Maddog, Tinker and the birth of the E Street Band

Vini ‘Maddog’ Lopez and Carl ‘Tinker’ West were guests of honour at the Land of Hope and Dreams convention in Rotterdam. Greg Lewis reports.

Two iconic figures of the Jersey Shore gave European fans a fascinating insight into the early days of the E Street Band.

Original E Street drummer Vini ‘Maddog’ Lopez and manager, engineer and producer Carl ‘Tinker’ West described their first meetings with Springsteen.

And, in a Q&A with singer Mark Wright, Lopez recalled his pre-E Street days with Springsteen and Bruce’s first steps into a recording studio.

Lopez and Danny Federici had played in a number of bands when Lopez – then with The Moment of Truth - had a lucky meeting with ‘Tinker’ West who was looking to support original artists.

“Tinker came from California and saw us I think in 1966/67. He liked the band but we were doing the same thing that every band in those days did - you copied the Stones, you copied the Beatles, you copied the Doors. And he said, ‘If you ever do anything original, Lopez, look me up’.

“I saw (Bruce) cos Danny and I wanted to keep playing together. I heard he was playing at an Italian-American club up in Long Branch where we were from. I knew his band Earth was playing there.

“They were doing cover stuff, Zeppelin and stuff. When he got done I said, ‘Hey, I am Vini’. He said, ‘Yeah, you used to be in Sonny and the Starfires’. I said, ‘Why don’t you come down the Upstage and let’s jam?’

“A while later Danny and I walked up the stairs and there was Margaret Potter who owned the place and she was like [excited], and we walked around the corner and there was Bruce the way he used to look, with just suspenders and the long hair and he was skinny and lanky.

“We were mesmerised by the guy. Margaret’s thing was ‘look he’s got so much charisma’.”

Springsteen was playing with Little Vini Roslin and Big Bobby Williams. When they finished they jammed with Danny and Vini.

“We had to get special permission from Tom Potter because we were going to be doing something that he had not been planned on,” said Lopez.

“We played for about an hour and that was it. And we went downstairs in the Upstage and I told Bruce about this guy [Tinker] and said tomorrow we are going to go over and see Tinker, and we did.

“The first question I asked Bruce was ‘Do you write any songs?’. He went ‘Ahh, yeah, I write a few’.”

‘Tinker’ West picked up the story.

“I came from California where everyone was doing original material,” West said. “When I came to New Jersey, I like music, I played a little music in my life, not good but I played and I would hang out with these guys. We would go to the Upstage and watch people jam at night.

“That’s when I met Vini and I told him I got a 6,000 square foot building up here, there’s plenty of room, get a band together, get some original material and you got a place to rehearse and we’ll work it out.

“That’s what they did and when he was at the Upstage, he and Danny Federici grabbed me and said, ‘You gotta see this guy’.

“I went upstairs and there was Springsteen and I said, ‘Jesus Christ this guy’s got it!’

“That was the beginning of Child/Steel Mill. That’s how it all started.”

Lopez said he, Springsteen, Federici and bass player Little Vini Roslin made up Steel Mill.

“The very first song we ever learned - this is something that I know Bruce knows - was “Crown Liquor” by Bill Chinnock - the very first song we ever rehearsed.

“Then we learned “Jennifer”. I wish I had a tape because that was the very first Steel Mill song. And “Going Back To Eli’s Funeral Home” was another one that I don’t have. I can’t find anyone with any inkling of those songs.”

Mark Wright asked how Steve Van Zandt joined the band.

“When we went out to San Francisco, Vini met these groupies and they whisked him away. We rehearsed every day whether we needed it or not. So Vini had been whisked away. He missed a rehearsal and we would be all going what the hell, so Bruce said we needed to get someone else. I had said to Bruce, ‘What about your friend Steve Van Zandt?’ He goes, ‘Call him up’. So I called Steve and said, ‘You are going to have to be ready because we’re coming back and we are going to be in Richmond.’

“He became the bass player in Steel Mill, the bass player.

“We travelled around. We played Nashville and played Richmond a lot. We lived in Richmond for a little while.

“We did a lot of colleges, we’d run a deal with them. They’d charge $2 on the door. They’d get a buck, we’d get a buck.”

Steel Mill ended up playing in front of crowds of 2,000 and 3,000 – although they were never a signed act.

“I took tapes of us to these A and R guys,” said West. “Bunches of songs. I took the books up. I said: ‘We made $35,000 and we don’t have an album contract, what’s the problem?’

“They would say: ‘We think you need to change this and change that?’ I looked at the guy and said: ‘Don’t you know how to read a balance sheet – read the numbers? It is here, it is happening.’ We drew a lot of people.

“The only reason [Steel Mill never had a record deal] and I have been chastised... I had a couple of deals, they wanted all the publishing. You know the game with that. The publishing is a musician’s retirement cos as long as that song is played you are getting a royalty. If you’re representing four or five guys and you sell them out to get a little grease under the table that is not a good thing. I just couldn’t do it. I won’t do that. I still wouldn’t do it.”

Springsteen’s work ethic and attitude on stage appears to have been the same 40 years ago as it is today.

West said: “Springsteen’s a one-off. There’s not a lot of people can write like that guy. He would sit in that shop all day playing guitar and writing songs. Some he would cast aside. But the guy knew what he was doing.

“And when he’d get in front of an audience he would read the audience. There was no set list with Steel Mill. You never knew what the hell was going to happen. Whether you were mixing the sound or playing in the band. You just did it, that was it.”

Lopez said all the band worked on the songs, although Bruce and Danny were the ones who worked on arrangements for hours.

“They would stay hours making sure that that chord and this chord was in the right position on the neck and that this chord didn’t clash with... They’d work on that for hours and hours and we’d sit there, you know. And he would say ‘let’s do it again’. We would do it again and again and again. And then they would go and work it out some more. We’d just practise and practise.”

Lopez shared memories of Danny Federici.

“He had this VW microbus. It’s from the Storytellers band. On the side of this bus, hippy-style, was written The Storytellers’ Story.

“So one night we all got in the bus. There was like 12 of us in this thing. We’re going eastbound on route 22 in New Jersey and we’re going like 90. We are all ‘yeah!’ And Danny said, ‘We are going the wrong way, I am gonna take the next jug handle’. Well, do you think he slowed down? So we got off the jug handle.

“The bus starts teetering like this…we are all going, ‘Ahh!’ The back of the bus hit a telephone pole, it straightened us out and we’re going westbound on route 22. He liked that. He did that all the time.

“When we were on tour, when we did the album, we’d have to be in Boston and then we’d to be in Cleveland. Me and Clarence were the main drivers. Clarence would be sitting there and I would be sitting here.

“We’d have our bottle of deadly nightshade down here, then we would be tired of driving so we’d let Danny drive. 120mph and we were there in no time. In snow storms it didn’t matter. He was fast.

“Before he died, he’d go to the Mercedes place and say I want to try that out and he’d take it for a day, go down those back roads in Flemington and just make this thing work. He’d come and pick you up and say ‘let’s go for a ride’. Whoosh! Wow. He loved it, he was really something. My old buddy.”

Mark Wright asked Lopez if the sound of the E Street Band would be different if he were still there instead of Max Weinberg.

“I don’t know. I never had any formal drum lessons. I play the way I play. Now I just play. I did that then. Max is a technician and Bruce I guess wanted to go into a different feel or whatever. And it took him a lot of drummers to find Max. And Max told me the only reason he got the job was because a friend of mine who had some tapes from the band gave them to Max and Max practised my licks, went to the audition and learned the stuff. And then he became the drummer.

“I asked Max one time, I went to see him at the Thanksgiving show at Madison Square Garden and I was backstage and Max was there I said, ‘Max, you sound great tonight’.

“He said, ‘I should sound great, I’m doing all your licks’. I said, ‘Gee thanks cos that will get me on the subway with a buck and a half.’

“It probably would sound different. I just don’t sit there and play. Neither does Max. Max is one of the greatest drummers around. Technically and stamina. He’s a brute.

“But it probably would be different, the way I play. Because every time Max comes out he goes, ‘Are you going to do Rosie tonight?’

“I say, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘There is one lick in there, what’s the timing?’

“Because there is no timing. You have got to watch the guy, you have to watch Bruce. You got to know what is going on. They get it. And they do it beautiful.”

Both men paid tribute to David Sancious, whom West described as a “straight out genius”.

Said Lopez: “David would pull a certain way and I would pull a certain way. David and I, we played together. I was in Bruce’s back pocket. He would do a lick and I would be there with him, you know. Same with David.”

Sancious is due to appear on Steel Mill Retro’s new CD, a follow up to Dead Sea Chronicles, featuring more Springsteen-penned songs from the early days.

Lopez described the recording of the first two Springsteen records.

“Well, the very first one Greetings from Asbury Park it took us a week. And it was done. It was basically an acoustic record. We rehearsed and rehearsed like we always did and we went into the studio and we cut all the tracks in one take. So there was some singing to be done and some mastering. It took about a week.

“The second one took months. Not a year but months. But we were on tour. We’d be on the tour for five days and we would have two days off - where do you think we’d go – home? No, we pitched a tent in the back of the studio and we would go there. We would wake up and go to the studio, eat some breakfast and go to the studio, have some pizza and go back to the studio, and work it out.

“One of the hardest songs for us to do was “Incident” because Bruce kept saying ‘it should be faster’, ‘no it’s got to be slower’, ‘no you know…’, so we did like a bunch of versions.”

He said The Wild “evolved in the studio”.

“We rehearsed “Rosie” over at (Tinker’s) second factory and the way we rehearsed it is nothing like the way it is on that record. Cos we would get in there and it would be like ‘we are going to put the wild weekend bit in there or that bit in there’. All of a sudden we’d go over it. “Sandy” we were just jamming in the studio and they recorded it and then they said ‘hey, listen to this’ and we go in and go wow and we said ‘we are going to do this’ and then we recorded it. It evolves in the studio.”

Asked his favourite track, Lopez did not hesitate: “Rosie: rock ‘n’ roll on 78! That’s the one I like. If you play it right. It’s got to be the last song too for me. If you play it right, you’re done. That’s it. End of the show.”

Lopez said he was a fan of Springsteen’s recent work including Magic and the Seeger Sessions which he said reminded him of a legendary time from the pre-E Street days.

“I loved going to see the Seeger Sessions band it reminded me of Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom when we brought everybody that we knew up on stage with us,” he said.

“We would go into the audience before the start of the show and we’d draft 20 people, they would be singers. We’d say, ‘Who wants to be in the band?’ We would take them outside, show them all the parts. Everybody made five bucks. But it was fun. I think we did about three or four gigs.”

West said Dr Zoom – which featured people playing Monopoly on stage (“They weren’t really playing but just going through the motions”) - was Springsteen’s idea.

“That was the first time David Sancious actually played,” said West. “We grabbed him for Dr Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He was the keyboard player. Him and Bobby Williams playing drums. I played congas.

“Everybody we knew was doing something.”

Lopez said they opened for the Allman Brothers at the Sunshine Inn, Asbury Park “about three weeks before Duane Allman got killed” [October 29, 1971].

“(Tinker) had a tape of it but it had that hum on it,” said Lopez.

West added that the Allman Brothers had “thought they were getting a regular support band – then the guys start setting up!”

“We had a ring leader and girls would bring him out and when we did a sonic boom,” laughed Lopez. “To begin our set we did a sonic boom… BOOM!”

But, West added, the audience was not there to see the main headliner.

“No, they came to see Bruce. We had our fans. Plus we knew every nutcase in the area and they couldn’t believe it was going to happen. We didn’t believe it was going to happen! So the Allman brothers were out in the audience and they are looking at this and this guy says ‘What is this?’”

Lopez smiled: “That’s what we were wondering! But it was fun.”

* ‘Land of Hope and Dreams: Celebrating 25 Years of Bruce Springsteen in Ireland’ by Greg Lewis and Moira Sharkey is available from October 2009.