Dusk and Floating: Danny Federici (1950-2008)

(This post was originally a spur-of-the-moment submission in 2008 to Backstreets Magazine, who, to my perpetual pleasure, published it.)

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. 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 years.

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 something special.

Federici by most 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 a texture, finding his space and contributing to what the listener enjoyed almost subliminally.

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.

That glockenspiel, 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 times.

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 guy can.

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.

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