BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND at The Capitol Theater, Passaic, New Jersey, September 19, 1978
By Arlen Schumer, March 12, 2009
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band (in its longest-running version) have never been better, on a pure musical level, then they were during their 1978 Darkness On The Edge of Town tour. Sure, there have been larger shows, “grander” shows, shows with more spectacle; but for maximum rock & roll, those Darkness shows can’t be beat. And of those shows, the September 19th concert at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, in Bruce’s home state of New Jersey, is (un?)arguably Bruce Springsteen’s single greatest live performance.
Why this particular show? Because first, it was Bruce’s single largest audience in his career up to that point: it was broadcast up and down the entire East Coast, Bruce’s original fan base. This show was therefore not only a concert thank-you to those loyal fans, but a de facto live album in the making (with Bruce’s engineer on Born To Run and Darkness—and future Interscope Records head—Jimmy Iovine himself, mixing live).
Though the entire Darkness tour was brilliant, and the Band always played at an impossible level tighter for the radio, there was something about this show that puts it above and beyond even the legendary Bob Dylan Royal Albert Hall ’66 show as greatest single rock & roll show ever.
Perhaps it was the fact that Bruce Springsteen had something to prove that night, certainly not to his old fans, but to the larger rock world listening in that had been suspect of “The Boss” ever since the Born To Run hype of 1975, when he absurdly made it on the covers of both Time and Newsweek as an unknown rocker from (gasp!) New Jersey. And when Bruce seemed to fade from view during a subsequent lawsuit with his first manager, the hype seemed justified. But not to Bruce.
When he emerged three years later with Darkness, he took to the stage in late spring, with a wild, yet deliberate abandon—the flip side of his frustration over being prejudged as a “hype,” a manufactured rock star, thanks to the Time/Newsweek double whammy and its attendant backlash (and having to live up to his own manager’s hyperbole as “The Future of Rock & Roll”). These were the demons that, in a larger sense, drove Bruce to not only write the songs of Darkness, but perform them with a hell-bent-for-leather drive and enthusiasm. And this performance is the best.
First off, it sounds tremendous: a booming, thunderous performance played to diamond-hard precision, with every instrument mixed and balanced perfectly. It sounds exactly like the show sounded: when Bruce’s guitar rips into the “Prove it All Night” intro, it sounds like a buzzsaw’s berserk drone; when Clarence blows the first note of any solo, the crowd roars like when a baseball player hits a home run in the bottom of the ninth. I should know—because I was there.
How did I get there? Let me backtrack.
On the day Darkness On The Edge of Town was released (May 28, 1978), the record manager of Korvette’s department store (Route 4, Paramus, New Jersey, no longer there) told me there was a fanzine about Bruce Springsteen called Thunder Road; and as if in a cartoon, a light bulb appeared over my head—I knew I had to become the art director of this fanzine (I was familiar with fanzines for years at that point, due to my love of comic books, which had fanzines published about them since the early ‘60s); he gave me the name and number of its editor and publisher, Ken Viola, whom I called him that night with the intention of at least contributing to the magazine. We met soon after—I did become the (sort-of) art director of Thunder Road (as much as I could do while attending Rhode Island School of Design full-time from ’76-’80)—and we became good friends.
Ken also worked as head of security for John Scher, the concert promoter and owner of The Capitol Theater, an old rock & roll theater (also no longer there), in run-down Passaic, in north Jersey. At the time, Scher was promoting Bruce’s upcoming August date in Rochester, New York, and through Ken’s recommendation, I illustrated the special shirts for the road crew (you can spot a roadie wearing one in The River tour book, and me wearing mine in the Capitol Theater video, when Bruce comes out to the audience during “Spirit in The Night”—you can see me from behind, on the left side of the screen, wearing the black shirt with the big white letters that read, “Bruce Live”); it was a great break, but nothing compared to the break to come. To celebrate Bruce’s “homecoming” after the triumphant summer of Darkness to a three-night stand (the first of which would be broadcast up-and-down the East Coast), Scher wanted a special marquee designed for the Capitol. Thanks again to Ken, I got the job! I worked that late summer on a design built around Bruce’s guitar—to me, his leads were the key sound (and feel) of both the album and (especially) the tour. (Two of my earlier magic marker sketches are shown here, along with my illustration for page one of the miniature program book, not the cover because it had already been done by another artist; my image, inspired by the marquee illustration itself, was bootlegged—as a poster—for years.)
After completing the artwork (I also illustrated page one of the miniature program book, seen here too, not the cover because it was already done; it was bootlegged as a poster for years), I negotiated my “fee” with Scher: six sixth-row center seats for opening night, September 19th (it would be only the third time I would ever see Bruce live, my first being his headlining debut at Madison Square Garden on August 21, followed by Springfield, Mass. on 9/13, but would be the closest I would ever be, to this day).
The day came, and five classmates at RISD and I climbed into my ’74 Plymouth Duster and drove from Providence to Passaic. Increasing the anticipation from all of us was the last thing Ken Viola told me before I left: that if we hung out after the show for about an hour, there’d be a good chance we’d get to meet Bruce and The Band after the show!
Four hours later we were rounding the corner of Jefferson and Monroe streets in Passaic (I grew up in Fair Lawn, about a ten minute drive away), and the first thing we saw, like a beacon in the night: the marquee I had illustrated, suspended in the crisp, chill autumn night like the monolith in 2001, emitting a powerful yellow neon aura: “We’ll meet ‘neath that giant Capitol sign that brings this fair city light.”
We all saw the show of our lives.
Anyone who heard the radio broadcast live, or bought the first bootleg of the show, the triple-LP Piece de Resistance, or the CD bootleg years later, Passaic Night, or the VHS bootleg tape of only(!) the first two hours of the show, knows what a simply awesome, incredible show it was. Though all of the Darkness shows shined, and, as noted, all their prior radio broadcast concerts, for years, have been de facto live albums, the 9/19/78 Capitol Theater show still stands above the rest, not the least because at least seven songs stand out as definitive live versions of not only the Darkness tour, but of Bruce’s entire career: “Streets of Fire,” “Promised Land,” “Prove it All Night” (with its amazing, extended, never-played-anymore guitar solo intro), “Candy’s Room,” “Because the Night,” “She’s the One” (with the equally-definitive prelude/cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”), and the extended “Backstreets” (with its rare “Sad Eyes” interlude).
The sound mix by Iovine is crystal-clear, distinguishing each instrument perfectly, yet still creating a live version of Spector’s dense Wall of Sound (Born To Run) with sacrificing clarity (Darkness)—a breakthrough in live rock & roll recording, to this day never duplicated or bettered. Listen to how full the band sounds when it kicks into the main theme of “Promised Land” after Bruce’s harmonica intro, or how Garry’s bass parries Steve’s guitar and Clarence’s sax in their solos; Max’s machine gun drumming at the end of “Prove it...,” Roy’s jazzy piano at the beginning; the seamless transition from “Not Fade Away”--with Bruce singing like Elvis on alternate lines--to “She’s the One,” with Steve’s tasty rhythm guitar licks up front in the mix; Bruce’s screaming, wrenching guitar solos—the greatest guitar solos, in a single show, of his performing career—on the aforementioned “Prove it...,” “Streets of Fire,” “Candy’s Room,” “Because the Night” and “Backstreets.”
Ah, “Backstreets.” The dark horse candidate for Born To Run’s best deep cut is known for having more than one “definitive” live version. Some say it’s the March 4, 1977 performance in Jacksonville, Florida, for Bruce’s soul-shattering scream of rage, “YOU LIED!!!” during “Backstreet”’s interlude. Some say it’s the stream-of-consciousness, improvised, extended performance of the song later that month at the Boston Music Hall (3/25), where, at 18 minutes, it’s certainly the longest “Backstreets,” if not the best.
The best “Backstreets” live? The most definitive? For my money, it’s The Capitol Theater’s, again. In addition to all the aforementioned reasons why everything from The Capitol is pretty much definitive, its version of the song’s “Sad Eyes” interlude is classic, sounding the most like spoken-word poetry/performance art—you can actually hear Bruce’s measured breathing syncopating with Roy’s music-box piano. The buildup of “Little girl we’ve got to stop” to its crashing crescendo sounds as awesome as it was to behold: the stage going pitch black (Marc Brickman’s hyper-dramatic lighting) on Bruce’s final “Stop!”—the crowd hushed and then exploding a moment later, as the band begins to reassemble, individual spotlights fading in until the white light finale of the familiar “Backstreets” theme, leading to Bruce’s aching, wordless howls—some of his best ever—over a most orchestral grandeur.
That’s the definitive “Backstreets” live.
To this day, I have yet to hear any Darkness show that can hold a candle to this Capitol Theater show, song for song, note for note. It’s perfect. It is Bruce’s de facto live album.
When the show ended, we met up with Ken, and sure enough, about 45 minutes after, Bruce and most of the E Street Band emerged from backstage to mill around in the seats with the maybe-two dozen fans who had hung around. First I saw Max, who was telling a friend of his that he was leaving in a minute to visit his mom. And there was Bruce, still drenched in sweat, entertaining about a dozen fans in a semi-circle, telling old drinking stories, believe it or not. Then I spotted Jon Landau and approached him.
I introduced myself, and told him I’d love to meet the man who changed my life; Landau smiled in agreement, “He changed my life, too.” To my surprise, he went right up to Bruce and interrupted his anecdote by telling him there was someone special he wanted him to meet. All eyes turned to me. In one hand I held the original marquee art, the other had the Capitol program book opened to my marquee-inspired illustration, and I was wearing my own Rochester roadie shirt, of course. Bruce, without saying a word, looked it all over, sort of nodded in approval, and signed the artwork for me (as everyone in The Band already had, except for Clarence, who wasn’t there).
Then I said something to Bruce, something I had been wanting to tell him ever since I first heard “Born To Run” over the AM radio in my mom’s 1966 Valiant the first time in the summer of ’75, the song that started it all for me. I had read what rock & roll meant to Bruce himself, how it entered his life and changed it forever. I wanted to try to communicate, with equal sincerity, what he meant in my life. We were both, surprisingly, about the same height, so I could look straight in his eyes. Though I must’ve worn a smile from ear to ear, I didn’t want to come across as just another gushing fan, so my words came out very evenly and carefully: “Bruce, I just want to tell you that your music means more to me than anything else in the world.”
In the split-second I finished, there was that flash of connection in his eyes, when you can tell the other person knows exactly what you mean, from the heart. Though I had alredy known of Bruce’s even-then legendary generosity and sensitivity towards his fans after a show, nothing prepared me for his reaction.
He didn’t say “thanks;” in fact, he didn’t say a word. Didn’t shake my hand, or pat me on my shoulder.
He hugged me like a brother!
And all I can recall is hearing some kind of spontaneous, audible reaction from the dozen or so fans standing around us, a burst of exclamation, as if to say, “The Fan meets The Idol—and that’s the way it should be.” Thanks to Murphy’s Law, my friend David, who shot photos during the show (the images seen here are the only interior color photography of this landmark show ever published), ran out of film. Only the memory remains.
True fans of any artist’s work get to a point in their lives when the desire to meet the artist, to receive some form of personal acknowledgment, overwhelms even their adulation of the work itself. Most such fans reach that point, lots move through it. Some, like me, are fortunate enough to have that desire fulfilled.
Capitol theater Marquee
Capitol Theater Program Book, 8 1/2" x 5 1/2"
The Capitol Theater '78 program book illustration, printed 8.5"x 5.5," was bootlegged as a poster for years. It is now available as a signed, limited edition poster print reproduced from the original art—as is the Capitol marquee