It was nearing midnight as the skyline for Atlantic City came into view. From the backseat of my girlfriend’s uncle’s SUV, I had $30 burning a hole in my pocket and the lure of slot machines calling my name.
As anyone who has driven to Atlantic City for their first visit, the Expressway leading into AC does the city justice. Bombarding you with billboards touting various casinos and a slew of upcoming concerts and performances, the ride and skyline provide you with a host of locales to lose yourself and your money for as long as you can physically and mentally handle the floor of the casino.
This improvised trip to the casinos on the beach a few summers ago was my first visit to Atlantic City. Up until that point, the only reference point I had for A.C., besides knowing Donald Trump had his name strewn about the high-rise hotels and that the city was teetering on bankruptcy, was Bruce Springsteen’s song, Atlantic City.
From the opening line telling the listener that the chicken man blew up in Philly last night to the closing lyrics that, “Well, I guess everything dies, that’s a fact…,” the song portrays an Atlantic City that is depressing as all get up. Take a look at the 1982 music video of the song for further proof of this. Kicking off with a video of old boardwalk hotels being detonated and in their place, glass towers bearing the name of Caesar’s and one aloft with the Playboy logo that is so large it covers several stories of the hotel.
The video splices shots of the boardwalk and these sparkling buildings with residential Atlantic City. Gutted, with houses boarded up, these are the streets and buildings Springsteen’s narrator would most likely call home. Or at the very least be more comfortable around than the craps tables shown after the two-minute mark of the video.
When Springsteen sings, “But I got debts 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,” he sounds like a guy who is at the end of his rope. Even though he says, “he is tired of coming out on the losing end,” he is still looking for a way to put it all together and make something of himself, not only for himself, but for the women he once loved but now, can never leave. He has almost resigned himself to the idea that he will never catch a break, but there is a part of him unable to give up trying.
Springsteen sounds so alone on this song for a reason – he recorded in it his bedroom, mixed through a Gibson guitar to a beat box. For your consideration, check out this cover of Atlantic City done by The Hold Steady.
Even before lead singer Craig Finn begins singing, all indications are that The Hold Steady are going to deliver a cover that stays pretty faithful to the original. Until the one-minute mark that is. Then, The Hold Steady switch out Springsteen’s harmonica, which played up the melancholy and sadness, with a driving saxophone backed with solid drumming that somehow manages to lift the mood of the song. It also seems to flip a switch in Finn’s delivery.
Especially when Finn sing-talks, “And, maybe everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” I get the sense that Atlantic City could be a song about redemption. About how losing streaks do end. About how a love gone cold can warm up. Sure things die, but that doesn’t they mean are always gone. Hope is not lost.
It’s almost as if Craig Finn is two beers in at the bar, talking out his plan of action and totally believing that, this time, everything comes together, and it will work out.
When Springsteen and Finn sing, respectively, “But with you forever, I’ll stay” and “Put on your stockins baby, ’cause the nights getting cold,” the sentiments they are expressing couldn’t be further apart. With Bruce, the former sounds like a line of resignation and the latter is one that has little compassion behind it. With Finn though, it’s different. The lyrics are still delivered with some remoteness, but there is a glimmer – a hint – of feeling towards the woman. A feeling that could blossom again with a little luck.
I spent most of my only evening in Atlantic City on the losing end. Going from casino to casino we tried our hands at different slot machines, all with the same result for me: less money burning in my pocket. With a long ride back down the coast beckoning and the night passing by, we found the bathrooms so we could begin our trek home. As I waited, with one dollar left, I sat down at my last machine of the night. Letting it ride, I found myself coming back to the right side of the line. I left Atlantic City with $30 in my pocket.