Max Weinberg talks the way he drums. He’s pithy, self-possessed, and without excess, a seamless synthesis of many varied, unlikely influences.
And he is a total Jersey boy. Born in Newark’s Jewish community in 1951, since 1974 he has been a cornerstone member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. After more than 40 years on and off with Springsteen, Weinberg has more than a few Boss-isms to share.
“We have a lot of maxims in our situation,” he said. “‘To be the Boss you must pay the cost. Give people more than their money’s worth. Take your fun very seriously.’”
And another one. “Bruce had a great line that I read,” he said. “‘The lights of the oncoming train are getting closer.’”
No matter what you might think about rock drummers’ sense of social responsibility, Weinberg believes in giving back. On October 10, Weinberg, who now lives off Sandy Hook Bay in Atlantic Highlands with his wife, Rebecca, led a musical ensemble at Holy Name Medical Center’s annual Founders Ball. This year, the Teaneck-based health care center honored Angelica Berrie of Englewood, president of the Russell Berrie Foundation. The foundation, according to its website, russellberriefoundation.org, focuses on “promoting the continuity of the Jewish people, fostering religious understanding and pluralism, supporting advances in diabetes and humanistic medical care.”
Weinberg has supported a number of local charitable causes through the years, including Overlook Hospital in Summit, the Monmouth County SPCA, Prevention First, and The Joan D’Ancy ALS Foundation. In February, Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro honored him as its Humanitarian of the Year in recognition of his volunteer work.
“Whenever I’m asked, and when I’m around, I’m happy to do it,” Weinberg said. “I can’t point to one specific moment in time when I said, ‘I’m gonna do this’ or ‘I’m gonna do that,’ but in our religion there’s the concept of tikkun olam” — Hebrew for “repairing the world” — “which I embrace seriously and took to mean any way you can do it. My way of doing that was through music, and specifically drumming.
“I love getting people up to dance, because when you’re dancing you’re not thinking about your problems or the world’s problems. Being with Bruce, who’s very committed to social activism, fortunately it rubs off on you.”
In August 1974, when he was 23 years old, living at home, still a student at Seton Hall University, Weinberg was drumming in the hit Broadway musical “Godspell.” That’s when he saw a “drummer wanted” ad in the Village Voice. The listing, from Springsteen, specified “no junior Ginger Bakers” — the Boss did not want a drummer like Cream’s, who was brilliant but had a predilection for extended solos. Weinberg brought a stripped-down kit — bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat cymbals — to the audition.
It lasted for three hours.
At the audition, Weinberg instinctively processed Springsteen’s cues, throwing accents and pauses in response to the frontman’s gestures.
That’s something Weinberg still does today, 40 years later. His reputation for “never taking his eyes off Bruce” was born largely of necessity.
“Being the drummer, you’re there to have things run smoothly,” he said. “I’m so totally focused on Bruce’s thing, I’m not thinking about anything else. Bruce is running the show, I’m providing the white line down the middle of the road. You do it long enough, you’re not thinking, you’re reacting.”
One week and one audition after the first one, Weinberg was invited to join what would soon be named the E Street Band. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Springsteen was inducted on his own in 1999, but last year “Mighty Max” Weinberg was enshrined there along with bandmates Roy Bittan, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Nils Lofgren, Vini Lopez, Patti Scialfa, David Sancious, Garry Tallent, and Stevie Van Zandt.
“When you can get to this age and still deliver, that’s very important to us,” Weinberg said. “I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘Oh, you should have seen them 30 years ago.’ Nobody’s ever asked for their money back now, and that’s important to every one of us.
“When called upon and regrouped, it’s quite amazing how quickly it all comes together. In 20 minutes, we’re there. You put in the time and hours and the miles — it’s there.”
At 64, Weinberg is nearly six years removed from his other high-profile gig, bandleader for Conan O’Brien. He and his Max Weinberg 7 were the house band for “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” beginning with the first show, in 1993, and he led Max Weinberg and the Tonight Show Band during O’Brien’s 2009-10 stint as host of the “Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien.”
Not only did he front the band, but the always impeccably dressed Weinberg became O’Brien’s perfect comedic foil.
When O’Brien sidekick Andy Richter left the show in 2000, “I was thrust into the comedic limelight, and I was the guy Conan turned to,” Weinberg said. “I could never be as witty or quick as Andy, so the first few times he did that I just stared at him and it got a big laugh. That non-responsive sidekick, the drummer who refuses to do rimshots — that became a personality and it was very popular.
“My deadpan, where I had no emotion — that became a character on the show.
“Late night shows are all about the writing and the personality of the host. Everything else is an addition to what that person is doing. You respect that format, and when called upon you do the best you can.”
Weinberg was able to take the job with O’Brien because the E Street Band, as far as he knew, was over. Springsteen disbanded the band in 1989. A decade later, though, the Boss called it again for 1999’s Reunion Tour. Weinberg, then six years into his “Late Night” tenure, decided to keep both gigs, providing the impetus for what became known at NBC as the Weinberg-Springsteen Rule: Weinberg had special dispensation to leave the show to tour with Springsteen.
“When I was doing both” — Springsteen and “Late Night” — “it was an embarrassment of riches,” Weinberg said. “I felt incredibly busy, but I never felt overwhelmed. I got into a certain rhythm, and it just was a great opportunity. The strangest thing was going back and forth between the music styles. Playing on TV was very jazz-influenced, although I don’t consider myself a jazz drummer.
“Playing with the E Street Band, that’s the heart of my musical personality. That’s a much more muscular approach, simpler in terms of its musical orientation.”
There were some times during Springsteen’s 2009 Working On a Dream tour when Weinberg could not leave “Late Night.” It wasn’t a problem, however; Weinberg’s son Jay, then 19, filled in for those concerts. (Jay Weinberg, now 25 is the drummer for heavy metal band Slipknot. Ali Weinberg, 28, is a digital journalist at ABC News.)
The entire family benefitted from Max Weinberg’s New York-based TV career, because it allowed him much more time with his kids. “The best thing for me, my children were growing up and I was home the whole time,” he said. “When they were young, every Friday they’d come to New York after school and visit the show and we’d go eat at the Hard Rock Cafe or Planet Hollywood.”
Although in recent years Weinberg has been tapped for a great deal of E Street Band duty — between the Wrecking Ball World Tour in 2012-13 and the High Hopes Tour in 2014 the band played more than 160 shows — he is working hard on other projects as well. The Max Weinberg Quintet specializes in hard bop jazz. It stands in relatively condensed contrast against two larger ensembles, the 15-piece Max Weinberg Big Band and 23-piece Max Weinberg Orchestra.
The mighty Max Weinberg, star of late-night television, “found a place where Bernard Purdie, Buddy Rich, and Keith Moon intersected, and he made it his own. I ask and he delivers for me night after night.”
— Bruce Springsteen
The Orchestra, which Weinberg describes as a “classic society dance band,” focuses on the Great American Songbook. The group will resume its traditional Monday night residency at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center beginning November 2. (Tickets are available at rainbowroom.com/reservations.)
Although Weinberg is most noted for rock drumming, he grew up listening to a variety of music, including big bands led by legendary bandleaders like Lester Lanin. “We are paying tribute to the days when people would dress up in tuxedos and go out and dine on a weeknight,” said Weinberg. “It’s an epochal thing.”
When he was a child, and throughout his teens, Weinberg also played in a local bar mitzvah and wedding band, thus expanding his repertoire, as well as his range of experiences, ever farther.
On October 21, Weinberg and E Street guitarist Stevie Van Zandt (who played mobster Silvio Dante on “The Sopranos” and starred in the Netflix original series “Lillyhammer”) hosted the Grammy Museum’s 2015 Architects of Sound Awards at Club Nokia in Los Angeles. The event honored Frank Sinatra, who would have been 100 this year, and coincided with the 2015 opening of “Sinatra: An American Icon,” the official exhibition of the Frank Sinatra Centennial.
“When I’m not playing with Bruce I do keep myself busy entertaining people,” said Weinberg, whose Orchestra performances at the Rainbow Room have included material from Sinatra, as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and even the Rolling Stones.
“Whether it’s playing the drums or leading [a group], I like entertaining people,” he continued. “Playing the drums keeps me very humble, since it’s the thing I started to do when I was 7 years old and I’m still doing it. Putting a drum set together is the most mechanical thing I can do. I like being in the trenches, [being] on my own gigs, setting up my own drums. I recently did a jazz tour in Italy, and there was a lot of driving in the van and sleeping on the floor. It keeps me in touch with what it was that I liked about being a musician when I was 12 years old.”
Weinberg’s family, like so many of their neighbors, moved from Newark to South Orange and then to Maplewood. His grandfather helped raise funds to build Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange. His family developed a strong relationship with the Reform synagogue’s rabbi, Avraham Soltes, who headed Congregation Beth Chavairuth in Tenafly and was a chaplain at the United States Military Academy in West Point.
“He looked like central casting’s version of a rabbi,” Weinberg said of Soltes. “He approached the liturgy in a very poetic and artistic and musical fashion. He was a personal family friend of my parents, and I really looked forward to his services. What I really responded to was the ceremonial aspects that have changed so much over the years.
“When I was a kid I loved the choir and the organ, which was ‘high church,’ they called it. It was very formal. The pomp and circumstance and the traditions, that’s something I miss.”
Weinberg still identifies with the Reform movement.
“I embraced my religious training in a humanist way,” he said. “I try to be nice to people, I live by the golden rule, I try to bring joy through music to whatever audience I find myself in front of. In Hebrew school I took the idea of tzedaka (charity) and tikkun olam very seriously.”
Whether he’ll find himself in front of a Springsteen audience soon is anybody’s guess — including Weinberg’s. As has been the case since that first audition in 1974, Weinberg is waiting. He’s watching for a signal from the Boss.
“There’s nothing coming up with Bruce as far as I know,” he said. “When we work, we work really hard. The last cycle was almost three years, nearly 200 concerts. You need downtime after that, to recharge and live. The time off is as important as the time you spend concertizing and recording and everything else.”
Although he is curious about whether Springsteen will decided to revive the band again, “After almost 42 years, I don’t ask,” he said. Springsteen is firmly in control of the band’s present and future, he added, and it’s been that way since the beginning. “It’s a question of if it’s in the cards,” Weinberg said. “Whether it includes the E Street Band or me, Bruce has a lot of different things he can do and does well.
“I don’t know — but I remain hopeful that some of our greatest years are still ahead.”
E Street has been phenomenally successful, both artistically and commercially, over its four decades of existence, but the years have not been entirely kind to the group. Original members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons died in 2008 and 2011, respectively. Weinberg has had open heart surgery and a bout with cancer. (“I’m fine now, thank God,” he said.) He has “lost count of how many orthopedic surgeries” he’s undergone to alleviate the difficulties brought on by the sheer physical demands of drumming.
“Playing four-hour rock shows, particularly as a young man, took its toll,” Weinberg said. “You do start getting reflective. To still not only get along but still make vibrant music — none of us take that for granted.
“You look back and you see people you’ve known for longer than you didn’t know them. I’m 64. I met Bruce when I was 23, at the beginning of everything, and it’s very, very special. If you look at the people on the bus, these are relationships that go back 40, 45 years.
“We started when we were children, essentially. Our kids are older now than we were when I met Bruce and the E Street Band. It’s gotten deeper and richer for all of us. It’s an amazing thing to look around and I’ve known most of these people for over 40 years. It’s a blessing, more than anything else.”
So, yes, the lights of the oncoming train may be getting closer. And it turns out there’s a physical cost to being close to the Boss. Still, Weinberg is having fun, and as Springsteen said, that’s something to be taken seriously.
“I’m having a great time,” Weinberg said. “I’m able to play music I like, and I approach every song I’ve played as the most important song I’ve ever played. It can be a Sam & Dave song or The Temptations. It can be Hava Nagila at a wedding.
“The more you do, the longer you live, the more engaged you are in your life, your friends, and your family.
“The concept of retiring is something I have never, ever embraced for myself. That’s why they call it playing.”
• Born April 13, 1951 in Newark.
• Bar mitzvah breakthrough: Weinberg started playing at the age of 6 and his first public appearance came the next year in a bar mitzvah band. He played “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
• He attended Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, a Reform Judaism congregation in South Orange, where he was inspired by a local rabbi and had what he later described as “a wonderful Jewish background.” He would later say that the Jewish concept of seder, meaning order, became key to his vision of how a good drummer serves his band’s music.
• Weinberg has been a member of the E Street Band since 1974, when he answered a help wanted ad in the Village Voice. He played Springsteen’s “Sandy” and Fats Domino’s “Let the Four Winds Blow” at the audition. He accepted an offer of $110 per week and joined the band.
• Weinberg’s first public performance came on September 19, 1974, at The Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
• Max says keep it simple: “I’ve got four drums. Anything more is redundant. Besides, I tend to trip over things.”
• Weinberg has played on numerous studio sessions including Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” which sold over 43 million copies worldwide.
• He’s also an author: In 1984, Weinberg published “The Big Beat: Conversations with Rock’s Greatest Drummers,” a series of interviews with some of his favorite drummers.
• Hot stuff: Weinberg was named Best Drummer in the Playboy 1985 Pop and Jazz Music Poll and Best Drummer again in Rolling Stone’s 1986 Critics Poll.
• Kudos from the Boss: About the best-selling record, “Born in the USA,” Springsteen is quoted as saying “Max was the best thing on the record.”
• The motherlode: Bruce Springsteen has sold more then 64 million albums in the United States and more than 120 million records worldwide. Weinberg and the E Street Band played on most of them.