Live Archive: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: September 21, 1978 Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ

"Here's a birthday song to myself."

Live Archive: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band: September 21, 1978 Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ
borrowed from Brucebase. Please holler if it’s yours so I can give proper credit.

When Backstreets Magazine was still operational, whenever a new official archive release came out — recordings of older Springsteen shows — someone would write an essay about it for the website. I realized I missed being in the rotation for these assignments and then remembered I could still keep doing it if I wanted to. I don’t have the benefit of Chris Phillips’ careful editing but I also am writing for a smaller audience and can go as long as I want. This is long, make a cup of tea or grab a beer. And listen to the damn show.

September 21, 1978: Capitol Theatre, Passaic, NJ: Official Archive Release

first set: High School Confidential / Badlands / Spirit In The Night / Darkness On The Edge Of Town / Sweet Little Sixteen / Independence Day / The Promised Land / Prove It All Night / Racing In The Street / Thunder Road / Meeting Across The River / Jungleland


second set: Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town / Fire / Candy's Room / Because The Night / Point Blank / Kitty's Back / The Fever / Incident On 57th Street / Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) / Born To Run / Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out / Quarter To Three

The three-night Capitol Theatre run for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the end of September, 1978, is legendary because the performances were amazing and the energy was fantastic. It was a three-show stand the band was playing at what at the time was supposed to be the penultimate run in front of a hometown audience, the diehards of the diehards in a small venue in the great state of New Jersey.

Do you hear me knockin’? Bruce addresses the crowd, before swinging into “High School Confidential.” One of the hallmarks of the back half of the Darkness tour was these kinds of golden oldies opening the set - “Summertime Blues,” “Rave On,” and tonight, Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s such a literal joy to listen to Roy Bittan, or any piano player worth listening to, playing the Killer. Yes. he is a detestable horrible person but his impact built the foundation of rock and roll and inspired countless keyboard players.

“I’m here to give you some good news,” Bruce confides mid-song, turning the lyrics into a conversation. “Tonight, I’m going to put on my rockin’ shoes. Temperature’s rising, and the jukebox’s blowing a fuse.” And then he proceeds to do exactly that, casually peeling off the kind of incendiary guitar solo that this tour would become famous for.

Roy is high in the mix on this particular recording, and Danny is also not buried, and while I am appreciative from a technical perspective of the difficulty of mixing a large multi instrumental rock and roll band live with the technology available in 1978 and sometimes it’s just too fucking loud to hear the piano players, so I like being able to enjoy this after the fact. 1

There’s a particular quality of exhilaration and sheer relief that’s audibly and emotionally palpable at these shows at the end of September on the Darkness tour. It’s the sound of a bandleader and a band who are practiced and polished to a perfect sheen. The thing I always try to explain about the ‘78 tour was that people got tired of hearing about how great Bruce Springsteen was, there was no way he could possibly be as good as everyone said he was. In 1978? He was better. All you had to do was go to a show and see for yourself. Even the off nights, the nights we don’t have tapes of, the nights that are less popular or less traded. In 1978 you had no less than five FM broadcasts. You didn’t even have to go underground if you really wanted to hear for yourself.

“Spirit In The Night” in ‘78 was a journey, it was an adventure. Bruce wasn’t just telling you about the characters hanging out at Greasy Lake, he was putting you in the car and taking you out there with him, and then personally introducing you to everybody. I always listen for the response to the line about Crazy Janey because that’s when I hear my sisters piping up; you can hear Bruce giggling once they respond.

“We closed our eyes and said…”

The loudest GOODBYE, everyone in the theater, every single person. It’s the fuckin’ Capitol Theatre, no one there is not paying attention.

This show is truly a beautiful mix. Everything is perfect. Listen closely for a little background fillip Danny Federici plays towards the end of “Spirit.” It is a thing of beauty.

The crowd’s response tonight reminds me of the individual quality of the regional audiences back in the day. Bruce had a different relationship with people in Jersey than he did in Boston, or Philly, or Cleveland. The Capitol audience was probably a mix of these groups, because at the time the Darkness tour was supposed to end in Atlanta at the beginning of October.

You can hear people yelling Happy Birthday, & people start singing it after “Spirit,” while Bruce is tuning before the next song. There wasn’t a show scheduled for September 23, which is the actual Boss’ birthday, so everyone showed up tonight ready to celebrate early.

“Don’t remind me, alright?” he laughs. People were handing gifts onstage all night. “It’s my instant birthday party kit, it says here,” Bruce says, opening one. We can’t see it — there was in-house video at the Capitol but this night has never surfaced — and the thing that kind of detracts from what should’ve been a banger Night Three In New Jersey is that Bruce spends the first half dozen songs talking to the audience and accepting their tributes.

There’s some guys in the back who try to get a version of “Happy Birthday” going. Roy Bittan plays along, Bruce blows on a party noisemaker at the end. Bruce complains it’s hot and Roy, ever the smart ass, plays some traditional strip tease music. “Here’s a birthday song to myself! How’s that. 16 going on 102.” You hear Bruce call the audible to the band, then he has to get the opening lyric confirmed. He launches into Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” changing the lyric about “deep in the heart of Texas” to Passaic.

Truthfully, it is hard to listen to the beginning of this show because of the constant flow of gifts that were being handed up onstage and being acknowledged by Bruce. He wasn’t be impolite, but once one person started, it just kept going. In New Jersey this could have been the entire night at the pace of these first handful of songs. I’m gonna guess that this is probably why this was the last show out of the three in this run to be officially released.

“Independence Day,” at that point an unreleased, very new song, is a curious choice and might have worked better if there hadn’t been pauses to accept gifts. “I can’t show you this,” he says, before Roy begins the intro to “Prove It All Night.” This ends up being the fulcrum, either the audience was done paying tribute or Bruce had dispatched the crew to collect gifts because the energy and the momentum picks up from here.

The beauty of the extended piano intro to “Prove It All Night” is a prime example of the strengths of the band in this era. Roy gets to do what he does best, which is take Bruce’s ideas and expand them, take them to places that he’d never get to on his own. It’s the kind of thing that made Roy Bittan so in demand for people like Meatloaf and Bowie; some session guys do well because they are absolutely neutral, or because they’re chameleons who can become part of the other thing; you never don’t know that it’s Roy Bittan on the piano no matter who he plays for. What we hear in the ‘78 “Prove It” is Roy Bittan’s interpretation of the melody, his vision of how far it could expand. It’s this gorgeous and unexpected journey to the literal fields behind the dynamo, this refreshing break in the middle of the sturm und drang of the rest of the show. It’s a testimony to the kind of attention, patience and faith that could be found in a Springsteen audience. I know there were meatheads in 1970s and 1980s audiences that were bringing airhorns and lighting firecrackers inside arenas. But most fans who showed up at a concert were willing to suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours to see where it would take them. Especially a Springsteen audience, who’d had it proven to them (sorry) time and time again that they could trust where Bruce was going to take them.

“The question is, do you really think you can prove it all night? We’ll see, we’ll see,” Bruce teases the audience.

“Prove It” in this format is extended foreplay. Roy’s interlude is the definition of finesse; then there’s a pause, a palate cleanser as Clarence gently rings a triangle in the background; Bruce asks his question, and then brings the guitar forward in a pas de deux, those tight, controlled soliloquies he was so fond of in this era. (Hence the “Prove It ‘78” term given to any prove it that opens with a lengthy guitar solo). The rest of the band quietly shift into position behind him, they’re building scaffolding, they’re adding to the intensity. Bruce’s solo isn’t just firepower, which is the kind of thing other people were doing in the 1970s, that kind of self-indulgent guitar wanking that Bruce Springsteen was absolutely the antithesis of. He is deliberate, he is showing off a little, but he is having fun with it. The band paces him, as he builds up to an…explosion, and moves into the body of the song. The word I want to use is “supple” but I’m honestly not trying to make this into a sexual metaphor.2

Roy begins “Racing In The Street” and the otherwise rowdy audience goes quiet. They know. They know! As if in answer to that, Bruce asks,”Who’s here from Asbury tonight, huh?” There’s a loud emphatic response, half of which I guarantee you were not actually from the Shore, but were cheering for the idea, for the allegiance, for their guy from New Jersey who’d they follow into battle. It used to feel like a battle, when music was everything and who you listened to determined who you were.

“It’s for you guys, okay?”

He finishes the two lines of the first verse and instead of continuing, he hops to the middle of the next verse, Roy loops around, Bruce says, “I screwed up the words!”, the audience cheers supportively, he jumps right back in. He alters the “summer’s here and the time is right” to “Summer’s hanging on.” It’s September 21st, Bruce has already complained about how warm it was onstage, the weather almanac tells me it was 77 degrees F at Teterboro Airport at 9pm that night. Passaic is inland, there’s no ocean breeze, and there’s something sad and beautiful about a late September day that’s still hot like July.

Let’s talk about Passaic, NJ, and the venue. The Capitol Theater was one of those old movie theaters that got repurposed for rock and roll in the 70s. It sounded great, bands loved playing there, it wasn’t one of those old gorgeous buildings, it was actually pretty bland from what I remember, but you’re never going to a show to see the building anyway. Capacity was a little over 3000 and it was one of those “there isn’t a bad seat in the house” kind of places. It was small enough that if you got to see someone like Bruce there, you thought you were lucky; you were definitely lucky at this point in 1978 when he could’ve, and already did, play the Garden.

Passaic is in north Jersey, not far from Manhattan but also not close. It’s about 20 minutes’ drive west from the Meadowlands, about an hour by NJ Transit bus from Port Authority (and you had to transfer unless you got the Paterson express - I painfully remember this because we did not look at the schedule closely enough on our way to see the Beastie Boys). You also definitely did not walk solo to the theater from where the bus left you off, and you had to have a ride home or you were absolutely SOL after the show. 3

“Meeting Across the River” rolls into “Jungleland.” This isn’t an overrated segue! There’s a lone scream as they roll right into the intro and I would’ve had the same reaction in 1978. But what I hear in the mix isn’t stiiicccck (if you’ve read Springsteen’s autobiography you’ll remember his agony at their lack of knowledge about how to record a band) so much as hiiiihaaatttttttt. (Before someone accuses me of being critical, I appreciate we are listening to a relic! I am grateful for the existence of the relic. I also wish someone had tried to fix this.)

The elation at the crowd’s inclusion as Bruce invites them to sing “down in Jungleland” and then his approving “you got it” is pure Jersey. It feels like home to a girl who was born 20 minutes from where this show was taking place. He follows it with what’s an unusually staccato solo, followed by some histrionic, almost operatic vocals. The crowd heralds Clarence’s solo a split second before it begins. We’re in fuckin New Jersey, all right.

“It’s a little early in the season for this next one,” Bruce introduces “Santa Claus is Coming To Town” with a chuckle. He thought he was going to be done on October 2! He could not leave his people without some holiday cheer. It is so sweet, and charming. He does a dead-on Ronnie Spector imitation at the end of the last chorus. There was apparently fake snow, like there would be the following week in Atlanta, which necessitated the one-time-only appearance of “Night Train.” Here in Passaic, he just good-naturedly complains about it and goes into the next song.

Three Minute Record: The Best Bruce Springsteen Cover Songs

Three Minute Record: James Brown and the Famous Flames, "Night Train"

Caryn Rose • Sep 11, 2023

Welcome to Three Minute Record, the offshoot where I write about songs Bruce Springsteen has covered. You can read more about this project and why it exists here. Ladies and gentlemen, it is star time. Are you ready for star time?

Read full story →

I am not sure why the next track has an exclamation point, but for some reason, it says “Fire!” Quality control, people.

“Fire” into “Candy’s Room” is perfect, golden; the guitar solo flails a little bit, but he reins it back in, and they settle back into a breathless, military cadence ably held down by Max Weinberg by the bridge, and Bruce holds it on the line until the end of the song, where he wails a little bit extra before closing things down. There’s a breath, but only a breath, before Roy begins the intro to “Because the Night,” and you can feel the focus directed at the initial guitar exploration; Clarence shakes a tambourine in the background, and Bruce expands on the figure. It’s exquisite tension, which is the ideal emotional position for this one. He’s finally made it into his own, after a summer of needing to play it because it was charting, thanks to Patti Smith, but it took him a while to find his way into it, to figure out what he wants the song to be. He didn’t have lyrics, remember, that’s why the tape got carried out of one studio at the Record Plant into the other studio at the Record Plant. The versions of “Because the Night” the whole summer had been a lot of deep, sexy mumbling on the verses and then the great chorus. I’m always glad we got to listen to Roy’s piano underpinnings, that Danny gets to swirl his magic texture in the background, that he got to manufacture the sharp, pointed solo on this one, it’s different than “Prove It,” it’s more desperate, more yearning, more compact. I’m always fond of the E Street backing vox of 1978; like the ad said, “All must sing.” It’s a different song when they do.

There is a lot of Brooooccinnnnggg when they’re done. It was pretty hot!

“Point Blank” as the segue from “Because the Night” is both genius and revelatory, from a thematic sense. He’d only written it back in May during soundcheck in Boston, which is bonkers enough to consider on many levels4. But it’s not just this segue it’s the quartet, the run from the innocence of “Fire” and “Candy’s Room” to the the culmination of “Because the Night” and now, all bets are off, it’s ended badly but it’s not over, it’s ruined, it’s a bad ending. 

“You better behave yourself now, because… ‘KITTY’S BACK!’” How is he doing this? How, exactly, is this happening? I am not there, I am here listening in a comfortable chair and I am exhausted, I am emotionally spent, I am sweating psychically. This is a “Kitty’s Back” of all “Kitty’s Back,” it is a tremendous performance from Roy and Danny and Clarence is delivering rhythm and finesse and dark purple undertones. The audience tries to clap along before thankfully abandoning the effort. But the audience is also not bored, they were clapping because they want to show appreciation and want to participate, they are just not particularly gifted in this front. It’s 15 minutes of “Kitty’s Back,” and at no point does it wane, does Bruce lose focus, does the band lose control.

“Who’s that coming down the alley? Clarence!” You can see them leaning on each other, staring up the center aisle, Scooter and the Big Man surveying their territory. “Here she comes!” the band in full throated vocals on the last chorus. If you’re newer to the party and wondered where the audience gets its cues on this one, just listen to a ‘78 show. Bruce slips into a falsetto at the end that would make La Bamba proud.

At the end of the song, Bruce runs down the band, but forgets Max. You can hear a very insistent individual yelling, WHAT ABOUT MIGHTY MAX? MIGHTY MAX! “And for the Mighty Max personal fan club, on the drums, Max Weinberg!” There’s a joke about money changing hands. People continue to yell things that are undecipherable on this end, and it must be song requests, because Bruce responds, “Tell you what: we’ll play ‘Fever’ or ‘Incident on 57th Street’. Which one?” Everyone yells “Fever” but the response for “Incident” is just as loud -- “That’s close,” Bruce acknowledges, before solving the problem by announcing that they’d just play both of them. “We’ll start out with ‘The Fever’.”

I understand, very much, why this was a dilemma! “Fever” was the quiet backchannel Springsteen fan song. It was the unreleased underground hit, because although Bruce recorded but hadn’t released it, and had instead given it to Southside Johnny who put it on his first record, released at the end of 1975. But when Bruce recorded it in ‘73, first manager Mike Appel sent out cassettes of Bruce’s version to Springsteen-friendly DJ’s, like WMMR’s Ed Schiaky. I have specific memories of hearing it on WPIX and WNEW in NYC, back when DJ’s could get away with playing what they wanted late at night. You were a real Springsteen fan if you knew about “The Fever.”

“Incident,” on the other hand, was from The Early Days, and most people didn’t get on board until Born to Run or Darkness. So the chances of you having seen it live were slim, and none; on the Darkness tour, “Incident” was performed three times in total, the first time being the week before at the Palladium in NYC. There’s no denying that the Darkness era E Street Band is legendary, but the stories of the early days of the band where they played these lengthy, intricate and dramatic numbers that you could only experience by listening to bootlegs made you extremely annoyed your parents hadn’t had sex earlier. (“Kitty’s Back” is another one of those; its first appearance in ‘78 was the first night of the Palladium stand.) It’s not a question in my mind as to which one is “better” because they are dramatically different songs. I just understand why the audience -- this crowd particularly! -- was evenly split on this question. I don’t have any personal memories of experiencing “Incident” in real time, whereas I was old enough to be up late listening to FM radio and hearing “The Fever.”

That said, I am glad he gave the song to Southside. Southside does a better job singing it, Southside is Southside! He would not also over-sing the song the way Bruce does here. It’s like he’s trying to imitate Southside. It feels like he started the song too wound up and then once he was in it, he had to keep it going. Clarence is smooth, hot buttered soul, though, both vocally and on his sax solo. Roy and Danny keep things as measured as they can, but this is not Bruce Springsteen’s best live performance.

“Incident” suffers in a similar fashion, at least at the outset, but he finds his footing a couple of lines in -- and thank god because “Incident” would be a dumpster fire if he couldn’t find his center. He’s not a 20-something beach bum any more, he has taken his knocks, the innocence of that kid is long, long, long gone, and although he prevailed, the wound is still fresh. It’s still a tremendous effort to do what he’s doing here -- and then he follows it up by going straight into “Rosalita,” that beautiful rolling melodic transition as it appears on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. That is a self-contained world, it’s not hard to do in a studio but it’s hard as hell to pull it off live. It is a gift to the fans, and they know it.

“Rosalita” is a party, it is affirmation of membership in this particular club. There was so much going on on that stage, Clarence riffing on his melody line, the keyboard interaction, the Steve and Bruce harmonies, the elegant transition into the band intros. The intros take less than a minute, including the briefest possible snippet of the Village People’s “Macho Man” in response to Bruce’s “King of the World, the Macho Man himself.” (It’s worth pointing out that that record had just come out in March of that year.)

“You guys tire me out!” Bruce proclaims, while sounding very pleased at the amount of applause and cheering from the crowd. (He does not sound tired in the least.) “Is it hot out there?” YEAH! “It’s real hot up here…It’s still early, check your watch. Check your heart!…Most of you guys should be from down from the Shore tonight… I want to thank everybody for the support they had when we were off for those two years, we weren’t playing that much. Wanted to let you know that it doesn’t go unappreciated.” He’s not gonna talk about a lawsuit and he’s not gonna be more specific than that, Mr. “I Don’t Write No Songs About No Lawsuits,” but he’s gonna dedicate an oddly histrionic and operatic “Born to Run” to what are, essentially, the hometown fans. He could have read the Passaic phone book. No one would have cared. He lets the crowd sing the last chorus on their own, and they don’t let him down.

We’re not done. We’re still not done! How are we still not done? There is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and then 10 minutes of “Quarter to Three.” And at the end of it all, no matter how tired you just wish it would keep going until the sun came up.

There’s zero point in trying to rate this show as compared to others on this tour or in this particular run or based on any criteria at all whatsoever. Should you buy it? If you have the main players in the ‘78 rotation (e.g. the FM broadcasts), you probably don’t need this one. If you have the first two nights of Passaic, there’s something to be said for having the trio of all three. My general advice to folks about the official archive releases is, does it look interesting to you? Buy it! This isn’t like the days of tape trading where you needed to have all the intel on how it sounds.

There is absolutely nothing for Springsteen Inc. to lose by just releasing every single board tape they have. It’s not about money, it’s about history and about legacy and all the live archive shows do is bolster his position in the canon. In 2024 when there’s cheap and endless disk space and access to Al Gore’s Internet there is no sane reason to not maintain a steady, dependable cadence of archive releases you can set your watch by. You would think that someone as obsessive about their legacy as Bruce Springsteen and Jon Landau would realize this. In case anyone reading this can remind them, please do, because this right here is the stuff that built the house they’re sitting in.

  1. Over on, historian Erik Flannigan’s characterizes those of us who give a fuck about this as “mix inspectors.” Respectfully, it seems a curious tactic to insult your customers but then again they know that we’re a captive audience.

  2. I am just writing about what he is doing! It is not subtle! It is absolutely sexual. I have been re-reading Born To Run and all I have to say is that a lot of us owe some apologies to Christopher Sandford (who wrote a very racy bio of Bruce several decades ago that we all wrote off as tabloid fodder. It was probably very accurate!)

  3. Passaic is an American Indian word that means “Valley of peace,” which I only know because when my friend’s car got its windows smashed in during a R.E.M. show in 1985, one of the cops who came to take the police report (which she needed so her parents did not murder her more than they were already going to) helpfully informed us of this fun fact. 

  4. the levels: he’s writing material of this caliber in the middle of the tour, he’s confident enough in it to fit it into the set almost immediately,