Lesson the Load

Mighty Max Weinberg strafes an old high school. Now that's class.

Hear that thunder? The concussive ricochet of stick on skin,
mortar-fire drum licks kicking this most compelling song along, then lightning guitars flashing and crashing, and a perfect rock and roll voice roaring, "Out on the streets your chances are zero." You're never out of danger here, and the only salvation is the savage examination of "Murder, Inc." - Bruce Springsteen vocalizing rage and defiance, drawing you into a deadly game no one wins, while the E Street Band kicks all available ass to set the frightening tone of the piece.

The subject is not a killer's heroism, the song is about living against cold-steel reality. The true hero is the person whose measure of good and bad is less clearly defined, the person who keeps on swinging no matter how many curve balls life throws. The unglamorized rigors of day-to-day life can be as dramatic as a gun brawl on the mean streets. Real heroism often goes unnoticed.

The explosive drums behind the emotional wail of the unreleased "Murder, Inc." were provided by Max Weinberg, who just might be the greatest drummer in rock. He went to the zenith in a supercharged rocketship, and today he enjoys a good life, but fateful circumstance is a tricky bastard, and Weinberg, the seemingly invincible Mighty Max, got beaned right around the time "Murder" - and the songs that did make it onto the landmark Born in the U.S.A. album - was recorded. Tired muscles (if you've heard the album or its outtakes, you understand) induced Weinberg to apply a white-knuckle grip to his drum sticks. His hands would cramp so severely he was unable to release the sticks. The problem was tendinitis, and seven operations were required to repair the damage.

Three years ago Weinberg stood before a large gathering at St. Francis Hospital in Miami Beach and spoke eloquently about growing up, as a member of Bruce's band and in general. He talked about motivation, discipline, setting goals and achieving them. He addressed the ups and downs and ins and outs of his own life, but he wasn't talking only about himself. He showed videos, answered dozens of questions, handed out inspiration as if it were a pamphlet. Before the seminar, Weinberg described Springsteen as "a very patient man," a description equally apt for Mighty Max himself.

Last week Weinberg returned to Miami Beach and delivered a scaled-down version of his lecture to a couple dozen high school students. Like the St. Francis seminar, the afternoon began with one of the most telling anecdotes in Weinberg's vast repertoire of interesting tales. It was 1975, and big things were beginning to happen for a bunch of New Jersey rockers calling themselves the E Street Band. Mighty Max was a new addition to the band led by Bruce Springsteen, and this was his biggest test: a series of shows at the Bottom Line club in New York City. The biz big boys were there, hundreds of fans milled outside the sold-out venue, radio was broadcasting one of the shows. Late in the event the band launched into the theatrical "Rosalita," and the new kid was tasting his gravy. Bruce was dancing madly, the E Streeters jamming wildly, and Weinberg noticed a woman down front staring at him. She consumed his awareness. He was playing just for her. Alone in a crowd. Bam, be-bop bop, boom. Oh yeah, Max in the groove. One problem. Bruce had cut the band off with a hand signal. Weinberg missed it.

Springsteen walked back to the drum kit, took the sticks from Max, threw them down, and wrapped his hands around the embarrassed drummer's throat. When Bruce introduced his cohorts, he said, "and the not so mighty Max Weinberg." Later the deflated Weinberg visited his boss in the dressing room. Bruce was peeved, but he let on that he, too, realized the complex challenges involved in an E Street performance, and, without the benefit of an old parked car, he offered the key to the universe. "Watch out for the curves," Springsteen told his colleague. Weinberg says the instruction "hit me like a ton of bricks." He started to leave the dressing room, and as he opened the door, Springsteen softened the blow: "Hey, Max. Was she pretty?"

It was a long, sweet ride for the next decade - playing before 220,000 fans in Germany, taking part in one of the grandest concert tours ever with Born in the U.S.A., cutting albums that stand to this day as classics. Although Weinberg drummed on eight of twelve tracks for the Tunnel of Love album, he notes that it was the beginning of the demise of the E Street Band, that Bruce put that record together almost single-handedly, sans the full-band jams of previous projects.

Between then and the release of his two new solo albums, Springsteen and his band parted company. "There was never a time," Weinberg says now, "when anyone said the band was breaking up. That was more a newspaper, or media, thing. There was no acrimony. I'm comfortable with it, and we remain as close as we ever were." In fact, a few months ago his ex-boss took Mighty Max for a ride, blasting the new stuff on the car stereo. "It was great," the drummer recalls. "He's unique. He's just such a great lyricist. I feel close to `Living Proof,' which is about a baby being born; I can really relate to it, people in the 40-plus age group can relate to that."

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