“It’s the sound of nature; it’s like being under dark clouds,” Bruce Springsteen tells Danny Federici in the band reunion documentary Blood Brothers. Springsteen is scratching his head, and Federici just nods. He gets it. He may already know it, and this conversation may really just be for the cameras.
Whatever’s happening in that scene, whether Springsteen is describing the thin twinkling light of Federici’s keyboards, like a low sparkle just along the horizon line, in the song they are about to play, “Blood Brothers,” I don’t know. I know it is my favorite moment in the film. I imagine that they’ve had many conversations like this, talking about sounds in terms of images, setting and effects. Federici could be whatever he needed to be.
Springsteen had many nicknames for his lifelong bandmate. One was the Phantom, and one was the Minister of Mystery. They both say a good deal about the unique role Danny Federici played in the E Street Band. Often, he all but vanished into the mix, though you would certainly miss him if he were truly gone. Other times, his organ reached for ideas when words fell short, often at those moments when the singer hit a spiritual impasse. Two moments like this jump to mind. One is when the singer challenges his dark half to try to destroy his relationship in “Two Faces”; Federici’s organ kicks up a defiant riff that gives the song some fight. At the end of “You’re Missing,” something very similar happens, when Federici’s bluesy answer offers just enough spirit to keep going. Federici’s instrument could stand for mystery, and it could stand up to the mystery with a few well placed notes; it gave you something to believe in.
But, mostly, he stayed in the background, an absolutely crucial part of the scene but not one that called attention to itself. Often, in the rockers, his keys broiled red, like embers, just under the racket. They were often the colors of fire—red, and yellow, jet blue and white, whatever colors served to accentuate the other colors on stage. In the reunion tour “Youngstown,” he’d paint a pale yellow sky between the low hanging smoke from that steel mill, offering the necessary backdrop for Nils Lofgren’s angry red guitar solo at the climax of the song. Often, his sustained notes sounded like seething placeholders, or the revving of an engine, a furnace containing the flame that would soon explode from Springsteen’s guitar when he stepped out for one of his solos.
More than any other instrument, Federici’s seemed to do its job to make sure everyone else could be the best they could be. He offered a wall of sound against which Roy Bittan could dribble his countless, intricate volleys. He seemed to offer resistance that heightened the punch of Gary Tallent’s bass and Max Weinberg’s drums. While Clarence’s horn could open “The River” with a jazzy, lonesome blues, Federici’s organ stepped in to answer the call of Springsteen’s keening at the end of the song. In “Badlands,” he’d be this bright yellow light behind the chords, offering bravura flourishes at the end of certain lines, like a cross between the Hammond B3 and slide guitar. He was always underscoring lyrics and phrases coming from other members of the band, making them shine.As much as anything, whether accordion or calliope or a strand of sparkling light, Federici’s keys were that element in the E Street Band that gave it the smell of the boardwalk, the mystery of what might be if all of our secret dreams come true. At one point in “Mansion on the Hill,” the song all but paused for his revolving, sparkling colors caressing the visions this mansion elicited in the mind of the child. Whether he was hanging up high in the mix or improbably low, he always suggested a horizon line beyond the physical world, a horizon of our dreams.
That vision’s so powerful, it continues to call us to territory uncharted. It’s a sad time, but we can all count ourselves very lucky to have his art still with us. May our dreams do it justice.
Visit the website for the Danny Federici Melanoma Fund, here.