When I gave a fairly ecstatic review to Bruce Springsteen’s Magic last year, I made reference to how the presence of any dark or politically disturbing material on the album was emotionally mitigated by those “reassuring Danny Federici organ fills.” In saying that, my tongue was lodged only a couple of millimeters into my cheek: Federici’s organ really did feel like a glue that held the E Street Band together, at least in those moments when they reverted to their classic sound, as they did quite a bit on Magic. And more than any other element, that particular ingredient seemed to signal that Springsteen, who’d more recently favored synthesizer sounds, was no longer afraid that resurrecting that early band alchemy would be mistaken for nostalgia. Federici and pianist Roy Bittan came up when I talked with producer Brendan O’Brien about the album. “I think possibly one reason some of these earlier records were so keyboard oriented — I would have to assume, after working with Roy and Danny — is that those guys are very quick at picking things up,” O’Brien said last fall. “Danny’s all over this record. He plays great organ, he’s just a total natural — he’s doing some great solos on it.” Little did most people, if anyone, suspect it would be his final recorded bow with the E Street Band: Federici succumbed to melanoma on Thursday, at age 58.
Federici had been in bands with Springsteen for longer than anyone in the E Street Band, having been part of the Bruce-fronted New Jersey bands Child and Steel Mill in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He performed through a good part of the still-ongoing Springsteen tour before bowing out in November for treatment. Fans were shocked by the announcement, but heartened when he made a return to the stage less than a month ago. Federici sat in on a March 20 show in Indianapolis for a reported eight numbers — including “Kitty’s Back,” a rarely played number from Springsteen’s second album that it’s just about impossible to imagine the E Street Band ever playing without him. At the time of that gig, Steve Van Zandt described Federici’s seeming recovery as “miraculous,” so it’s hard to know if his bandmates really assumed the best or were just putting a good face on things. What I, for one, would consider the world’s greatest ongoing rock & roll band has an irreplaceable hole. But it’s certainly heartening for fans to know that Kitty and Danny both got to come back one last time, for the road.