David Sancious

During the late-80s and early-90s, when I was preparing for what would prove to be a remarkably short stint in music school, much of my listening was piano-centric. I’ve already owned up to my obsession with all things Yes, but in earlier posts I was hesitant to admit just how deep those waters ran. For example, I not only owned, but proudly proclaimed the brilliance of Rick Wakeman’s solo albums, including the one he [shudder] staged as an ice show. I camped out for tickets to an Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe concert. I spent hours and hours trying to learn his “Six Wives of Henry the VIII” solo from Yessongs. I booed and hissed at the mere mention of Tony Kaye’s or Trevor Horn’s name. (Only Patrick Moraz’s playing on Relayer was up to Wakeman’s standard.)

Good lord, it’s like I’m speaking some long forgotten dork language. And I haven’t even mentioned Keith Emerson yet.

The player I most envied then was David Sancious. Not because he had Wakeman’s dexterity or massive rig of keyboards, but because he sat in both of my dream chairs. In 1988 Sancious joined Peter Gabriel’s band for the So tour and for the series of Amnesty International Human Rights Now concerts that followed. (That lineup, by the way — Sancious, Tony Levin, David Rhodes, and Manu Katche — is featured in the regrettably-not-on-DVD concert film, Point of View [PoV], best remembered today for the version of “In Your Eyes” that got some play on MTV after Say Anything made it a hit.) Sancious also joined Gabriel in the studio, lending his tasteful playing to both Passion and Us.

From Gabriel’s band, Sancious then moved over to Sting’s. A note for any reader who is too hip for Sting: Get over yourself. Yeah, he’s taken the Elton-John-Disney route in recent years, but those first few solo albums are like songwriting 101. If you can’t appreciate a good lyric, a beautiful melody, and the most tasteful bass playing this side of Revolver, well . . . maybe this site is more to your liking. Sancious recorded and toured with Sting throughout the early-90s, often sharing duties with Kenny Kirkland. (Has it really been eight years since he died?) He can be heard on both The Soul Cages and Ten Summoner’s Tales.

For most fans of rock music, though — fans who didn’t spend their teen years arguing over which was the coolest Roger Dean album cover — Sancious is best remembered for his time with the E Street Band. He and Springsteen met when both were still in their teens, but in 1972, when Springsteen set out to record Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., he had to recruit Sancious, who was then living in Virginia. He returned to New Jersey for the gig and stuck around long enough to play on the followup album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and on the title track of Springsteen’s third record, Born to Run. After two years of recording and touring with the Boss, Sancious left to form his own band, Tone.

It’s only been in the last few months that I’ve discovered those first three Springsteen records. It’s a breakthrough, really. I’m treading through a thick soup of anti-Springsteen bias that first began to congeal in 1984, when every damn time I turned on the radio I heard “Glory Days,” “My Hometown,” or “Dancing in the Dark.” I still really hate those songs. Springsteen’s early recordings, though, are just amazing. Messy, loud, and a shitload of fun — like a Stax review had stumbled into some East Coast beer hall.

About three-and-a-half minutes into “Kitty’s Back,” just after Springsteen’s blaring, horn-backed solo, Sancious steps in with a squirrelly run on his Hammond organ, followed by a slew of percussive figures and arpeggios. Harmonically, it isn’t an especially interesting solo, but it’s exactly the kind of Booker T-inspired playing the song needs. (Compare with Sting’s “Saint Augustine in Hell,” one of the few songs I can think of that finds a deep groove in a 7 time signature). I suspect that his taste and restraint are exactly what Springsteen, Gabriel, and Sting most like about Sancious. All three put The Song on a pedestal and surround themselves with musicians who do the same.