Max Weinberg: Open Heart Surgery Influenced My Decision To Leave Conan

by | October 7, 2010 at 11:48 AM | Celebrities, Conan, HBO, Interviews, Late Night

Max Weinberg (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Max Weinberg (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images)

Why did bandleader Max Weinberg decide not to follow Conan O’Brien to TBS?

Blame it on the irresistible lure of the Garden State. In the final analysis, this lifelong Jersey boy says he just couldn’t pull up stakes in his home state at age 59 for a new life in La La Land, though he did follow Conan there for his short-lived stint as host of ‘The Tonight Show’ on NBC – a gig which abruptly came to an end last January.

The famed drummer – a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band since 1974 (since Springsteen’s third album, “Born to Run”) and a fixture in late-night TV as Conan’s musical director (and sometime comic foil) for 17 years – talked to Fancast about his decision to withdraw from late-night, revealing for the first time that he underwent life-saving open heart surgery just two weeks after the demise of Conan’s ‘Tonight Show’ last winter and how this “life-changing” experience influenced his decision to stay put on the East Coast.

Conan’s Band Leader: Max Weinberg Out, Jimmy Vivino In

The occasion for the interview was the pending premiere Thursday of a new documentary about Springsteen on HBO – ‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town’ (9/8c). Weinberg, who appears often in the 90-minute film, shared his own memories of the lengthy process from which the ‘Darkness’ album was born – three years after ‘Born to Run’ turned Springsteen and his bandmates into international rock stars.

It was finally confirmed a week or so ago that you’re not joining Conan on his new TBS late-night show. What happened there? Will we ever see you on TV again, other than documentaries about Bruce Springsteen?
[Laughs] I’m sure you’ll see me on television again. You won’t see me on an episodic show, that’s for sure. I did my time. I loved it. It was great. Frankly, I do prefer living in New Jersey and that was one of the problems I had. I love playing in L.A., but my kids and my wife are back east, and we live part of the time in Italy, so it was hard to structure my life [and have a job in Los Angeles]. I can tell you – I can make a little news here, which I haven’t talked about to anybody, but on Feb. 8, I came to the end of a 26-year watchful, waiting odyssey that culminated in 12 hours of massively invasive open heart surgery.

DVR ‘The Promise: The Making Of Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ Here

Was it a bypass?
[No] I had valve repair. I found out about this 26 years ago and I knew about it and I monitored it. At the time, there was not much they could do and it wasn’t as serious as it became. As I got older, it got worse. Fortunately, the protocols for dealing with it became much more advanced and I found a wonderful doctor in New York who specializes in repairing valves. Two years ago, it became life-threatening and I had to do something about it sooner or later. I did it two weeks after [Conan’s ‘Tonight Show’] went off the air.

Check Out More HBO Shows Here

I’ll tell you it was a life-changing experience emotionally and spiritually. I owe my life to these doctors. If you can remember back to how moved David Letterman was when he got back on the air [in February 2000] – he had quintuple bypass surgery. [In valve-repair surgery] they stop your heart. I was on the heart-lung bypass machine for close to seven hours. Did it play into my decision to remain where I am? Maybe. I mean I had three months of very difficult recovery. When I say it was life-changing – I’ve always been a person who smelled the roses, but everything looks a little brighter. Everything looks a little bit more manageable. Nothing is really that big a deal to me anymore. I’ve never felt better. I thought I had energy before [but] I’m a thousand percent better. I’m playing better than I ever did. I’m not looking backward. I feel wonderful about where I’m at – physically, personally, professionally.

Do you have anything to add to the story of what happened to Conan? Were you as shocked as anybody else that his ‘Tonight Show’ went south that way?
It was very dramatic. At my age, just being in this business for as long as I’ve been, nothing really surprises me, particularly in the landscape of television. [But] any abrupt ending to anything is shocking. It was very weird and awkward and, of course, I felt really bad for some of the people who moved out there – over a hundred people from New York who really took the hit, people who had purchased homes. I know of one case where the day this news broke, which I think was Jan. 5 or 6, this individual had just closed on a house and that’s a real shame.

Watch Springsteen Discuss His Challenges Making This Album:

Let’s talk about the HBO documentary about ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ Why are we singling out this album for documentary treatment? What’s so special about this one?
Of course, I have a somewhat prejudiced opinion – that all of Bruce’s albums are special. This record, as the next project that was done after ‘Born to Run,’ to me, is extremely reflective of what was going on in music at the time in the late ’70s. If you contrast ‘Darkness’ and its sound with the sound of ‘Born to Run,’ it’s quite different. And I knew at the time that Bruce had begun to crystallize what it was he wanted to write about. I always viewed my role and the rest of the musicians as: We’re colors in Bruce’s palette and I can recall on that record they wanted the drums to be very austere. I think the best example of that is probably the title track, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town.’ Why ‘Darkness’ now? Well, why not? It’s 33 years later and it’s sort of like the old Orson Welles line: ‘No wine before its time.’ There was footage that was filmed, it’s steeped in history and [so many years later], there’s a deeper resonance.

Springsteen Says ‘Darkness’ Marked Dawn Of Career In New Doc

The movie traces the creation of the album and it goes into detail about the painstaking length of time that it took. How do you remember it? Was it satisfying, frustrating, tedious?
I remember it as a full range of emotion – definitely not tedium. Now, I’m not the guy sitting in a room writing the songs. Prior to actually going into the studio in, I believe, June of 1977, we rehearsed everyday at Bruce’s house – from like 2 o’clock to 7 o’clock almost everyday and we’d rehearse four or five songs and get them playable. Then he’d come back the next day with four, five or six new songs. That went on for two years! Bruce had to do everything. He had to write the songs. He had to sing the songs. He had to think about what he was trying to say as he was writing it. Really, to be the boss you do have to pay the cost. And that was the cost that he did pay.

Will you watch Conan’s new show when it premieres Nov. 8 on TBS?
Absolutely. I hope they do wonderfully well. I’m sure they will. I put a lot of time and effort into creating our little world over there, you know, with the band and the musical direction and what the band contributed, and I trust and I hope that the band retains the profile they had. [Conan] is a brilliant, hard worker. I’ve been fortunate to have people like Bruce and Conan – you don’t run into guys like that very often.

‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town’ premieres on HBO Thursday at 9/8c.