Friday Fun: Boss Top Ten, #2--"Atlantic City"

"Atlantic City" (original version off of Nebraska (1982), E Street Band Version [shown] first released on Live in New York City (2001))
Concert Footage:  Hyde Park, London (U.K.), 2013



Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
Now they blew up his house, too.

I maintain that the best opening to any song the opening to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood"---"I once had a girl/or, should I say, she once had me."  That's John Lennon at his songwriting best--men have a tendency to reflexively talk about "their" girl, when in many, many cases the shoe is on the other foot, and Lennon communicates this in his trademark economy of words.

The second best opening to any song, in my opinion, is "Atlantic City."  It is like a punch to the face--you can't hear "they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night, now they blew up his house, too," and be indifferent to what is coming next.  The name "the Chicken Man" is so evocative and perfect, made even better by the fact that it was a real person.  Philip Testa, a/k/a the Chicken Man, was a notorious Philadelphia mobster who was killed by a bomb in 1981, which started an incredibly destructive Mob war.  And, yes, they blew up his house, too.

"Atlantic City" is not about the Chicken Man, at least not directly.  Instead, it is a story about a down-on-their-luck couple that goes to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for one last chance to try to change their fortunes.  For those who may not be familiar with AC, it is a resort community on the southern part of the Jersey Shore that has been through a number of ups and downs (to be charitable).  It is perhaps best known for allowing legal gambling, and for a long time it was the only place on the East Coast where you could gamble (that's not longer remotely true, and it probably will kill AC for good).

The secret to a place like Atlantic City is that it only works if you choose to believe the obvious illusion.
If you are at any level skeptical of what Atlantic City is selling you, you are going to immediately see the cracks in the facade.  This is in contrast to a place like Las Vegas, which, because it is much more sophisticated in the way it sells you on the dream (or, at least, that's my sense--I have never been to Vegas), could actually convince you that what it is offering you is real.  Atlantic City is far too threadbare to pull that off, and so it is only convincing if you go in wanting, or even needing, to be convinced.  In this way, it is perhaps inevitable that one of Atlantic City's most famous investors would be Donald Trump.  There is a natural fit there, I think.

Our couple in "Atlantic City" are choosing to believe the obvious illusion, in the hopes that Atlantic City will throw them a lifeline out of their problems:

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

There is a sense in which "Atlantic City" is a song about hope, but unlike many such songs it is obviously a false hope.  We get the sense that the couple doesn't actually believe that Atlantic City will save them.  But, sometimes, having a hope--even an implausible one--is better than having no hope at all.

The other dimension to "Atlantic City" is that it is, on some level, a love song.  Whatever is going to happen, whatever may come, our couple is going to do it together.

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 goin' out where the sands turnin' to gold 
So put on your stockin's cause the nights gettin' cold

I've always found this part of the song to be incredibly touching.  It is such an evocative image--two people, down on their luck, heading off toward what is surely going to be a tragedy, but heading off together.  I can see this couple really clearly in my mind's eye, waiting for the Coast City bus.  It's heartbreaking.

There are two versions of "Atlantic City"--the original, acoustic version on 1982's Nebraska, and the later version with the full E Street Band.  I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I think the E Street Band version is much better.  The difference between the two versions for me is that the Nebraska version, consistent with the rest of the album, communicates a kind of resignation--this is our fate, there is nothing we can do about it.  The E Street Band version by contrast, conveys an anger that people find themselves in this impossible, unwinnable position.  I've said this before, but I like Angry Bruce better than Passive Bruce, and so I think the E Street Band version is more effective.

I love "Atlantic City."  It does everything awesome that awesome Springsteen songs do.  It's very close to being my favorite Springsteen song.  But there is one more song that has to go higher on the list.  And that is because of a very specific story.

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