The first time Bruce Springsteen called Max Weinberg, it was to join The E Street Band.
Countless conversations with The Boss have followed, part and parcel of nearly 50 years spent drumming for one of the most vaunted rock groups on planet Earth.
Springsteen can still surprise, however, as he did earlier this week, unexpectedly notifying Weinberg and his bandmates that their sprawling, Jersey-bred outfit would finally resume touring — the E Street Band’s first roadshow in six years, kicking off in early 2023.
But first, Weinberg is returning to one of his favorite venues, the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC). Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, set to hit the Essex County stage June 9, is “really not a concert, it’s a party,” he says.
Weinberg recently spoke with NJ Advance Media about his undying love for New Jersey (his family lived in Newark, Maplewood, and South Orange) and his upcoming show. Days later, when the Springsteen tour was announced, Weinberg talked with us again, explaining that even he hadn’t known about it, aside from the constant Springsteen online chatter, which he tends to dismiss until he gets the official word.
But when The E Street Band plays, all else changes.
“My contracts all contain a force majeure, a legal term for an act of God – or Bruce Springsteen,” Weinberg explains. “That is in all of my contracts. And I actually had to institute that at times to change the date on something I was doing.”
Talking from Delray Beach, Fla., where Weinberg, 71, lives and proudly sits on the planning and zoning board, he says that however long the tour runs, wherever it goes, is grand as far as he’s concerned. He doesn’t have details other than he would be playing.
“That is above my pay grade,” Weinberg says of the particulars. “I just take them one show at a time. That is why they call Bruce The Boss – he makes all the decisions.
“I sort of take it as it comes,” he continues. “I like playing my shows. If all of us are getting back together, my metaphor is that show ‘Brigadoon.’ This very special thing comes around every once in a while. Since the very early days, when I joined one year into Bruce’s recording career, we were working all the time. It was not even a tour. It became bigger places and more logistics; in the early days, the tour wasn’t named; we were just playing. And when the details that need to be addressed but don’t necessarily impact me, I don’t ask, and I don’t need to know.”
And so Weinberg plans his own tour, this party where the audience calls out songs, and three musicians – Glenn Burtnik, John Merjave, and Chris Holt – play requests. The Jukebox series grew out of a show Weinberg first staged in 2017, though the performance is different each time, depending on what the audience wants. It’s also evolved over the years.
“I tell a lot more stories now,” he says. “People enjoy a peek behind the curtain of my career. I have been fortunate enough to do that and I am happy to share those stories. I tell a lot of stories and it is a bit of a Neil Simon approach to a kid who caught up to his rock and roll dreams.”
Over the years, Weinberg was the bandleader and sidekick on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” He began with the talk show host in 1993 and left to tour with The E Street Band (that act of God or Springsteen) six years later, but returned. Weinberg even moved to Los Angeles when O’Brien assumed his ill-fated brief run on “The Tonight Show” which only lasted a few months in 2010. Weinberg has also regularly played The Rainbow Room.
Yet it’s for the marathon Springsteen concerts that Weinberg keeps himself fit. He watches his diet, gets his sleep, and works out with a trainer.
“I have been playing since we last played,” he says. “I am ready. As my trainer says, ‘if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.’”
Sure, he’s sitting while keeping the beat but make no mistake, this is a high-intensity workout.
“Physically, The E Street Band is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” he says. “If the schedule holds, I will be 72, and I play with the same intensity and vigor I did 49 years ago. That’s why I stay in shape because it’s hard work, and it’s fun.”
Weinberg’s work is also essential to the E Street Band’s thunderous sound. He is the timekeeper, the steady-sticked straight man setting the pace. It’s his rhythm that makes it impossible to sit still during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and ”Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” his snare cracks that open “Born in the U.S.A.” and “The Ties That Bind” and never lets up. Springsteen and others in the band have long praised Weinberg’s ability to sense what’s coming and keep the show moving, even when a fan request taps mammoth Springsteen’s songbook — more than 330 tunes and counting.
Weinberg doesn’t yet know what songs from the latest album, 2020′s pumping “Letter to You,” will be performed.
“I particularly enjoy ‘Ghosts,’ which we played on ‘SNL,’” he says. “We have only played (together) once in the last six years — on ‘SNL.’ That and ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ tears at your heartstrings. Like the shows, I take the songs one at a time. I love them all.”
The E Street Band’s songs are often requested at the Jukebox shows. It’s akin to the world’s most accomplished bar mitzvah and wedding band – a setting with which Weinberg has tremendous experience, especially in Essex County.
“I made a career playing every church on Wyoming Avenue from South Orange to Millburn,” he says.
The seven-year-old pro
By the time he signed on with Springsteen, at 23, Weinberg had already been a professional for 16 years. He was still in college, but the drummer had started making money as a musician very young. Weinberg recalls his first paying gig at The Chanticler, which had been a swanky catering hall in Millburn. He was seven years old.
His mother approached the bandleader, Herbie Zane, and told him that her son is a drummer. She asked if the dressed-up little boy could sit in with him. Surprised, Zane asked if he could play. Weinberg volunteered to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“He got such a kick out of it that he would start hiring me at his club dates, for 50 cents or a $1 for each,” Weinberg recalls.
By the time he was at South Orange Junior High School, Weinberg was earning $100 to $125 a weekend. It helped, especially as his family found itself stretched financially.
His mom, Ruth, was a physical education teacher at Weequhaic High School for 46 years, taking off some time with each of her three kids. His dad, Bertram, was a lawyer whose avocation was summer camps. Further cementing Weinberg’s place in New Jersey history, legendary Newark-born author Philip Roth was a counselor at his father’s now-shuttered Camp Pocono Highlands in Marshalls Creek, Pennsylvania.
About five years ago, Weinberg’s manager heard from the chief archivist of the Roth archives because a trove of his letters had been found. Among them was this line about camp: “It would be perfect except for that little Weinberg bastard.”
Weinberg laughs, explaining he would have been only one year old at the time, so the writer was likely referring to a cousin. While Weinberg is very much in the present, happily married to Becky for 41 years, a proud father to journalist Ali, and drummer Jay, of heavy metal titans Slipknot, he enjoys reminiscing about his childhood and teen years.
He holds dear parts of Essex County, some of which are now memories. And his recollections are of South Orange as a Norman Rockwell kind of place.
“When you grow up somewhere, you notice trees you remember, and you see things that aren’t there anymore,” Weinberg says. “When I look at SOPAC, I see the lumberyard, Sikley’s, that was behind Reservoir Pizza and the Raritan Brook running through the park. These memories you have as a child, wherever you grow up, is very much like a Springsteen song — you remember the touchstones of your life.”
Some of his cherished memories include getting air as he soared down a snow-covered Flood’s Hill on a saucer sled. He loved the ice cream at Gruning’s and sloppy joes at Town Hall Deli. Weinberg also loved attending Columbia High School. The class of ‘69 has stayed close, and he hopes to see former classmates at his SOPAC show.
“On June 9, whoever’s in South Orange that day will see my driving around my old haunts,” Weinberg says.
After Columbia, Weinberg studied at nearby Seton Hall University by day and worked on Broadway by night. When he was only 21 credits shy of graduating and had landed in the hit “Godspell,” it looked as if all were working out. Still, he had that childhood dream — to play in a rock band.
Like most musicians at the time, he scoured The Village Voice want ads. Some guy was putting together a band, and one of Weinberg’s lifelong friends, Joe Delia, a keyboardist, told him: “‘This guy Springsteen is still auditioning drummers. You would be perfect for that.’ Several people I knew auditioned. I said, ‘Well, everyone else is auditioning, I’ll call him up.’”
“I went down and played, and one thing led to another,” he said. “It was an open-call audition, a multitude of piano players and drummers went down. It was a huge pay cut from Broadway.”
A few of his friends told him that he was nuts. “Godspell” could run for 20 years, and he was taking a chance on some guy from Freehold with a band?
“This guy is good,” Weinberg told his friends. “I played with him twice, and I am telling you, he is going to be big. At that point, I had been playing for 16 years. I knew talent when I saw it. And with Bruce, anybody knows just immediately you run out of superlatives when discussing his songwriting, performing abilities.”
Then the rest of the world learned what New Jersey had known for a while, and the band became a global phenomenon. Flash forward to when the band was breaking up in the late ‘80s, after “Tunnel of Love.” Springsteen and Weinberg stood on the lawn of Springsteen’s California home on a gentle summer night as Weinberg thought hard about his next steps.
“I am looking at, if the band is not there, what am I going to do?” Weinberg says. “I had to change my childhood fantasy of playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
He had long been interested in the law and in representing performers. Plus, he was captivated by the burgeoning online world. He finished Seton Hall and enrolled in Cardozo Law School.
“I realized there might be opportunities as an attorney in that field, way before Apple, the internet, and everything else,” he says. “Turns out I was right. I ultimately went to law school – for six weeks.”
Then he got a call from Dave Edmunds, so he left the tortures of property law and returned to rock n’ roll. Weinberg also remembered what Springsteen had said to him on that summer night in ‘89 – not to stop drumming. “You’re too good,” Springsteen told him.
And so he kept playing. He made a name for himself outside of The E Street Band. The years on TV, and his own band, The Max Weinberg Big Band, where he played Sinatra and Count Basie. The music has never stopped just because he’s not on a stage where people are chanting “Bruce.”
And now, with another call from Springsteen, he’ll be off again. This time, as the world reels from one miserable tragedy to the next, Weinberg considers how very welcome an E Street Band tour is.
“This is the sort of joy that the world needs now with the intensity and commitment of live Bruce Springsteen songs,” Weinberg says. “I think the whole world really needs a shot of Bruce and The E Street Band, given what we have all been through, particularly in the last three years. The thing he does and the thing we do with him is unique in the world of presentational performance — not to take away from anyone else.
“Playing his songs strikes a chord that is immediate,” Weinberg continues. “They are built for tough times, and times are tough. Just his whole songwriting career is about addressing those issues, and the way he does it, I can honestly say I don’t know anybody else who does this. It is a point of pride to play this material.”
Jacqueline Cutler may be reached at email@example.com. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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