Wednesday, April 30, 2008
A few weeks ago keyboard player Danny Federici joined his longtime bandmates Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on stage in Indianapolis for a few songs. The crowd that evening - at least the part that knew what it was seeing - welcomed the surprise appearance with the raucous cheers befitting a family member who had been sidelined for months while battling melanoma.
As a fan of the band who has seen them play together many times, I teared up a little in my car when I heard the news of Federici's return. I've never met the man and would probably walk by him at the mall without recognizing him, but onstage he was part of something bigger than himself - something that brought joy to me and so many others.
Federici had started the tour with his old friends in the legendary band, but had taken a leave of absence to fight his cancer. That night in Indianapolis, as appreciation and love rained down, it appeared the keyboard player had found his road back and would soon be healthy enough to take his rightful place behind Springsteen on a regular basis.
On April 18, less than a month after that show, Federici passed away at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
To start what turned out to be Federici's last appearance with the group that night in Indianapolis, Bruce and the band launched into "The Promised Land," a song full of hope amid darkness that seemed especially appropriate. Finding hope where none seems possible has been a recurring theme in Springteen's work. The message maybe meant a little more that night as it was one of their own making his way through the darkness and finding his way back.
Federici was never the star of the show. He wasn't even one of the more colorful personalities in a band that features "Sopranos" star "Little" Steven Van Zandt, the sax-wielding Clarence Clemons and Conan O'Brien's bandleader, Max Weinberg, alongside the legendary "Boss."
What Federici was, however, was one of those guys whose contributions you notice more when he's gone than when he was there. Those people generally don't get standing ovations and it's rare that anyone even says thank you to them, but you miss them when they're gone.
In a way, Federici was the guy at your corner donut shop who makes your coffee exactly the way you like it without you having to ask. At first you thank him each time, but eventually the transaction simply occurs with maybe a nod of the head and eventually you do nothing until one day he's not there and your drink never tastes quite right again.
The loss of Federici makes me think a little bit about all the people who matter - who would be missed - but never get told. I hope on that night in Indianapolis the cheers were loud enough that Danny knew what he meant to so many people and that the outpouring of love made his last few weeks a little easier.
It still makes me cry to think that during that show, which so many fans took as a sign of his imminent recovery, that maybe Federici knew he was never coming back. Maybe he knew that this would be his last time on stage with his friends, playing to a crowd who loved him, and maybe he was okay with his fate as long as he got to be up on stage one more time.
Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. His new book, a collection of columns, "Easy Answers to Every Problem," can be ordered at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Daniel B. Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.