Buck Mulligan insulted Max back in the day, because, well, Max is a terrible drummer, and an arrogant one at that.
When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. – The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Notes: For a shorter reading, omit the portions in brackets. Self-important commentary is provided within the piece, rather than in footnotes. A defensive post-modern mechanism of pretend self-effacement is provided in the preceding sentence, and, humbly, in this one.
[To understand my relationship with Max Weinberg, one must first seek to understand music, and perhaps life itself. To do this, we travel to April of 1987, my junior year in college. (It may have been 1986, but it doesn’t really matter.) It was a different era at Notre Dame. Lou Holtz was ascendant and the ratio of men to women was still out of balance. It was a muscular, testosterone-fuelled campus, where over 90% of the men had played a varsity sport in high school, and SAT scores didn’t require readjustment. At the time, Quidditch was something that required an anti-fungal spray, and disputes were settled by cudgel and stone. It was not unusual to partake in a Friday night bacchanalia on the quad, our faces twisted in grim rictuses of fury, with wild boars roasting on spits -- wild boars we had slain by knife, claw or other, indescribable means; spits we had whittled from the bones of our enemies.
In short, things were a lot better when I went there.
I studied under Eenio Gottsidore, Sr. (Adm. (ret.)) in the Situational Negotiations & Tactics Department, with a minor in Nostalgistics. My advanced SimNeg courses and SitTac directed readings allowed some measure of free time, so, when I wasn‘t mowing lawns, I was able to continue my career as a guy who hung around with musicians.
The campus music scene was home to a fair number of bands. A few were decent, many were lame – about what you’d expect. In addition to on-campus shows, the venues were places like Bridget’s, Chip’s, Club 23, Lee’s Ribs, Duke’s Bistro, and off campus houses. It wasn’t Athens or Austin, but there were places to play, and I had been in a few bands over the years, playing a combination of college music (soon to become “alternative”) and classic rock (soon to become “overplayed”).
Every Spring the Nazz Competition brought out the campus groups for a classic battle of the bands. It was named after the Nazz, which was the basement coffeehouse of Lafortune, where the contest started. By ’87 (or maybe ’86) it was held in the North Dining Hall, and soon after it moved to the acoustically wonderful Stepan Center, where it remained at least through the early 90’s.
This particular year I was in a new, decent band with a name I didn’t select – Monarch. In addition to the garage classics and harder-edged college tunes, we played a few are-they-earnest-or-ironic metal selections, including “Breaking The Law” long before it achieved fame on Beavis and Butthead. After we took 2nd or 3rd place in the Nazz, there was an announcement that the judges had selected a group of musicians and a drummer to play with a visiting celebrity who would be in town in a few weeks. It was to be an “ND All-Star” jam band to play with none other than Max Weinberg, of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band fame. My nearly adequate playing landed me the spot behind the drums, probably because I was just louder than the other drummers. Also, I held the collegiate (D1) records for broken sticks and busted snare heads. People notice that kind of thing.
It turned out that after the Born In The USA tour, there was to be a Springsteen hiatus and Max Weinberg set out on a speaking tour. He was slated to come to ND to speak at the Stepan Center. He asked for a local backing band for these shows, with whom he’d play for maybe 30 to 45 minutes after his talk. The Student Activities Board arranged for this, and as I recall there were two guitarists, a bass player, a singer and me. There may have been a keyboard player but I block those guys out. No, I’m serious. As I recall, two of the guys were from a great band called Blind River; none of the other guys from my band were in it, but I knew most of the others at least vaguely.
We got together a couple of times to come up with some ideas for songs to have ready - choosing some classic standards including Stones, Kinks, Hendrix, maybe some Doors. We knew Max Weinberg wouldn’t show up ready to play Black Flag or even The Smiths, so we went with what we thought he’d know and enjoy, and what would be appealing to an ND/Weinberg audience. The show was set for a Saturday night, in April or early May.
I arrived early on Saturday afternoon, as Weinberg’s drums were being sent from a drum shop in Fort Wayne. Max was a Ludwig Drum endorser, and my dad was EVP of the company that owned the Ludwig Drum Company. So I knew when and where the drums were being delivered, and I went over to Stepan to set them up as a courtesy to Max Weinberg. We also needed to set up the remaining gear for the band, including my own drums. It seemed like it would be a fun event, although we had no idea how big of a crowd it would draw.
To answer your question, yes, it is pretty much the coolest thing in the world to be a drummer and have your dad run Ludwig Drums. That is not an irrelevant point, though, as I wasn’t exactly star-struck by meeting a famous rock drummer. I usually got tickets and often backstage passes for almost every band that came through South Bend, and for many shows in the Chicago area (Poplar Creek, Alpine Valley, etc.). I had already met the legendary Bun E. Carlos a couple of times, and he was as avuncular and down-to-earth as you’d expect. All the other guys in bands – pretty much the same deal. Some were a little vacant at times, but for the most part, they were all gracious people who were in the right place at the right time, and knew it.
Enter Max Weinberg.
As the band wound up the load-in, with the work having just been completed, the doors to Stepan Center swung open. Against the late-afternoon sun we saw a narrow-shouldered silhouette: the Mighty Max had arrived.
Max Weinberg strode toward us, parting the sea of folding chairs before him. We awaited his hearty greeting. We knew it would be full of bonhomie, with a patina of Jersey-toughness. After all, he was a member of a genuine blue-collar workingman’s band!
“I don’t play with other drummers.”
What? We didn’t actually say it, we just kind of looked it.
“I don’t play with other drummers. I’m going to be the only drummer.”
I shrugged my shoulders. One of the Blind River guys said, “well there was this contest, and we all got picked to play with you, and he also just set up all your gear for you.”
Max Weinberg stalked off. I told the other guys it didn’t really matter. I thought it would be fun, but no skin off my back. Sure, I was a little disappointed. Not that I cared about playing with Max Weinberg anymore – I just wanted to play with the other guys in front of a nice-sized audience.
Across Stepan, I saw Weinberg talking with a guy from Student Activities. It was an actual student who ran things, and I think his name was PJ, Dan or Scott. I saw Max arguing with PJ/Dan/Scott, who remained cool. After about five minutes, Max Weinberg came over, and started adjusting his drums and said, “We’ll play Twist and Shout and Johnny B. Goode tonight.” Venom dripped from his lips.
One of the other guys mentioned that we had worked on a few other songs to jam with him.
“I only do two songs.”
I looked over at PJ/Dan/Scott, who gave me the “ignore Max Weinberg and go ahead and play, it’s been taken care of” sign. So I did. We ran through the songs for a sound check, then took off to grab a bite. Max Weinberg did not care to join us. He did not look at me. As I left , I asked PJ/Dan/Scott what had happened, and he said he just told Max that if he wanted to speak, he was going to play by our rules, more or less.
The show? Funny you should ask. The attendance that night was approximately 25 people. Five of those were the jam guys. Max gave a talk, with slides, about how he got to where he was, and how he needed to practice a lot, and how he almost got kicked out of the band for bad timekeeping. Then we got on stage and played those two clichés and it was fine. In fact, it was a fun time. I didn’t notice Max Weinberg falling off the beat too much. No, not too much.
Here’s the long overdue conclusion: In addition to the light audience, there was one other person in attendance that night. He was a custodian at Stepan Center, and in the movie of my life, he will be played by Morgan Freeman. Hell yes he will. In the unlikely event that Morgan Freeman is unavailable, then the Roc guy will play him.
As I hauled the last bit of my gear to my truck at the end of the evening, he walked over and said, “I watched you play with that guy. You’re every bit the drummer that he is.”]
I thanked him. He was a nice guy.