Well now, 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
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The Boardwalk at Atlantic City
Bruce Springsteen sings "Atlantic City," a dark, murky song about a dark, murky city. It's ironic that Las Vegas managed to stomp out Atlantic City, New Jersey, for the title of gambling capitol of the US. Las Vegas is in the middle of one of the harshest deserts in the world, surrounded by nothing but dirt, and no reason for anyone to go near the place if it weren't for Las Vegas itself. It takes at least hours to get there from any other major city.
Atlantic City is on an island, with beaches and coastline, and with the highly populated New Jersey region all around it. Its climate is more favorable, and unlike the landlocked Las Vegas, easily accessible by cruise ships from Europe. The climate is far more temperate, with average highs never reaching above 85 degrees and average lows staying well above freezing for at least ten months out of the year.
Yet, Atlantic City is shrinking instead of growing and has always been choked by problems that hindered its growth. It's even down in population from 40,000 in the year 2000 to 35,000 in the year 2008. Its urban development is far behind Las Vegas as well; there is a far sharper contrast between casino areas and the slums, while Las Vegas just doesn't show the same pockets of urban decay. As if that weren't enough, the US housing market crash of 2007 hit Atlantic City particularly hard.
For a city in trouble, we have a protagonist in trouble. Springsteen's song is virtually a honky-tonk blues story, with a desperate man in bad circumstances offering his girlfriend the daunting prospect of moving with him as he tries to climb out of their hole by temporarily taking a job with the mob. Depressing, isn't it?
Atlantic City from up high
The first line, "Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night," comes from a real-life event. The chicken-man is none other than Mafia boss Philip Testa, the underboss of the Philadelphia chapter of the family. He was killed in March of 1981 when a mail bomb exploded on his front porch when he arrived home. There were a lot more skirmishes in the organized crime world around these events, of course, with mobsters getting back at each other in an endless game of bomb tag - so there's also reference to this in the song. But the central fact is that as Mafia bosses go, Testa was fairly ethical, being both anti-violence and anti-drug, which earned him the name "Gentle Don."
With harmonica accompaniment and a downbeat tune, "Atlantic City" sounds like a very bleak song detailing the fear the working-to-middle-class has always had of poverty. That's actually what the poor are good for: scaring the middle class. And when you have "debts that no honest man can pay" and your luck has died and your relationship has grown cold, maybe it's not the best idea to start a career in organized crime in a depressed city. But we all know what happened to the American economy in the 30 years since this song came out, right?
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