Born to Run (2016)
At the end of the Rising tour, I had a few songs from my road writing. Brendan O’Brien once again paid me a visit. I played him what I had and we took it from there. I remember working on a decent amount of Magic at my worktable in Rumson, but by this time I tended to write anywhere and everywhere. I no longer separated touring and writing as I had in my early years. I wrote in my dressing room often before the show or after in my hotel room. It became a way I meditated before or after a raucous night. Quiet, lost in my own thoughts, traveling to places I’d never been, looking through the eyes of those I’d never met, I dreamt the dreams of refugees and strangers. Those dreams were somehow also mine. I felt their fears, their hopes, their desires, and when it was good, I’d lift off from my hotel digs and find myself back on some metaphysical highway searching for life and rock ’n’ roll. Magic was my state-of-the-nation dissent over the Iraq War and the Bush years.
Still, I aimed everywhere on Magic for the political and the personal to meld together. You can listen to the whole thing without ever thinking of the politics of the day or you can hear them ticking deadly through the internal thread of the music.
• • •
Like many before, our Magic tour started in Asbury Park’s Convention Hall. There, as a young aspiring musician, I’d seen the Doors with Jim Morrison, whose live presence and command of the stage completely engulfed you, and in 1966 I somehow managed to miss the Rolling Stones as they passed through. I’d seen the Who demolish their equipment in a cloud of smoke in front of wide-eyed teenyboppers with Mom and Dad in tow, who were waiting to see the headlining act, Herman’s Hermits. The Who’s show sent me running in a fever out to pick up a strobe light and smoke bomb for my upcoming CYO gig with the Castiles. There, at the end of our last set, in the basement of St. Rose of Lima on a Saturday night, I switched on the strobe, set off the smoke bomb, climbed on a chair and smashed a vase of flowers I’d lifted from a first-grade classroom onto the floor. This didn’t quite pack the nihilistic punch of Pete Townshend bashing his guitar to bits against his smoky Vox amplifier, but limited funds and one good guitar could only take you so far.
Convention Hall was the first mansion of my rock ’n’ roll dreams. There under its roof a wider world awaited, real magicians appeared and anything could happen. Midget wrestling, boat shows with yachts the size of your backyard, hot-rod exhibitions, roller derby and rock ’n’ roll baptisms all coursed through the veins of this modest concert hall that seemed to me the size of Madison Square Garden. Its front doors opened onto the interior of the Convention Hall promenade. There stands of cotton candy, cheap T-shirts, seashells, pinball arcades and an endless amount of shore tchotchkes lined your walk to the hall’s brass doors, which promised absurdity and transcendence. It’s still pretty much the same.
For me now, it’s just a home. A home of my own, the Asbury boardwalk, where I bring my band to reconnect with where we come from and to tighten up and get ready for battle on our newest adventure. Here on the boardwalk I now play the role of the ghost of Christmas past as the city and its exciting new development passes me by. There is even a ridiculous bust of me somewhere in town primed and ready for seagull shit. Still, on any summer night, I feel comfortably at home walking the boards wearing my ninja cloak of invisibility, a baseball hat, all while going almost as unrecognized as I did in 1969. I still feel amongst friends and my people. It’s still my place and I still feed off and love it. So on a fresh September morning, we packed our gear and left Asbury for Hartford, Connecticut. We were off.
• • •
This was the first tour where an illness would sideline a band member into missing shows. Danny Federici had contracted melanoma and now needed serious medical treatment. Danny had been misdiagnosed early on and the cancer was now moving through his system. He had been quietly receiving care for a while but could no longer keep it from the band, and so began a long and difficult journey. Charlie Giordano from the Sessions Band was tutored for a few shows by Dan, then quietly stepped in to take over the organ duties while Danny was treated.
One evening on one of Danny’s short returns to the band, he stepped into my dressing room before the show and sat in the chair opposite me. He basically explained things weren’t looking so good. At one point he seemed to run out of words and, gesturing silently, moved one palm over the other, trying to tell me what I already knew. His eyes filled and finally we sat there looking at each other . . . it’d been thirty-five years. I gave him what assurances I could that might ease his mind. We stood up, held each other for a long moment and went out and played. Not long thereafter, Danny appeared with us for the last time, at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 20, 2008. In the band we all knew this was it. We wouldn’t see Danny onstage again.
Danny was a believer in the world as it stands. We never spoke a single word about a single lyric or idea that was in the many hundreds of songs I wrote. The same songs that his fingers and heart magically and instinctively knew how to color perfectly. Danny and I were closest on evenings when he found me in my lowest self. He never judged. He just observed and breathed a sigh. I always felt it was a bad way to bridge the gap between the two of us. It was. But when I tried it the other way, to bring Danny to personal accountability, I felt like his taskmaster or his old man with a pole so far up my ass it embarrassed me.
As a leader, even of a rock ’n’ roll band, there is always a little of the padrone in your job description, but it’s a fine line. And the members for whom I played that role too fully usually fared the worst.
But Danny tried hard. He beat alcoholism, stayed pretty true to his AA program and worked to put a life together. But in the end, for Dan Federici it would never be easy.
One spring afternoon a few of us gathered in a Manhattan hospital around Danny’s bed. We circled the bed holding hands and said our individual prayers and farewells.
• • •
Danny died on April 17, 2008. He left behind a son, Jason; two daughters, Harley and Madison; and his wife, Maya. There was a lovely, light-filled service held for Danny at the United Methodist Church in Red Bank on April 21. To an overflow crowd, music was played, remembrances given, good-byes said.
I had 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. I watched him fight his cancer without complaint and with great courage and spirit. He was a sunny-side-up fatalist. He never gave up, right to the end.
Before we went on for that last night in Indiana, 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.
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.
Pete Townshend once said, “A rock ’n’ roll band is a crazy thing. You meet some people when you’re a kid, and unlike any occupation in the whole world, you’re stuck with them for the rest of your life no matter who they are or what crazy things they do.”
If we didn’t play together, the E Street Band would probably not know one another. We wouldn’t be in a room together. But we do . . . we do play together and every night at eight we walk out onstage 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 ’n’ 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.