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."

Weinberg and his wife have a five-year-old daughter, Ali, and a nineteen-month-old son, Jay. The lecture gig was spawned when a booking agency got hold of Weinberg's 1984 book, The Big Beat, and asked if he'd be interested in speaking to audiences around the nation. It was a perfect opportunity because he could take his budding family along, he could hype Amnesty International, and he could, for a change, get out from behind the drums and meet his fans up close.

None of that had much to do with the Mighty one's recent visit to Miami Beach Senior High School. After the Amnesty International tour, Weinberg returned to Seton Hall, which he'd left in 1974 to do the E Street shuffle. He took a degree in January of 1990 and applied to law schools. "It was a dream of mine to go to law school," he explains. "I got accepted to several, including Georgetown, and I went to one for about a month. It was a big mistake. It took me completely away from my family. It was a good idea at the wrong time in my life."

The curve of life led him another way, and Weinberg now heads Hard Ticket Entertainment, a subsidiary label designed to specialize in jazz and classical releases. With distribution by the giant BMG, it is a pursuit with almost unlimited potential. "It's not like I'm selling records out of the trunk of my car or anything," Weinberg says. "I'm very happy doing what I'm doing now."

Hard Ticket's first project is Killer Joe's Scene of the Crime, essentially Weinberg's first solo album. For it, Mighty Max teamed with long-time friend Joe Delia, blues shouter Jimmy Vivino, and guests Little Steven, Jon Bon Jovi, Branford Marsalis, Southside Johnny, Phoebe Snow, Benmont Tench, the Beach Boys, Haywood Gregory, Tico Torres, and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Weinberg constantly refers to Killer Joe as "Big Chill, big band," but that hardly does justice to what is a recording remarkable on several levels.

Despite a number of cover tunes and a fully retro approach, Scene is one of the freshest records out right now. The rough vigor is due to the fact that Max and his gang recorded the dozen cuts in three days using real musical instruments and real live human musicians. The result is all groove and no bullshit, the sort of rollicking good-time-for-all lost in these days of calculated music. There are a thousand elements at work, from the deep soul of Springsteen's "Club Soul City" to the blitzy giggle of "Peter Gunn '91," which lights a fire under Henry Mancini's pulsing instrumental from the old TV show. Another highlight is Springsteen's gorgeous nonvocal "Summer on Signal Hill," originally recorded by Clarence Clemons and the Red Bank Rockers on the B-side of their single, "Woman's Got the Power." (Profits from that track are earmarked for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters charity.) Jump blues, big band swing, good ol' rock, and much more come together beautifully in an album whose market is as difficult to pinpoint as the music is to categorize. It'll never move as many units as, say, Human Touch, but that doesn't lessen its merit.

And that these are high school students blowing the roof off the place doesn't lessen the impact of the jam session. After concluding his lecture, Weinberg has set up a drum kit in the middle of the Miami Beach High Rock Ensemble rehearsal hall/classroom and invited the students to play a couple of songs with him. What follows is a most amazing mini-concert.

The magical, motivational afternoon is partially attributable to, of all things, MTV. Weinberg was scheduled to provide his seminar to the staff of the Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando on April 10. "I was watching MTV and I saw a story about Doug [Burris, the Rock Ensemble's instructor]. I was floored. I wrote down his name and called him up out of the blue. I said, `I think it's fantastic what you're doing. How about if I stop by, let the kids ask me a few questions, give them some inspiration?'" After Burris was convinced that the call wasn't a prank, he said sure. "I'm not getting paid for it or anything," Weinberg says. "He's doing a good thing and I wanted to help out. I can give these students a practical view of what it's like having gone from Point A to Point Z, I'm fortunate to be in a position to give them some insight. I was moved by the program, it's as simple as that."

The program began twenty years ago. Burris had been a band director in Highland Falls, New York, and took his master's degree at the University of Miami. "I wanted to be a rock star," Burris says. "My mom said go to college. She said, `I'll pay for the first semester,' which I knew she couldn't, but I went, to FSU. One of my major accomplishments was getting through that." A year or two before Dr. Solomon Lichter hired him to teach guitar at Miami Beach High, Burris was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. He watched Weinberg's lecture the other day from a wheelchair.

The idea for the Rock Ensemble hit him after he grew tired of doing nothing but guitar courses each day. "Like Max said, everybody was doing this outside of school. I thought, Why not do it in school? When the five classes of guitar got a little old, I needed something to shoot me up, so I suggested a rock group. [Lichter] said go ahead." Since then, a number of his students have gone on to professional music careers.

He still teaches classical guitar, which, in conjunction with the Rock Ensemble program, he says, "gives me the full spectrum of musical involvement." He calls his guitar students "my classical guitar terrorists, because they look like beach bums, long curly hair, and they sit down and start playing Bach."

On this afternoon, however, it's time for Bach to roll over. Mighty Max has concluded his seminar. He's recommended Zen and the Art of Archery as a way to learn how to "slow time" and Legal Protection for the Creative Musician for career guidance. He's answered questions: yes, his family supported his musical dreams; do hire a lawyer and beware of extended deals. He's said that playing music keeps you young; mentioned the inequitable distribution of wealth in places such as India; and advised, "Do what you're gonna do. When you least expect it, someone like Bruce might walk into your life." So now it's time to jam.

The Rock Ensemble rehearsal room, which includes an eight-track recording studio and a bunch of equipment Burris says is "right out of King Tut's tomb," is about to rock. Guitarist John Ospina and bassist Dameon Maizler, along with a handful of singers and two keyboardists and a conga player, are in the mood to play "Do It Again," the old Steely Dan hit. A student shows Weinberg the drum pattern, and then Mighty Max fills the room with thunder. Then teen-agers and the legend also work out on a couple of others, and despite a few technical difficulties, it turns out to be quite a show. At one point Weinberg throws a break to Ospina and Maizler and the kids read it perfectly. During a drum solo, Weinberg's sticks fly so fast they blur, and the tricks he pulls out of his high hat are momentarily startling, freezing reality during "Play That Funky Music (White Boy)" with unreal cymbal clashes even though his eyes are riveted to Ospina's fret board. Call this the A Street Band, as in Grade A.

"The kids felt that difference of playing with a pro," Burris says afterward. "This is the same guy who played in front of 100,000 people. It was a gas for me and them. He was into what they were playing, too. The big thing they really felt was this communication between him and them as performers and as aspiring musicians listening to one who made it."

For his part, Weinberg says, "Doug is dealing with his own obstacles. He gives his love of music in his own way to the students, and I think that's very cool." Downright inspiring. Heroes are everywhere, but sometimes you have to look for them.

While the students surrounded Weinberg for autographs, follow-up questions, and small talk, Burris, on the other side of the room, took aside publicist Susan Brustman. "I told her," Burris says, "what a neat thing we have here. And the thing I'm most disappointed in is that no one knows about it. People need to know about it. It's very inspiring. When you hear these kids play that music, I mean, what could be better than that?

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