“Holy Shit! What is this?!”: Prince Live at the Capitol Theater

Eli Zeger speaks with his father about Prince's historic 1982 show in New Jersey.
By    May 2, 2016

Art by PeterTea

Eli Zeger may actually be Prince’s sole legitimate heir.

Some of the only available and most popular archival footage of Prince, later known for his opposition to making himself accessible on YouTube, that can be found online is live snippets from a performance at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ; and my dad was at that exact show. The night was January 30, 1982, a few months after the release of Controversy. My dad, a fan of that album and Prince’s prior repertoire, was home from college. The 3,200-seat venue, which has been closed for decades, mostly attracted rock bands and sold out crowds. But January 30 saw a smaller turnout, though it was still ample, as well as a live performance spirit that was, judging by the expressions on my dad’s face while he recounted it, sheerly ineffable.

Purple Rain immediately solidified Prince’s presence in pop culture, coming out a few years after his stop in Passaic, a show that had made the artist’s eventual cultural indelibility seem inevitable. I spoke with my father about that historic night. 

How’d you hear about the show? How’d they usually advertise?

FFB: The Capitol Theatre was an active advertiser on the radio. They advertised on WNEW (which was the big rock station at the time), and they mostly had rock acts, I’d say mid-level but still popular. Springsteen played there a bunch of times when he was on the way up. The Allman Brothers.

The Stones actually came and played there in ‘78 for their Some Girls tour, because they wanted to just get their stuff together prior to their bigger shows, they just wanted to work their kinks out. The Who played there. So you had some big acts coming to this theater in Passaic, NJ, [an] urban town that was a big manufacturing town at one time, but at the time that the Capitol Theatre was in existence, [manufacturing] was on its way out.

I can’t remember how I discovered that Prince was gonna be playing there, and that was unusual because R&B or soul or funk, that wasn’t a Capitol Theatre-type genre. But I was a huge fan of Prince. I loved the albums, the production, and the songwriting; he did it all on his albums. I was all over Controversy, which was his current album at the time, and I wasn’t even thinking what this would be like live, I just figured it’d be cool, it’d be great, because he was funky and an incredibly talented guy. Also on the bill was The Time, which was a band that he produced, and their first album was out and I loved the stuff on The Time’s album.

So I can’t remember how I discovered [the show], it could’ve been maybe in the Village Voice? I don’t know. But I managed to get tickets and I figured, okay, this is gonna be cool, seeing Prince and The Time.

Were you in high school at the time, or in college?

FFB: College-age, yep. I went with a buddy of mine, and we both felt the same way: Hey cool, this is gonna be great! Seeing Prince, we know his music. He was on the pop charts, but not dominating the pop charts. The song “I Wanna Be Your Lover” was a pop hit in the late 70’s; I don’t think it went to #1. He still hadn’t really established his persona yet, he was experimenting with a sexual thing, and he had some rock elements—but it didn’t matter, we just loved it. This buddy of mine and I, we just loved what he was doing, we loved The Time. We thought The Time was hilarious. (It turned out we didn’t know until later that [Prince] played everything and wrote all the songs on [their] album.)

Why were The Time hilarious?

FFB: They had a whole shtick going on, because there was a lead man named Morris Day who played this primping, self-obsessed egomaniac. And he had this valet named Jerome [Benton] who followed him around onstage, and he was almost like Flavor Flav in a suit—not rapping, but he would do a dance move, he’d [say], “That’s right Morris!” He was Morris’s biggest fan. So whatever Morris did, he’d [say], “Yes, yes, absolutely Morris!” It was just hilarious, their whole thing; it was not just them singing, they had a routine, he and this Jerome guy.

It turned out that the guys who were in The Time went on to distinguish themselves as being hugely successful and talented musicians and producers: Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were in The Time, they did Janet Jackson and The Human League. They, eventually, went on and struck out on their own, and they showed that they had some amazing skills. But it was just, we figured, this is gonna be a fun show.

Do you remember how you got there? What was the night like?

FFB: Yeah it wasn’t that crowded, it was fairly easy to get in. If you were going to see Springsteen or The Who or any of those big rock bands, the streets would be filled, like the traffic would be blocked off; you’d make your way through a crowd, clouds of pot smoke, people were drinking outside (this is all outside). [The Prince show] wasn’t anything like that. It was kinda, y’know, we walked up, got out our tickets (we bought them prior), and we walked in. I don’t know if it was sold out, but it was a good crowd—it wasn’t capacity—but no one knew what was about to happen.

So when did shit go down?

FFB: Well, The Time were incredible, and fun and funny. They were so tight. Those guys were all amazing musicians, and they had fantastic skills—so it wasn’t just Prince doing all this and “Who are these mooks?” They were slammin’.

But Prince wasn’t playing with them during their set?

FFB: No, nope. Prince had nothing to do with that. It was just The Time, I think there were five or six guys in the band. And it was obvious that they had done this type of show many many many times, because it was perfect, there was nothing loose, nothing slacked. Everybody stopped at the same time, looked at each other, and then they started again—you could see it all on the video—they were super tight.

So they were on a level of tightness, but how did Prince compare to them?

FFB: Prince was tight as well, but he was less R&B-tight and more rock-tight, and tried to have that improvisational aspect—so he would do that kind of stop-and-start James Brown-type stuff, but then he would launch into these guitar solos. He had rehearsed the tightness, but it came off as being more spontaneous. He would take these long solos, and the volume was just overwhelming.

People who came there that night, like me, thinking they were gonna hear a bunch of groovin’ hits—they didn’t know what was gonna hit them. He was a bomb going off, and you could see what this guy was doing, and he’d done it so frequently. Everybody there that night was convinced that this is gonna be somebody, something’s gonna happen with this guy.

I think everybody was walking out of that show, that night, with their mouths open. “What did we just see? What was that?” There was no precedent for that. The combination of this explosive rock, (with Prince rocking a Fender Stratocaster, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, the type that Hendrix used), and this super tight band. And these synthesizers, all analog synthesizers, that just have this cutting, snakey, coily sound that no one had ever really heard before presented in that way. He was working with the modulators, bending the notes up and down, so it was almost like a keyboard version of a guitar, the way they were mixed very midrange and treble-y. And of course the bass and the drums were monstrous.

Sonically it was, “Where does this fit in?” You can’t compare it to anything! Because there was nothing that you could say you’ve seen that was like it. Nothing. But in a good way, where everybody was just, “What are we looking at?! This is amazing!”

Did you see him at any point later on in your life?

FFB: That was it, that was the only time I saw him. I went to the movie, he had that concert movie [Sign o’ the Times], where Sheila E. was in the band, but I didn’t see any other concerts. I think when he got super super huge and he was attracting tens of thousands of people, I just wasn’t interested—I’m sure he was fantastic, but I lost interest seeing him in that way.

Like that intimacy [from the Capitol Theatre]?

FFB: That intimacy, and that “I’ve got some shit for you!” [mentality]. “You think you know my shit? Wait!”

And I presume you haven’t felt that way about an artist at any point after?

FFB: No, no, no. It’s almost as if we were in on the “secret”—not that it was trying to be a secret. We were in on the “pre-boil,” because [once] “When Doves Cry” [came out], that was it. When that movie came out and when that album came out, [Purple Rain], he became one of the iconic 80’s video superstars. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, they were the three biggies.

This [show] was before that, he was just doing his thing! This was a band effort. I know that he went out and he’s performed with bands and he’s gotten amazing people like Larry Graham, Maceo Parker, Candy Dulfer, and Sheila E. in his band (and by the way, in my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a girl who can kill it on the drums)—but when you were watching this [show], you thought that you were seeing “The Prince Band.” In reality it was all him, playing everything on the album, but still it didn’t matter, because the cats who he recruited were at the top of their game.

Everyone who was at The Capitol that night felt like we were witnessing something that we didn’t realize we were going to be exposed to. I looked around, and every face was just like “Holy shit! What is this?!”

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