Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, the E Street Band’s first drummer, lives for the music he and Bruce made in their Boardwalk days.
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On a warm Saturday night at his home in Creamridge, Vini Lopez leads his band, Steel Mill, in a rehearsal for the group’s second album and what they hope will be a slew of shows this summer. But if Lopez has learned anything in his almost 50 years as a musician, it’s that nothing is certain. Last fall, he and the band made similarly ambitious plans for a tour to coincide with the release of their first album, The Dead Sea Chronicles, only to have them fall apart before they ever left New Jersey. A disappointing setback, but nothing unfamiliar.
Lopez was the original drummer in the E Street Band. In 1974, after seven years of backing Bruce Springsteen in bars, clubs, and dance halls, he was replaced just before the group hit it big.
On a Friday night last September, the starkly divergent paths of the two former bandmates were apparent. In Asbury Park, an army of roadies, technicians, and security personnel descended upon Convention Hall, assembling a stage fit for an arena. Springsteen ran his band through rehearsals for the upcoming sold-out Magic tour that would take the band across the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, six miles up the beach at the Ocean Place Hotel in Long Branch, Lopez was setting up his drum kit. There were no roadies around to help. Things were just as they were 40 years ago, when Lopez was drumming behind the original Steel Mill guitarist and songwriter, Springsteen.
“I went to see Bruce when he was with [the band] Earth,” says Lopez of his first encounter with Springsteen in 1968. “I saw him at the Italian-American Club [in Long Branch]. I said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to the Upstage [Club] and jam with us and see what happens?’” Lopez and his good friend, keyboardist Danny Federici (who died of melanoma in April at age 58), were on the prowl for a talented guitarist. Springsteen was that—and a damn good songwriter.
After their first jam at the Upstage in Asbury Park, Lopez, Federici, Springsteen, and bassist Vini Roslin formed a group called Child, which soon changed its name to Steel Mill. Their music was loud, heavy, well-written rock and roll, inspired by bands like Cream. With a collection of original songs, Steel Mill rapidly grew in popularity, playing college and outdoor shows that sometimes drew crowds in the thousands. They even traveled to California to play at the Carousel Ballroom in San Francisco.
The music of Steel Mill is legendary to hard core Springsteen fans, with tracks like “Going Back to Georgia” and “The Wind & The Rain” considered by some among his finest work. “The music is timeless,” says Lopez. “Those are songs I really, really loved. The lyrics, the changes that the songs go through…The licks aren’t the same as everyday licks. When [people] hear those songs today, a lot of them don’t know Bruce wrote them. They say, ‘Wow, that’s a great song. Where’d that come from?’”
Recordings of the original Steel Mill exist only on bootlegs of wildly varying quality. For almost two decades, Lopez had been toying with the idea of putting together a new version of Steel Mill.
“I approached [Springsteen] 25 years ago about reviving Steel Mill,” Lopez recalls, “and he told me then, ‘You do whatever you want with Steel Mill.’”
Although Springsteen had dissolved Steel Mill in 1971, he kept Lopez on drums in his next two bands. After the renowned talent scout John Hammond signed Springsteen to Columbia Records in 1972, the phenom from Freehold again turned to Lopez and Federici. Together with David Sancious, Gary Tallent, and Clarence Clemons, they formed the original E Street Band, rehearsing in Point Pleasant and recording Springsteen’s debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, in New York. Lopez also played on Springsteen’s epochal second album, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.
Though one would never guess it from the mellow, grandfatherly figure Lopez cuts today, he was once known as a brawler. “I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” he says, “and I had to learn to defend myself. I didn’t take too much stuff off of anyone before I would put an end to it. Do unto others before they undo you was my motto.”
In a roundabout way, that reputation led Columbia Records executive Clive Davis to nickname Lopez “Mad Dog.” When Lopez began to suspect the band’s then-manager, Mike Appel, of finagling the group’s finances, he didn’t hesitate to speak up. Hard feelings escalated, and a physical confrontation ensued with Appel’s brother.
“I wasn’t a sheep,” Lopez says. “I kind of figured something was going on when they said, ‘There is no money. We pay for your house, we pay for your phone, but you don’t get any money…’ I fought for everybody, but I got screwed because of it.” After a show in February 1974, Springsteen took Lopez aside and told him he was out.
“I was a little bitter,” he says. “We hadn’t made it yet. At that point I really didn’t care what happened to Bruce, period.
“If the same situation came up now,” he reflects, “I would be a bit more diplomatic. Regrets, I might have a few, but I did all of whatever I did for the guys in the band. To this day I stick up for my band.”
Lopez formed a succession of new groups, but none made it beyond the Shore. For eight years, he supported himself by caddying at Hollywood Country Club in Deal, later becoming caddy master at Deal Golf Club. “Golf kept me going,” he says. “Once I got sick of being caddy master, I decided I wanted to try [Steel Mill] again.”
In July 2003, Lopez headed to Giants Stadium, where he visited Springsteen in the midst of a ten-night stand with the E Street Band. There were no ill feelings.
“Bruce and I are friends,” says Lopez emphatically. “Even though we don’t keep in close contact, Bruce knows that if he needed me, for any reason, I would be there.”
Springsteen gave his blessing to the Steel Mill project and even invited Lopez on stage to perform a song from the band’s early years. In driving rain, in front of nearly 60,000 screaming fans, Lopez took his former place behind the drums for “Spirit in the Night,” a song from Greetings from Asbury Park now considered a classic.
The Dead Sea Chronicles, released last October, contains the first official studio recordings of Steel Mill songs. Lopez took over vocal duties himself. “We went in there as a band, no headphones, said, ‘Run it,’ and played,” Lopez says. “Most of the songs are one take.” Still, the new Steel Mill is much more structured than the original.
“It’s way different,” he says. “Bruce was the leader and the singer and we took our cues from him. We have to be a little more regimented now. When you play this stuff, people expect certain licks, so you gotta do ’em.”
Steel Mill did just fine in their gig at the Ocean Place Hotel. Lopez’s old bandmate, Garry Tallent, still the E Street bassist, slipped in to watch part of the set. “We went to [Neptune] high school together,” Tallent says. “Vini was the most solid drummer I had ever experienced at that time.”
Many longtime Springsteen fans consider the early albums to be among the E Street band’s best. It’s not uncommon for those fans to seek out Lopez after a gig. But that doesn’t spare him bouts of mixed feelings. Last fall, he attended one of Springsteen’s Magic concerts and decided it would be his last.
“Sometimes, you know, you get a wink or a nod from the stage, but it makes me feel bad when I don’t even get recognized from the stage by Bruce,” he says. “Other guys in the band say ‘Hello’ more often than not. I love Bruce, I love him, but it’s just too hard on me personally—you know, just inside.”
This summer, Steel Mill will play the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga on June 12, opening for ZZ Top. They’ve lined up other gigs, including the Wave Gathering Festival in Asbury Park on June 20. Another possibility is a European tour. “Maybe I’ve got a chance again now,” Lopez says.
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