressman's children were seeing our video on MTV and BET and were demanding their fathers do something about it.
It was the first time Ronald Reagan had a veto overturned and the rest fell like dominoes just the way we wrote it up on paper.
The banks cut off South Africa they had to release Nelson Mandela.
It was a stunning defeat for Reagan at the time.
He was God back then to many.
But they never saw us coming.
Until it was too late.
There's an equation for revolution, if you want to jot it down.
Have a righteous cause, do the research, organize, strategize, execute.
We did it once so it could be done again.
Granted, it was a rare complete victory in the world of international liberation politics, where success is measured one inch at a time.
I wasn't a big enough celebrity to pull it off. It was done by the celebrity of my friends and sheer righteous, irrational willpower.
In addition to whatever issue I was engaged in at the time, my intention was to politicize all my important friends. And make political engagement a normal part of our business.
And that's what's happened.
But back then, it wasn't cool.
You could have social concerns. Feed the hungry like the amazing Bob Geldof and the wonderful work of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.
But crossing that line into politics. Naming names. Pointing your finger at people, at corporations, as the source of the problems, as opposed to some natural disaster?
That wasn't cool. That was dangerous.
Oh my god a bunch of crazy artists just brought down a government!
The record companies started getting concerned.
Are we next?
So...I walked my dog for seven years until the heat died down.
And the industry eventually adjusted to Artists being more outspoken and politically active as a normal part of our business.
Mission accomplished.
At the same time the college campuses have become more politically conscious as well.
And that energy exchange between music and students, gets things done.
Near the end of my exile, the phone rings.
Hello, this is David Chase. You want to be in my new TV show?
Hey I'll take a shot. I got nothing else to do.  
And a whole new adventure opened up that I didn't plan. And all I had to do, was take the high standards I had with music, and make them the same high standards for Acting.
And off I went. Once again doing what I do best.
Chasing Greatness!
So let's sum up, shall we?
What have I learned from this crazy life?
A few things that might come in handy.
When your ship comes in, you'll probably be at the airport.
Meaning you can make plans, but keep your eyes open for unexpected opportunities because that's where most of life comes from.
Keep your standards high no matter what. Don't compare yourself to your contemporaries. Compare yourself to the best.
Do your homework before you open your mouth.
Find a way to do what you love because you're gonna be doing it a long time.
Hang out as often as you can with people smarter and better than you.
Finish what you start.  
Don't listen to excuses and negativity about why something can't be done.
Don't tolerate incompetence and mediocrity.
Have pride in whatever work you do. If you're gonna do something, do it right.
When it comes to Art, slow down. It's not a Math problem. Let the senses soak it in.
And give a little bit back on a regular basis. Doesn't matter how small. You don't have to bring down a bad government every day, just do something nice for somebody. You'll feel better.
My generation was going to change the world. We started some things, but you've got to finish them.
We got civil rights and voting rights passed, now gerrymandering and voter suppression is taking it away.
We started women's rights, gay rights, transgender rights, you've got to finish it.
You've got separation of church and state behind you, but be aware the biggest threat to this country is religious extremists some foreign, mostly domestic.
We established environmental protection. And now the environment is under attack like never before.
You know the future is Green.
I know the future is Green. You've got to finish the job.
And don't be confused by all the cute scientific phrases like Global Warming or Climate Change.
Just remember this.
It's pollution. It's poison.
There is no acceptable level poison in our air, food, ground, or water.
None. Zero. Zip. Niente. Nada.
I leave you with this.
My father was a proud ex-Marine Goldwater Republican.
He wouldn't recognize the Party now.
I paraphrase Barry Goldwater as a tribute to my late father:
Extremism in defense of the environment is no vice!
And moderation in the pursuit of stopping pollution is no virtue!
Lead us into a Green future.
Reach for Greatness. Nothing less.
But make sure you have some fun along the way.
Life should never be boring!
Congratulations!
Go get 'em!