I was saying to Joy the other day how much I love the song “Atlantic City,” and she was a little surprised and curious. So in honor of her first and ultimate religion, Brucetarianism, and in memory of Levon Helm, who covered this song and has just died, here are my thoughts on this multifaceted gemstone of a song.

Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night

First of all, the first line cracks me up. I only had a vague awareness of this song before I heard it on The Band’s Jericho. That version opens with the tinkling of a mandolin and a deep Arkansan accent–it is miles and miles away, in sound, in culture, in every way, from New Jersey or Philadelphia–but I said immediately, “That’s got to be a Springsteen song.” Who else would blow up the Chicken Man in the first line? Who else would know who the hell the Chicken Man is, or think someone with that nickname belongs in a work of art?

The lyrics continue:

–now they blew up his house too
Down on the boardwalk they’re gettin’ ready for a fight gonna see what them racket boys can do

Now there’s trouble busin’ in from outta state and the D.A. can’t get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade and the gamblin’ commission’s hangin’ on by the skin of its teeth

OK, the stage is set. There’s trouble. Who’s telling us all this? Someone who’s going to head right into the middle of it as if it’s a hot date. Here’s the chorus, for the first time:

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

So right off we know a few things: bad shit is going down. This guy, the narrator, plans to be in the middle of it. He’s trying to make light of it; he’s meeting his girl on the boardwalk. But the boardwalk’s where there’s going to be a fight (to the death, if the chicken man is going to be avenged), and he can’t avoid the truth: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.”

It’s significant that the song is a love song as well as about something grimmer, a Mafia showdown. That’s a rock and roll convention, sure–they’re almost always love songs, whatever else they’re about–but it’s more than that. The interplay between the image of a girl getting ready for a date and the images of violence and death, which will crop up again, sets up the theme of life being a little bit of hope and happiness snatched out of dark despair.

To skip forward to the bridge:

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay
We’re goin’ out where the sand’s turnin’ to gold so put on your stockin’s baby ’cause the night’s getting cold

It’s getting cold out there, baby, in more ways than one.

What death is on his mind? The one that starts off the song (whoever the chicken man is), the ones bound to come in the rumble, the narrator’s own, and something else.

Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay

So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus

He tried to live honestly, but he’s getting pulled into a life of crime. The line “I got debts that no honest man can pay” is ambiguous: it could mean “I owe so much money that I can’t earn enough to pay it back,” or it could mean he owes something else, like a favor to a mobster, and there’s no honest way to pay those back. So he’s spending his last lone dollar on getting to his new job, something to do with the mob and this unfolding disaster. The “Central Trust” is a homely little detail: the narrator’s taking his money out of a nice, safe, conventional place, just as he’s abandoning a nice, safe, conventional life. And trust is another one of those things that’s dying–we’re out of the realm of trust and into the riskier realm of gambling, where the narrator’s chances are probably as good as the gambler’s chance of beating the house.

I love what a tight songwriter Springsteen can be–he also slides in a reminder that the love story is still in progress with that “two tickets.”

The chorus again:

And everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

The second line is so poignant. A rationalization, maybe; a desperate attempt to reassure himself that the situation isn’t as bad as it looks. Someone or something is going to die, but maybe it’s not the end.

Last verse:

Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find
Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him

Okay, he’s a loser and he’s tired of it. He wants to change his luck. He’s already acknowledged that this bright, cute relationship is actually on the rocks (“our love may be cold”) and he doesn’t have high hopes (“our luck may have died”), but he’s gambling all he’s got on one long shot. The casino logic is drawing him in, with all its empty promises of “the sand’s turnin’ to gold.” What is it he’s going to do? It can’t be anything good. “I’m gonna do a little favor for him”–well, it could just be running numbers, his first foray into crime, but I don’t think so. With that chorus about death, I think someone’s life is at risk: his own, or, that suspicious “little favor,” someone he’s being paid to kill.

If the latter, there’s another layer of meaning to the refrain. “Everything dies, baby” becomes a rationalization; hey, no one’s immortal, so why not put some money back in the bank by speeding someone along? The hope of resurrection begs forgiveness in advance; if “maybe everything that dies someday comes back,” then maybe killing someone isn’t so bad after all . . .

The other things in mortal danger are his innocence and his conscience, or his soul. It’s not “everyone” dies, after all, but “everything.” So his existence as a good guy trying to work hard and do the right thing is about to die, as he sells his soul to the mob, but maybe there’s still hope. Maybe he can “someday come back” from the end of this road he’s on.

And the song ends in future tense: we don’t know what will happen. The big drama is still to come. The rumble and the date haven’t happened yet (the last line is “Meet me tonight in Atlantic City,” repeated several times). We can’t even be sure she’s going to come along. We just know that he’s going and the outcome doesn’t look good. Is there even really going to be a date, what with the rumble and the ominous job he’s going to do? It doesn’t seem likely, and their love has gone cold anyway, but at the end he’s still thinking about love and the simple pleasure of a pretty woman made up for a night with him. He’s running on denial, but it’s getting him through the night.

Springsteen has a genius for painting a portrait in a few strokes so that we can see someone who might otherwise be invisible to us, like the guy working at the carwash or sitting unemployed in his empty house. The narrator of “Atlantic City,” the lowest man in the mob, a new recruit who might not survive his first job–what do I know about people like that? This song invites us to care about him and hope he and his soul survive.