Max Weinberg on 'River' Tour, What He Learned From Bruce Springsteen

"My job is to be as commanding a percussive force as I can be," says E Street Band drummer

E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg reflects on performing 'The River,' then and now. Credit: Taylor Hill/Getty

"The River is my summer record," Max Weinberg said between sips of a cocktail in a hotel bar in Pittsburgh — the drummer's reward after three hours onstage earlier in the evening at the Consol Energy Center, the night before Bruce Springsteen opened his 2016 tour with the E Street Band there on January 16th.

"Through the years, every summer, I would listen to that in my convertible," Weinberg went on. "That was always my long drive — just put The River on."

Weinberg — the backbeat in the E Street Band since the fall of 1974 — is now performing The River every night, in its entirety, as Springsteen follows the December release of the multi-disc retrospective, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (Columbia), with thorough, passionate live reexaminations of the 20 songs on that record, a personal crossroads that became the singer's first double album and first Number One hit. "I'm the white line down the center of the road," Weinberg said, summing up his role in these concerts. "My job is to be observant, to make the transitions, to focus on what Bruce is doing — to be as commanding a percussive force as I can be, so he has the freedom to go where he wants to go."

After that rehearsal and an immediate interview with Springsteen, I joined Weinberg that evening for a drink and a second hour of spirited conversation. Weinberg, who turns 65 in April, spoke about the birth of The River in rigorous practice sessions at Springsteen's home; a "tough-love" moment with Springsteen, during the recording, that changed Weinberg as a drummer; other motivating counsel from the album's co-producers, Jon Landau and E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt; Weinberg's memories of the late E Street men Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons as he revisits The River; and his trust in Springsteen, at this advanced point in the E Street Band's life, to know when it's time to walk off the stage for good.

At one point, Weinberg pointed out that on the following night, as he was opening with Springsteen in Pittsburgh, his drummer-son Jay, 25, would be starting a European tour with Slipknot in Helsinki. "I keep telling him, 'Don't headbang,'" Max said, laughing. "He did it a couple of weeks ago, and his head hurts. I said, 'Learn from my experience.'

"I beat up my body physically when I was younger," Weinberg went on. "Look at the Tempe, Arizona show" — the fabled, epic 1980 concert included, on DVD and Blu-ray, in The Ties That Bind. "You can see it. But I have figured out a way to do it now — with energy, focus, excitement and enthusiasm."

At 30-plus songs over three hours and more, this is a demanding show. Was it hard to get the muscles and memory in shape, especially after a substantial break from the road?
They come back fairly quickly. I spend a lot of my time, when not touring, working out aerobically, so my endurance is actually pretty good. You get shocked back into it — a little. We all do. But that's the beauty of it — the memory is still there. I've done this, in my case, for 42 years. The memory of how to do it — why you do it — is still there.

Did the River songs come back automatically? Many of those songs have been out of the live shows for years.
I listened quite a bit to The River before the tour. I was playing a lot of drums on that record. Through the years, particularly when we got into stadiums, I streamlined a lot of stuff. As a drummer, you have to make the parts more direct, eliminate things. But I've injected some of that youthful, manic energy back into these renditions. The outtakes from The River — I hadn't heard them in awhile. They brought me back.

And I made a bunch of rehearsal tapes at the time. So I did remember things like "The Man Who Got Away" and "Night Fire" — "Yeah, I remember playing that." We have gone through a couple of those things informally, in rehearsal. But they were done in a different style. And we never played those live.

Of course, it's Bruce's decision if he wants to play them or not. We will certainly be ready for anything — which is the hallmark of the E Street Band and the most precious thing about it. I do a lot of gigs with other groups. I have a 23-piece dance band, a classic society-dance band at the Rainbow Room [in New York City]. I don't drum — I lead the band up front. Everything is charted and arranged. Leading that is like moving the Queen Mary, whereas the E Street Band is quite fleet in terms of reacting to whatever Bruce wants to do.

This tour is the first I can remember in which you play such a firmly structured set — the whole of "The River." Still, there are differences from the record. There was one today, in rehearsal — Roy Bittan's extended piano intro to "Point Blank."
That's from the 1980 concert in Tempe. You remember things like that. When I listen to these songs, I think of Danny and Clarence a lot, the parts they played. There was a thing Clarence did in "Point Blank," in the fifth bar of the piano introduction, with a bell tree [makes a ringing noise]. As soon as I heard that, watching the Tempe video, it reminded me of Clarence.

I love the set pieces in a show like this. You get into a frame of mind — the totality of the narrative, these characters. It's different from playing different songs every night. On the last tour, we'd play 25, 26 songs and 15 of those would be "audibles." You never know what was coming. But before I went with Bruce, I was playing on Broadway for two years in Godspell. That's the same thing every night. The challenge is to view it with enthusiasm. And that's one of the things the E Street Band is particularly good at.

What are your memories of the creative buildup to The River and the making of that album?
I got married when we were doing that tour, in June of '81. I hear "Ramrod" or "Out in the Street," and it puts me in a great frame of mind, what I was feeling then. I always appreciated it when Bruce put the lyrics on the album [cover]. Because I always go for the stories. The story led me to what I would play on the drums.

I remember Steven [Van Zandt] and Bruce pushing me to play more like Keith Moon — really drum, where my normal inclination would be to play more like Ringo Starr. I embraced that if you listen to some of the outtakes like "Mary Lou." That is my version of the Who's "I Can See For Miles."

In our conversation, Bruce spoke of the differences between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town — what he called "outsider" records — and the focus on intimacy and relationships on The River.
As narrow as it might have become, that focus was more universal. He was turning 30. I was 28. I was getting married. Clarence and Danny had been married but weren't married at the time. I remember breaking the news to Bruce. We were, as a band, together 24-7. And it was like wedding bells were breaking up that old gang of mine. It didn't really do that. But that was a big step.

How firm were the arrangements of the River songs when you recorded them? Did you work them out in the studio or drill them ahead of time?
The River stuff was so arranged, well thought out in rehearsal and in the studio. There was a lot of attention to detail. This was a period of real, personal growth for me as a drummer. I can hear myself grow up from [the outtake] "Roulette," which was the first song we recorded, to "The River," which was the last song we recorded. I can hear myself mature over those 19 months, with unique motivation from Bruce.

What did he say?
Our modus operandi in the studio was to literally play thngs 30 or 40 times. To maintain your focus over 20, 30 takes, as a drummer, is next to impossible. I had to make the transition from being a young, talented, energetic drummer to grasping the true role of the professional. The instruction from Bruce was, basically, "Talk to the guys you admire. Find out how they do it." It was a little more forceful than that [grins].

It was a wake-up call. It was during the recording of "Out in the Street." He took me down the hallway, and we had a face-to-face. Three minutes. Then we went right back in and recorded [the B-side] "Be True." Immediately, I was 60 percent better. What he transmitted to me was a little bit of tough love: "I know you can do this. I believe in you. You need to apply yourself."

Could you see The River taking coherent shape as Bruce kept bringing in new songs?
We had a routine. We hooked up in the studio around six or seven at night, then go to five in the morning, five days a week. We'd record "Wreck on the Highway" and "Ramrod," or "Stolen Car" and then "Crush on You." So your head was flying. It was a cornucopia of different things. He was trying to get that mood — the narrative of the characters — but also songs that were fun to play, bar-band rave-up songs.

When I listen to the album now, I can see little motifs I did in every song. There's a thing I did in [the outtake] "Meet Me in the City Tonight." [Makes drum-roll sound] I do a variation of it in at least half a dozen songs. It's like a rhythmic theme. Bruce has talked about the yin and yang of Steven and Jon [Landau] as producers. Steve was always pushing me to play more flamboyantly. Jon was more about the playing on "The River" — focused and direct, serving the story à la [the Muscle Shoals drummer] Roger Hawkins and Al Jackson [of Booker T. and the MG's]. So on one hand, I'm playing these songs like Ginger Baker and Keith Moon — and in this other way.

But we did everything live in the studio, all of us playing at the same time. It was almost direct-to-disc. If there was a mistake, we stopped and started again.

In that sense, you are performing The River now exactly as you recorded it.
Absolutely. We did every record live in the studio, certainly every record of that period — Born to Run, Darkness, The River, Born in the U.S.A. It was always the rhythm section and Bruce playing live.

Despite Bruce's legendary perfectionist streak in the studio then, you were always left with the actual physical, bonding experience of a band playing live.
I've always read that Bruce is a perfectionist. But it was more like "You keep writing until you get what makes sense." We would listen to takes. You knew it when you had it. For him, it was very tortorous. He's writing the stuff. If you listen to "Be True," there are another half-dozen songs that are outtakes with those lyrics. They show up in other songs, in different iterations.

We rehearsed at his house to the point where he was comfortable enough to go into the studio. I remember getting a phone call at nine o'clock in the morning to go to his house. He had written this song overnight — "Roulette" — and he air-drummed the tom-tom thing to me. The way he was doing it — a drummer would never play it that way. But he was very specific [makes drum-pattern noise]. We went into the studio and cut it that night. Things were bopping fast.

You are performing The River every night 36 years after it came out — that's three or four lifetimes for most bands. Do you ever wonder how much longer you can tour and perform at this level? Or do you trust Bruce to know when that is?
I totally trust Bruce. I don't think about it. Everybody up there has a committment. And we are in uncharted territory. There are older bands, but there aren't many that play with our intensity and energy. I know that I can play that way. I had a serious bout of cancer. I had massive open-heart surgery. I've got aches and pains. But I'll keep going because that's what I do. I will personally figure out a way to do it. And I believe Bruce will too.

We are that generation of rockers that came up being a bar band. We were never a pop band, playing for a half-hour. The long shows, the longevity of the night — that's very direct for us. Charlie Watts says he was always fine with the Rolling Stones playing for 40 minutes in the Sixties. Then Led Zeppelin came along and totally ruined it for the Stones. They had to play for two-and-a-half hours, and it changed the way the Stones approached things.

We always did that. I don't look at it as three hours. I take it song by song, beat by beat. I'm focused, and I don't leave anything on the stage. Bruce taught me that.

At this point, it's not about youthful energy. It's all about willpower. And I know I have the will. When I'm at home, I do a strenuous workout four times a week. Because I'm thinking, in the back of my mind, I may get a call from Bruce Springsteen. And I'd better be ready.