Tag Archives: “Bruce Springsteen”

They Blew Up the Chicken Man

If I didn’t write one more word past that title, it wouldn’t surprise me if you knew exactly which road I was driving down. Just six short words, part of a longer sentence, from the first verse of the second song on Nebraska. Recorded on a four-track Tascam 144 cassette player and never meant to be released in its stripped down format, at this very moment I believe it could be the greatest song that Bruce Springsteen has ever written. In the past month I’ve listened to dozens of covers, some that I’ll share here. But this song, and the black and white video of “Atlantic City,” still stands.

 

 

Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
And they blew up his house, too.
Down on the boardwalk they’re 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.

Like a lot of kids who were born in the ‘50s and grew up in Philadelphia, I loved Atlantic City in all its splendor and decay. it was just a nickel toll to drive over the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge into Jersey. Down the highway to the second traffic circle, you’d stop at a space-age looking diner for breakfast, smell the salt air as you cruised through Egg Harbor, and park the big Pontiac or Buick sedan as close to the beach that you could possibly get. You had to be there early if you wanted to pay 50 cents to rent a locker, change into your bathing suit and stash your dress-up clothes for the evening stroll. While the kids and mom staked out a spot in the sand near Convention Hall, dad would run down to Captain Starn’s to try and get dinner reservations. If he failed, it would be either Wolfie’s, Tony’s Baltimore Grill, or The White House. It was our Disneyland.

 

After just a couple of hours in the ocean, we’d eat a packed lunch from the cooler and make our way north to Steel Pier for the afternoon shows. Matinees were cheaper. First there were carnival-style games up front, and then you passed the Diving Bell, a small steel capsule that you’d get locked into and they’d drop you to the bottom of the sea. Usually saw nothing but a couple of little fish. And stretching far out over the water there were several music theaters. One day I watched a 13-year-old Little Stevie Wonder perform “Fingertips” while my folks went to see the Count Basie Orchestra. Another time I was surrounded and crushed by female teen pandemonium when Herman’s Hermits came onstage. But the real reason you came was the beautiful women with long hair who would sit on top of horses and dive from a platform from about a hundred feet in the air into a tiny wooden tub. But that was the ’50s and ’60s, and things were about to change.

 

It really was a “tale of two cities.” As kids we just knew about salt water taffy, Mr. Peanut, and the rides on Million Dollar Pier. Barkers with clip-on microphones selling knives that wouldn’t dull, cut crystal glasses from France, and gizmos that chopped your onions up into tiny little pieces. At night everybody got dressed up in their finest summer clothes, and you’d either stroll along the wooden boardwalk or, if you came from the Main Line, you’d pay someone to push you in a wicker basket cart with wheels on it. And when the kids got too tired, you’d walk a block inland and catch a Jitney on Pacific Avenue to your hotel, if you were lucky enough to spend the full weekend.

Close to midnight, when things started to get quiet along the beach, and the kids got tucked into bed, the great jazz clubs and showrooms would fill up with guys and dolls. The white folks had their clubs in the middle of the city like The 500 Club, where you’d see Sinatra or Martin and Lewis, and the black clubs were at the north end: The Harlem Club, Grace’s Little Belmont, and Wonder Gardens. Although Boardwalk Empire was a reality-based fictionalized account of the Roaring ’20s, long after Prohibition ended and probably still to this day Atlantic City was always a mob town. Booze, prostitution, gambling, loan sharking, murders … it was all there. And pretty soon, Donald Trump would take it for a spin.

 

Before they legalized gambling and started to tear down the old great hotels to put up walls of glass and steel, the city became a pre-Jersey Shore teenage wasteland. The families went south to quieter towns and the gangsters got political and started jockeying for position. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the boardwalk got ultra tacky and half the kids hung out at High Hat Joe’s while the rest were north at Playland. The common denominator was dope, sex, and music, and there was also a lot of fighting.

Freaks, geeks, and a few clean-cut kids. The greasers from South Philly and K and A, who’d knock you out for just looking at them. I got dragged under the boardwalk one night with a knife to my throat, and damn if I can remember how I got out alive. Living in a boarding house with an old man, six cats, no litter boxes, and five girls from Montreal, I worked odd jobs at probably a half-dozen hotels and was working at the front desk the night Tyrone Davis, who just had a massive hit on the radio with “Turn Back The Hands of Time,” tore up half the rooms. And I mean he outdid Keith Moon, using an axe handle and hammer on the doors and furniture. They hauled him off, leaving his tour bus in the parking lot for a couple days.

 

The only time I went back down to Atlantic City in the ‘80s was to visit Russ Meyer’s Record Shop on Atlantic Avenue. They had a huge collection of oldies and also dealt to the jukebox guys, and I worked for a distributor that owned about 30 percent of the market. It looked like war-torn Beirut: blocks and blocks of housing were bought up by developers and knocked down, left empty for the next casino to be put up. Everywhere you looked they were building these grotesque monoliths and Trump’s damn name was everywhere. The state tried to muscle out the mob, but they were smarter. Who ran the unions, owned the construction companies, supplied the liquor, food, and entertainment? There were more ways to take money off the table.

The first casino opened in 1978. The Press of Atlantic City writes that when Gov. Brendan Byrne stood on the Boardwalk and warned organized crime bosses to “keep [their] filthy hands out of Atlantic City,” two men – Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, the now-former boss of the Philadelphia crime family, and his nephew and second-in-command, Philip “Crazy Phil” Leonetti – were watching the speech live from just a few blocks away. “Doesn’t he know we’re already here?” Scarfo asked his nephew.

In March 1980 the boss of the Philadelphia crime family, Angelo “The Gentle Don” Bruno, was killed by a shotgun blast in the back of the head as he sat in his car in front of his home. It is believed that the killing was ordered by Antonio Caponigro (aka Tony Bananas), Bruno’s consigliere. A few weeks later, Caponigro’s body was found stuffed in a body bag in the trunk of a car in New York City. About $300 in bills were jammed in his mouth and anus (to be interpreted as signs of greed). After Caponigro’s murder, Philip “Chicken Man” Testa led the family for one year until he was killed by a nail bomb at his home. (Wikipedia)

Donald Trump spent 25 years owning a number of properties in Atlantic City, all of which now stand empty. He filed bankruptcy four times. “Early on, I took a lot of money out of the casinos with the financings and the things we do,” he said. “Atlantic City was a very good cash cow for me for a long time.” The town still looks like hell, and maybe there’s a song in that story too.

Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

 

This was originally published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at the No Depression; The Journal of Roots Music website.

The Alternative Fact of “Buffalo Gals”

In 1844 a blackface minstrel named John Hodges, who performed under the name “Cool White,” wrote and published a song titled “Lubly Fan.” Over the years it became quite popular throughout the country, and touring minstrels would often switch up the lyrics to appeal to wherever they were playing. Now considered a traditional American folk song, almost everybody knows the chorus.

Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight?
Come out tonight, Come out tonight?
Buffalo gals, won’t you come out tonight,
And dance by the light of the moon.

According to an article from the Library of Congress, the Ethiopian Serenaders, a white band who also performed in blackface, published sheet music for “Philadelphia Gals” with similar lyrics and no attribution for a composer in 1845, and then again in 1848 for “Buffalo Gals,” presumably for Buffalo, N.Y.

 

That’s a 1929 recording from The Pickard Family, which sounds pretty authentic to the times, but here’s a more homogenized version by Gene Autry that was used for the 1950 film Cow Town. It should be noted that Hollywood used “Buffalo Gals” quite often: It was featured prominently in High NoonTexas, and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

 

Pete Seeger learned the song when he was recruited by Alan Lomax in 1939 to work on cataloging field recordings at the Library of Congress in Washington. This version was recorded for Moses Asch years later, and is still available on the Smithsonian Folkways set titled American Favorite Ballads.

 

In true folk tradition, the tune was appropriated and lyrics changed for rockabilly singer Ray Smith’s version, and he sold over a million copies in 1960 for Judd Records.

 

In 1958 a group called The Olympics had a top-ten single with “Western Movies,” which was written by Fred Smith and Cliff Goldsmith. Two years later, those two composers adapted “Buffalo Gals” in a completely different way:

 

Skipping ahead about 15 years, Malcolm McLaren was a British visual artist, performer, musician, clothing designer, and boutique owner. He supplied stage costumes to the New York Dolls and eventually became well known as the manager of the Sex Pistols. After they self-destructed he was involved with Adam and the Ants, Bow Wow Wow, The Slits, and Jimmy the Hoover.

In the early ’80s I managed a record store in Santa Monica, and an unlikely album captured my attention. McLaren had teamed up with producer Trevor Horn and a duo of radio disc jockeys – The World’s Famous Supreme Team – from New York City who hosted a hip-hop and classic R&B show on WHBI 105.9 FM and were among the first DJs to introduce the art of scratching to the world. Duck Rock was on my turntable almost every night in 1983, and it was this version of “Buffalo Gals” that is my hands-down favorite.

 

Somewhere along the way I lost the album, but 20 years later I found a used CD reissue at Amoeba Records. It always traveled with me in the car along with the twang stuff I listen to, and my kids – who were about ten and seven at the time – learned all the lyrics. Together we could all recite the spoken word interludes that were ripped from the radio shows of Sedivine the Mastermind and Just Allah the Superstar.

A few weeks ago my oldest son and I got to talking about that album, and he reminded me he wrote a paper in college about the evolution of “Buffalo Gals.” I asked him to send it to me, and while he might be disappointed that I strayed from his original narrative and main topic, I have to give him credit for prompting me to write this column. It’s just a great song and the perfect example of how a folk song will twist and turn, with each version presenting an “alternative fact” of the original.

Alright kids, I’ll leave you with my second-favorite version of the song. Play it through and play it loud. And thanks for the catchphrase, Kellyanne.

 

This was originally was published as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column over at No Depression dot com.