Interview | Max Weinberg, King of the Beat

Bruce's drummer talks about music, prayer and what it was like to grow up Jewish in Jersey

In a conversation with drummer Max Weinberg, a few things become clear after a beat or two. First, creativity infuses everything he says and does. Second, so does his New Jersey Jewish upbringing: Like so many others, his family trekked from the Old World to the New, settling in Newark, territory familiar to many of us thanks to the writings of Philip Roth. In late 2022, Weinberg received a Moment Creativity Award in recognition of his work, and I had a delightful time talking with him about his formative years and his musical journey, which includes playing since 1974 with a guy named Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band. In various interludes, he’s been the band leader for Conan O’Brien on late-night TV, studied business and law, pursued his passion for architecture, raised a close family and more. Throughout it all, Weinberg’s music and showmanship have been deeply influenced by his understanding of Judaism, the melodies and grandeur of the prayers he heard in his childhood synagogue and a rabbi he describes as straight from Central Casting.

We are both from New Jersey. I grew up on the Shore in and around Asbury Park, and you grew up in north Jersey. What was your Jersey upbringing like?

Well, I wasn’t born in Asbury Park, but I certainly spent a lot of years there. I was born in Newark and at the time we lived in the city’s South Ward, which is the area virtually behind the big Budweiser plant. The South Ward is known as Philip Roth territory. After that we moved to a little house in nearby Maplewood, New Jersey, a very tight-knit and observant community. My mother was a longtime, more than 40 years, phys ed teacher at Weequahic High School, which also was made famous by Philip Roth. He wrote a novel called Nemesis, in which he dramatizes the polio experience of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the summer camp he writes about up in the Pocono Mountains was actually my father and mother’s summer camp.

That heightened Jewish cultural and artistic experience was very present in my life as a young person. The synagogue to which we belonged was founded in part by my grandfather, whom I’m named after. His name was Max Mindlin, and he emigrated from an area that is now Belarus.

So Judaism was very important to your family?

Yes, it was. I can vividly remember going around my neighborhood as a child with the little blue can to collect money for trees in Israel. The temple was particularly inspiring, largely because of the rabbi who served when I was growing up. His name was Avraham Soltes and he was a Central Casting version of a rabbi, extremely
good-looking, silver hair. Some of your readers might recall a show on Sunday mornings from the 1950s called Lamp Unto My Feet. He was the host of that show. Later on, he had something of a movie career as the rabbi in Goodbye, Columbus and The Goodbye Girl.

Max playing with Robert Palmer, 1997 (Photo credit: Courtesy of Max Weinberg / maxweinberg.com / Lorenzo Gaudenzi (CC by-nc-sa 2.0) / brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-sa 3.0)

Rabbi Soltes was a close friend of my parents and my extended family. He was an artist, very poetic, very musical, which appealed to me. And, again, some of your readers might remember the way they participated in services in the 1950s. It was what used to be called “high church.” It was very formal. There was a huge pipe organ buried up in the rafters somewhere. To this day, I still don’t know where that pipe organ was located. And we had a 16-voice choir hidden behind curtains up above the bimah. It was very impressive because you would hear these incredible voices coming from somewhere above us, so maybe that was heaven. For me, it was the pageantry. And, of course, I went three times a week to Hebrew school. I was bar mitzvahed and confirmed there. So my background, culturally, religiously, artistically, was quite informed by that communal experience. Our social life as a family really did center around the temple, both in going to services and with my mother as the Sisterhood president for many years. And one of her friends, Julius Filo, was president of the temple. Those were the adults I knew as a child.

All music is connected to the concept that I grew up with—tikkun olam—a pathway lighting the world, making it better.

I met the first guitarist I ever played with at our rabbi’s son’s birthday and bar mitzvah, in February 1964, precisely six days after The Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show. This friend of his brought his electric guitar, and it was like the heavens opened. And my first musical experiences were playing in our temple and the other temples in Essex County, and at the Jewish Y in Newark, which was always good for a half dozen teen dances as I went through junior high and high school.

Max, Bruce, Patti & Steven (Photo credit: Courtesy of Max Weinberg / maxweinberg.com / Lorenzo Gaudenzi (CC by-nc-sa 2.0) / brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-sa 3.0)

Living in or near Newark, everything was done in the city. So from when I was born until I was about 14 or so, all the shopping, all the cultural things we did took place in Newark. That was our city, so to speak. So my experience was really as a city kid, but not living quite in the city. But when I read Philip Roth’s work, I feel like in many ways he’s telling my story.

What was your bar mitzvah like?

My bar mitzvah was great. I used it as an opportunity to have my band play. There are pictures of me on the drums in a beautiful black mohair suit, which I remember my parents sort of struggled to buy. It cost $32. I still have the tie, and I’ve actually worn it both on late-night television and during some concerts with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It was my first grown-up tie.

Max playing at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton (Photo credit: Courtesy of Max Weinberg / maxweinberg.com / Lorenzo Gaudenzi (CC by-nc-sa 2.0) / brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-sa 3.0)

I had already been performing as a drummer, so I understood the idea of a “show.” I took the haftarah and Torah passages seriously. And my voice fortunately had changed a couple of months before, so it didn’t crack. The reception was held in the lower level of the temple. That’s where we had our Passover seder with the rabbi. And I did many, many shows there as a kid. There are pictures of me playing with all my friends standing around me and my friend Jeff playing the guitar.

How is Judaism connected to your music? Or is it?

I think all music is connected to the concept that I grew up with, and that is tikkun olam—a pathway lighting the world, making it better. Certainly it was when, at the age of 23, I hooked up with Bruce and the E Street Band. Bruce’s music is a beacon for freedom, for participation by everyone. The idea that you can change the world through music is one I have seen up close. When you are involved in a religious service, in a synagogue, in a church, in a cathedral, in a cave, or in a rock-and-roll concert—a religious experience for some—at the best of times, you’re transformed.

Max with his drums & a cigarette. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Max Weinberg / maxweinberg.com / Lorenzo Gaudenzi (CC by-nc-sa 2.0) / brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-sa 3.0)

With the drums, if I’m able to get people up out of their seats and dancing, that’s a mitzvah, and I’ll tell you why. Because when you’re dancing, you are able to leave the world, the mortal world, the practical world, whatever may be bothering you, and you’re connecting to something visceral, physical. And I felt that. I didn’t know it at the time, but upon reflection, it was my own way of contributing to tikkun olam and exhibiting a life lived that way. I got extreme pleasure from watching people enjoy themselves. And I know that I was part of that joy. That’s why they call it playing.

It’s so true. We all need to dance more. Did you always know you wanted to be a musician?

And when did you first know you were going to be a drummer? Well, my mother, of course, probably would say that I was beating out rhythms before I was born, but being a drummer was something I wanted to do literally from the first time I saw Elvis Presley, on the Dorsey Brothers television show during the summer of 1955. My two older sisters at that point were teenagers, so they knew all about Elvis Presley. I was just five and didn’t know anything about him other than that my sisters were out of their minds waiting for him to come on this show.

Max in Italy, 2015. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Max Weinberg / maxweinberg.com / Lorenzo Gaudenzi (CC by-nc-sa 2.0) / brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-sa 3.0)

Elvis’s original drummer was DJ Fontana. He was my first drum hero and later became a deep, longtime friend. He played with Elvis from 1954 through the time Elvis was in the army. Fontana passed away two years ago. In the song “Hound Dog,” there’s a break where the drums go, “Da da da da da da, da da da da.” And that for me was a call to arms, that drum beat. All the attention, even Elvis’s attention, went to that beat. So I found my niche early on. Being a musician came much later.

The one phrase that I remember hearing all the time in Hebrew school was sheket bevakasha.

Many of the great, great drummers in American music history have been of Jewish descent: Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis. It has something to do with taking responsibility. As a drummer, you’re the last line of defense. And if you drop a beat, everything stops.

I was also very fortunate as a drummer to be encouraged by my parents at a time when being a drummer wasn’t very popular. Starting in the late 1950s and throughout the mid-1960s, my parents suffered tremendous financial setbacks and basically all of us had to go out and work. So in regard to my generation of teenagers, and I’ve talked to Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt about this, my experience was completely different. I got nothing but support because I could go out and make a dollar here or there as a drummer. People used to call push-cart salesmen—which was what my grandfather Max was when he came to New York from Belarus in the late 1880s—drummers. So in a sense, I’m just carrying on the family tradition.

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I never really thought of it as a profession because I didn’t think of anything as a profession. I was just a kid having fun and transmitting my fun to other people. So that was what drew me in. Also, I was very shy. I was bespectacled. And I had a very unusual name for a child born in 1951. As I said, I was named after my grandfather, who died shortly before I was born. He was apparently quite a charismatic individual. And so Max Weinberg, that set me apart. And the fact that from the first time I sat down at the drums, I had rhythm, I could play. I took drum lessons, I studied. My mother and father’s whole thing was, “If you’re going to do anything, you must do it professionally. You show up on time, you look sharp, and you do it to the best of your ability every time you do it.” They would accept no less, to their credit.

On my father’s side I believe I was fifth or sixth generation. His ancestors came from what became Poland—at the time it was Russia—in the great Jewish migration across the seas in the 1840s to Philadelphia. His grandfather was born in Philadelphia. My mother was first generation. But she and her four older sisters, the oldest of whom was born just before the turn of the 20th century, were all college-educated. It was quite unusual then for women to go to college. In fact, my Aunt Sadie was the first woman Phi Beta Kappa in the United States. She graduated sometime around 1916 from what was then Carlisle College and became Dickinson College, in Pennsylvania.

With my mother and her sisters, whom I was with almost every day, I had five Jewish mothers, who were all different but who all thought that art, culture and music were the most important things. And integrity. And, again, being professional. So these were the concepts that I grew up with. And I saw a way to apply them to what I was doing in front of the public. I certainly also learned them in Hebrew school and in temple as well.

While I don’t read Hebrew, the one phrase that I remember hearing all the time as a kid in Hebrew school was sheket bevakasha. Which means “Quiet, please.” I was a nervous kid. I’d certainly be diagnosed with some sort of attention deficit disorder today, but my mother, who was very tied into child psychology, was hip enough to recognize that and channel it into the drums and other physical activity. When I was six, seven years old, it was channeled into playing drums as a novelty act. Herb Zane, a pretty famous guy for the area who had a bar mitzvah and wedding band, gave me my first jobs as a young novelty drummer in the late 1950s. He would hire me and pay me 50 cents to do a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” So I made the association from a very early age: “I play drums, I play well, people laugh, they smile, they dance, and I get paid for it.” I would’ve done it for nothing, but I got paid for it. And it’s the one profession where you refer to it as playing. You’re not working, you’re playing. There’s a great expression that musicians use—that you really get paid for the 22 hours a day that you’re not playing and you do the show for free.

It sounds like you had a very fortunate upbringing, in all ways. But what was your big break in becoming a drummer?

My big break as a drummer came in the second month of seventh grade in 1963. Over the previous summer, the song “Wipe Out,” which was basically a drum solo, had hit the charts. And there was a talent show. I had by that point a little drum set and a band. We didn’t have guitars, but we had the trumpet, standup bass and piano, and we played “Wipe Out.” And the ovation I got was among the greatest ovations of my life, and I’ve played to some big audiences on big stages, including the Super Bowl in 2009. But that first time—in the first couple of weeks of a new school, and I was tall for my age and had braces and glasses and the unusual name, I wasn’t Timmy, Stevie, Dougie, Billy, I was Max—it was incredible.

Max’s childhood rabbi, Avraham Soltes. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Dafna Soltes Stein)

Out of that experience, my band was hired to play later that year for the seventh-grade dance. We played in the gym and the kids went berserk. We were called The Epsilons. It was Epsilon Mania before Beatle Mania. This was in November of 1963. People were clamoring after the four of us in the band, and when you have a taste of that, you want more. So I was very focused, and nothing for the next 15 or 16 years really distracted me from gaining some position as a professional in the music business.

How did you meet Bruce?

I met Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band over the summer of 1974. I was living at home and going to Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, studying business, playing in a band and playing in the Broadway show Godspell. Bruce put an ad in the Village Voice. It had a tremendous section in the back called Public Notice Music. A friend saw the ad there and gave it to me. So I went down, and I was something like the sixtieth drummer to audition.

There were some good drummers who became well-known drummers who auditioned. But Bruce is a very good judge of character and he saw something in me and he asked me to join his fledgling band. I took a huge pay cut to join the E Street Band, because I was playing on Broadway and it was Broadway scale. I didn’t really know Bruce’s music but it was unbelievable, the greatest musical experience I ever had. And it wasn’t just his dynamism and charisma and obvious leadership, it was also the way the other three guys, Clarence Clemons, Gary Talent and Dan Federici, related to Bruce. I had never been in a band where other people paid so much attention to the center of the action. And that’s what they did. And that impressed me. And I’d been playing long enough that I realized, “Wow, this is something really special.”

Max & Conan on The Tonight Show, 2009 (Photo credit: NBC)

Bruce had two records out then that had not sold very well, and he was about to be dropped by his label. We were still playing fraternity houses and small clubs. And so we were on the road constantly and it was a ball. I was having the time of my life and I was 23 years old. I’ll be 72, and we’re still playing, we’re still having fun. And we’re only about two months away from starting a world tour.

So it’s been a marvelous experience. The high point of which was meeting my wife Rebecca in the late 1970s and having our two lovely children, Ali and Jay (my son, the very famous, successful drummer in the band Slipknot), and welcoming their spouses, Josh and Chloe, into our family. So I’ve had so much naches throughout my life, I have to pinch myself.

After all these years performing with the E Street Band, is there one song that makes your heart sing when you play it?

What comes to mind is a song called “Ramrod.” It’s on the album The River from 1980. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the simpler things are often the hardest things to pull off. The reason I love playing that song is because it has this primitive beat. Bruce refers to me as the “King of the Big Beat,” and it’s a big beat. My mandate to myself is I play that beat and I’m going to get everybody out of their seats. It’s one part of the show where I can actually look around and take my eyes off Bruce for a split second and play this beat and see people just exhilarated by this song. It’s a physical thing, it’s not intellectual. I could spend the next five hours naming each song we play and telling you what it means to me spiritually, intellectually, culturally. But in terms of communicating with you on a basic primeval level, “Ramrod” would be the song.

You’re a man of many interests and talents, and I’m wondering if you weren’t a drummer what would you be?

Well, my avocation is real estate development, but that grew out of my love of architecture. So if I had to do it over again, I would’ve been an architect. And as Frank Lloyd Wright, one of my heroes, liked to say, “Architecture is frozen music.” And I subscribe to that.

If you look at my library, there’s all sorts of books, but there is a major, major section on everything from Palladio to Vitruvius to Frank Lloyd Wright, and all the contemporary architects, all the Pritzker Prize winners. I just love reading about the built world and how the built world shapes our society. So if I came back in another life, I think I would open an architectural office and become a member of the American Institute of Architects.

Did you ever finish college?

I dropped out of Seton Hall to join the E Street Band. I had 21 credits to go. Fifteen years later, I went back to get my degree. And with the help of Becky, my wife, I was able to finish. Strictly for the reason that I wanted to be able to tell my then unborn children that I got a college degree. Education was always quite important in my entire extended family. It was paramount above everything. The patriarch of my family was Joshua Minland, and he was a Talmudic scholar.

Everyone in my family pretty much has a law degree, even if they didn’t practice law. And my father and my uncles, they all sort of said, it’s a good training ground. It trains you how to think. So I had an interest in law from an early age. My father’s perspective on the law was law as justice. It was really descended from the Talmudic law, and meting out justice. So it wasn’t about doing well, it was about doing good and facilitating good. So a year after the E Street Band broke up in 1989, and I had graduated from college, I went to law school very briefly at Cardozo, in New York City.

And I actually learned, in those weeks, things that have become very important to me from a legal viewpoint.

Is there one thing that you’ve done or one thing about you that you want your kids and your grandkids to know?

The same lessons I learned: Show up, do your best every time you show up. And in the E Street Band, we’ve taken that ethos further. When we play a show, our mandate coming from Bruce is that we give people more than their money’s worth. We leave it on the stage. And if you can do that, it sort of harkens back to that idea of being a professional. And what I’d like to pass along to future generations—to my children, grandchildren and their grandchildren—is do whatever you do with integrity, professionalism and the idea that you are giving back.

Max with Ringo & others circa 1980. Photo credit: brucebase.wikidot.com (CC by-SA 3.0)

At the end of the day, it’s somewhat of a cliché, but do what you love to do because you’re going to be doing it for a long, long time. My mother had a saying. She lived to the age of almost 98 and she was of completely sound mind. Her body just grew too old for her mind. But she had lots of sayings and mottos, and one of them was “Children bring their own look.” I love that phrase. And so as I speak to you, I’m looking with bated breath to the birth of my first grandchild. Honesty, integrity, dignity and giving people, in whatever you do, more than their money’s worth—if you aspire to those ideals, I think that puts you ahead of the game. And, of course, if you’re a drummer, keep a solid beat.

Is there one piece of music that you think we should all be listening to together? One piece that can remind us about our common roots? One piece that might bring our nation back together?

Great question, and I would have to reference “This Land is Your Land.” The original version by Woody Guthrie, as a song and as explained by Bruce Springsteen himself, is the perfect homage and paean to unity: “This land is your land. This land is my land. This land was made for you and me.” I can’t think of any better song that illustrates the aspirations of the American experiment and, like all people of good will and deep thought, I am distressed at the turn in our own country and the world in general. We should all aspire to the words of that song. And most people know the chorus, in a very hootenanny style. But if you listen to and read the words of the original version, it’s quite moving and I think it really speaks to generation after generation that this land, you can expand it to mean this planet, was made for all of us.

Do you have a favorite piece of Jewish music?

Yes. There are the great Jewish composers, from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin. When you listen to their music, it is all Eastern European. It’s all derived from psalms and hymns and it’s instantly recognizable. “Jewish music” has quite distinctive progressions and melodies. So you can look at the great American composers for Jewish-inspired music. There was a singing duo in the 1950s, the Barry Sisters. And they had a song called “Tzena Tzena,” which as a child I listened to all the time because it was very upbeat, it had a great rhythm. Eight years ago I recorded a song called “Mazel.” Mazel means good luck. It’s a Yiddish song from the Yiddish Theater back in the 1920s.

Liturgically, when I listened to the prayers in temple on a Friday night or Saturday morning I always found them very moving. In particular when I heard Rabbi Soltes intone the Mourner’s Kaddish. Because there is a melody that goes with that. And usually in Reform temples, the melody isn’t used. But our cantor, who was an opera singer back in the 1950s and 1960s—I remember his name, Herman Dansker. Double baritone. And he would intone the Mourner’s Kaddish and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

And I can remember one other thing. It’s not specifically music, but at the end of each service, Rabbi Soltes—I get chills thinking of it—in his robes and his head covering that was very, very high church attire, similar to what Greek Orthodox holy people would wear, he would, before he put the Torah back in the ark, turn around and hold it up. Then he’d open it and say the words, “Behold, this is my covenant.”

I’m actually getting a little weepy thinking about it. But he did it with such élan that as a child you felt it was coming right from Adonai: “It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” That has stuck with me as a wonderful passage for all of us on Earth to aspire to. “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” So if you can’t find music in that phrase, well, come to a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert and we’ll try to educate you.

Opening picture: maxweinberg.com / Courtesy of Max Weinberg 

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