New Sticks: Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez
Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez was the original drummer for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, thrashing it out for many unpredictable, hard-rocking, cash-strapped years before the limelight found The Boss. Just before it did, life took a turn and Lopez is now a caddie. Working at the 2017 U.S. Senior Open, he takes a break to share his story with Dave Shedloski
For whatever reason, the rhythms of golf are soothing to musicians. Whether it’s hard rock’s Alice Cooper, pop singer Huey Lewis or jazz saxophonist Kenny G, or dozens of others like them, the game sings to them. Heck, crooner Bing Crosby drew his last breath on a golf course.
Vini Lopez is no different. But then again, he is. Introduced to golf while attending Monmouth University, Lopez fell in love with the game immediately, and after his musical career took an unexpected detour in the mid-1970s, he turned to golf as a refuge and it became a meaningful pursuit that he enjoys to this day. However, while he’s carried a handicap as low as 11, it’s carrying a bag that’s been, well, his bag.
In July, Lopez caddied in the U.S. Senior Open at Salem Country Club, near Boston, for Mark McCormick, the club pro at Deal Country Club in Deal, New Jersey. It was the first appearance in the championship for both, but it wasn’t the highlight of their 25-year collaboration. In 2012, Lopez was on the bag when McCormick qualified for the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco, and they teamed up in the championship proper. One of their practice round partners that week was Phil Mickelson.
And Mickelson was in awe. So were Matt Kuchar, Gary Woodland and other tour pros. Same thing happened at Salem Country Club. Steve Pate, Joey Sindelar and Olin Browne all wanted to play a practice round with McCormick. Because of Vini Lopez, who might not be a household name to the average music fan, but is nonetheless famous in the industry and among people of a certain age. The band he co-founded certainly is well known: The E Street Band. Yes, that E Street Band. The E Street Band that accompanies rock legend Bruce Springsteen. Lopez was the original drummer.
Heck, Lopez found Springsteen, not the other way around.
“How many times do you go to a tournament and the caddie is the celebrity and not the player? It happens a lot with us,” McCormick says with a laugh remembering how people were putting drumsticks in front of Lopez to sign at Olympic Club. “At Salem, guys were wanting to talk to him, and a couple of times I was like, ‘Vini, come on, let’s go, we have to go play golf. We’re not here for you, we’re here for me.’ We have a lot of fun together.”
So, how did Lopez end up taking his E Street shuffle to the golf course?
It began by getting fired from the band he helped to form. A native of Neptune, New Jersey, Lopez was a drum-playing prodigy in grammar school who eventually hooked up with another young musical genius, the late Danny Federici. They played together in several bands and founded a band called Child. In 1968, the pair went looking for guitarists who could write music. They found one at the Upstage Club in Asbury Park, N.J., who mesmerized them.
“The guy just had that charisma, and we knew it,” Lopez says of seeing a young and raw Springsteen perform. “We said to him, ‘Hey, let’s jam.’ He had actually seen us play before, so he kind of knew who we were. And that’s how it started. It was that simple.”
The band, which also included late bassist Vinny Roslin, soon changed its name to Steel Mill. But it didn’t become the E Street Band officially until 1973, after Springsteen’s first record deal, which produced Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. The band was touring in Texas—the story of its name goes—when they pulled up to the childhood home of keyboardist David Sancious at 1105 E Street in Belmar. Simple as that.
Later that year, Springsteen and his troupe recorded their second album, entitled, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Commercial success followed in 1975 with Born to Run and the rest truly is history. Unfortunately for Lopez, he was history before that breakthrough, having been fired in late 1974 after accusing Springsteen’s manager of financial shenanigans and getting in a fight with the road manager. Lopez went by the nickname “Mad Dog” for good reason, and that is what Springsteen called him.
Lopez won’t deny that he came to loggerheads with the two men, who were brothers, but the details have been sensationalized over time, he says. Plus, he and Springsteen never carried hard feelings.
“They tried to put a wedge between us, but we wouldn’t let that happen,” Lopez, 68, says. “People think it was some nasty thing that went on and that it was some kind of ugly split. We weren’t enemies. We were still brothers. I went over to his house in Long Branch and actually helped him with some harmonies on Born to Run. I didn’t play on the album, but whoever was singing, they took cues from what I did with Bruce in his little kitchen.”
Moving to Hollywood (N.J.)
Lopez took his next cues from his heart. He had kept his hand in golf and had gotten quite proficient at it, and now he was ready to put both hands into it. He began to caddie and then took over as caddie master at Deal Golf & Country Club in N.J.
Among the clients for whom he caddied was none other than Alice Cooper. Neil Young was another bag he picked up. Eventually, he moved across the street to Hollywood Golf Club, and in 1992 he met McCormick, who was looking for a caddie for an upcoming tournament.
“I grew up down at the Jersey Shore and I knew who Vini was, and I also knew he was a good caddie,” McCormick says. “He’s got a lot of energy and he’s always upbeat. He’s probably in better shape than I am. He never gets tired. He never gets down. He’s a pretty cool cat. I really think caddying is an extension of who he is as a musician. He has this attitude, just like he is a drummer working in harmony with the rest of the band and supporting the band; as a caddie he approaches it as supporting me. He does everything I need him to do and blends into what we’re trying to accomplish.”
And, apparently, Lopez has quite the sense of humor about his musical past.
“Once in a while, he’ll call me ‘Boss.’ Pretty funny,” McCormick says.
But there’s a sincerity there as well. Says Lopez: “We recently did a radio show, and I said ‘The rock star I work with right now is sitting next to me and his name is Mark McCormick.’ And I really meant it.”
Unfortunately, however, McCormick missed the cut at Salem. “Mark is a great player,” said Lopez afterwards. “We have a lot of fun together. We’ve had some great experiences. I wish we could have done a little better here but, man, we had a blast. We always do.”
Lopez still enjoys a music career but it’s something he does more often in his spare time. He and Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Gary Cavico play together as part of a group called the Wonderful Winos. They play blues songs and—with permission from Springsteen—they do some E Street Band numbers and even some older songs from their Steel Mill days. In the intervening years he has played on four other Springsteen albums.
About six weeks before the Senior Open, Lopez played with Springsteen at an Upstage reunion at the Paramount in Asbury Park. They did one of their old songs together, “The Ballad of Jesse James.” The legendary frontman couldn’t remember all the lyrics, so Lopez sang and Springsteen harmonized. All is good with him and the Boss.
As he talks about his own discography outside the Salem clubhouse, Lopez notices Peter Jacobsen walking by. Jacobsen is emphatically beating some imaginary drumsticks. Lopez can’t escape who he is. He doesn’t try.
Golf is the perfect complement. “It’s a break, and I have always felt that. It’s a refreshing thing for me,” he said. “Yeah, golf is a grind, but it’s a different kind of grind. We musicians, I think we love it because we get out there, we have time to think. You look at a golf swing and you know there’s some kind of a beat going on in there. I know that I never really separate the two. Golf and music, I know I’ve had it pretty good. There isn’t anything I would do differently in either of them.”
In April, 2014, Lopez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band. A month later he was on McCormick’s bag for a local golf tournament. His E Street Shuffle has been all his own, authentic, and always, always in rhythm.