When Sarah Newhard of New Tripoli asked her 9-year-old son Wyatt what he wanted for Christmas, she was surprised to hear him ask for a drum set. He had never been musically inclined or particularly liked music, Newhard says.
But Wyatt, who since age 3 has battled stage 4 neuroblastoma, a cancer of the nervous system, has lived his life trying new things, his mother said: soccer, baseball, basketball. So with the help of donations, she got him the set.
Trouble is, Wyatt needed instruction.
So he got that, too: from Vini "Maddog" Lopez, a founding member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and drummer on Springsteen's first two albums. With the band, Lopez in April was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lopez came to New Tripoli to instruct Wyatt in his home at the request of Mike Miller, a New Tripoli retiree and lifelong drummer whose grandson Andrew attends Weisenberg Elementary School with Wyatt and who has worked with the Newhard family on several fundraisers.
Lopez, 65, drove from his Jersey Shore home to spend an hour teaching Wyatt the basics of how to hold the sticks, hit the snare drum and, most important, keep a beat.
Miller had met Lopez at the Lehigh Valley Music Awards, at which he was a celebrity presenter the past few years, and reached out to him through awards coordinator Gloria Domina.
Lopez, who has donated his time in youth instruction before — at the YMCA in his old Asbury, N.J., neighborhood, for example — said he agreed immediately.
"I said, 'Let's do it,' " the drummer said. "It was just a matter of timing. I'm there."
Lopez said he started playing the drums as an adolescent after being shown similar tips by Buzzy Lubinsky, whose father, Herman, founded the gospel/jazz Savoy Records label. Lopez said he also was inspired by seeing a famous drummer, Cream's Ginger Baker, perform live.
Lopez later started the Jersey Shore band Steel Mill and recruited Springsteen as its singer. The band later became the E Street Band, and Lopez played on Springsteen's debut album, "Greetings from Asbury Park," and his second disc, "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle."
Lopez since has played with various Jersey Shore bands and currently has Steel Mill Retro, a band that plays early Springsteen songs written for Steel Mill. He said he's working on a new duo project with influential Jersey Shore blues guitarist Paul Whistler called Dog Whistle.
On Friday, Lopez, wearing a gray Steel Pier T-shirt and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame cap over his bushy gray hair and ponytail, assembled and toned Wyatt's snare drum, then sat next to it with the boy.
He showed Wyatt how to hit the drum head, relating how, in his younger days, he would snag his bushy hair with his wild swings and rip out chunks by the roots. That's not a problem for Wyatt, who has been bald since his diagnosis because of aggressive chemotherapy.
Lopez also emphasized how everything in drumming works off a 1-2-3-4 beat.
"In concert, when you see Bruce turn around and go, 'one-two-three-four,' it's not for effect," Lopez said. "He's getting everyone on the same beat."
He also told Wyatt how important it is to keep the beat consistent. He said that when he played with the E Street Band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, it was the first time the band ever used two drummers — himself and current player Max Weinberg — and they have different styles.
"Max had to speed up a little and I had to slow down, and we met on the beat," Lopez said with a laugh.
Wyatt's mother said he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in 2008, after he began to have stomach pains, became dehydrated and couldn't walk. He underwent high-dose chemotherapy, two types of radiation and MIBG, a therapy that injects radioactive iodine intravenously.
Finally, Wyatt had a stem cell transplant four years ago and was in remission for a year before a routine scan found lesions on a hip bone that had spread to his spine.
He has been on an experimental trial treatment for two years and has no new evidence of the disease — the only child among 300 in the trial with that success.
The barefoot boy watched intently as Lopez instructed him, and struggled valiantly to keep up.
"It's not easy, right?" Lopez told him. "But it will get easier. I have these gigs where I play for four hours. You have to build up your strength. Rest, then go back and try it some more. Every day, I do some kind of drumming, no matter what."
After Wyatt has practiced, Lopez told him, he'll come back for another lesson. Wyatt promised he would. Lopez also autographed a pair of his used drum sticks, and told Wyatt to drum along to songs he likes.
Wyatt's father, Mike, said his son listens more to country music than to rock 'n' roll, and has been to just one concert in his life — when a foundation for sick children sent him to see the "American Idol Live" tour in Maryland two years ago.
And while the father likes Bruce Springsteen, Wyatt said he had no awareness of Lopez before Friday.
"But he's good, for a drum player," the boy said.
Asked about his induction into the Hall of Fame, Lopez was similarly unimpressed:
"When you're in a museum, you know you're a dinosaur."
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