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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Max Weinberg, still drumming fearlessly after all these years | COMMENTARY

Fifteen years ago, a quiet man in a green work uniform — something you might see a custodian or mechanic wear — stepped forward when his name was called, pulled a pair of drum sticks from his back pocket and took a seat behind a glittery drum set at the Guitar Center in Towson.

He was a middle-aged man, the oldest contestant to appear for a Saturday drum-off in the music store. The man suddenly burst into a riff that was shocking in its excellence, building to a dizzying crescendo. He played fearlessly but with none of the wild flailing exhibited by the younger contestants who came before him. When he finished, he quickly left the store, as if he had to get back to work. We were all in awe.

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Having once been a drummer, I remember thinking: That guy just had to roll, and I know the condition. Whatever his job in real life, it can’t compete with the bliss that comes with a great performance in the drum throne.

The world of big bands and rock inspired a lot of great and good drummers, and that includes hundreds of amateurs who kept their kits in garages or club basements or who, like me, gave up the dream of being Ginger Baker long ago.

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But once a drummer, always a drummer, and you continue to admire those who made a life of it.

The occasion for this reverie is the arrival in Baltimore of Max Weinberg, the E Street Band drummer, Bruce’s drummer and later Conan O’Brien’s drummer. Weinberg was due Thursday night at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills on his “Jukebox” tour, in which his four-piece band (two guitars, bass and drums) performs songs from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s selected by the audience.

Max Weinberg’s Jukebox is a throwback to his pre-Springsteen days, when barely a teenager he played with bands in New Jersey bars and the customer requests came late into the night. The Jukebox band has a repertoire of 300 songs, but, of course, that hardly covers all the tunes an audience might request.

“The beauty of the Jukebox,” Weinberg says, “is that the guys I’m playing with know every song. So if one or two know [a requested song], we’ll give it a shot. That’s from coming up in Jersey bars and playing in bar bands: You used to have to play long hours and if not Top 40 songs, certainly big FM hits, so you learned how to be quite versatile and know all this material or at least how to fake it.”

Weinberg’s drumming goes back to when he was 8-years-old and growing up in Jersey. His first kit was a $62 Kent.

By the time he was 14, Weinberg was being paid to play. His band, the Epsilons, won Jersey’s “battle of the bands” in 1965. “We won $50 and a trophy,” Weinberg says, “and I thought, at 14, it doesn’t get better than that.”

Of course, nine years later, he became the drummer for Springsteen, and the rest is rock music history — 15 tours and hundreds of concerts over five decades, millions of fans, a long and profitable discography. Weinberg also led the band for O’Brien’s late night show for 17 years. He has a big brain for music history and wrote a book about his favorite rock drummers, later accompanied by an anthology of recordings that inspired him.

The first: Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.” Weinberg saw Presley’s band perform it on television in the 1950s. The song features a short but powerful roll by Presley’s longtime drummer, D.J. Fontana.

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“Everything stopped in midair when [Fontana] hit that big drum roll in ‘Hound Dog,’” Weinberg says. “That was kind of the big bang moment for me, years and years before the Beatles. I was at the perfect age to channel [my] energy and ability into the British invasion and the rock ’n’ roll that came out of that.”

Having seen the E Street Band in concert four times, I’ve always been impressed at not only Weinberg’s superb and precise drumming, but his dapper, dignified demeanor and minimal sweat. Like the man who shocked us in Guitar Center, Weinberg sits straight at his kit and makes limited use of his arms, something he learned from Gene Thaler, his first teacher back in Maplewood, New Jersey

“He insisted that you have to keep your elbows close to your body,” Weinberg says. “It’s much more efficient. … I keep my cymbals low and close, so I don’t have to use a lot of effort to reach them and play. With Bruce, very often we’ll play close to four hours and sometimes more, and if you slump, your back is going to really hurt.”

I asked if there was one particular song, out of the vast universe of rock songs, he loves to play with his Jukebox band.

“It may sound crazy but there isn’t a song I don’t like to play,” Weinberg says. “I enjoy them all. I try to play them authentically, not as precisely as whoever made the record, but if I’m playing a Beatles song, I try to invoke the spirit of Ringo. If I’m playing a soul song, a Muscle Shoals song, I invoke the spirit of Roger Hawkins — tight hi-hat, not splashy. So I guess I’m a student of the various and infinite styles.”

Max Weinberg — 71 years old, still following his bliss, still fearless in the drum throne.


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