ARCHIVES: Godspeed, Danny

Danny Federici and Bruce Springsteen. From boston.com.

This pre-Franorama World post, on my MySpace blog April 19, 2008, 2:59 a.m. PDT, originally appeared as a response to my ex-colleague Felicia Matlosz’s Fresno Beehive post the previous afternoon:

Hi kids. I posted this comment (extended, I know, but you know it’s the only type I type) a short while ago on fresnobeehive.com about Danny Federici, the E Street Band keyboardist extraordinare who passed on Thursday. Don’t know if it’s gonna show up there, but it damn well better show up here …

I’ve had most of this past day to feel sad, but not the time to write about it till now — alone, at home, as the organ solo from “Give the Girl a Kiss,” on the Springsteen “Tracks” box, wanders by. However, I want to shine the spotlight, and hard, on Danny Federici and his biggest contribution to the secret history of rock’n’roll. And one of my favorite moments as a music fan.

You know, pop music isn’t about the epic statements — it’s about the little moments when passion creates vivid memories. And the organ hasn’t had too many of these truly outstanding moments in the history of rock’n’roll. Let’s see … off the top of my head … Dave “Baby” Cortez and “The Happy Organ” … Al Kooper and his Hammond B-3 going punch for punch with Dylan on “Positively 4th Street” … Augie Meyers of The Sir Douglas Quintet playing the role of Ray Charles on “She’s About a Mover” … the teenage Frank Rodriguez cranking out “96 Tears” on his Farfisa with ? and the Mysterians … Felix Cavaliere wailing all-out on “Good Lovin'” with The Rascals … Gregg Allman growling and agonizing on “Whipping Post” … Paul Weller of The Jam torching the studio on his Rascals-meets-Motown-meets-mod/punk classic, “Town Called Malice” … Weller’s Style Council mate, Mick Talbot, kicking out a killer soul/jazz instrumental called “Mick’s Up” … and if you’re a garage fiend like me, there are several killer moments from the ’80s by Jeff Conolly of The Lyres, beating his poor, held-together-by-electrical-tape Vox just a little more. But in 50 years or so of rock’n’roll, that’s about it.

And Danny topped all of them. And he needed just eight bars to do it.

Rewind: The second Tuesday of October 1980, about 4:00 on a gorgeous early fall afternoon, the parking lot behind one of the dorms at my college on Long Island. My roommate just brought us back from the store, but I had him wait before he shut the car off. That’s because New York’s late, legendary bastion of rock radio, WNEW-FM (102.7 — “Where rock lives”) was about to play the world premiere of the first single off Springsteen’s new album, “The River.”

You can’t understate just how popular Bruce was in the Northeast back then, or the anticipation building up to this album. Two long years after the success of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” he and the band were giving us two LPs worth of new stuff (and even then, the number of unreleased songs he had in the vaults, some of them trickling out onto bootlegs, was staggering). This was expected to be a major artistic peak for Bruce.

And then, the one-beat and the mighty roll off Max Weinberg’s sticks, then Roy Bittan’s biting piano line, Clarence Clemons’ honking sax beneath, and Bruce’s yelps, and then “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack …”

“Hungry Heart” — Instant Classic! I sat there, eyes wild, unable to move. It was something close to a perfect single, if there is such a thing. It was recorded at a time when traditional rock was being influenced by punk. And keep in mind that the earliest punks, in New York, were all influenced by the top-40 cranking out of the mighty WABC in the mid-’60s. So it made perfect sense when I learned years later that Bruce originally intended “Hungry Heart” for The Ramones — it was almost full circle. Here was a song with a hook straight out of the ’60s rock/pop/soul songbook, by a rock band formed in the hippie-dippie early ’70s, with an approach retooled for the leaner, harder ’80s.

And I know, I know — I haven’t gotten to Federici yet …

The song gets to the second-verse refrain, and suddenly there’s the Hammond organ arcing above Bruce’s vocals — there’s Danny, finally, a minute-23 into the song.

Suddenly, Bruce wails again … and there’s the organ solo. It whistled higher and harder than Kooper on “Positively 4th Street” — just plain hard, mean, like the streets of New York in those days. It was as soulful as a Sunday full of churches, as infectious as a flu in February. You could feel Danny’s fingers straining as if he were trying to put them through the B-3’s keys.

You know how the “Food fight!” scene in “Animal House” was only three seconds long, yet everyone who has seen it remembers it being much longer? That was Danny’s solo on “Hungry Heart.” Those eight bars lasted just 16 seconds, but everything he knew about music — and every bit of passion inside the man who invited Springsteen into HIS band back in 1969 — was encapsulated in that tiny piece of time. And for a song that was a pinnacle of passion for The E Street Band, it was Danny who sent it flying over the top — and sent Bruce into the top 5 on the charts for the first time. Those 16 seconds have lasted an eternity for me.

And then one last tiny high note — a tweak, really — and the solo just diappeared into the ether.

“Hungry Heart” will always be a desert island disc for me, and this past day, I was glad to be alive, just to be able to crank it to 30 on my car stereo with the windows down on my lunch break on a beautiful afternoon. Hope he heard it …

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