I was up to my neck in work (and taxes) this week, so I didn't even
get to pay too much attention to the response here. I tried to confirm
that it was Mike Voss, maybe, who had the idea I mention toward the
bottom; if that's right, I'll certainly adjust to give him credit for
the eight people who read this on the blog.
Otherwise, I'm sure this has some points in common with other
postings, but hey, a lot of us recognize the things that made Danny
and his work special. (I may have even gotten a detail or two wrong or
slipped into overt fanboy mode, forgive me.) So if you feel like
reading another one, here you go. I suspect a lot of us did some
writing just to make ourselves feel a little better, and if other
people like it, then great.
I WALKED OUT THE FRONT DOOR with my dog this morning, with the busiest
workday of the month ahead. Sunny and not too chilly -- pleasant
enough. But then the first two songs out of the day's dogwalk shuffle
were "Heart-Shaped Box" and "Exit Music (For A Film)", and I thought,
Hmm, that's an interesting start. Then the iPod proceeded to another
Radiohead song, "Lucky", where ironically, the unit froze, paused, and
then shut down, impervious to reset. At that point, iPod possibly
dead, I felt like I had a grip on the nature of the morning.
I was wrong -- although I later resuscitated the unit, I wish I
could've ponied up for a new iPod and called it a day. After replying
to a couple of e-mails, I swung by Pitchfork, where I found out that
Danny Federici had died. Danny had left the current Bruce Springsteen
& The E Street Band tour with a few shows go to on last year's U.S.
leg, so he could receive treatment for melanoma. He sat in on
accordion for "Sandy" in Indianapolis last month, but what many took
as an encouraging sign in retrospect was likely an effort to give him
a last moment to bask in the adulation of his fans and the love of his
bandmates at the end of a full but sadly truncated career.
WHAT A CAREER IT WAS, THOUGH. As Springsteen notes on his site, the
two Jersey kids met and started playing together when they were 18,
going through a few different bands before the E Street lineup came
together. The two grew up together, going from swimming pool and tiny
club gigs to piling in a van and playing the circuit. And by the time
they hit 30, they were playing arenas in Europe, and then stadiums in
America. A true rags to riches story, spanning almost exactly 40
The band has swapped out and accumulated members over the years; even
the "new guys" (Nils Lofgren and Mrs. Springsteen) joined the band
over 23 years ago. Still, it's worth remembering that Federici was one
of only three current members (with Tallent and Clemons) who had been
with Bruce in the original lineup.
In the early days, the band was funkier, and jazz/rock pro David
Sancious handled duties on piano. During the making of Born To Run,
Sancious' departure led to the arrival of Roy Bittan, who had been
working in a Broadway pit. Federici and Sancious had sounded good
together, but the Federici/Bittan axis created a much more distinct
contrast in styles, in turn forming a core component of what would
become the familiar E Street sound.
AS WHAT YOU COULD CALL an intermediate-level pianist, I admire
individual playing in two ways. The first way is because I more or
less understand what the player is doing; his basic sensibility is
similar to mine, and he is really, really good at what he does. That's
Roy Bittan -- technically awesome, not without feeling by any means,
but with a more structured, classically influenced approach.
I admire other playing precisely because I have no idea how the guy is
doing it. I hear it, and I can't get my head around what's going
through his brain, which is perplexing, mystifying, and a little
enchanting. That's what Danny's playing could be like. He had a
vocabulary full of grace notes and melodic fills, and a bag of tricks
pertaining to playing the organ as opposed to the piano, that made for
great performance, not even counting his solos.
While it's amazing how many of his real signature parts he had
recorded before he was 25, it's more impressive to realize how much
musical knowledge he had absorbed before he ever met Springsteen.
Yeah, he knew classical, too, but he had a variety of ethnic and
regional riffery down cold, stemming in part from his accordion
education. Add a genuine desire to rock, stir in the willingness to
make music your life, don't forget the luck of having a world-class
rock star in waiting growing up in your neighborhood, and you have
FEDERICI BY ALL ACCOUNTS was a humble guy, and that carried over to
his role in the band. Bittan and his parts were often higher profile;
on top of that, Roy was further downstage, better lit, literally more
visible. I listened to nothing but the E Street Band today, and there
was even one passage where I thought gosh, Danny isn't even playing
right now. Then I realized he was playing -- there was so much going
on elsewhere that he was somehow creating less notes than texture,
finding his space and contributing to what the listener enjoyed almost
More noticeable was his glockenspiel work. Listen to a stripped-down
old version of "Thunder Road", and the instrumental star is the piano.
But what provides the unmistakable E Street stamp is the glockenspiel
in the supporting role. Its sound, part Swiss watch and part bell, is
what joins the vocal and brings the song to life. That is the sound of
the wind chimes on the porch as Mary walks past them to get in the
car. And that is the sound of the lightning-struck feeling in the air
(and in their stomachs) as the two kids drive off.
Any decent Danny Federici clip reel, even above high-profile parts
like "Rosalita" or the Detroit Medley, contains three songs. "Sandy"
is as evocative as it is because Federici can put into notes the
Jersey Shore atmosphere that Springsteen put into words. It's hard to
name another rock song where a single instrument creates such a sense
of place. "Kitty's Back" is also prime Federici, featuring one and
sometimes two extended jazzy excursions for the organist to take the
spotlight for a couple of minutes. Springsteen dusted off this gem
lately, and the rare encore duo of "Growin' Up" and "Kitty's Back"
that we saw last Veteran's Day in DC will remain an all-time concert
moment for me.
BUT AT THE TOP OF THE TOP, there is nearly any live version of "Racing
In The Street" (see the Live 1975-85 box set). The story is stark. The
"ending" is not happy. The lyric and vocal are beautiful only for the
way they tell the story and cling to realism over a fairytale ending.
If the song ended where the vocal ends, it would be a very good song.
However, what follows is a few minutes of rock ensemble perfection. In
the lyric, racing in the street goes from being an act of teenage
bravado to an adult act of escaping from an unanticipated life. The
song's instrumental passage combines the romance of the character's
youth with the knowledge that those days and possibilities are gone,
this familiar habit the sole refuge that bridges those very different
When the purpose behind the habit has fully evolved, the lyric has
nothing to do but end, leaving music to express things that only music
can express. It's no place for solos -- everyone contributes with
taste to create a cinematic tableau equaled in majesty (but not
emotion) only by "Jungleland" and perhaps "Incident On 57th Street" in
the Springsteen catalog.
In that passage, to build on a parallel already noticed by another
Springsteen fan, the Federici/Bittan partnership reaches its arguable
peak. While Federici's playing was often the earthier of the two, here
the piano is closer to the ground. It is stately but carrying things
along, generating the comfort the character must have felt in the seat
of that car, appreciating a fine-tuned engine in action as only a car
The organ, on the other hand, sounds like the sky above, a melancholy
figure sitting above the piano's machinations and the character's
sadness. Calm, nothing moving too swiftly, it is the sound of open
space, gilded by a few details. It's the part where past and present
coalesce in a solitary late summer evening, with the sweet night air
rushing past like the years.
THAT'S THE ONE PART of an E Street Band show that will never feel the
same. Not because Charlie Giordano isn't quite capable or because the
playing involved any great dexterity from Federici, but because those
three minutes felt like those particular musicians from a common
background, for an instant playing almost completely for themselves in
front of thousands of people.
It felt like those guys sharing a collective moment that necessarily
has to change when the group changes. The picture they paint will
change, too, if just a little. In real life, the sky is the least
essential element of driving from Point A to Point B at dusk, but we
keep looking up at it, don't we? It's the distinctive piece of my
favorite part of the day, and that particular part was Danny's.