I’m pretty sure that the narrator of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” is not going to pimp out his girlfriend in a casino. Not 100% positive, but pretty sure.
Let me back up: My best friend in middle school was a rabid Bruce Springsteen fan. In fact, he took me—or really, his parents did, since we were too young to drive—to my first Springsteen concert. But through the years listening to the Boss’s newest albums and the live tracks in my friend’s basement room, I somehow never noticed “Atlantic City,” from Springsteen’s sixth album.
No surprise, as Nebraska is not a simple, accessible album. Recorded on a Teac tape machine in Springsteen’s home, the tracks were originally intended as demos for the E Street Band to re-record in the studio. But the band had difficulty matching the raw urgency of the acoustic recordings, and eventually Springsteen, encouraged by his manager Jon Landau, released the album as it was. This amounted to an audacious trust fall with Springsteen’s audience, as Nebraska was wildly different both from his previous albums and from the synth-sodden popular music of the time. After thirty years of sold-out stadiums it may be hard to recall, but in 1982 Springsteen only had one top 10 single to his name, The River’s “Hungry Heart.”
The artistic bravery of Nebraska has always stuck with me, and it was one of the first points of reference for my new album, Call and Response. Touchstones like Nebraska are particularly important for this album, because Call and Response is a collection of “answer songs,” each written in response to another artist’s work. There are songs written in response to short stories, including ones by Alice Munro, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, and Joyce Carol Oates, and there are songs written in response to other songs, including ones by Michael Penn, Sean Rowe, and the Rolling Stones.
Like most of Nebraska’s songs, “Atlantic City” tells a dark story, about a man who is running low on money and options. Yes, the narrator exhorts his girlfriend to put on her make-up, and wear stockings, and he never explains what favor he’s going to do for the guy he met last night. But a close reading of the lyrics suggests that what the narrator has in mind is a last desperate effort to raise money by gambling his last savings
For me, though, the trick in writing an “answer song” is to find an angle (however misguided), to push against. And the idea of an argument between two lovers about desperate solutions is rich in dramatic possibilities.
You can take a first listen to the song above.
Ben Arthur will release his seventh album, Call and Response, on June 27th with a special “answer song” show at Joe’s Pub featuring Joyce Carol Oates and Ted Leo.
You can pre-order Ben’s album on iTunes, Amazon, or other digital retailers.