This is the second post in a series about hearing musical time. In “Hearing Musical Time,” we explored the ways in which drummers shape and texture musical time. I used the image of a wheel. Perfectly even time, such as produced by a drum machine, might be pictured as a perfectly round wheel. Human drummers, however, tend to push some beats forward and lay others back, which shapes the wheel differently. The sounds of the drum set give texture to that shape, sharpening or blurring its effect on the music.
When we speak of a drummer’s feel, we are speaking of these elements. In this post, I’d like to compare three drummers for Bruce Springsteen—Vini Lopez, Boom Carter, and Max Weinberg. These drummers present an interesting case study because each played with Bruce during a relatively short stretch of his career, from 1973-1975, and each made profound difference on Bruce's sound.
Example 1 — Vini Lopez on "Rosalita"
Vini Lopez was the first E-Street Band drummer. His nickname, “Mad Dog,” is an apt description of his drumming. His wheel is anything but round.
In the first seconds of this track, you can hear how uneven the time is. The band can barely get out of the introduction together and takes about 15 seconds to settle into a groove. He punctuates his time with lots of kick-drum beats and snare drum diddles, all of which call attention to the misshapen wheel.
But lest anyone think this detracts from the song, Vini’s manic sense of time and the pushing and pulling it produces is essential to the track’s youthful energy! Because of Vini, the band fishtails as it takes each turn, swerves across the median and then over to the shoulder of the road. You can almost hear the sirens behind them.
As with any musical choice, one can’t speak in terms of right and wrong, only in terms of tradeoffs. In terms of even versus uneven time . . .
Notice that Vini’s time lines up perfectly with Bruce’s album title, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. When Vini left the band, Bruce’s sound became more assured; it never sounded as wild and innocent as when Vini was behind the kit.
Example 2 — Boom Carter on "Born to Run"
“Born to Run” sounds bigger than any other song on the album of the same name, and the decisive element may be Boom Carter’s drumming. Of the three drummers in this comparison, his time is the most even, the roundest.
Because the drum feel is rounder, we actually pay less attention to the drums and more attention to Bruce. (Whereas, were it shaped otherwise, our ears would be drawn to the idiosyncrasies of the feel and thus the rest of the band.) More than any other song on the album, perhaps in his entire recorded output, “Born to Run” presents an iconic Bruce. On “Rosalita” Bruce sounds like a comer; on “Born to Run,” he comes across as star, a rebel heartthrob. The roundness of the Boom Carter’s drum feel lets the song roll out before him like a wide-open and smoothly-paved road, and Bruce knows just what to do with it. This is a Bruce with higher production values. He is not so innocent anymore.
Example 3 — Max Weinberg on "Jungleland"
The drums enter at 1:50, and now we’re hearing Max Weinberg. Max’s time is not as round as Boom Carter’s and not as wildly misshapened as Vini’s. But Max’s feel does not lie at the midway point between those two. He’s off to the side. His drumming exudes a certain muscularity, a sense of sweat and effort that wonderfully evokes the struggles heard in the lyrics. The flavor of Max’s drumming has a lot to do with Bruce’s subsequent musical identity.
Compare the clunky tension of “Jungleland” with the relative smoothness of “Born to Run,” and consider what each song might have lost had the drummers been switched. Max’s rendering of “Born to Run” might have lacked the easy roll and widescreen hugeness that Boom brought to the song, and Boom’s rendering of “Jungleland” might have lacked the drama that Max gives it.
Finally, remember that each drummer is working with and against Bruce’s own sense of time, which is not so round. Indeed, his singing and guitar playing, like Max’s drumming, evoke the effort-filled lives depicted in his songs. Listen to his solo performance of “Atlantic City” and see if you don’t agree. In the very feel of his strumming and singing, you can hear the uphill battle facing the song’s protagonist.
Thank you for reading. The next post will consider examples of non-drummers shaping time.