Attack of the Killer Track! is a series that explores tracks from artists from a variety of genres. Some of the tracks were singles, some of them were obscure b-sides or long forgotten album tracks. One thing is certain – all of them are killer tracks.
In early 1982 Bruce Springsteen demoed songs for the follow-up album to his hit double LP, The River. He holed himself up in his New Jersey home and cut stark home demos that reflected the personal cloud of depression he was going through. Usually the characters on the previous records had found some sort of saving grace – not so on the songs that would become the record Nebraska. The E-Street band versions of the songs were rejected in favor of the stark demo versions and the record was released to critical acclaim in September of 1982. Johnny Cash covered two of the darker tunes just a year later (Johnny 99 and Highway Patrolman) and Sean Penn wrote & directed the 1991 film Indian Runner which was based on the song Highway Patrolman. I love the entire album, but I’ve always thought the track Atlantic City pulled off a neat trick – it wraps a somewhat depressing story to a hopeful melody and layers it with a quality that is hard to capture on tape – desperation.
The track – like every song on the full length record – is acoustic in nature with Springsteen offering up a nuanced vocal performance. The opening lines “Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night / now they blew up his house too” refer to the hit on famous Philadelphia mob boss, Philip Testa. The protagonist of the song intends to join the mob once he and his love reach the fabled Atlantic City (about an hour from Philadelphia). The chorus is a sing-a-long anthem which is in direct contrast to the story being laid out. The weight of the line “I’ve got debts no honest man can pay” just sinks in and still gives me the chills to this day. I remember the drives to the Jersey Shore as a kid and the euphoric feeling that it brought – time stood still, problems didn’t exist when you were at the shore. And maybe that’s what Bruce is trying to convey through the story of young lovers heading to Atlantic City – high on life with the inevitability of death always in the back of their minds. Key lyrics:
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