Thursday, September 20, 2012

Max & The Mad Dog

What I'm about to say might be taken by some as a form of sacrilege, but I assure you, I've thought long and hard about this for years.

Max Weinberg is a pretty terrible drummer.

Got to see the E Street Band last night. Stellar, as always. But this is not a review of the show. What I've noticed the last few times I've seen the band live, I've actually noticed on the hundreds upon hundreds of live E Street Band tapes and bootlegs I've been listening to for years.

Max Weinberg can't keep time and his drum fills are ham-fisted and graceless.

NOW....that being said. Do I still believe the E Street Band is the greatest live band of all time?

Absolutely! many of us are paying any real attention to its individual members? I'd say few. We watch Bruce. We listen to Bruce. We gaze adoringly at Bruce. We listen to the band. And it works. And that is enough.


As a drummer, I watch the drummer. A lot of the time. I can't help it. And last night something happened that really sealed the deal for me regarding Max, though as I said, I've been feeling it for years.

Bruce brought out original ESB drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez for a rock solid version of "The E-Street Shuffle," and for 6 minutes in front of a giant stadium crowd with a pretty damn fine sound system, the E Street Band sounded different. It was, to this drummer's ears at least, a transformation. Lopez moved with the band. He made sense. It wasn't just stamina, which the "Mighty Max" has in spades. It rocked and grooved and suddenly the E Street Band, believe it or not, seemed even more powerful.

It wasn't only that. This isn't a "Mad Dog is better than Max" argument. I am not saying that. But, a few songs later in the set, during Roy Bittan's bravura piano solo in "Racing In The Street," Max started his bits, and it ruined the song. It was as if he was playing in the "Me Street Band." Not feeling the vibe, he just pounded haplessly, with the same stock fills he's been employing for years, coming in and out of the beat so often, my friend commented, "His fills sound like falling boxes."

I want to stress, this isn't me suddenly turning against the E Street Band. I'm not looking to start a thread or controversy with some lame Andy Rooney-ish, "You know what, the E Street Band is overrated." NO NO NO NO NO!

I'm just curious, doesn't anyone else hear it? Are there any people out there, drummers or bass players, anyone, who feel the way I do?

Would I want to see Max Weinberg replaced? No. Not at all. But listening to "The E Street Shuffle" last night with that sudden backbeat replacement was glaring. It was better.


Jonnie said...

And I thought it was just me...! I'm afraid you're right Sal. The E Street Band never had a really good drummer.

soundsource said...

very interesting post, as a non drummer it's a (and I repeat myself and interesting take.

Anonymous said...

now let's talk about David Sancious.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I always say there aren't any great bands without a great drummer.
I'm no expert on the E Street Band as I've only seen them twice. Both times, in 1980, and in 2005, it was all about Bruce. Maybe that's why the only Springsteen album I've ever listened to all the way through is "Born To Run". They're only the greatest band because he's the bandleader, and the only E Streeter to challenge him was Clarence.

Gyro1966 said...

Sal - I've followed Springsteen since 1974, and I've seen a lot of shows. I have never heard anyone make the argument that you are making. Many of my friends are musicians, and they've seen Springsteen many times as well. I have never heard anyone ever bring up this point.

Sal Nunziato said...

Well Gyro, it doesn't mean I'm wrong. I've seen the man 50 times, so it's not like I'm starting trouble.

Sal Nunziato said...

Rich D.

Post your email in a comment. I won't publish it. I'll email you.

Gyro1966 said...

Your opinion and I respect that you've shared it. But I hope you don't say that you've been following Derek Jeter since the beginning, and you've come to the conclusion that he really isn't all that good a baseball player - he is a weak link all these years.

Sal Nunziato said...

Also Gyro, I think the sum of the E Street Band's parts really tells the story. As I said, I wouldn't trade Max for anyone. But hearing Vini last night was a revelation, and also, I don't think ANY member other than Clarence is ever spoken about on individual terms. Maybe no one has brought it up, but it doesn't mean they hadn't noticed it.

Sal Nunziato said...

I wouldn't say that about Jeter Gyro, because he isn't. And I don't think Max is a weak link. I just don't think stamina makes you a great drummer. It makes you a great band member, and for that we love the ESB.

Just too often, I find myself wincing at Max's playing. It's pretty consistently average.

jeff k said...

and don't get me started on their uke player...

but is this a possibility? his hands after all these years are going bad? I seem to recall he had some trouble years ago. that doesn't explain a too heavy touch but maybe the other, weaker aspects of his drumming?

I still recall charle watts shaking the pain out of his hands in the last rolling stones concert film.

of all musicians, drummers to me, seem mosts likely to be potential victims of age.

Sal Nunziato said...

@Jeff K.

It's a good point. But I've thought this for years. It's also a matter of taste. I understand that. (I can't stand the sound of a Fender Rhodes piano.)

Theresa K. said...

after reading your post today, it hits me like 16 tons why i like "the wild the innocent & the e street shuffle" best of all of bruce's albums. it is so different in all the right ways.

big bad wolf said...

i'm in. i'll be listening sometimes and max will be bashing away and i will think, no, don't do that max. it doesn't make the band not great and it doesn't make the experience not great, but it can provide a siconcerting moment or two when one's focus is on max.

cmealha said...

Funny you should bring this up. I always thought of Max as just a mediocre drummer based on what I had heard on record, live recordings and Conan. I was just too afraid to say anything as I thought I'd be the target of an E-Street jihad! I feel so liberated.

steves said...

I can't remember where it was, but I've heard this argument before, and I'm afraid I have to agree. I wouldn't say Max sucks, but he's got all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. IMHO, it just goes to prove how great the rest of the band is--or how strong a force synergy can be--that Max's flaws are not always obvious.

Additionally, I would argue that Max is not genuinely awful, otherwise he would certainly be a drag on the rest of the band. Having played with some truly horrible drummers, I know there's simply no way around it.

Anonymous said...

I dunno about Max, but I've long felt that way about--ah, sorry! super-sacrilege!--Clarence Clemons. For me, his solos bring those records to a halt...

Bruce H.

whattawino said...

Sal, I'm in your camp. I have to say that Max is just not
that imaginative a drummer for my taste. I remember thinking that the drum style really changed with Born To Run..loved that record..still do!...but the syncopation and funkiness that Vini brought to the party was gone in favor of a really basic beat and not too many flourishes interacting with the band. Still some great stuff (as in Candy's Room, which still knocks me out!) along the way, but it seems the exception rather than the rule.

A walk in the woods said...

This is why this blog is so fun. Good job picking something that is controversial but debatable.

I'm not a musician, but I have noticed Max's clunkiness many times. He's so four-to-the-floor it's a turnoff to me too.

I like Theresa K.'s comment... I too am a fan of very early Springsteen mostly, and this helps explain why...

Sal Nunziato said...

I'm regretting calling Max a "pretty terrible drummer." It seemed like a good start to the post, but I don't think I believe that completely. I do find his playing irks me more than it doesn't, and when he's off, he's terrible. I'm happier putting it that way.

Anonymous said...

And remember Ernie Carter is on the studio version of "Born to Run".

Vini's drumming on the first two albums swings and is imaginative and Max is more of a time keeper which is what Bruce may have wanted by the time the recording of the Born to Run album rolled around. And Max as a new guy might have been easier to control in the studio.


Ryan Mifflin said...

I think, as you implied, it's a matter of the whole exceeding any of it's parts.

When Paul McCartney was asked if Ringo was one of the best drummers in the world, Paul replied, "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles."

Anonymous said...

I disagree, but I'm not a drummer. I'm a guitar player.
I can't claim to know a lot about drummers, but I have listened to drummers in bands since childhood, though, so I can say my opinion, which is that, like Ringo, Max is the RIGHT drummer for the band he's in. You put Neil Peart, or Carl Palmer in there, and while they both are much better drummers technically, there's no way they feel right with those songs. I was there Wednesday night too, and I saw E Street Shuffle with Vini, and yeah, it was great, but I saw the same song with Max and loved it, too. Might it be the song that swings more than the 80's, 90's, and 00's Bruce, not the drummer ? Might that be what Bruce wants the drums to sound like ? To me, Max plays something distinctive with every song,and I can't picture any other drummer I'd rather see try to make it four hours a night.
The question is, what did you think of the band with Jay Weinberg sitting in? How about Bruce with Questlove ? How about Bruce with Zach Alford on the 92 tour? Or any of the other drummers he's had play on the records, who to my ear, play pretty straightforward, if anything, modernized versions of Max? Doesn't that argue that Bruce wants it to sound that way? Straight. " No Jr Ginger Bakers" Remember ? As a drummer, you tell me, does Max swing more with his side band ? It's not about stamina, it's about giving Bruce the sound he wants behind and beneath him.

Anonymous said...

For me, Max is great.
And did someone argue that no E Street member besides Bruce was special, or challenged Bruce musically ?

Roy Bittan quietly redefined rock piano. Period.
You know him when you hear him, even though he has more than one sound and more than one instrument. He's Bruce's secret weapon in that band.

Sal Nunziato said...


Nowhere did I imply the E Street Band would be better with a drummer who was "technically better" like Neal Peart or Carl Palmer, the latter being someone I've never liked.

Vini Lopez is hardly a technical wizard behind the kit.

And also, I wasn't referring to any of the studio albums.

Max live, to my ears, is NOT the ultimate timekeeper. That is the core of the problem.

My later comment, my amendment, did say I regretted saying "pretty terrible drummer." That was a hastily written phrase and unfair. I also said in the original post, I didn't think Max should be replaced. I also said as a band, the ESB was still the greatest rock and roll band.

BUT...what you say here:

"Doesn't that argue that Bruce wants it to sound that way? Straight."

Not arguing with Bruce and what he wants. It's what I've heard for a very long time. As a drummer, I don't think Max is "straight" at all. That's the problem. That's what prompted the post. Vini played it straight, to my ears. Solid, groovy and straight.

Max is all over the place, all of the time. He's clumsy. I don't find him imaginative at all. I'm not looking for "Tom Sawyer" fills in the middle of "Adam Raised A Cain." I'm just looking for the drummer to be solid enough to not slow down or speed up the tempo of a song, which Max does A LOT! And when it is time to add some flourish, as he did Wednesday in "Racing In The Street," it's like a bull in a china shop. it's

And it isn't as if 25 people tore me a new one on this matter. Many agree.

steve simels said...

Oh boy -- I have been waiting years for somebody to make this argument, and I can only say THANK YOU!!!

I have long suspected (I can't prove it, but I'm convinced) that the sacking of Vini Lopez had Jon Landau's talentless, tasteless paw prints all over it. And it is no accident that all the spontanaeity and r&b and jazz influences left the band along with Lopez.

I have been saying since forever that Landau's inept, sterile LA style production nearly sinks "Darkness on the Edge of Town" but now that I think of it, the absence of Lopez is probably just as big a factor.

I have no gripe against Max, BTW; he plays exactly the way you'd expect a guy who was plucked from the pit band of a Broadway show to play, which is why Landau must have wanted to hire him.

But the E Street Band, to me, is the one with Lopez and David Sancious. Good as Bruce and the rest of the crew have been over the years, nothing has come close to the outfit that made the second album.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I think this thread needs a Todd Rundgren reference.
I remember Todd saying somewhere that he had to bring Willie Wilcox in for some tracks on bat out of hell, because Max had problems with time keeping.


Gene Oberto said...

His successor as the drummer with the E Street Band, Max Weinberg later said that Carter devised a jazz fusion part for "Born to Run" that he could never reproduce in concert, and eventually stopped attempting

Just a lazy stroll through Wikipedia brought this nugget. Boom Carter ran rings around them both.

John Breslin said...

Vini was a melodic and musical drummer, who brought extra layers and rhythms to the music. Too bad he couldn't control his temper.

John Breslin said...

Asbury Park as well. Max limits the music to a basic country or rock beat; Vinci had a jazziness that brought another dimension

Gardner said...

Just now finding this gem of a post.

I am with Sal and Steve on this one. Not much more to add besides disappointment that "Darkness on the Edge of Town" has never convinced me that it is what no doubt it is, a masterpiece--and probably for this very reason. "Badlands," in particular, sounds like a thudding march when it should sound, well, like something else. I'm not sure what. And I agree there's a chicken-and-egg thing here as to whether Max reflects Bruce's turn away from r&b/jazz or whether Bruce's turn began first and then Max was recruited. I am confident Landau bears some part, perhaps the major part, of the blame. His famous quote turned Bruce's head--how could it not--and I'm sure the success that followed made Landau hard to argue with, particularly by the time of "Born in the USA."

I'm reminded, perhaps distantly, of what happened to the Who when Kenney Jones became their drummer. Of course they needed a replacement, and Zak had to get a little older before he could be that replacement. When Zak joined the band, suddenly there was swing and life to the music again. (I love Simon Phillips but he didn't fill the bill either.)

John Breslin said...

Gardner-- great Who comparison. I was stunned live when Kenny literally couldn't do the triplets in Can't Explain. What was Landau's famous quote?