Bruce Springsteen’s songs often fall into two categories. There are the depressing songs about working in your hometown. Then there are the inspiring songs about leaving your hometown. There’s also “I’m On Fire,” which I put into the subcategory of creepy songs that use absurd sexual imagery. To be fair, “I’m On Fire” may take place in the hometown of the narrator.
“Atlantic City” is a rare Springsteen hybrid. It’s a depressing song about leaving town. (I don’t think he has any inspiring songs about staying home. I’d like for him to try one out, though.) The down-on-his luck narrator urges his lady friend to fancy herself up and join him in Atlantic City, where he is most likely going to kill someone for money.
It’s a dark, catchy tune with an oddly Buddhist refrain (“everything dies, baby that’s a fact/maybe everything that dies someday comes back”), and it has been covered lots of times. So yesterday when I drove to Atlantic City from downtown Manhattan, I decided to listen exclusively to a collection of several of these versions. I managed to scrounge up fifteen in all. Notable omissions include the Hold Steady’s recent cover, which failed to load on my iPod as well as any live Springsteen version which supplements the austere album version with a full-band sound.
I got through the playlist two and a half times. By the end, I was very, very ready to get out of the car. In fact, I was in the mood to hear some Ke$ha. The following is a diary of my thoughts on each of these fifteen tracks. There is no reason for this. I just thought it would be something I’d have fun with. And I sort of did. So now I just hope you do. The track list was alphabetical by artist.
1. “Atlantic City” – Automatic 7
A punk cover to start off with. Aren’t we done with these? Remember when The Ataris remade Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer?” They did a okay with that. We don’t need any more. That said, whoever Automatic 7 is did a pretty good job recreating the haunting “whoooaaaahhh” background vocals. I’m a sucker for some good whoas. Overall, not necessary but not bad.
2. “Atlantic City” – The Band
So this one changes the whole intent of the song. The chugging guitar and the substitution of accordion for Springsteen’s harmonica give the song notes of optimism that cheer up the bleak source material. When Robbie Robertson sings “Last night I met this guy, gonna do a favor for him,” you get the impression that he thinks that it might make a difference. Maybe he’ll get out of debt. It could happen.
3. “Atlantic City” – Bruce Springsteen
This one’s pretty spare. Just guitar, vocals, and harmonica. Springsteen crams lyrics into each line like he’s not concerned with singing, just getting the message out before it’s too late to tell his story. When he sings: “Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line,” he throws meter to the wind. And he clearly doesn’t think that anything this guy is going to do will make a difference. It’s not a tale of redemption. It’s a vignette about desperation and the importance of giving it a shot even in the face of certain futility. Like I said, a sad story about leaving town.
4. “Atlantic City” – Canvas
I don’t know anything about Canvas other than what this song told me. But if I had to make an educated guess based on their sound, I would assume that they all wear hemp necklaces and sandals and that they spend more time following Dave Matthews on tour than they do traveling with their own music. I am super impressed with how they managed to capture the sound of holding a red solo cup in the air while singing. It really came through on the record.
5. “Atlantic City” – Charge of the Light Brigade
Some weirdish electronic stuff going on here. Like industrial-lite. Real heavy and great bass line though. They add some lyrics towards the end about the girl looking beautiful and the singer feeling old. Way unnecessary. Come on now, guys. This song’s about being desperate and making what Bruce might, in a cheerier mood call a “last chance power drive.” It’s no time to wax philosophical on your own mortality.
6. “Atlantic City” – David Munyon
This guy is great. He’s got a real old-timey rasp when he sings, like a gentler Johnny Cash. He knows what it’s all about. Very faithful to the original but with a distinctive vocal style. Good job, guy.
7. “Atlantic City” – Denis Fischer
Just piano and vocals on this bad boy. It sounds like a solo from a musical scored by Springsteen. That’s something I’d like to see. The first half is all guys working in their hometowns. Then the second half is those guys leaving those towns. It’s missing a little of the original’s edge, but it’s something that people might like on American Idol if the guy played the piano himself to show his versatility.
8. “Atlantic City” – Doc Holiday
Oh dear goodness. It’s like a truck full of Marc Cohn (Yes, you know who that is. “Walking In Memphis” ring a bell? Yeah, that’s that guy.) crashed into a truck full of Rod Stewart. It’s a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of unlistenable. Just terrible. This guy clearly misses the point. It’s over produced and over emoted. When he smugly speak-sings “Last night I met this guy. I’m going to do a little favor for him,” it sounds like he’s going to help someone move or sleep with his wife. Just smug and unpleasant. Ugh.
9. “Atlantic City” – Ed Harcourt
Piano and vocals again. A little more plaintive than the Denis Fischer version. Like Ben Folds minus the snark. However, he changes a pretty critical lyric. He takes “I’ve got debts that no honest man can pay” and makes it “I’ve got debts that I cannot pay.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s that line that shows the narrator is about to get mixed up in something grisly. He really puts some bite into “everything dies, baby that’s a fact,” so that’s pretty good. I can picture William H. Macy’s character from “Fargo” listening to this over and over and over.
10. “Atlantic City” – John Anderson
A full-on pop-country cover. I was not looking forward to it from the opening seconds, but I was really delightfully surprised by this one. I guess I shouldn’t have been taken unawares. The song already has all the elements of a country jam. Fighting. Being broke. A girl doing her hair up pretty. The only snag was that it sounded like he should have been singing “Meet me tonight in Branson, Missouri.” Just a more countrified place that also has gambling. I was really fired up to hear this one again.
11. “Atlantic City” – Mark McKay
This one was from a live album, and it’s got a fun, sloppy sound to it. The guitars feed back like a Drive By Truckers album. Nothing too special, but it seems like everyone was enjoying it at the time. Which, you can’t ask for much more than that from a cover song by a guy you’ve never heard of.
12. “Atlantic City” – Peter Protschka
Okay, this one’s my fault. This isn’t actually a cover of the Springsteen song at all. It’s a different song entirely. But, in my defense, the iTunes sample I listened to was a bunch of free-jazz piano hammering that could have been anything, really. The players settle into kind of a smokin’ jazz groove, though. I like how the piano and the percussion work together. When this came around the second time, it was a welcome respite from the murder ballad mopery.
13. “Atlantic City” – Rodney Parker and 50 Peso Reward
A lesser version of Anderson’s cover but with a better band name. Next.
14. “Atlantic City” – Warren Zevon
I’m a big Zevon fan. It’s fun to hear him play this live. The fans seem to get a kick out of it. But the sound quality is kind of dismal. Fun to have on the hard drive as a novelty, not super listenable.
15. “Atlantic City” – Hank Williams III
Hank Williams III starts off all strummy and funky, and then it gets dark half way through. The material sounds natural on him. He smooths it way out, but it doesn’t lose its impact. He even shortens one line by half to make it fit the structure better. It’s a good cover and a good way to close out the playlist.
Overall, I’m glad I did this noble experiment. My favorite track was the Band’s slightly breezier slightly more upbeat take. But that also may be because it gave me a break from how dismal this song is to listen to for two straight hours. What I do know is, it’s a great song, and I’m ready to not listen to it for several years.