I rediscovered Bruce Springsteen almost by accident. I knew him as the guy who sang Born in the USA and, while that’s a fantastic song, I didn’t bother with any of his other stuff. Maybe I wasn’t in the right place. The incident that set met me right was a concert a few years ago where a local punk band played a surprisingly good cover of Dancing in the Dark. I always liked that song and I realised that anyone who could write both Born in the USA and Dancing in the Dark was an artist I should check out.
I bought the 3 CD Essential Bruce Springsteen compilation and never looked back. The first CD was pre-Born in the USA and had some old favourites like Thunder Road and Born to Run. And Atlantic City.
A bit of background. Atlantic City is one of the tracks from his sixth album: Nebraska. Springsteen had recorded a demo tape of the tracks he wanted to do for the album. They were supposed to be adapted for the E-Street band but, as they recorded, Springsteen realised that the raw intensity of the original demo fitted the bleak atmosphere better than the band recordings. So he did something incredible - he released the demo tape as the final album.
The album didn’t sell well - his fans didn’t expect a collection of dark stripped down acoustic numbers. That said it’s regarded as one of his best albums if not his best album. It’s a shining jewel in Springsteen’s discography and Atlantic City is one of the stand out tracks of the album (Reason to Believe is the other).
Recorded in his spare room on a 4 track cassette recorder with only his guitar, harmonica and mandolin the opening F# minor chord leads us into a mob war in Philadelphia 1981 as we start with the assassination of mafia boss Phillip “The Chicken Man” Testa who was killed by a nail bomb that blew up his home. The first verse sets the scene for the rest of the song. I love that he jumps straight in with just his voice, guitar and some backing vocals for effect - the trademark harmonica comes in after the first chorus.
The key thing about the song (and indeed the album) is simplicity. The lyrics are forthright and have a pathos about them. It feels like a story you could hear from a guy in a pub as he drowns his sorrows in a beer mug. It’s beautiful story-telling - it lets you fill in blanks but doesn’t leave anything out.
The song is a stark black and white picture - with little to work with he brings it to life using shading and contrast. The little riff on the mandolin always gets me. The song just wouldn’t have the impact it has without the mandolin fill in - not least because of the contrast the bright tone brings. The rocking rhythm of the chords, the wail of the harmonica and the earnestness of his voice and backing vocals - this is one of those songs that makes me want to cry.
A great song by definition must have the Quality Without a Name. In the end there must be more than just good music and lyrics. This song is all Bruce, alone in a small room converted into a make-shift studio, all his own vocals, the depression he was going through at the time telling in his voice. It’s the messy lo-fi recording and the desperation and fleeting hope of the lyrics. It’s the passing E chord in the first chorus which I half suspect was a happy mistake.
So that’s my paean to ‘Atlantic City’. I’ll let the song speak for itself now: