Although Max Weinberg will forever be known for just one of his jobs — the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band starting in 1974 — the New Jersey-born rocker knows the pain, and pleasure, of reinvention.
Weinberg remembers “a bad phone call” in 1989.
“Bruce was breaking up the E Street Band. So suddenly, after 25 years, I was out of a job. I had to reinvent myself,” Weinberg, 60, told some 500 attendees at the Creative Maturity Expo, held Nov. 6 at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
Weinberg tried his hand at being a businessman in the recording industry, and attended law school “very briefly.”
“My heart and soul were that of a musician, a drummer,” the Newark native said. “I felt the ability to play the drums slipping away, and that scared me. It was the first time that happened in my life. I was 38 years old.”
Although Weinberg would eventually land behind a drum kit once again, this time as Conan O’Brien’s band leader, the four years in between were fretful, and enlightening.
“Some of you may be able to take something away from my story,” Weinberg said at the expo, sponsored by the Jewish Vocational Service of MetroWest, a beneficiary agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. “What worked for us at one time in our lives may not be cutting it anymore.”
Weinberg was keynote speaker at the all-day expo, which included a wide-ranging menu of activities, including job and retirement counseling; workshops on health, cooking, and relationships; and classes in Tai Chi and Latin dancing.
“A lot of us are the same age as Max. We’re a bunch of old rockers,” event cochair Larry Brodey of South Orange told NJ Jewish News.
“There is a lot of uncertainty about their Social Security, about social networking, about preventive health care, and getting jobs. JVS is all about helping people get back on their feet, and this event is designed to get the community aware of JVS,” Brodey said.
Born at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center in 1951, Weinberg grew up in Maplewood and South Orange, where he attended Columbia High School and Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel.
Weinberg said his interest in drumming began when he was five years old and watched Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. When Presley’s drummer, D.J. Fontana, began playing the opening beats of Hound Dog, Weinberg said, “I started banging on the floor and my sisters started yelling, ‘Max, we can’t hear.’ I didn’t care.
“I haven’t been the same since.”
He would eventually audition for Springsteen, joining one of the most storied ensembles for a stint that included Born to Run (1975) and Born in the U.S.A. (1984).
“The contour of my career charts, likes most people’s, was relentlessly up and down,” said Weinberg. “Sometimes things came easy. Sometimes it was as if I couldn’t get out of my own way.”
The breakup of the band was very public and, for Weinberg, “very embarrassing.
“The mandate was ‘Get your act together on your own,’ and I took that very seriously,” he said. “As a young man I mainly focused on the drumming part. As I got older, I realized it is not enough just to drum…. I had to learn how to exist in the world of the music business rather than be just a musician.”
It led to his becoming musical director for Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1993, and then again, on O’Brien’s short stint as a replacement for Jay Leno as host of the Tonight Show in 2009.
When he began working for O’Brien, he said, “I had to develop something in a week that made sense to me.” So he emulated the style of the late jazz drummer Buddy Rich. “It forced me at the age of 41 to start listening to music I had never listened to before and develop a repertoire.
“I’m not really a jazz drummer; I just play one on TV.”
The E Street Band would later reunite and back Springsteen on a reunion tour and a 2002 studio album, The Rising. The band last toured in 2009.
Putting his career into a Jewish context, Weinberg said, “I believe in my own way I was setting out on a path of tikun olam, using my passions and interests to make a difference in the world, to be of service, and to do my part, through music, to heal the world.
“Sometimes I think my life as a Jewish boy coming of age in the suburbs reads like a Philip Roth novel, kind of like a rock ’n’ roll Portnoy,” he said. “But, ladies and gentlemen, I have no complaints. When my pals aspired to be doctors or lawyers, the only thing I wanted to be was a rock ’n’ roll drummer.”