And now we come to the final two songs in what are, to my mind, the finest four song run I’ve ever heard live, the centerpiece of Bruce Springsteen's September 19, 1978 concert in Passaic.
We start with Roy Bittan’s gorgeous piano introduction, proving once again, as if any further proof were needed, of how unsurpassed he is as a rock and roll pianist. Beautiful and just a bit sad, it gives little hint of the song to come. Until he transitions into what many consider Bruce Springsteen’s best song, “Racing in the Street.”
When Danny’s organ comes in after the first verse and chorus, it’s an awesome moment, simultaneously managing to make the music both warmer and more melancholy, something which should be impossible in theory but somehow isn’t in execution.
To kick off the second verse, Max Weinberg begins to click his snare evenly, the metronomic effect imparting a threatening sense of one’s inexorable mortality, a feeling echoed in the tiny changes Springsteen’s made to the lyrics, changing the first “summer’s here” to “summer’s hanging on.”
The song proceeds perfectly, building to a rousing instrumental section, before coming down unexpectedly for the final, subdued verse. Although the narrator has won both the race and, more important, the girl, it’s far from triumphant, as even victory and love have, to their surprise and disappointment, proven insufficient to conquer the difficulties in life. Racing and love beat them back for a while but couldn’t shut them out forever.
Springsteen’s voice in the final chorus is initially determined before dropping down resignedly. And tellingly he once again changes the original “summer’s here,” but this time it’s to a grim “summer’s gone.”
There are a few moments of Roy’s solo piano, before he’s joined by Bruce’s haunting harmonica. They duet briefly until joined by Danny’s soulful organ and Max’s subdued snare. Max adds his heartbeat-like bass drum and then some arpeggiated guitar enters. Garry’s bass and Clarence’s tambourine chime in and without even noticing it’s now the entire band. What had been verging on despondent has become something else, a quiet sense of community. They all may be feeling the same overwhelming and bleak emotions but at least they’re feeling them together.
Meanwhile, Roy has subtly transitioned from his simple yet gorgeous initial chords to some of the loveliest and most searching playing of his career, building, building, always building, intertwining with the guitars lines majestically, twisting in and out but always coming back, always returning to the pack.
And then they all drop out, leaving Roy on his own once again, playing something reminiscent of but not quite identical to his solo introduction. Subtly it begins to change. And Springsteen begins to talk.
That’s not what happens here. In just over a minute he gives a little backstory to the next song’s origin and then tells briefly of something related he later encountered. Almost but not quite imperceptively Roy follows him until in perfect sync they move into the next song. And as they begin the song in tandem and the audience moves along with them, you get one of those experiences that remind you, this, this is why human beings create art, for moments of pure catharsis like this.