Let me start with the stories.
Back in the days of miracles, the frontier days when “Mad Dog” Lopez and his temper struck fear into the band, small club owners, innocent civilians and all women, children and small animals.
Back in the days when you could still sign your life away on the hood of a parked car in New York City.
Back shortly after a young red-headed accordionist struck gold on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour and he and his mama were sent to Switzerland to show them how it’s really done.
Back before beach bums were featured on the cover of Time magazine.
I’m talking about back when the E Street Band was a communist organization! My pal, quiet, shy Dan Federici, was a one-man creator of some of the hairiest circumstances of our 40 year career… And that wasn’t easy to do. He had “Mad Dog” Lopez to compete with…. Danny just outlasted him.
Maybe it was the “police riot” in Middletown, New Jersey. A show we were doing to raise bail money for “Mad Log” Lopez who was in jail in Richmond, Virginia, for having an altercation with police officers who we’d aggravated by playing too long. Danny allegedly knocked over our huge Marshall stacks on some of Middletown’s finest who had rushed the stage because we broke the law by…playing too long.
As I stood there watching, several police officers crawled out from underneath the speaker cabinets and rushed away to seek medical attention. Another nice young officer stood in front of me onstage waving his nightstick, poking and calling me nasty names. I looked over to see Danny with a beefy police officer pulling on one arm while Flo Federici, his first wife, pulled on the other, assisting her man in resisting arrest.
A kid leapt from the audience onto the stage, momentarily distracting the beefy officer with the insults of the day. Forever thereafter, “Phantom” Dan Federici slipped into the crowd and disappeared.
A warrant out for his arrest and one month on the lam later, he still hadn’t been brought to justice. We hid him in various places but now we had a problem. We had a show coming at Monmouth College. We needed the money and we had to do the gig. We tried a replacement but it didn’t work out. So Danny, to all of our admiration, stepped up and said he’d risk his freedom, take the chance and play.
Show night. 2,000 screaming fans in the Monmouth College gym. We had it worked out so Danny would not appear onstage until the moment we started playing. We figured the police who were there to arrest him wouldn’t do so onstage during the show and risk starting another riot.
Let me set the scene for you. Danny is hiding, hunkered down in the backseat of a car in the parking lot. At five minutes to eight, our scheduled start time, I go out to whisk him in. I tap on the window.
“Danny, come on, it’s time.”
I hear back, “I’m not going.”
Me: “What do you mean you’re not going?”
Danny: “The cops are on the roof of the gym. I’ve seen them and they’re going to nail me the minute I step out of this car.”
As I open the door, I realize that Danny has been smoking a little something and had grown rather paranoid. I said, “Dan, there are no cops on the roof.”
He says, “Yes, I saw them, I tell you. I’m not coming in.”
So I used a procedure I’d call on often over the next forty years in dealing with my old pal’s concerns. I threatened him…and cajoled. Finally, out he came. Across the parking lot and into the gym we swept for a rapturous concert during which we laughed like thieves at our excellent dodge of the local cops.
At the end of the evening, during the last song, I pulled the entire crowd up onto the stage and Danny slipped into the audience and out the front door. Once again, “Phantom” Dan had made his exit. (I still get the occasional card from the old Chief of Police of Middletown wishing us well. Our histories are forever intertwined.) And that, my friends, was only the beginning.
There was the time Danny quit the band during a rough period at Max’s Kansas City, explaining to me that he was leaving to fix televisions. I asked him to think about that and come back later.
Or Danny, in the band rental car, bouncing off several parked cars after a night of entertainment, smashing out the windshield with his head but saved from severe injury by the huge hard cowboy hat he bought in Texas on our last Western swing.
Or Danny, leaving a large marijuana plant on the front seat of his car in a tow away zone. The car was promptly towed. He said, “Bruce, I’m going to go down and report that it was stolen.” I said, “I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
Down he went and straight into the slammer without passing go.
Or Danny, the only member of the E Street Band to be physically thrown out of the Stone Pony. Considering all the money we made them, that wasn’t easy to do.
Or Danny receiving and surviving a “cautionary assault” from an enraged but restrained “Big Man” Clarence Clemons while they were living together and Danny finally drove the “Big Man” over the big top.
Or Danny assisting me in removing my foot from his stereo speaker after being the only band member ever to drive me into a violent rage.
And through it all, Danny played his beautiful, soulful B3 organ for me and our love grew. And continued to grow. Life is funny like that. He was my homeboy, and great, and for that you make considerations… And he was much more tolerant of my failures than I was of his.
When Danny wasn’t causing chaos, he was a sweet, talented, unassuming, unpretentious good-hearted guy who simply had an unchecked ability to make good fortune and things in general go fabulously wrong.
But beyond all of that, he also had a mountain of the right stuff. He had the heart and soul of an engineer. He learned to fly. He was always up on the latest technology and would explain it to you patiently and in enormous detail. He was always “souping” something up, his car, his stereo, his B3. When Patti joined the band, he was the most welcoming, thoughtful, kindest friend to the first woman entering our “boys club.”
He loved his kids, always bragging about Jason, Harley, and Madison, and he loved his wife Maya for the new things she brought into his life.
And then there was his artistry. He was the most intuitive player I’ve ever seen. His style was slippery and fluid, drawn to the spaces the other musicians in the E Street Band left. He wasn’t an assertive player, he was a complementary player. A true accompanist. He naturally supplied the glue that bound the band’s sound together. In doing so, he created for himself a very specific style. When you hear Dan Federici, you don’t hear a blanket of sound, you hear a riff, packed with energy, flying above everything else for a few moments and then gone back in the track. “Phantom” Dan Federici. Now you hear him, now you don’t.
Offstage, Danny couldn’t recite a lyric or a chord progression for one of my songs. Onstage, his ears opened up. He listened, he felt, he played, finding the perfect hole and placement for a chord or a flurry of notes. This style created a tremendous feeling of spontaneity in our ensemble playing.
In the studio, if I wanted to loosen up the track we were recording, I’d put Danny on it and not tell him what to play. I’d just set him loose. He brought with him the sound of the carnival, the amusements, the boardwalk, the beach, the geography of our youth and the heart and soul of the birthplace of the E Street Band.
Then we grew up. Very slowly. We stood together through a lot of trials and tribulations. Danny’s response to a mistake onstage, hard times, catastrophic events was usually a shrug and a smile. Sort of an “I am but one man in a raging sea, but I’m still afloat. And we’re all still here.”
I watched Danny fight and conquer some tough addictions. I watched him struggle to put his life together and in the last decade when the band reunited, thrive on sitting in his seat behind that big B3, filled with life and, yes, a new maturity, passion for his job, his family and his home in the brother and sisterhood of our band.
Finally, I watched him fight his cancer without complaint and with great courage and spirit. When I asked him how things looked, he just said, “what are you going to do? I’m looking forward to tomorrow.” Danny, the sunny side up fatalist. He never gave up right to the end.
A few weeks back we ended up onstage in Indianapolis for what would be the last time. Before we went on I asked him what he wanted to play and he said, “Sandy.” He wanted to strap on the accordion and revisit the boardwalk of our youth during the summer nights when we’d walk along the boards with all the time in the world.
So what if we just smashed into three parked cars, it’s a beautiful night! So what if we’re on the lam from the entire Middletown police department, let’s go take a swim! He wanted to play once more the song that is of course about the end of something wonderful and the beginning of something unknown and new.
Let’s go back to the days of miracles. Pete Townshend said, “a rock and roll band is a crazy thing. You meet some people when you’re a kid and unlike any other occupation in the whole world, you’re stuck with them your whole life no matter who they are or what crazy things they do.”
If we didn’t play together, the E Street Band at this point would probably not know one another. We wouldn’t be in this room together. But we do… We do play together. And every night at 8 p.m., we walk out on stage together and that, my friends, is a place where miracles occur…old and new miracles. And those you are with, in the presence of miracles, you never forget. Life does not separate you. Death does not separate you. Those you are with who create miracles for you, like Danny did for me every night, you are honored to be amongst.
Of course we all grow up and we know “it’s only rock and roll”…but it’s not. After a lifetime of watching a man perform his miracle for you, night after night, it feels an awful lot like love.
So today, making another one of his mysterious exits, we say farewell to Danny, “Phantom” Dan, Federici. Father, husband, my brother, my friend, my mystery, my thorn, my rose, my keyboard player, my miracle man and lifelong member in good standing of the house rockin’, pants droppin’, earth shockin’, hard rockin’, booty shakin’, love makin’, heart breakin’, soul cryin’… and, yes, death defyin’ legendary E Street Band.
Visit the website for the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund, here.