By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
Picture this. It’s New Jersey in 1974. The turbulent 60’s are over, the 70’s are taking shape. A young, eager 23 year-old drummer from the burbs of Newark is wondering what will come next.
He’s been hammering along on the local band circuit, even dabbling in some theater work, but deep down, he’s wondering just how his music career will go, or if he’ll even end up with a music career. He has no earthly idea that he is about to hit the music career lottery of all music career lotteries, one that will change his life forever.
“I’d been playing in the Broadway show of Godspell plus I was doing club dates, playing top 40 music, whenever and wherever I could,” Max Weinberg told me. “I was living at home with my parents, and also going to college. But mostly, I’d been looking for that kind of connection, I think everyone in the E Street Band has that story, we had all really been looking for that connection musically. And lo and behold, it pops into my life, in the form of Bruce Springsteen and his band.”
There are important moments in one’s life, and then there are seminal, life-altering, profoundly important moments. Walking in to audition for this young up and coming fellow Jersey-ite named Springsteen was that moment for Max Weinberg. But it was more than just an audition. Once this burgeoning version of the E Street Band hit that first note together at Weinberg’s audition, they all knew it was gonna be something very special. And Weinberg sensed from minute one that this scraggly guy with the bushy black hair and wiry frame was not your ordinary musician.
“I didn’t know who he was. I knew that he was on Columbia Records, so he was doing better than I was. But at that first audition, it was like falling in love. The first song I played with Bruce, I could immediately tell, man, this is something I’d never experienced with any musician. The control, the direction, the intensity with which he played. And what was also interesting was how Clarence (Clemons), Garry (Tallent), Danny (Federici) and the others responded to him. That’s the hardest thing to get in a band, everybody pushing in the same direction. So it was five of us, and we had a great time. It turned into a three hour kind of jam session.”
That historical three hour jam session in 1974 would be the building block for one of music’s most illustrious and successful musical stories, as Weinberg would begin what is now an almost 45 year career as the drummer for Springsteen’s Hall of Fame caliber E Street Band, traveling the world as the rhythmic backbone for arguably the greatest and most beloved rock musician of our time, while also building his own highly successful side career, first as Conan O’Brien‘s late night bandleader and also as a solo artist touring and playing rock classics with his own band Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, which stops at The Barns at Wolf Trap on November 8th.
For Weinberg, whether it’s banging the skins behind Bruce all over the world, doing his own thing, or being with his family, it seems that life these days for Mighty Max couldn’t be better.
“So here I am, 68 years old and playing the drums, in my view, better than I’ve ever played them,” the affable and likable Weinberg said. “That is something. Fifty years ago I wasn’t so sure I would be doing that, I couldn’t even conceive of playing the drums at this age. Even 30, 30 was like, oh I’ll never play drums at 30. And you know my wife and I, Becky, have been together over 40 years. We live down here in Florida and I play the drums when I want to. Plus I really do focus on my family and the fact that my children are very engaged in their individual careers and doing excellent work, my daughter is a successful TV producer and my son currently plays drums for Slipknot. So here I am. You know, life is very good.”
Over the years as he has developed and honed his drumming style, Weinberg’s influences have been many, from buskers to legends. His MO is that he absorbs all that he has witnessed and incorporates what he feels works best for him into his playing.
“I’ve been influenced by actually every drummer and musician I think that I’ve ever seen,” Weinberg said. “That may sound like an overstatement, but I can remember seeing this young kid on a corner playing on virtually pots and pans in Jamaica, he was the funkiest little kid you ever want to hear, it was just fascinating. And you know, you take that stuff inside you. And of course the classics also did it for me, whether it was DJ Fontana with Elvis Presley, Ringo (Starr) in The Beatles, Charlie Watts and The Stones. And yeah, Dave Clark too, my drumming contains a lot of Dave Clark’s influence. I saw the Dave Clark Five in May of 1964, and Dave was maybe 75 feet away from me, he was playing drums, and what a powerhouse drummer. I could hear perfectly even though there was crazy screaming. He was a powerful drummer who’s been a bit overlooked through the years for his drumming, because he was also such a successful producer and businessman. But to me he was a drummer, and one of the few drummers in rock and roll that had his name on the drum.”
Once he joined Springsteen’s E Street Band, Weinberg was able to use Springsteen’s well-known regimentation and preparation in order to get the most out of his band members as a way to improve his own skills, and become an integral part of what would become one of rock’s greatest ensembles. And what Bruce would pull out of Max and his band brothers wasn’t just great musicianship, it was about making the most of everything in life as well.
“Bruce is someone who’s always striving for excellence, I think he’s kind of got a reputation for perfectionism. And you’ll never be perfect, but you can always be excellent. There were certain things I always had when I was a youngster, like energy and a certain amount of drive and discipline. But something I learned from Bruce directly was how to dig down deep within yourself and discover the goods, pull the goods out of yourself, pull out the discipline, and pull out the drive. And with Bruce, everything about being in his band was and is a life lesson, you could apply that to every avenue of your life.”
And it was that learned drive and discipline that truly helped Weinberg, and probably the rest of his E Street Band mates as well, when in 1989 Springsteen surprised his musical family by going out on his own for a while. It was a move that stunned them all, but also forced them to find other modes of fulfillment and eventually grow and prosper on their own, well, until Bruce corralled them back a few years later, a pattern that would exist to this day.
“I kind of floundered around for a while, I think we all did. It was disjointing to be out of the band. But I used that drive and that discipline to get myself back on my feet. And four years after that happened was when I ran into Conan O’Brien on the street, and that led to a 17-year long career, a full career. Touring with the E Street Band, it’s more like an extended job as opposed to a career. But being on TV five days a week, and then later, four days a week, it’s a real job. It’s a nine to five, although it’s 11 to seven. So all that I learned from Bruce, well, that came in handy for sure.”
As they age, musicians and especially drummers can experience a myriad of health issues, both related and not related to their playing, touring and just the rigors of being a rock star. Weinberg has always played the drums with a vengeance, played them hard, and it is that need to keep playing hard that has caused him some issues. But approaching 70, Weinberg has endured and prospered and still is able to rip it up back behind the skins when he needs to.
“At 68, I play hard. I play, in some cases, furiously, so apart from the normal aging process, you try and hold that off. But I’ve hurt myself playing the drums, I’ve had major back surgery a few times, my shoulder rebuilt, my fingers operated on with tendonitis. But I work at it, I watch what I eat, I workout, mostly aerobically to keep my endurance up. The key is staying relaxed. It’s like playing golf or any sport, once you’ve got the relaxation down while you’re doing it, it doesn’t take a lot of muscular effort. It’s really about finesse and timing and will power. As a friend of mine said… he’s a little older than me… he goes, ‘Well, I woke up again with TMB Syndrome.’ I said, ‘TMB, what’s that?’ He says, “That’s Too Many Birthdays.” The aging process is something that’s inevitable, like taxes. You try to minimize the effects, if you can, by eating clean and living clean.”
But when it comes right down to it, Weinberg knows he can do all the age-staving and health-related governance he can muster, but it’s really all about playing, you gotta keep playing, keep getting out there and drumming, it’s that constant activity that keeps him nimble and prepared to rock every night, either with the Jukebox or the E Street Band.
“The only way for a musician to stay in shape is to play music which is why I go on the road on these short tours with my own Jukebox, or it could be my five-piece kind of mid-60s hard rock band, plus I’ve had a big band, like a Count Basie’s type band on the road too. But drumming is a communal experience, I long ago left behind the ‘sitting in my basement practicing drums.’ I need to go out and perform and play, and I enjoy it. And for the way we play with Bruce, the intense, in your face, red hot way we play, I think Bruce and the E Street Band have broken new ground in doing it as you get older, particularly with those three, four hour shows. I’ve often thought that, well, I’ve got to stay in good shape because I’ve got to be able to play longer than Bruce. He can decide when he wants to stop, but I can’t, so I’ve got to stay in good shape.”
As for his tours with the Jukebox, Weinberg clearly is having a blast, with the audience supplying their nightly requests and his band having a ball conjuring up songs that spread across the rock and roll spectrum as well as evoking some special memories.
“I do enjoy it, you know, I enjoy playing this material. In some cases, they are songs that I played when I was a kid when I was learning how to play the drums. So for me it’s kind of a full circle. What’s interesting are the songs that people choose, you can never guess what they’re going to ask for, the songs are changing all the time. Some nights it could be all Beatles, some nights is more Bruce, or whatever. It’s about creating a create a party atmosphere, I want us to musically laugh so to speak, I want to have a good time. And I manage to do that whenever I play, whatever kind of music I play.”
Reminiscing about the E Street Band prompts Weinberg to think about not only about when they might get back together again, but it harkens him back to the days when they were just getting started, and the growing and current camraderie between the band.
“I never make any preconceptions, it’s always a gift and a blessing when we all regroup. It’s also of course such a loss for all of us that Danny and Clarence aren’t with us any longer and that changed things, for sure. Particularly when I think back to the early days when it was me, Clarence, Danny, Garry and Roy in a car with Bruce traveling around. Then we got a van, like an Econoline van. I thought that was as great as it ever could get get. We leaned on each other in a very real sense in that you fall asleep, but you were held upright because we were packed so tightly into those vehicles that you could fall asleep and you wouldn’t fall over. We were like sardines. But I always looked forward to it. It’s such a blessing to be with those guys, experience cultures all over the world, playing rock and roll music.”
As a permanent place in the E Street Band became a lifetime reality for Weinberg, all the way up to today as his musical career continues to thrive, it is Bruce’s philosophy of making each show an inclusive and unforgettable experience that has rubbed off on them all, and still resonates to this day.
“It’s all about playing with an intent to create a community, rather than we’re up there on stage and you’re down there in the audience. Really, it’s all of us together. We’re in concert, and Bruce said that, he said you’re in concert which means you’re together. I’ve always enjoyed being a part of that community, whether it’s playing with Bruce and the E Street Band, or playing with my own groups, I like that feeling that I’m in a gang and we’re blowing into your town and doing the best we can. There’s so many options for entertainment, so as Bruce says, what we try to do is give you a show that gives you more than your money’s worth, so you leave saying, ‘Well, that was really unique. That was different, that was quality.’ That’s the only way to do it.”
And with another possible Springsteen and the E Street Band tour looming for 2020, it is not lost on Weinberg or his Boss how much the legions of die-hard fans mean to their very existence.
“We feel the love, and we love you all, too. With the audience and people who appreciate long term what Bruce is writing and singing about, and with the support of the E Street Band, it’s a terrific communal experience for us all. I hope we get to experience it all again together.”
Max Weinberg’s Jukebox performs Friday November 8th at The Barns At Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182. For tickets, click here.