The news of Danny Federici’s death has sent my mind reeling back over the dozens of E Street Band shows that I’ve seen over the years. But the one I kept going back to this morning is the very first one that I ever saw, at the legendary Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, on October 14, 1974. I was not there to see Bruce Springsteen.
Looking back on it now, it was an impressive triple bill, and I was there to see the opening act. I made the thirty-minute drive with my best friend Larry. Ten years earlier, we had created our first band together in the wake of the Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. It was all about music for us: Larry loved the Kinks, and I was in my Neil Young phase. We had both been very impressed with a recent debut album by one Dan Fogelberg, and we heard that he was opening the show, so off we went. The headliner was the always dependable John Sebastian, and in the middle, Bruce Springsteen. We had heard about Bruce. There was definitely a buzz around N.J. about him, but I can honestly say that at that point I had never heard a note of his music. Also with us that night was my future ex-wife, Sarah. We were only a few months away from a lovely wedding — and a quick divorce.
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about Fogelberg’s set. As I recall, it was vaguely disappointing. It proved difficult to reproduce the lush textures of his album in a live setting. Then there was a surprise: John Sebastian, the headliner, had decided to go on in the middle slot. It was unprecedented, and at that point hard to understand. This decision later became something of a legend in Bruce Springsteen lore. One version has it that Sebastian had witnessed the Springsteen soundcheck and wisely decided that, armed with only his acoustic guitar and harmonica, he was not going to try to follow the E Street Band that night. Again, I don’t remember much about Sebastian’s set, but he was always dependably entertaining, and I’m sure he was that night as well.
To tell you the truth, we were ready to leave. The Springsteen buzz was a bit irritating at that point. Almost cult-like already. We weren’t buying into it. Who did this guy think he was? Then Larry reminded me that Max had just joined the band, and maybe we should at least check it out. We had known Max since the seventh grade, and gone all through junior high school and high school with him. He was always a great drummer, and his bands were always the best local bands. (Ours were always second best.) So it wasn’t surprising to us that Max had made it to the next level, but at the time it was just that — the next level. A couple of months earlier, Ernest “Boom” Carter had left the E Street Band, along with keyboard player David Sancious. After responding to a blind ad in the Village Voice, Max had replaced Ernest, and Roy Bittan came onboard in David’s place. What the hell. We figured we’d stick around to see what all the fuss was about. Sarah was trying hard to be patient.
After a brief intermission, the lights dimmed. A lone spotlight picked out a ragged figure, center stage.
“Spanish Johnny drove in, from the underworld last night.
With bruised arms and broken rhythms
And dressed just like dynamite.”
Soon, other lights found Roy Bittan at the piano, and violinist Suki Lahav, as the three of them worked their way through what we would later find out was “Incident on 57th Street.” To say that this was the most stunning and life-altering moment of my musical life is an understatement. Soon these three were joined by five more oddly dressed characters (my first view of Danny Federici), and they launched into “Spirit in the Night.” I’ve tried to describe this moment many times over the years, and it’s hard to do. All I can say is that this was the music we had heard in our heads, but could never express. This was what we thought that rock and roll could be, but couldn’t imagine how to play it. It was a big sound. Two guitars, organ, piano, bass, sax, and drums. Sort of like Phil Spector’s sound, but very much of the boardwalks and bars of New Jersey. As you can tell, I’m still finding it hard to explain. Suffice to say that Larry and I had been knocked back in our seats, and were literally sitting there with our mouths open and our eyes wide. It was nothing less than a dream come true for us. It was a bit of a blur after that, but we looking back, I guess we heard “Does This Bus Stop?” and “E Street Shuffle” next. It was during “Saint in the City” that Sarah nudged me and said, “come on, let’s go.” What can I say? When she spoke, I listened. Besides, I think I was too incoherent at that point to do anything but mumble my assent.
1975 was the year of the big breakout. The release of Born to Run, the Time and Newsweek covers, and the legendary Bottom Line shows in August. Larry and I got the last tickets in the top balcony to see the show billed as “The Homecoming” in Red Bank. David Sancious returned to guest on piano that night. By then Bruce and the band had ascended to the top of my personal mountain, and have remained there since.
Dan Fogelberg died recently. I haven’t seen or heard from Sarah in thirty years. Larry died a few years ago after a long illness. He was my “Bobby Jean.” As I sat with his lifeless body, waiting for the undertaker to come and get him, there was music playing quietly in his room:
“One sunny mornin’ we’ll rise I know
And I’ll meet you further on up the road
One sunny mornin’ we’ll rise I know
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.”
The Asbury Park music scene that I am a very proud part of today is the same one, albeit with some different players, that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band brought to the attention of the world all of those years ago. About a year and a half ago, word began to spread that Danny was gravely ill. The news was devastating. The E Street Band had featured the same players for more than thirty years — no one thought that any one of them could ever die. They were as present as the waves that washed ashore across the street from the Stone Pony, and just as dependable. Then the tour started, and there was Danny, in his familiar spot at the B3. Perhaps, we hoped, the rumors had been wrong, although they came from very good sources. When it was announced that Danny would be playing his last show for awhile in Boston last November, it didn’t come as any surprise, but when he returned to play eight songs with the band in Indianapolis last month, hope was alive. Sadly, it turned out to be his last hurrah.
Danny Federici was with Bruce Springsteen for several years before there even was an E Street Band. It was Danny and my friend Vini Lopez who asked Bruce to join their band, and by 1969 they were in a band called Child. Danny stuck with Bruce through Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and the Bruce Springsteen Band. I have chosen to make this remembrance more about the whole band than any one member, because even though I never met him, I think Danny would have wanted it that way. He never sought the spotlight. At his last full show in Boston, he had to be pushed into it by the other band members. Danny Federici was the ultimate team player, on the ultimate team.
So this morning I’m thinking about absent friends. Yesterday Danny Federici joined their ranks. Thanks Danny, for being such an important part of my life.