Max Weinberg Talks 43 Years With Bruce Springsteen, Health Scares

Longtime E Street Band drummer on playing marathon shows, enduring 13-hour open-heart surgery, his son's Slipknot gig and more

Bruce Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg opens up about his life on E Street, his recent health scares and more. Credit: Daniel Boczarski/Getty

It's been just two days since Max Weinberg came back from New Zealand after the final date of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "The River Tour," a 13-month odyssey that featured 89 shows and some of the longest gigs they've ever done. But he's still ready for more. "If Bruce called today and said, 'We're going to do another six months,' I would have let out a yell of exultation," Weinberg says. "I'd be happy to do it. I don't have anything to work out to where I'd say, 'Well, I gotta think about that. …'"

We spoke to Weinberg about the long tour, how he endures four-hour concerts at age 65, the frightening health ordeals he dealt with in recent years, his son Jay's tenure in Slipknot and why he'd play drums for Bruce for free.

The River Tour was somewhat last minute, right?
Yeah. Bruce first called right after Halloween of 2015 and said he had an idea. We knew about the River box set coming out. He called and said, "I'm thinking about promoting it a little bit and playing some." I was like, "Sure, great." That turned into 89 concerts. That's basically how we've kind of worked over the past 40 or year so. Plan on 15 concerts or 30, but once we get out there, it's never 15 or 30. It's a lot more.

Playing The River was a tremendous amount of fun. It was challenging. One of the things I liked about it, and I think everyone felt the same, when you play something night after night you really get to dig into the material, just as an instrumentalist. My job as the drummer is to advance the story. Even now, after playing those songs for 40 years, I'm still finding ways to leave things out, which is really the aim as I've gotten older. Look, I'll be 66 next month, and it's nice to say I'm still figuring out ways to play this great canon of material in a different fashion.

I sometimes look at you near the end of the show and think, "How does Max still have the energy to keep playing like this?"
Well, I appreciate the sentiment. I don't really get tired. It's a funny thing. I can use a sports analogy. I've met a couple of the Chicago Bulls and one of the things they invariably say is that when you're playing with Michael Jordan it's a completely unique experience than playing with someone else. He lifts everyone else's game. That's really what it is with Bruce. I do plenty of other musical jobs on my own, which are fun and rewarding, whether it's playing [with] a 15-piece orchestra or playing with a rock and soul band. But playing at that level, I don't get tired. My body has adapted through the years, whether I had heart surgery or cancer surgery or hand surgery, my body, my doctors have realized, has adapted to the stress of having to do that for four hours.

I'll tell you one of the things we've been talking about lately, how fortunate we are to be this age, all of us in the band, and Bruce as well, is being able to bring it night after night with the level of quality that we do. I think I see it in the faces of the people who are watching us, the commitment of striving to excellence night after night. That's something we're all extremely proud of. Nobody is phoning it in. That's not in the lexicon. Staying in shape is very important. I do a lot of swimming so my breath is good. Muscle-wise, I'm in shape. That helps a lot playing the drums.

Do you worry that you're going to eventually push your body to the breaking point and that at some point this won't be doable anymore?
I don't think about that. I don't play drums the same way I played when I was in my twenties. I don't play with an equal amount of power. It's more power since I developed the amount of finesse that I have. Unless you're physically sick, and I have been. I've had major heart surgery. Major cancer surgery. Major hand surgery. Major back surgery. And I'm here to report that I feel a thousand percent great. I certainly think we're testing the boundaries of what has been done. Certainly there are bands playing that are older than us. The Stones come to mind. I can't think of any that during the course of 14 nights plays 100 different songs.

Charlie Watts has a soft touch like a jazz drummer. You bring a lot of power and that's obviously more difficult.
Well they're a blues band. Charlie's influences were not rock drummers. They were jazz drummers. I was influenced by jazz drummers, but I'm a rock-era drummer. Our approach has always been very intense, going back 45 years. What you do is you let the drums, and of course today's sophisticated sound systems, monitor systems work for you. That really helps a lot too. You develop the idea of, "We're gonna play for four hours? We're gonna play for hour hours. We're gonna play for three? OK." Bruce is the only one who is going to decide when we're going to stop, so I have to be ready to play longer than he can. I realized, even lately, that I don't really get tired. I've got plenty of playing left in me at the end of the night. I think that's from staying in shape, eating right, getting enough sleep and all the physical things any athlete would do.

I'm not going to say that every night I'm not... The other night there was a certain bit Bruce was doing where I had to hold this roll. Normally I hold it for 16 bars. It's a very fast single-stroke roll. It was during "Glory Days." He held it for like 24 bars and then an additional eight bars. You go to the last note. You don't go [demonstrates a fast drum roll with his voice] and then a downbeat. You do it the whole time. I was amazed I was able to get through it and play it and get right to the end. A lot of it is finesse, technique and a lot of willpower. Through the years, that's what you develop is the ability to will yourself through the pain. I shouldn't say pain. ... the discomfort of certain times.

Whenever Bruce goes behind you to play to the fans behind the stage, I love watching you turn your head to an almost impossible angle to watch him for a cue.
That's the job. That's why I've been here for 43 years. The hardest thing in a band is to get everyone to pay attention. I've been asked through the years to talk about my audition with Bruce. One of the things I noticed after I noticed Bruce is how intently Danny [Federici], Clarence [Clemons] and Garry [Tallent], who were at my first audition, were watching him. That to me really said a lot. I had never been in a band where everyone really paid attention like that. I was 23. It was a long time ago. That really made an impression.

One moment that always sticks in my head is that 10-night stand you guys did at MSG in 2000. You could feel the emotion from the stage all over the room.
That was amazing. That whole run, I was doing the [Conan O'Brien] show during the day and taking the subway down to the Garden afterwards because it was the quickest way to get down there. We had a little rehearsal room in the bowels of the Garden because Bruce wanted to work on some tunes, which we used several nights. "Code of Silence" was one of them. We were rehearsing it 20 minutes before we went onstage in the basement of the Garden. I didn't know they had a space like that. It was a very special tour and everybody had a good time and were happy to be playing together again and bringing it night after night. Of course, Clarence and Danny were in top form on that particular tour.

As Clarence got older, and he was the first to admit it, his embouchure, which is the musculature which creates that robust sound, started to give him trouble, and that's the most important thing for a horn player. It's like arthritis for a drummer. But that Live in New York City recording is a really good document of where we were at then.

What are your plans now that the River Tour is done?
I never really tour. I do a lot of playing, but it's all for private audiences. Basically trading on my roots as a wedding and bar-mitzvah-band drummer. That's what I do. I go and play weddings and bar mitzvahs, and that's how I came up. I've got a variety of groups that I play with. One is strictly Stax and Motown oriented, 12-piece band. I have a 23-piece 1950s-style dance orchestra. Occasionally, I play with my 15-piece Count Basie/Buddy Rich–style band, playing the kind of music I loved as a kid. I indulge my hobby of real-estate investing quite a bit and spend most of my time now getting off on my son's career more than mine.

What's it like watching Jay play in Slipknot?
Jay is an unbelievable drummer. Two years in a row he's been named the best metal drummer out there. They have very dedicated fans and their music is intense, and I like intense music. It's complicated. I couldn't do it. I've seen him up close and I don't know how he does it. I had nothing to to do with it. He taught himself. He'll be 27 this year and he's just a killer drummer and a great kid. It's so much fun for me to see him play, and he's a virtual artist. He lives in Nashville. He's doing quite a bit of stuff. He's writing songs on his own and the band is making plans to do another record, a follow-up to the last one, which did very well.

Do you stand in the audience at the Slipknot shows? It gets pretty intense.
I don't go up front. I won't go up front since I'd get knocked around. I watch on the side of the stage or at the board. The drums and the vocals are the loudest things in the mix and the way he plays double bass, he's got one of those drum sets and uses all of it. That's been very pleasing for me. The other night we got an audible for "Radio Nowhere" and I never play that song without thinking of Jay because everyone says that Jay just kicked my ass on that song and played it so much better than I did. I stole a lot of the licks he used on that song.

You mentioned a cancer surgery. What sort of cancer and when was that?
I had prostate cancer. I'm someone that's always very proactive about my health. I was diagnosed in June of 2011, literally two days after Clarence's passing, and had surgery. I'm one of the lucky ones. I asked my doctor, "Did we catch it early?" He said, "Well, not terribly early." I had some definite thoughts on the state of surgery in general, prostate surgery specifically, but most people know I had this major open-heart surgery in 2010 that saved my life.

Why did you have the heart surgery?
I was in heart failure. If I didn't do it then there was a real good chance I'd be the guy that didn't wake up one day. It was a timing thing. I was first diagnosed with this heart defect back when I was in my thirties. There wasn't a lot you could do it for, so it was a watch-and-wait thing. I found a fantastic doctor, David Adams at Mt. Sinai, and he actually removed my heart and did plastic surgery of the heart. That was a big one. That was a 13-hour operation and six months recovery. I'll tell you what, those brushes with … getting that close … when I play with Bruce and the E Street Band now … it was always fun, but I can't believe I'm so lucky to be doing this, that I'm alive to be doing this. I'll be 66 in three weeks and I'm alive to be doing this.

After those surgeries did you worry you'd never play drums again?
The heart surgery was so invasive I didn't think I would get better at first. That's how far down it pushes you on your ass. It was a massively invasive heart surgery. This isn't like bypass surgery. I'm not minimizing bypass surgery, but that's like getting a cavity filled next to this. This was intense and it took me six months to get my strength back. I lost 50 pounds. It was a life-changing experience.

The fans had no idea. They just saw you on the next tour and you looked fine.
That was in 2010. We didn't play again until 2012. I took the big band on the road and spent several months doing that. Then I had the cancer diagnosis right after Clarence's last week. I had the surgery on July 26th. That's an invasive operation, but fortunately I had a great outcome and within a month or so I was ready to rock. I don't think we went on tour until the next year anyway. I come from strong stock. I come from strong Russian people. The nickname "Mighty" I guess is apt. I just push and push and push. If I can make it up to the drums, I'm going to play my hardest and do the best I can.

It's crazy that you never quite know when Bruce will call and say he wants to go on tour in a few months.
There's a little myth about this. I get a little more inside knowledge. With the River Tour, it's just [that] he had this box set. I don't think he necessarily was planning to go out and play. I had a bunch of dates booked. So did Nils [Lofgren]. He had a whole tour. Of course, nobody is going to not do it. If he wants to do something, you do it. There's nothing more important than playing in Bruce and the E Street Band, so you work it out. It's a little more organized than that. There's a lot of logistics. He's got 100 different crew members. The River Tour was a blessing. They're all a blessing, but that came about pretty radically. ... I heard he was going to do something else, maybe something by himself, and then he decided it would be a fun thing to do.

Any idea what's coming next?
No idea. I have no idea. I don't even think about it. I really don't. For me, we played the last night in Auckland. I hope we play again, but I don't plan my life around playing again. I do what I do. So far, it's seemed to work out. It's up to Bruce, and if everyone can physically do it then you do it. So far, so good. I don't think anyone walks away from any of these shows we did in the last six weeks and thinks, "Guys, it's time to hang it up." I think we're breaking new ground. I think we're like the old bluesmen that just keep playing. What else are you going to do?

Whatever leads up to playing the drums is life. When I'm seated there playing the drums, I'm 14 years old. For me, the reward is I feel like I'm 14, but I have the experience of someone that's been doing for this 60 years. That's a rare combination. I'm very, very lucky. I look around, I see the band, and they inspire me every night. Bruce is standing right in front of me, or he comes up and says something while he gets a drink of water and that inspires me. I hope we do something again. I have no crystal ball.

It's quite a miracle that at age 23 you happened to respond to a Village Voice ad that changed your life to such a profound degree.
I've thought about that a lot. What if I hadn't answered that ad? But now 43 years later I've realized, I was the guy. I was destined to get the job because of my background, and so was Roy [Bittan]. The thing we brought was what he needed and what the band needed at the time. But what would have happened to my life had I not met Bruce and the E Street Band? What would have happened to the Beatles had they not gotten Ringo? What would have happened had they stuck with Pete Best? He was a very, very good drummer. But as I think as he himself has said, Ringo was a much better Beatle. Chemistry is everything.

I can't imagine "Badlands" without you on it. It would be like a different song.
I appreciate that. Listen, that record, and a lot of the early ones, were struggles to make. We weren't some polished studio band that was just in for another three-hour session. This was our lives. We grew up on record, all of us. Some of us were more advanced than others. I don't include myself among them that were more advanced, but I tried my best. I played with passion. I tried to play with invention. It was a ballsy thing to play a single stroll roll through the entirety of "Candy's Room." A studio drummer would not have done that. It would have gotten you fired right away. But I did that and it was like, "That's cool. Do that again." I have tapes where its called "The Fast Song." It didn't have a name. The originally song was slower.

Through my TV career I've played with more musicians than anyone in the E Street Band, great people. There's still nothing I'd rather do than play "Badlands" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town." We played that the other night and it was so heavy. It was an audible. You have to learn to read Bruce's lips onstage. I'm a pretty good lip reader and I saw "Darkness." It also could have been something else. All I heard was the first two notes where I don't play and I knew what song it was. As soon as he hit that, I was there. That's the kind of thing you get from constant working at it for 40 plus years.

Without sounding hackneyed, it's been the privilege and the pleasure of my life to play with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I came back two days ago and I'm still pretty jet-lagged, but I feel the same way I felt the night after my first audition where I was playing a Broadway show. I was living with my parents, going to college, playing club dates. I was in a variety of bands, and I didn't know Bruce or anything about his scene. But I went up to him and said, "I don't know who you are going to choose, but I'll tell you what, I'll play with you for nothing." And that sentiment is still in force today. Of course, there's a practical side of life that everyone has to address. But when I'm on tour and people come up and tell you what the music has meant to them, it's just … I'd still do it for nothing. It's unique. It's just unique. There's nothing like it.