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.