Now you see him, now you don’t

Though “Phantom” Dan Federici, keyboardist extraordinaire and difficult genius of the E Street Band, died almost two weeks ago, I haven’t quite gotten my mind around it. As you’ve perhaps gathered, I’m a longtime Springsteen follower, and losing Federici’s carnivalesque swirls and oddly timed flourishes feels a bit like losing limbs to me. Yet, most of the obituaries I saw were either too slight or too milquetoast—respectful, brief, and meaningless. I decided to wait.

When a musician of standing dies after 40 years on and off the road, it’s probably best to let a man who played with him for all that time deliver the eulogy. Bruce Springsteen himself provides the best obit of the man that we’ll ever need to read. It’s funny, thoughtful, and above all lacks any sort of sugarcoating about Federici’s crazed life. A taste:

He was the most intuitive player I’ve ever seen. His style was slippery and fluid, drawn to the spaces the other musicians in the E Street Band left. He wasn’t an assertive player; he was a complementary player. A true accompanist. He naturally supplied the glue that bound the band’s sound together. In doing so, he created for himself a very specific style. When you hear Dan Federici, you don’t hear a blanket of sound, you hear a riff, packed with energy, flying above everything else for a few moments and then gone back in the track. “Phantom” Dan Federici. Now you hear him, now you don’t.

Offstage, Danny couldn’t recite a lyric or a chord progression for one of my songs. Onstage, his ears opened up. He listened, he felt, he played, finding the perfect hole and placement for a chord or a flurry of notes. This style created a tremendous feeling of spontaneity in our ensemble playing.

In the studio, if I wanted to loosen up the track we were recording, I’d put Danny on it and not tell him what to play. I’d just set him loose. He brought with him the sound of the carnival, the amusements, the boardwalk, the beach, the geography of our youth and the heart and soul of the birthplace of the E Street Band.

Go read it.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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