Q&A: Springsteen, Conan drummer Max Weinberg hits Hamilton

July 11, 2019

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

His rhythms have provided the backdrop for Bruce Springsteen and Conan O’Brien.

This weekend, they can provide the soundtrack for a great night out as iconic drummer Max Weinberg presents “Max Weinberg’s Jukebox” at The Hamilton on Saturday night.

“The audience puts in their requests,” Weinberg told WTOP. “All ’60s and ’70s songs as requested by the audience in real time. It’s music that I grew up with, it was the soundtrack of my life and the soundtrack of all our lives. Everything from the Beatles to the Stones to Bruce to the English Invasion to the Beach Boys. You name it, we play it. … We have a revolving video list with about 300 songs and people just yell them out.”

Joining him on stage is a foursome of two guitars, bass and drums.

“It’s not a concert, it’s a party,” Weinberg said. “That’s why I like places like The Hamilton. There’s a bar and it’s a good place to spend a Saturday night and hear your favorite songs. … Sometimes a song will prompt a story that has either a personal memory or I might draw a parallel between a song I played drums on a Bruce record that I lifted from another record. It’s more than music, it’s a little of my history as well.”

Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1951, Weinberg caught the drumming bug watching TV.

“My first drum hero was D.J. Fontana, who was Elvis’ longtime drummer,” Weinberg said. “I saw Elvis on ‘The Milton Berle’ show a couple months before ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1956. They had a one-camera shot of Elvis and his three backing musicians. I went right to the drums. That drumroll in ‘Hound Dog’ kind of just grabbed me.”

He got behind his first drum kit at age 7.

“My mother was a bit of a stage mother and went up to a band leader at a wedding or bat mitzvah and asked if I could sit in,” Weinberg said. “I played ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and the guy got such a kick out of it that he started hiring me as a novelty act for his club dates in New Jersey. I worked off and on with him until I was 14 … from cruises to strip joints, the circus, I was pretty versatile as a drummer, which was coincidentally what Bruce wanted.”

His big break came in 1974 when he saw an advertisement to audition for Springsteen.

“I had no idea who Bruce was at the time,” Weinberg said. “I was going to college at Seton Hall University in New Jersey and playing the Broadway show ‘Godspell’ at night. One of the bands I played with, two of the guys knew the recording engineer for Bruce. … Both keyboard players in my band auditioned, but they didn’t get the job. About a month later, they said he’s still looking for a drummer, so I called Bruce’s management up.”

In the audition, he was immediately impressed by The Boss.

“My first impression was that this was an individual who knew exactly what he wanted,” Weinberg said. “I’d never experienced anything like that. It was not only the way Bruce projected his personality and music in the audition, it was the way that Clarence Clemons, Garry Tallent and Dan Federici of the E Street Band responded to Bruce. It was pretty spectacular. I must say, it wasn’t a terribly hard audition because Bruce was so definite about what he wanted.”

However, he quickly realized that he wasn’t being hired to sing.

“The ad that I answered said, ‘Wanted: No Junior Ginger Bakers,’ which was kind of a sniping way of saying he wanted an accompanist. But it also said, ‘Drummer must sing,’ so when I went down for the audition, naturally I sang. I got in the E Street Band and I was game. … I would sing background vocals. But two days into my tenure with the E Street Band, Bruce came over and said, ‘Max, you can just drum.’ So, that was the end of my singing career.”

Thus began a flurry of touring from 1974 to 1989 during the band’s first stint.

“I’d gotten in this band, the music was incredible, Bruce was a phenomenal band leader,” Weinberg said. “The biggest impression was that for the first time in my life I had somebody setting up my drums! For 16 years prior, I lugged my drums around and I set them up, which was fine by me, but it was such a shock to have somebody doing that.”

Which was his most memorable tour during the band’s glory days?

“The first one was special because we were together 24/7, driving around in a van before we graduated to a motor home,” Weinberg said. “The ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ tour was both fun and extremely rewarding. … That tour really shot Bruce and the band into the stratosphere, so that was fun. The ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour was really interesting; the opportunity to play in East Berlin a year before the Berlin Wall came down, to get a taste for two days of the bleakness of actually being in a communist country. … It’s been a pageantry of unbelievable experiences.”

When Springsteen dissolved the band in 1989, it was a blessing in disguise.

“Even the so-called ‘breakup,’ which turned out to be an 11-year hiatus, in a way was a good thing,” Weinberg said. “All of us were forced to fly on our own. As disconcerting as that can be, it leads to a tremendous amount of growth. Had that not happened, I wouldn’t have ended up for 17 years on late-night television, which was a real phenomenal opportunity.”

He is, of course, referring to The Max Weinberg 7, which became a fixture on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” The gig made him a household name as the band members were often brought in as a comedic foil for Conan’s antics.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to explore that side of me,” Weinberg said. “Bruce in his book refers to my sense of humor, so I guess it came out in some pretty crazy ways on TV. … I had a wonderful band that worked for me who were dedicated and fantastic entertainers. … You can see the progression of my hair from the first show to the last. It got progressively grayer because it’s really a lot of work; much more work than the hour you might see on TV.”

How did he and Conan come up with their pull-string scissor snip to drum cymbals?

“It was really a James Brown thing where the drummer accents a physical movement,” Weinberg said. “It’s a vaudeville thing that goes back to the beginning of musical comedy and light opera where the percussion accents some sort of physical business. The first time he did it, I just sort of followed him doing it. Also, you’re on at 12:30, so part of the audience might be dozing off. The little accent that I could provide with the drums might shock someone awake.”

Sometimes it was what Weinberg didn’t do that caught our attention most.

“The one thing I did not do, which all the other late-night drummers seemed to do, was I did not do rimshots,” Weinberg said. “It became a funny bit where I was the reluctant drummer. You had to specifically ask me to do a rimshot. After 4,000 shows, it became a comedic element.”

He followed Conan to “The Tonight Show,” but NBC pulled the plug too early and reinserted Jay Leno in a ratings panic. Weinberg chose not to follow Conan to TBS.

“The show ended in January of 2010 and we debuted in September 1993, so that was 17 years,” Weinberg said. “I was living in New Jersey and I had a house in Los Angeles, so it was a real natural progression of taking a fork in the road. Conan went one way and I went another. The TBS program, I popped in one night. I was in town to watch Slipknot and my wife and I went over there and it was like when Bob Hope would drop in on Johnny Carson unexpectedly.”

Indeed, Weinberg has great reverence for his piece of late-night history.

“It’s become very different with the internet,” Weinberg said. “We started that show pre-internet so it was linear. Now, you’re looking for the one soundbyte you can use. It’s a much different television landscape. The typical setup of the bandleader-sidekick, that’s fallen by the wayside. We caught the last years of the Golden Age of Late-Night Television. The high point of ‘The Tonight Show’ for me was seeing my name in the same sentence as Doc Severinsen and Sketch Henderson. That was a mindblower. … For someone of my age, that was off the charts.”

Springsteen got the band back together in 1999, still touring today with four-hour sets.

“The length of the shows is not up to me or anybody else but Bruce, so if he wants to play four or five hours, I’m up for it,” Weinberg said. “I somehow seem to be built for that. There’s a certain momentum that builds up. I don’t get tired for some reason. Physically I’ve adapted to it. … A lot of it has to do with experience, discipline, finesse and a rock ‘n roll spirit. … It’s gotta be more than adrenaline; it’s know-how, willpower, desire to push yourself further than you think.”

Which song does he enjoy playing live the most?

“He writes out a set list of 30 to 33 songs, then right away changes 15 or 16 of them, so you have to pay attention,” Weinberg said. “‘Ramrod’ is a particularly fun song to play. … When you play it in a stadium, you can see people moving to that beat. … I’ve played ‘Rosalita’ a thousand times, but every time I play it, it may be the first time you’ve heard Bruce sing it, so he doesn’t ever lay back. In the 45 years I’ve known him, he pushes and pushes to be better all the time.”

As a result, the prolific band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.

“We went on too long and sucked up all the oxygen in the room,” Weinberg said. “The Hall of Fame induction ceremony was very nice. It was a bit bittersweet because Clarence and Danny weren’t there. You can’t talk about the E Street Band without Clarence Clemons and Dan Federici, but it was very nice. It was great having my family there.”

His two grown children are busy making Dad proud.

“One of the best things about [late night TV] was that I was able to be a full-time Dad to my two children,” Weinberg said. “My daughter Ali Rogin, who’s with PBS NewsHour, is going to sing a few songs [Saturday]. … In our family, she and my son Jay, they’re the ones with the real music talent. Jay’s the drummer of Slipknot and Ali is a wonderful journalist.”

All these years later, Weinberg keeps beating to his own drum.

“I’ve had so many rock ‘n roll fantasies come true over the years,” Weinberg said. “I never stop playing. I’ve done 130 shows with my ‘Jukebox’ band, which is largely to keep drumming. I don’t just sit home looking at my Hall of Fame trophy. I’ve got to be out there working. I enjoy playing with the guys, entertaining an audience and giving them more than they bargained for. … Every single beat I play matters. The audience deserves no less.”

Hear our full conversation with Max Weinberg below:

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

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