Backing the Boss

NORTHVILLE – A ski trip to Lapland Lake over the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend almost ended in disaster for vocalist and drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez.

Instead, the New Jersey musician, who co-founded the E Street Band with Bruce Springsteen in the early ’70s, ended up meeting Anthony Lanzi, owner of the Sport Island Pub, and jamming on the venue’s stage. He’ll return to the pub at 10 p.m. Saturday for a full show.

Back in February, after a day of skiing, Lopez and his girlfriend were headed back to the Flip Inn Motel when Lopez’s truck broke down. The two were 5 miles away from any major road, with no cell service, according to Lopez.

“We happened to meet a local, Frank, who saved us; he brought us to his house and called AAA for us,” Lopez said recently from his home in Crean Ridge, N.J. “We went back to the hotel we were staying at, the Flip Inn Motel, and we went to the Sport Island Pub across the street. We didn’t have a truck or anything, because it was being worked on, so we ran over, thinking, ‘Let’s get something to eat,’ and we ran into the owner, Anthony Lanzi, and he was so nice to us.”

Lanzi said he didn’t realize who Lopez was until the couple returned the next night to watch local band Third Rael perform. At that time, Lopez mentioned he was in a band, too.

“[Lopez] said, ‘Did you ever hear of the E Street Band?’ And I’m like ? I just looked at him. ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, I was a founding member, the original drummer,'” Lanzi said.

“I don’t know who this guy is; he’s got this long ponytail. So I go over to the band, Third Rael, and I said, ‘Does anybody know the original drummer of the E Street Band?’ One of them said, ‘Yeah, Mad Dog, Vini Lopez.’ I said, ‘Well, he’s here,’ and I got back, ‘What do you mean, he’s here?’ ‘Guys, he’s here – yes, here, he’s having dinner.'”

Lopez sat in with Third Rael that night on a handful of songs, and stayed in touch with Lanzi. When the E Street Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Nirvana, Kiss and others April 10, he invited Lanzi, his wife and two others to the ceremony in New York City.

Lanzi quickly jumped at the chance to get Lopez to return for a full gig. The drummer will perform Saturday with longtime collaborators, guitarist Sonny Kenn, bassist Chris Plunkett and saxophonist Richie “Taz” Taskowitz, as the Sonny Kenn Band.

Kenn and Lopez played together in Lopez’s first band, Sonny and the Starfires, in the mid-’60s. The band’s gig highlights included opening for “Today Show” and “Ed Sullivan Show” mascot J. Fred Muggs the chimpanzee.

“Well, we weren’t worried about that he was trying to steal our show,” Lopez said, laughing. “… There was like five of them, and the one that had the best disposition was the one they brought out for the show, because they were something; they were big.”

After the Starfires, Lopez continued in other bands, including the Downtown Tangiers Rockin’ Rhythm and Blues Band, where he met future Steel Mill and E Street Band organist Danny Federici. Frederici and Lopez eventually hooked up with Springsteen.

“After the Downtown Tangiers band, I saw [Springsteen] at an Italian-American club,” Lopez said. “… He was playing, and it was the typical way he looked then, with the jeans and patches and just suspenders, no shirt, real skinny, long hair. And he was playing the hell out of the guitar. That’s when we said, ‘Hey, let’s talk to this guy right here.’ But he was very impressive; he commanded the crowd.”

Their initial group, Steel Mill, featured Springsteen’s early songwriting in a psychedelic, jam-band setting. The band evolved into the Bruce Springsteen Band when Springsteen wanted to bring in horns and female backing singers, Lopez said. That band, in turn, morphed into the E Street Band.

By 1974, Lopez had been kicked out of the group after appearing on Springsteen’s first two albums. However, Lopez said he and Springsteen have remained close friends. In 2003, Lopez received permission from Springsteen to form Steel Mill Revival, which focuses on the old Steel Mill songs, now with Lopez on lead vocals.

“Of course it was [upsetting], but I didn’t – I always take the high road,” Lopez said of his removal from the E Street Band. “I’m not gonna run around and feel sorry for myself. I got another band. I didn’t think anything was gonna happen at that point. When you’re out on the road, when you make nothing and you’re starving – I just got in another band. All the animosity or whatever goes under the bridge.”

Lopez reunited with the E Street Band onstage at the Rock Hall induction ceremony, playing alongside the band’s current drummer Max Weinberg. “He sped up a little, I slowed down a little, and we met right on the beat,” Lopez said.

Lanzi ended up spending time backstage with Lopez, Springsteen, the rest of the E Street Band and the other inductees. Both he and Lopez said meeting Bill Murray at the after party was a highlight.

“Bill Murray came up to me, and I don’t know who he thought I was, but he shook my hand,” Lanzi said. “We hung out with him most of the night, and he did let us take some pictures. I said, ‘How about a picture?’ [He said], ‘No, no pictures,’ and then he looks at us, looks at our wives, and said, ‘Well, maybe one.’ He was a riot, a real funny guy. It was an awesome night, probably one of the best nights in my life.”

For more information, call Sport Island Pub at 863-2003, or visit www.sportislandrestaurant.com