Gross To The Max

Darkness falls on the edge of town where East Washington finally breaks loose from the Phoenix city limits and funnels the bumper-to-bumper procession of commuters out of the business hub and toward their after-five suburban oases in Tempe, Mesa, Ahwatukee and beyond. To the west, a gorgeous Arizona sunset illuminates billowy tufts of cirrocumulus clouds, casting opalescent hues of orange and blue on the hoods of the slowly fleeing automobiles.

Max Weinberg, the drummer for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, takes in the scenery from just outside the venerable Stockyards restaurant, where the visiting musician has just polished off a hearty, fit-for-a-cattle-rustler meal. The visual contrast of the mundane rush-hour traffic on the street a couple-dozen yards away and the awe-inspiring work of nature bathing all the chugging Detroit machinery with light from above provides an appropriate backdrop for an interview with the man who's kept the beat behind all those life-affirming, blue-collar anthems, songs that have likewise managed to cast rich hues on the mundane, workaday realities of--"Wait a minute, before we start this," Weinberg says suddenly, bringing my note-scribbling to a halt. "You're not talking to me here, okay? Say we're talking at the airport."

Uh . . . right. The airport. Riiippp! Crumple, crumple, crumple. Perhaps that sunset's just a little too postcard-perfect, like one of those painted skyline backdrops Johnny Carson keeps behind his desk and changes whenever he wants to with the press of a button. How 'bout a snowstorm, Doc? Something for the band! Or maybe Weinberg has the interview confused with some new Nintendo game where the player can change what "world" he's in simply by pressing the "select" button. C'mon, Warp Zone 8! Oh, well. It is only a print interview, after all. We can go places no TV news team dares to tread. A little artistic license, then, Maestro: DARKNESS FALLS ON THE runway at the edge of Terminal 3--"and it's Saturday morning, just before I leave."

All right, now hold on here! Enough! Okay, Mr. Weinberg, I know Bruce Springsteen calls you "the Mighty Max" on-stage. But does that give you the power to alter time and space?

Weinberg explains his reasons for rolling away the Thursday-night rush-hour backdrop in favor of early a.m. airport. Seems he's got a cousin here he's really not too eager to ring up, and he doesn't want the poor schmuck to discover via a newspaper article that his rich and famous relative was in town and took off without even so much as a howdy-do. A not entirely unreasonable request--we've all got some relatives we'd rather run into only at the departure gate. But, sorry, Weinberg has already taken this interview too much into his own hands.

For starters, he opened our meeting by banishing the photographer he had kept waiting for 45 minutes in the restaurant bar ("I don't do candids," Weinberg shrugged), supplying instead his own 8x10 glossy--a posed "action shot" depicting the charisma-starved stickman in Springsteen-style rolled-up sleeves.

Then, after insisting his comments be transcribed on a note pad rather than recorded on cassette (standard interviewer's practice), Weinberg began his comment-making by talking about what he wouldn't comment on: nothing about Bruce and Patti, nothing about Bruce and Julianne, nothing about Bruce and Sting's purported fight during the recent Amnesty International tour--nothing, actually, about Bruce at all, other than his role in making Max Weinberg the great and important star that he is today. And now he wants to travel 36 hours back to the future and stage the interview around an imaginary baggage-claim carousel?

It's an outrageous list of demands for any sideman to make of an interviewer, and inevitably Max's rules just become exasperating. After about three minutes with the guy, you wanna throw your hands up and yell, "Listen, you miserable skins-beater! You wanna control everything so badly, huh? You wanna pick your own questions, you wanna name your own time and place? Why don't you go off somewhere and interview yourself! Yeah! Hell, charge admission! See what kind of a crowd you can attract!"

Which, uh, is exactly what Weinberg does. THE PRESS RELEASE from New York's Greater Talent Network Inc. lays out the program for "Max Weinberg's Lecture Tour": "Part I: `Little Max'--How Max's dream of playing drums as a youth was realized as an adult (film clips and lecture).

"Part II: The English Invasion . . . Rock 'N' Roll of the 1960's--How rock 'n' roll evolved with the social and political ideologies from the Sixties to the present.

"Part III: The E Street Band's Role in the History of Rock.
"Part IV: Expansion of Political
Ideology . . . Worldwide Amnesty Peace Message via Rock." Well, it certainly sounds a lot more interesting and far-reaching than the interview Max gives me, which could be outlined something like this: Part I: Why Max Doesn't Like Cameras, Recorders or Pesky Journalists Who Won't Let Him Properly Digest a Meal.

Part II: The Max Weinberg Lecture Tour--The Amusing Anecdotes You'll Hear There That You'll Never Hear in This Interview.

Part III: Why Max Doesn't Like Cameras, Recorders or Pesky Journalists Who Won't Let Him Properly Digest a Meal (Summary). In a way, you gotta admire Weinberg for his entrepreneurial savvy. After years of answering questions about life with Springsteen for every rock journalist unable to get through to the Boss himself, the man who's seen (from his drum stool) more of Bruce's celebrated butt than Julianne and Patti combined has finally found a way to reap some benefits from the public's niggling curiosity about his employer.

He's become, of all things, a college lecturer--and a pretty good one to boot, if all the glowing letters of recommendation included in the Greater Talent press packet are to be believed. "Max Weinberg recently visited our campus . . . for our Convocations Series," begins one from Weber State College in Ogden, Utah. "For this series we have brought in such people as Peter Vidmar, Henry Kissinger, Kelley Cash, and Gerald Ford. Max was one of the most enthusiastically received speakers, and his lecture was one that would be of great relevance and benefit to both college and high school students alike."

Curiously, all the student-activities reps who book Weinberg into their lecture halls seem to come away from meeting him with an entirely different opinion than does the average journalist. "He is a warm human being," gushes Grant Protzman, Weber's director of co-curricular learning. "Max is an individual who has the credentials and celebrity status to command prima donna treatment, but he doesn't."

"He also spent a great deal of time signing autographs and talking to students after the lecture," testifies Jerry Johnston, major-events coordinator for the University of Rhode Island. "Many students were amazed that he would take the extra time to be so personable."

Even Debbie Kent, the activities director at Prescott's Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who lured Weinberg to Arizona and, with her husband, shared that Thursday-night dinner at the Stockyards, was left totally charmed by the fellow. "He was very, very nice," Kent says. "He was a little disheveled when he first arrived at the airport, but after dinner he seemed to soften up quite a bit and opened up a lot about his three horses and his little girl--he talked a lot about his family life. He also told me Bruce was out in Scottsdale two weeks ago with Patti, and they were vacationing at some resort. So, yeah, he was pretty open and very talkative." SO, WILL THE REAL Max Weinberg please stand up?! How can the guy who's such a sweetie on the lecture circuit be such a grating pain in the ass to interviewers?

Weinberg's need to control the situation may be one key factor. His meticulousness is widely known among E Street Band fans (it's always his hotel room that has to be the most up-to-snuff), and the standard interview arrangement allows the subject little opportunity to direct the final results. Max's lecture, on the other hand, is one hour and fifteen minutes of Weinberg's greatest quotes. He's written it all himself (Weinberg proved himself a capable wordsmith with his 1984 book The Big Beat: Conversations With Rock's Great Drummers), he's rehearsed the program by performing it on and off for almost two and a half years now, and even though there's a question-and-answer session at the end of each appearance, Weinberg rarely is asked anything he'd have to run past his Boss first. "By the time I open it up for questions," Max says, smiling, "they've all heard so much about Bruce Springsteen that they really don't need to ask anything else."

The bottom line, however, is most likely the money: $3,500 for his Embry-Riddle lecture, sometimes more at the bigger colleges. "I go where I'm the most wanted," Weinberg says simply. "It's all in keeping with the old adage, `You keep your customers satisfied.'" Weinberg has learned that his workin'-with-the-Boss anecdotes and observations are worth big bucks, and he seems to approach the old interview situation now with another old adage: You get what you pay for.

Hence, the attendees on Max Weinberg's Lecture Tour get a full twenty minutes or so of "The E Street Band's Role in the History of Rock." But when this cheapskate reporter corners Weinberg outside a restaurant and asks him, without even buying the guy a brew, how he'd describe Max Weinberg's Role in the Music of Bruce Springsteen, I get the bargain-basement, Pic 'n' Save quote.

"Well, that's easy," says Weinberg, quickly and decisively. "I play the drums. That's it. And to play drums with Bruce Springsteen, to me, is really a dream come true."

He pauses for a moment, reluctant to toss even another free syllable into the air. "There's your closing line, right there," he says. "All right? Okay. Take care."

After about three minutes with the guy, you wanna throw your hands up and yell, "Listen, you miserable skins-beater!"

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