Sunday, March 27, 2016

Track of the Week: Bruce Springsteen "Atlantic City"

It's not making too many headlines outside of the Garden State, but Atlantic City is in trouble again. The collapse of the casino industry there, hampered by new competition, is driving the city to bankruptcy. Governor Christie is exploiting the situation, withholding aid unless the city puts itself under state control, the kind of thing that has led to poisoned water in Flint and uninhabitable schools in Detroit. Like in the casinos themselves, in modern American life the house always wins, and the regular palooka always loses. Donald Trump famously invested huge in Atlantic City and helped build the reputation he is using to run for president, all the while the people of Atlantic City are seeing their lives fall apart.

The casinos came in the 1970s in an attempt to save a once bustling resort centered around a famous boardwalk. Generations of American families had grown up battling for supremacy over its streets in countless games of Monopoly, perhaps never aware that these were real places. By the early seventies, as the stellar film The King of Marvin Gardens illustrates, Atlantic City had died off as a tourist mecca in the age of interstates and airports. When the casinos came to Atlantic City, gambling was really only legal there and in Nevada. As other, more convenient places closer to the homes of the marks have built casinos, Atlantic City has suffered.

Back in 1982, when Bruce Springsteen recorded his austere Nebraska album, he seemed to grasp the dark lie behind the supposed salvation. The whole record is a document of the harsh reality underneath the "shining city on a hill" rhetoric of the early Reagan years, stories of people on the margins who are losing out. "Atlantic City" hits the listener right away with the lines "Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night/ They blew up his house too." This world of casinos and the hopes of easy money is infused with organized crime and assassinations. The character singing the song is desperate, he talks of having "debts that no honest man can pay." As he sings to his lady, he promises her a romantic night out in Atlantic City, and lets her know ominously that he's "met a man and I'm gonna do a little favor for him." It's implied that this desperate character has found his way out by killing someone else for money.

It is a beautiful, dark, haunting song. The harmonica cuts like a cold wind coming in off the ocean whipping the boardwalk, and the mandolin echoes spookily. The key, cryptic lines of the song have always stuck with me "Everything dies baby/ That's a fact/ But maybe everything that dies/ Someday comes back." It could be a cheap justification by this newly minted killer for hire about what he's about to do. It could be fatalism about chucking his soul in the garbage can to do it. Or it could be a comment on the once beautiful city fallen into disrepair hoping to make a comeback. Today it looks like Atlantic City is never coming back. Like the character in the song, it made a dirty deal to save itself, but the bill for that deal has come due.

The leading candidate in one of the major party's for president made so much of his money off of a town that's broke, desperate, and having to beg for mercy from one of his political lackeys. As "Atlantic City" tells us abundantly, that town is a window into the dark heart of the American Dream, and the human cost of its illusions.

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