Monday, April 28, 2008

Good Night For a Ride

April 27, 2008

The afternoon before my father's funeral last September, our family met with the rabbi. He explained Jewish customs of mourning. I knew most of them, but there was one that was new to me: during the 11-month mourning period, it was prohibited to attend any performance of live music (unless required by profession). I immediately thought, I don't think I can observe that one. Springsteen is going to tour with the E Street Band. Danny's been ill. I can't wait a year. I need to be there.

Ten days have passed since Danny Federici died. I’ve read eulogies. Lots of them. From Bruce Springsteen at the funeral. From fans. From former colleagues. Many eloquent eulogies, and a groundswell of emotion. I didn’t expect any of this, or my own reaction.

I know of Danny Federici, of course, because of his 4-decade long association with Springsteen. I became a fan in 1977, so it’s more than 30 years for me. But, in all the time I’ve followed Bruce, my attention has always been on Bruce. Of course I know who all the E Street Band members are, and I’ve known occasional personal details, but if someone were to ask me if Nils Lofgren is married or if Garry Tallent has children, I wouldn’t know. For that matter, until a couple months ago, I didn’t know that Danny Federici was married, or that he’d been married multiple times, and I only found out within the past 4 weeks that he has a son in addition to two adopted daughters. Point being, I never became much attached to the band members separately from the unit.

Of the E Street Band members, Danny was possibly the least well known outside the collective. He put out two solo recordings, but both are obscure and long since out of print (you can find one of them on Rhapsody, though). He had done touring stints with Joe D’Urso, with The BoDeans and with Mary Cutrufello, but even most fans didn’t know about those gigs. Right up until his death, if you googled Danny Federici, all you’d get would be a link to his defunct website with V2 Records, and a hodgepodge of articles announcing his temporary departure from the E Street Band last November due to melanoma.

His nickname with Bruce, “Phantom,” originated from a 1969 gig at Clearwater Swim Club, when Danny first pushed a speaker cabinet on the Middletown cops to keep them from breaking up a Steel Mill show, then somehow slithered through the crowd to evade arrest. Never was a nickname more appropriate. “Now you see him, now you don’t,” Bruce would exclaim when introducing Danny during “Rosalita” at shows, and everyone understood – even the fans like me who didn’t know those details.

Going through Springsteen records, it’s not always easy to pick out Danny’s parts. He’s often associated with “Rosalita,” but if the credits are to be believed he didn’t play on the studio recording of that song. Nor did he play on the original recording of “Jungleland,” nor on “Backstreets.” But, he did play the accordion on “Sandy,” the song that I still regard as his signature part, and also on “Wild Billy’s Circus Song.” Springsteen’s first top 10 hit, “Hungry Heart,” featured a keyboard solo from Federici, and the follow-up single, “Fade Away,” also featured a major Federici role. Federici’s sound seemed to me to be the shore sound; through his instruments I could imagine the waves crashing, the kids along the boardwalk, the seagulls above, the old men on the piers trying to catch a few fish, the salty fries and the saltwater taffy shops and the feeling of freedom on a warm summer day as the breeze blew across. Never mind that I never really liked saltwater taffy, or even that I spent far more beach days in Connecticut along the Long Island Sound than at the shore in my native New Jersey, that sound was something I could feel.

On June 5, 1993, I went to New Jersey to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes play at Great Adventure amusement park. The opening act that night was Joe D’Urso and Stone Caravan, with Danny Federici playing keyboards. There weren’t many people on the floor of the amphitheater there, but that didn’t seem to matter to the bands. After the show, we drifted over to the shore, where… I got pulled over by the Middletown cops, right across the street from the Fire Station. Come to think of it, I got pulled over one more time at the very same spot in Middletown, which was also after just having seen Danny Federici play… 6 years later, as a passenger. I think of it as my Federici connection, and hope never to drive trough Middletown again.

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Earlier this year, I was asked if I might help Danny out with a project he was doing. He was looking to set up a new fund with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital to raise money for melanoma research, and could use some ideas as to how to put together his website. I tried to put aside my perspective as a fan and approach it as I would any project, and I’d like to say I helped, and that what we see today as The Danny Federici Melanoma Fund is somehow an outgrowth of our online discussions. But it’s not; I was unable to crack the mystery that was Danny, or to figure out in time what he really wanted or needed. That failure gnaws at me and will gnaw at me for a long, long time. Eventually, Danny turned to his son, Jason (that’s how I found out that Danny had a son), who put up the site for the fund that will hopefully prove to be a legacy as meaningful as Danny’s music.
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There was one performance for which I’ll remember Danny most. November 25, 1996, my first time to see Springsteen play Asbury Park, at the Paramount Theater. One of the final shows of the solo Tom Joad tour, though this was a benefit show for local charities. On this night, though, Bruce had several guests join him throughout the show, including Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell, Vini Lopez and Danny. Danny came on first to join Bruce on “For You,” and then again for “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” “Shut Out the Light,” “Spirit in the Night,” “Rosalita,” and “This Hard Land.” But it was the show closer, “Sandy,” that stays with me. It was just Bruce and Danny on the stage. As I wrote shortly after the show:
Just a few feet beyond the walls, the Atlantic Ocean meets the beach at Asbury Park. Inside, Danny Federici is playing accordion and Bruce Springsteen is singing "Sandy." I didn't even hear the last verse, I just kinda sat there in a trance and absorbed it.
I think everything I really needed to know about Danny Federici was bottled up in that one song, at that one moment.

Tonight the Passover holiday ends. The final day is marked by a memorial service. I sat this morning in a room full of a couple hundred mourners, thinking back on my father. But thinking, too, of Danny. And thinking back to that night in 1996, when, after seeing Danny Federici on the stage, I drove with Lori -- pregnant with our first child -- to my father’s house, and topped off the night by taking his ’57 Bel-Air for a spin, ending with the euphoric feeling that I could drive all night.