Constitution Daily sits down with Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, the drummer who backed Bruce Springsteen in several bands, including Steel Mill and the original E Street Band, and learns about the early days of Bruce’s songwriting and career aspirations.
Lopez: Danny Federici and myself, before we actually hooked up with Bruce in ‘68, we were in a band with Bill Chinnock, and he was a singer songwriter from down the Jersey Shore area. He was writing original songs and we were touring about with the Electric Circus, and such, and then that band broke up. And we were called the Downtown Tangiers Rock and Rhythm and Blues Band. But that band broke up. And Danny and I really enjoyed playing with each other, so we said well let’s find a guitar player and a bass player that we can play with and see, you know, maybe they write some songs.
So I went out and searched for the guys, and so did Danny, and I ran across Bruce at an Italian American club in Long Branch–him and his band Earth were playing down there. I went up to him and I says, ‘hey I’m Vini,’ and he goes ‘ah, yeah, you’re with Sonny and the Starfires,” and I said ‘yeah, not no more, but, you know, I’m looking to get something else together, why don’t you come jam with Danny and I down at The Upstage in Asbury,’ cause The Upstage was pretty full blast at that time.
So, about a month later, Danny and I walk into The Upstage and there’s Bruce, Little Vinnie Roslyn–rest his soul he just died…playing bass, and Big Bobby Williams playing drums at The Upstage. And Big Bobby’s no longer with us either. So, after their set was over Danny and I went up to the front of the stage and says, ‘hey, let’s jam….so we got permission from Tom Potter and we jammed for about an hour. Next thing I know we’re down in the Green Mermaid drinking coffee and saying, ‘hey, let’s make a band.’ And you know, it’s ironic, I asked Bruce ‘do you write any songs?’ And he goes, ‘I got a few, I got a few.’
AUDIO: Hear the story of Vinny’s very first encounter with Bruce at a band battle in 1966, Sonny and the Starfires v. The Castiles. [Audio: /images/uploads/blog/1022-edit.mp3]
Question: Did you all share the same desire to address the themes Bruce is so known for now?
Lopez: When Bruce started writing the songs we actually became Steel Mill. We only had one goal, we wanted to go to the top, play this stuff for a lot of people…The original music was our way out of where we were. Not copy bands, original music…No matter what it was we put our heart into it.
AUDIO: Hear Vinny describe Steel Mill’s earliest gigs. [Audio: /images/uploads/blog/1025-edit.mp3]
Question: It seems that throughout his career Springsteen has avoided making political endorsements or directly stating what the message of a song is. Do you think musicians should explain their music, or should they let the music speak for itself?
Lopez: It’s just like if you read a novel, or you read the bible, people come up with their own–‘this means that.’ Bruce never had to explain anything. Like when we were Steel Mill it was Vietnam. Some of the songs we did were pretty right out in front about it, you know, about them soldier boys coming home from Vietnam, and the treatment they got. In that respect, no, I don’t think Bruce or any artist has to explain…if you have to explain it went over somebody’s head.
Bruce’s songs, as complicated in Steel Mill as some of them were–the epics that they were–they all told very down-to-Earth themes. You know, just driving on the parkway, or taking your girl out, whatever–having a pizza pie. It was all there. Coming home from the war…And I don’t get political at all, ever, the most political I get is playing those songs. And when we play them you don’t have to know what they are, when I sing it you know what they’re saying.
Question: When you sing those old songs today and in a different context, how does your audience respond?
Lopez: We have people that were there who come to hear us, and we bring them back to those days. We also have their kids that come to see us and go, ‘who wrote that? That’s some song!’ Well, Bruce wrote it. When (Carl) Tinker played those CD’s for Bruce, Bruce goes ‘yeah, I remember that…who arranged all that stuff?’ Tinker said ‘you did! You arranged all of that, and Vini produced it.’ And Bruce was happy with it. That, to me, is where it’s at. If I can reach him, and he goes ‘hey, that’s pretty good,’ I’m happy.
Every Friday throughout the run of From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, we will publish dedicated content inspired by Bruce Springsteen and the First Amendment. “Freedom of Expression Fridays” will feature unique and original posts by staff writers, musicians, visual artists, and more, with a focus on a range of issues including protest, dissent, and the role of art in politics and political campaigns.