It’s Max Weinberg’s birthday today. The longtime drummer for Bruce Springsteen and Conan O’Brien is 59.
A native of Newark, Weinberg was a bit of a child prodigy as a drummer, playing with bar mitzvah bands from age seven, and performing with one of his early bands at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. He attended Adelphi and Seton Hall, with a vague notion of becoming a lawyer – but drums was always his bag. He played in a grab bag of bands in central and seaside New Jersey, before winning an audition to replace Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez (and his temporary replacement, Ernest “Boom” Carter, most famous for playing on the song “Born To Run”). It wasn’t hard to improve on Lopez’ legacy; “Mad Dog” may have been the worst drummer ever to record a major label album.
Indeed, that’s a great introduction to Weinberg’s power as a drummer; compare the sloppy, swooping changes in meter on Lopez’ part on “Kitty’s Back”, on The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle to the metronomic steadiness on “Born In The USA” or The River’s “Jackson Cage”. The E Street Band with Vini Lopez was like an inspired garage band, with some great players (David Sancious was another charter member), but it always felt like Springsteen’s voice was the main rhythm instrument. With Weinberg, the band became professional, and very, very powerful.
Playing behind a band that’s ranged from seven to nine pieces over the years, the drummer’s key mission is to lock in the beat with the bass player and provide a stable beat for everything else to work over. And it’s there – as part of the E Street Band’s rhythm section with Garry Tallent, that Weinberg is most notable; he’s been called “The American Charlie Watts”, because whatever he might lack in pure flash, he makes up in rock-sold steadiness, enabling Tallent to stretch out and play, while still keeping a bedrock-solid foundation for the band as a whole.
Which isn’t to say that Weinberg can’t rip it on the skins. Weinberg was an accomplished session man, playing on Ian Hunter’s You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and plenty of other records in the seventies and eighties (and touring with 10,000 Maniacs after the E Street Band broke up. But most of all, Max spent a whole second career, 16 years or so, as the leader of Conan O’Brien’s “Max Weinberg Seven”, playing to an audience that largely didn’t know Bruce Springsteen from Rick Springfield, playing a whole ‘nother style of music – jazzy jump blues slathered with barbecued R’nB.
Weinberg was in effect the band’s front man; in a band that played mostly instrumentals, he was the band’s lead instrument. It was a side you could have gone his entire E Street career and scarcely seen. And it was a blast.
And it led to one of the more interesting show-biz compromises in history. Weinberg was justifiably wary of jeorpardizing his O’Brien gig to go back with Springsteen full-time, after Bruce had cut the whole band loose in 1989 without any warning. So Weinberg, Springsteen and NBC worked out an unprecedented schedule that allowed Weinberg a leave of absence from O’Brien’s show for E Street Band tours and, eventually, led to Weinberg’s son Jake serving essentially as an understudy drummer for the band.
Anyway – happy birthday, Max Weinberg!