It’s a tired question about the very idea of getting tired. But it came up in conversation with Max Weinberg quite naturally. While he chomped away at a late lunch after his flight from Vancouver touched down in Los Angeles, I suddenly found the oh-so-obvious query I’d ordinarily resist reflexively popping out.
“Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road” ... those indestructible giants of the Bruce Springsteen songbook, the ones that are rarely left off set lists ... well, c’mon, doesn’t Conan O’Brien’s favorite bandleader ever get tired of playing them?
He responds before I even finish the question, like a guy who’s been asked it a dozen times too many. But his resolve is so certain, so unwavering, it begs a bit of pressing.
“You gotta be kidding. There has to be that one song ...” I figure the simplicity of “Dancing in the Dark” alone is enough to get even the Mighty Max daydreaming on autopilot some nights.
“Not me. I take each one very separately. And if he wants to play `em, I’m there to play `em as best I can.
“It’s about staying in the moment,” he explains. “I never make a judgment about what he wants to play. The only judgment I make about any song, whether it’s for Bruce or on television, is to dig into it and get the most out of it every time. Most people would tell you I take a lot of things seriously ... but I definitely take that seriously.”
That’s the beauty of Weinberg: Like rock’s best unassuming drummers - Ringo Starr, Charlie Watts, the Attractions’ Pete Thomas, session greats like Steve Gadd and Jim Keltner - he serves the song, always, not his considerable chops.
He also claims to have a “photographic memory,” so to speak, of every Springsteen song he’s ever played on - so that when Bruce calls out an audible for, say, the “Born in the U.S.A.” outtake “None but the Brave,” as he did Monday night in Vancouver for the first time this tour, Weinberg doesn’t hesitate. Like the rest of the E Street Band, he knows he has to be fully prepared to pull anything out of his mental kit bag.
“He’s really starting to mix it up a lot lately,” Weinberg says of his, uh, boss - “our fearless leader,” as he refers to him at one point. At all times, “You have to pay attention on stage, keep your eyes and ears open ... or you’ll miss it.”
“It” being whatever Springsteen wants to serve up to satisfy his mood, or the audience’s. “That’s key,” Weinberg notes. “Or, you know, the bus will leave without you. And that’s always an unpleasant feeling.”
Not that there’s much chance of that happening these days. Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected and stepping out over the line night after night worldwide, the E Street Band remains a finely tuned machine - even now, with organist Danny Federici taking a leave of absence to battle melanoma. “He’s on the injured reserve list,” Weinberg says, happy to report that he turned up March 20 in Indianapolis to add accordion to the rarely played “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”
Many members, of course, are stars in their own right - chief among them guitarists Nils Lofgren (late of Grin and plenty of noteworthy solo work) and Steven Van Zandt (aka Silvio Dante of “The Sopranos” and host of the widely admired weekly radio program “Little Steven’s Underground Garage”). Patti Scialfa, also Mrs. Springsteen, has garnered acclaim for her own music, particularly last year’s “Play It as It Lays.” The big man on saxophone, Clarence Clemons - he’s virtually as recognizable on this Cadillac of rock `n’ roll bands as that car’s hood ornament.
Add in bassist Gary W. Tallent and, especially, the graceful touch of pianist Roy Bittan and you’ve got a unique, muscular, instantly identifiable sound from a legendary band that, after all these years, should have been properly credited on Springsteen’s latest album, “Magic.” “I don’t really know how to respond to that,” Weinberg demurs when I suggest that. “That’s the way the albums have always been, even predating when I joined the band (in 1974).” Besides, he adds, “Once people hear a record like this, they know.”
They’re “Blood Brothers,” as the title of a 1996 documentary about the gang put it, despite the doubling of estrogen in recent years with the addition of violinist Soozie Tyrell. And blood brothers don’t mind letting their linchpin get the glory. But here’s another “duh” question: Does the camaraderie we fans see onstage year after year carry on offstage? Are they as tight as they seem?
“Oh, absolutely,” Weinberg responds. Just a few nights before in Vancouver, for instance, Springsteen, 58, and Weinberg, who’ll be 57 in a week, took their sons to see a new favorite, the excitably punctuated Florida band Against Me! “Then they came to our sound-check the next day,” Max murmurs between bites, “and they said it was almost like we had a sixth sense among us. Especially when we’re rehearsing, there’s very little talking - and then suddenly we’re playing. That’s how it is with us.
“We’re all a lot older now, you know. We all have families and separate lives. But when we play together, we’re like that same bunch of kids that started this all those years ago. These are bonds that have been created over a lifetime. What you see is what we are.”
What you’ll hear, however, and when ... well, that’s up to no one but the Boss.
I heard it said once that, with the Rolling Stones, though all eyes may be drawn first to Mick Jagger’s rooster strut, the group’s driving force has always been a matter of elusive chemistry, as it is with all great bands. Watts is always slightly ahead of the beat, Keith Richards slightly behind (naturally), Bill Wyman (or now Darryl Jones) holding it all down in the middle. That’s a weird motor, to be sure - but it’s what makes the Stones the Stones.
By comparison, Weinberg describes the E Street Band more like an arrowhead, all forces marshaled to support Springsteen at the piercing point.
“We’re still playing on the edge,” he insists. “We go out there and play hard - like it’s the last time we’re ever gonna play. Every single night is extremely meaningful for all of us, and the audience - that’s why they keep coming back for more, I believe.”
Sure, but let’s be honest - many of them keep coming back because they think this will be the night they finally hear “Jungleland” or “Sandy.” “Thundercrack” - that was the big surprise from this tour’s first leg, though I recall going ape last year at the L.A. Sports Arena when Max started rattling his high-hat to kick off a not-nearly-as-rare “Candy’s Room.”
What’s been turning up lately? Several from “The River” - “Sherry Darling,” the chilling title tune and “Point Blank.” “Because the Night.” “Lost in the Flood.” Even “Incident on 57th Street,” and with some regularity.
True, the era of four-hour Springsteen marathons is long past. These days shows clock in at about two hours and change - “but I think in that period of time you get about five hours of music,” Weinberg says, laughing. Included in that: most of “Magic,” which makes this band one of few of stature to consistently play new works almost in their entirety.
Such songs’ placement in the set builds a skeleton for shows, which can give the impression that an E Street Band bash couldn’t possibly be half as free-wheelin’ as they were decades ago. Not so, Weinberg contends. Frameworks were employed way back when as well. “Bruce has a particular set of ideas he wants to get across,” he explains, “and we’re sympathetic to what he wants to hear. But where we’re headed each night is anyone’s guess.”
The expectation, he says, “if there is one that we carry with us, is not to live up to this idea of being Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It’s to live up to something Bruce said many years ago - that we want to give people more than their money’s worth.”
But how do you do that when the shows are shorter and the prices higher? Reasonable, yes, especially compared to what other Hall of Famers charge now. But still higher.
“Well, I think the point is, when you’re buying a ticket - whether it’s for a movie or an extremely expensive Broadway show, or to see us - are you moved by the experience? Have you been changed in some way? That’s what we try to do every night - come in to your town, play, change you ... and leave.”
He chuckled at that thought, but he means it seriously: “On any given night, if you’ve spent your money and waited in line to see us, you know you’re gonna see something that is a standard-bearer of striving toward excellence. You may not hear your favorite song. But if you go to enough concerts, you will.”