Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City:  The personal and the universal connect in a timeless and versatile classic

The entire Nebraska album was recorded by Bruce Springsteen alone in his house on a 4-track cassette.  At points, you can hear the creak of the rocking chair he sat in, but these meager beginnings do not limit the songs’ collective scope, power, and impact.  “Atlantic City” combines it all in one haunting track.

Bruce Springsteen released “Atlantic City” in 1982 as part of the stripped down, sparse, and haunting Nebraska album.  The album as a whole has been described by music critic William Ruhlmann as one of the most challenging “ever released by a major star on a major record label.”  It’s also one of the most unique in its recording process.  The entire album was performed entirely by Bruce Springsteen himself, working at home, alone, with only his instruments and a 4-track cassette recorder.  The original plan was to use these recordings as a demo tape for the full E Street Band to rework in a proper studio setting.  When they ultimately got into the studio, however, Mr. Springsteen and his manager, Jon Landau, decided much of the material didn’t work as traditional rock, feeling the songs lost their personal intensity when played by the full band.

Mr. Springsteen himself described it to Rolling Stone, saying “I was just doing songs for the next rock album, and I decided that what always took me so long in the studio was the writing. I would get in there, and I just wouldn’t have the material written, or it wasn’t written well enough, and so I’d record for a month, get a couple of things, go home write some more, record for another month—it wasn’t very efficient. So this time, I got a little Teac four-track cassette machine, and I said, I’m gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin’ ‘em, then I’ll teach ‘em to the band. I could sing and play the guitar, and then I had two tracks to do somethin’ else, like overdub a guitar or add a harmony. It was just gonna be a demo. Then I had a little Echoplex that I mixed through, and that was it. And that was the tape that became the record. It’s amazing that it got there, ‘cause I was carryin’ that cassette around with me in my pocket without a case for a couple of weeks, just draggin’ it around. Finally, we realized, ‘Uh-oh, that’s the album.’”

Incredibly, the entire album was recorded in just three days, and 15-songs were completed on a single night, January 3, 1982.  The final release was limited to 10 tracks, but eight of the tracks lived on, receiving full band treatment in Born in the U.S.A.  These songs included some of Mr. Springsteen’s biggest hits:  “Born in the U.S.A.” itself, “Cover Me,” “Glory Days,” and “I’m on Fire,” making that night in early January one of the most productive in music history by far.  Nebraska itself was released on September 30, 1982 to critical acclaim despite the lack of a recording studio and the sound of a rocking chair where the musician sat and played the guitar by himself, generating moderate sales for a Springsteen album.  Since then, it was ranked by Rolling Stone as the 43rd best album of the 80’s and 224 among the 500 greatest of all time.  While the acoustic, folk nature of the music and the dark, disturbing themes prevented any of the songs from becoming traditional hits, some have lived on in other ways.  The 1991 movie, The Indian Runner, directed by Sean Penn and starring Viggo Mortensen was inspired by Highway Patrolman, about a police officer and his wayward brother.  Other tracks have been covered by artists as diverse as Hank Williams III, Ben Harper, and Los Lobos.

For me, the stand out song has always been “Atlantic City,” released in acoustic form as part of his greatest hits collection and ultimately reworked in big band form in concert, complete with a searing guitar solo by Nils Lofgren.  The original version is unforgettable from the first time you hear it, featuring merely Mr. Springsteen’s vocals, a guitar, harmonic, tambourine, organ, and some subtle synthesizers.  Ostensibly, the subject is a young couple, hoping to escape to Atlantic City, New Jersey’s legendary den of iniquity and host of a million bachelor parties, a place where it seems like anything can happen, especially bad things.  The man in the couple is at the end of the line, planning to take some unspecified job with a mobster, but the underlying theme is universal, applying to everything and everyone as much as to Atlantic City itself.  The song starts with a few lines introducing the backstory and its relationship to the setting:

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
And they blew up his house, too
Down on the boardwalk they’re ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do
Now there’s trouble busin’ in from outta state
And the D.A. can’t get no relief
Gonna be a rumble on the promenade
And the gamblin’ commissioner’s hangin’ on by the skin of his teeth

It’s irrelevant to an appreciation of the song, but this is a description of actual events that occurred a year before the album was recorded.  The “Chicken Man” was a notorious Philadelphia mobster, Phil Testa, who was killed by a nail bomb at his home in March 1981.  Atlantic City itself was the subject of a turf war between the Philadelphia and New York mafia families for years.  Gambling wasn’t legalized there until 1976 in hopes of revitalizing a decaying city, lending an authenticity to the song even if the listener is unaware of the details.  The stage for this desperate, likely doomed romance is set either way against what sounds a dark and dangerous place, one flooded with out of towners ready to fight, a powerless local government, completely on edge before the speaker and his lover are even introduced.  From there, the song descends into an even darker tone, immediately offset by by more hopeful note, a pattern that will repeat later, though one we should understand as likely an empty promise the entire time:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

The setting and primary refrain introduced, a feeling that hangs over the rest of the song, coloring and informing the events to come, we switch focus from the universal to the intensely personal relationship of the couple that will serve as main characters in this dark tale.  The speaker tells his love, “Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”  The language is simple, yet evocative:  Atlantic City is a place people go to pretend, a night out on the town, even as the town itself is dying around you.  The statement also suggests something explored in more detail as the song progresses.  The couple is down on their luck, part of the permanent underclass of American society, at the very edge of what we might consider the American dream.  In that sense, they are a part of the perennial Springsteen story.  They could be the same speaker and love interest from the classic “Meeting Across the River,” just in another time and place.

The details of their social class and economic status are, in fact, the subject of the next few lines.  The speaker claims to have gotten a job and put his money away, “But I got the kind of debts that no honest man can pay.”  It’s unclear if this is strictly the truth or merely a self rationalization, but there is a sense lurking behind the words, perhaps a gambling problem or some other addiction, not merely the debt a more responsible person would accrue buying a house or a car.  A sense of desperation also begins to creep in as the details of the speaker’s plan unfolds:  He’s withdrawn all his money from the “Central Trust” and bought “two tickets on that Coast City bus,” meaning this is a one way trip, a last chance to either win big or go broke. There’s no coming home for these two, a fact emphasized by a reprise of the chorus, repeating the refrain that everything dies, voices howling in the background like ghosts waiting to come back.  The simple lines take on a new, enhanced meaning this second time around, knowing the speaker doesn’t plan to come back himself.  Is he foreshadowing his own death?  Does he know there is no return from where they are going, either literally or figuratively?  It certainly seems that way when things go wrong from the start and there isn’t even glimmer of success in this venture.  The speaker and his love aren’t enjoying champagne and caviar, or anything close for even a moment.  Instead, their luck itself “may have died” and their love itself “may be cold,” but with a weary defiance, the speaker still clings to some shred of hope:

But with you, forever, I’ll stay
We’re going out where the sand’s turning to gold
So put on your stockings, baby, ‘cause the night’s getting cold

Once again, we witness a rapid inversion in feeling, a flipping of the emotional script, across just a few lines, resulting in the unmistakable sense that the speaker is hanging on for dear life, to his love, to his dream, to everything with any meaning.  The music swells beneath, serving as a bridge and adding emphasis.  Their luck is dead and their love is cold, but the speaker remains committed, praying that somewhere just out of reach the sand itself turns into gold.  This is, of course, a metaphor.  The “promised land” from Darkness on the Edge of Town imagined as the dune on some beach, allowing you to interpret the next line both literally and figuratively, another echo of the earlier duality.  Literally, it’s cold outside at night in windy Atlantic City.  Given the date of the actual events described in the first verse, it’s sometime in March or April and winter has not yet let up its grip.  Figuratively, the world itself is a forbidding place and his love needs protection from the darker elements, something to keep her warm at heart and safe in spirit.

The reality of such a thing is undermined when the chorus repeats itself again, a moaning harmonica foretelling their death and longed for resurrection before the closing verse.  Not surprisingly given the foreshadowing earlier, we learn that the couple is in Atlantic City permanently, just another part of the dark underworld, cold and unlucky.  Things may well be worse for him than ever.  Once, he had a job and tried to put his money away, but now he’s looking for work and growing increasingly desperate:

Now I been looking for a job, but it’s hard to find
Down here, it’s just winners and losers and
Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well, I’m tired of coming out on the losing end
So, honey, last night, I met this guy, and I’m gonna do a little favor for him

The song comes full circle to the mafia wars that started us off, another echo of “Meeting Across the River.”  It’s impossible to imagine the speaker isn’t involved with the “racket boys” from the first verse, or that there is any chance he can actually win given all we’ve learned about him and his lot in life throughout the song.  The personal also collides with the universal in these closing lines:  The setting is Atlantic City, the circumstances of the couple are specific, but the lyrics themselves apply everywhere, to potentially anyone down on their luck and desperate.  “Down here” could mean just about any place on the planet, and there are “losers” and “winners” all over the world.  No one wants to be on the wrong side of that divide, and those that find them there are often willing to do just about anything to escape.

It is here that we find Mr. Springsteen’s remarkable talent for capturing universal messages through deeply personal stories.  The listener understands that he sings about a specific couple.  We know the couple is a part of their own unique story with their own history and flaws, and yet their story somehow becomes our story.  The scope effortless expands to encompass a universal aspect of the human experience, connecting as closely with our own lives as those of the characters, allowing us to become a part of the narrative.  This magic trick, to use Mr. Springsteen’s own phrase, is something he has accomplished over and over again throughout a 50 year career.  “Atlantic City” is just one example, perhaps one of the best in a haunting, unforgettable song.  We should consider ourselves lucky the cassette tape he toted around didn’t get too damage to release.

ATLANTIC CITY

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
And they blew up his house, too
Down on the boardwalk, they’re getting ready for a fight
Gonna see what them racket boys can do
Now there’s trouble busing in from out of state
And the D.A. can’t get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade
And the gambling commission’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth

Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus

Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Now, our luck may have died, and our love may be cold
But with you, forever, I’ll stay
We’re going out where the sand’s turning to gold
So put on your stockings, baby, ’cause the night’s getting cold

Now I been looking for a job, but it’s hard to find
Down here, it’s just winners and losers and “Don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line”
Well, I’m tired of coming out on the losing end
So, honey, last night, I met this guy, and I’m gonna do a little favor for him

Well, now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s