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But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests. Lonely one, you are going the way to yourself! And your way goes past yourself, and past your seven devils! You will be a heretic to yourself and witch and soothsayer and fool and doubter and unholy one and villain. You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame: how could you become new, if you had not first become ashes?
- Friedrich Nietzsche
In the summer of 1984, when I was almost 13 years old, the New Jersey shore was intoxicating. The breezes reeked of saltwater and fish, the skies all seemed impenetrably blue. There was, for suburban Philly kids like myself, an aura of magic to the place. Far from the common drag of our regular lives, the sun shined differently on Jersey in July.
Grown men sliced into bluefish and their guts came sliding out. A trickle of blood went down the fish’s face. The seagulls screamed right over head.
Everything seemed wondrous and magical.
Everything seemed, to me, to be living and dying all at once.
I first heard Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City on MTV the year it came out. It had to be 1982, I guess, but as you grow older years begin to seep in and out of each other so if you’re looking to hang your hat on hard facts here, you can forget it. I walk back into my memories the same as you do. Rolling fog and flashlights and old familiar faces darting in and out of the smoky beam for just a second before they’re gone again.
Everything I tell you here happened the way I say it happened because I say it happened that way.
That’s the beauty of writing, of art.
Even if I lie, who knows? Maybe it still fucking happened.
Anyways, the Atlantic City video was stark and noir by design, a hodgepodge of random rainy day street trolling up and down that shore town’s strange streets. At the time, AC as most people called it, was just stepping into the ring: a newly minted heavyweight contender who seemed to have an Irish jaw, Italian chest, Black fists, and a Jewish nose that had been broken so many times that it looked like a meatball nailed to an alley brick. Once a popular resort for our grandparent’s parents, time had snipped all the fancy clothes off of AC and left her drunk on the beach. Naked. Hopeless.
But around 1978 things started happening a lot different. Atlantic City became a legal gambling town. It was a resurrection move.
And it worked. As Bruce was saying in this song, in this video I kept coming across, maybe it was possible for things that once seemed very unlikely sometimes occur anyway. The left-for-dead, they mostly died in life, the way they were supposed to. But every now and then some of them awoke in the middle of the night/ brushed the sand off of their ratty church clothes/ and stood up straight like cinema zombies, headed back towards the boardwalk, stumbling across the sand; back towards the lights of town; away from the dark abyss that had been lapping at their unlucky heels just moments ago.
Fate, Bruce was saying, has a way of not really giving a shit about what we think or do.
Luck, Bruce was implying, has nothing to do with anything else.
The song stuck out to me then. I was a kid still, but I had seen some things. I was precocious in my own way/ pulling decent grades in the public school system/ curious about books and music more than most of the kids coasting their Kmart Mongooses across the upper west side of Conshohocken in the after-dinner sunset glow of the cool late October evenings that seem to define youth in so many ways.
Springsteen wasn’t a given for me yet.
He wasn’t everywhere at that point because he was still a year or so away from releasing Born in the USA, the album that would lift him from whatever he was in 1983 to what he was destined to become in 1984.
Philly was a Bruce city though, and I was a radio kid. WMMR and WYSP played his music more than most stations in the country. He had found a home here early on through legendary live shows and a collection of old school DJs who played whatever the hell they wanted to play whenever the hell they wanted to play it. There was no intensely researched listenership being done by radio stations back then. They weren’t all owned by conglomerates yet and so the music they featured, although mostly true to some kind of early stage ‘format’, it was still more loosely interpreted by open minds than whatever passes for radio today.
It was a world without algorithms. We existed without commercial science. Music was less a product or a brand at that time than it is now. People were still fucking charmingly dumb. The internet had not wrapped us all in its collective duct tape and forced us all to digest each other’s galaxies when we didn’t really have any need to.
Atlantic City, the way I heard it, from its very first line, was a Philly song for Philly people.
Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night…
I found out who the Chicken Man was by asking around. I imagined him being blown to bits on his stoop not all that far from me laying in my bed on some winter night when I had no idea that world outside my bedroom window was capable of such immaculate cruelty.
Or such titanic storytelling.
I got a Nebraska cassette from the Sam Goody’s at Plymouth Meeting Mall with my paper route money sometime in late 1983, early 1984, just before the Springsteen meteor split the sky open and left the stratosphere.
With the paper route thing, I never turned any of the money in. I kept it all. I didn’t understand how the game worked. The guy, Red, from The Times Herald, the same short ginger fella who dropped the papers off for me on my mom’s porch six days a week, he would knock sometimes looking for the lion’s share of my collection days. I owed the newspaper their majority cut but something inside me rebelled against that fact.
The money, in all its dirty neat plastic pouch glory, it spoke to me every time I unzipped its hiding place to take it in with my eyes. I had never had any money of my own before. I had delivered these papers, wrapped every one of them in a rubber band and stuffed them in my carrying sack and limped up and down the hilly streets of my neighborhood making sure all of these people got their papers on time/ right after school/ right before dinner/ every goddamn day.
The idea of having to part with the money, or even most of it, didn’t sit well with me.
So I hid in the shower whenever Red came knocking. My mom was always at work. My younger brother was home though, and sometimes some of my friends were over, and so when I knew it was a day when Red would be looking for the loot, I would scream when I saw him pull up to our curb in his navy blue van.
FUCK FUCK FUCK!! Red is here!! I would yell as I flipped the TV off and started running for the basement where our only bathroom was. Anyone else in the house with me would follow me then, scrambling down the cellar steps, our hearts pounding, half laughing but also half scared out of our minds. There was, it seemed to us, a very real aura that loaned itself to the very sincere possibility of a scene that could unfold in which Red started kicking down our behemoth front door, stormed into the house hollering my name, all of us huddled in the dark cool of the shower, our sneakers stepping on the shower curtain, hushing each other, shhhh/ SHHHHH!, as we trembled with the absolute fear that comes when kids convince themselves that horror is imminent and that death is thumping, slowly, down the basement steps.
It was a life of crime back then for me, I suppose. I was a small-time gangster, propelled by a yearning hunger to keep loot that wasn’t mine.
So I could spend it at the mall.
Which is how I brought Nebraska home with me in the first place.
That summer, 1984, my mom let me go to stay for a week at the shore with my Aunt Betty and my Uncle Carl. They were from my grandfather’s side, married a long time with two adult kids and a couple of grandkids of their own. I was literally sick with anticipation, coked out of my mind on excitement and possibility.
My Aunt Betty was my Pop-Pop’s older sister. She smoked narrow cigarettes and her skin was the kind of antique veiny leather that got caramelized from endless exposure to the summer sun. She weighed 88 pounds wet and wore sleeveless button down blouses in pastel colors that always seemed to go nicely with her short bouffant hair which was headstone grey without any trace of trying to fake otherwise. She talked with a smoky voice and cackled when she laughed, dredging up all the tar in her lungs, which led to what I can only describe as quite possibly THE defining sound of adulthood to any American kid in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Smoker’s Laugh, and then the Smoker’s Cough that usually caught up to it, was strangely comforting to me as a boy. I liked the idea that someone like my Aunt Betty has so much scrap in her. Lung cancer and heart health or whatever, those were not things I thought about back then. I didn’t even know about them at all because no one cared. Smokers smoked and then they turned into paint chips on a rollaway bed, gasping for breath, dying in the front room to the sounds of the afternoon TV.
My Aunt Betty looked somewhat like a summer skeleton with a cig poised in her lips like a movie star. She took no bullshit and I had a feeling she could shoot a rifle and maybe even a bow and arrow. Sometimes she talked to me evenly and curious. Sometimes she stood in the room, sipping her Manhattan, as if I wasn’t even there. Which, for most of her time on Earth, was true.
Uncle Carl had knots in his knuckles from arthritis that looked like walnuts living in his skin, or like hardboiled eggs working their way down into a snake. He was a big man, lurched to one side from what I figured was the pain of an old person’s injury that took his torso and just shoved it forever sideways in the middle of some night once long ago, much like a storm would bend a tree.
He was, in my eyes, a master fisherman, able to catch hundreds of flounder across a hot afternoon, keeping them all, fuck the ocean and fuck the fishery, this is how we do it. He seemed to know so many things that he knew I didn’t know and would probably never know. This I felt in his snarky grin and the way he’d grab my arms and show me how to put a wad of squid on a hook by using his beat-up weathered hands to make my soft chubby ones do it right. Sometimes, when we were out in his boat, he would appear so tan and regal and handsome to me that I often felt as if he was some kind of Atlantic God sent to sprinkle magic man dust on this chunky shit-for-brains kid who just so happened to be his nephew.
Uncle Carl had once been the kind of state trooper who took his friends out on dark winter nights to drink whiskey and cruise the dirt roads of the vast desolate prison grounds, loaded deer rifles across their laps, until they saw a buck. Or a doe. Or three does. Or five bucks frozen in the beam. Then all hell broke loose as they unleashed their weapons in a drunken burst that landed them, I’m quite certain, somewhere in the forgotten land between cold-blooded murderer and seasoned outdoorsman.
After leaving the force, he and Aunt Betty had owned a booming and popular bar and restaurant called The Gwynedd Inn. My mom told me stories about it. About the Eagles players and the golf pros who would eat and party there. The New Year’s Eve celebrations, she said, were incredible. She was just a little girl then. She would fall asleep on a row of chairs covered in coats to the sound of the revelry going late into the night.
Now they were retired and they lived on Mystic Island in a more recent development built on marshland lagoons. Every house had a street of water out back and a real street out front. Everyone had a nice dock and a boat too, it seemed to me. Uncle Carl’s dock was two levels: a lower part right on the water where the 6-person motor boat was tied, and a higher part, built on long stilt beams that went down into the lagoon. During low tides it appeared that I was 100 miles above the water down below me when I was hanging off the side looking straight down into the crab trap I was pulling up from the dark. It was probably only 12 feet at most, but like I said before: 12 feet/ 100 miles/ what’s the goddamn difference, you know?
At night, on the pebbles of their grassless yard, I noticed something.
Out beyond the no wake zone, where the lagoon lanes ended at the rougher choppy bay, there was a long stretch of water that went on forever. And just beyond that, many miles from this place where I was standing, there were twinkling lights, and the flickering dazzle of setting sunshine glinting off of what appeared to be glass.
What’s that out there, I asked Uncle Carl that first night I was alone with him. I was pointing at the horizon. I knew nothing about where I was other than that the sea was close.
What’s what?, he replied, unsure of what I meant.
There, I showed him again with my pointed finger, all those shining buildings in the middle of the ocean.
He looked and then it hit him and then he chuckled a little the way old state cops do when little kids say goofy shit.
That? he teased. That’s Atlantic City.
I stared, mesmerized. The song began playing behind my face.
Then he added one last thing.
That ain’t the ocean either, he said, calmly, flatly. That’s the bay. Then after the bay there’s Atlantic City. Then after Atlantic City there’s the ocean. And the ocean never ends.
Of all the songs that Bruce Springsteen has ever written, somehow something about Atlantic City stands apart. Which, I know, I know: anyone can say that about any song from anyone. And it doesn’t mean shit either because it’s all opinion and who really cares except other people that have their own opinions cocked and loaded and ready to shoot your opinion in its point blank face?
Aside from that though, I am right.
I knew this long ago. Not right away as I connected the distant lights of Atlantic City from Mystic Island so much. But it wasn’t so long after that week either. I played the song a few times on my Walkman during that time, glaring at the shimmering casinos beckoning far away. I wondered who was in there.
Who was clinking ice in a nice glass of whiskey?
Who was peeling back the tin foil from a nice piece of bluefish covered in steamed tomatoes and wedges of lemon in the dark mahogany booth of some classy restaurant?
Who was kissing who because the dice had come through?
Who was standing in the bathroom at the pisser, their life coming unraveled quickly, their hands shaking as they shook off the last drops of pee?
Who were the mob guys watching? A busty fox from out of state? A small time gambler winning too much for his own good? A black guy security guard? Each other across the bar?
Who was checking in?
Who was checking out?
And who was standing outside in the parking lot, in the the slanted neon paint of the illuminated Playboy bunny watching over everything and everyone like God?
Who was it walking slowly across the dirty blacktop, past the rows of cars, and then the rows of idling buses, their diesel burning and their air conditioners humming as their drivers sat smoking cigarettes, half asleep, up behind the steering wheels of their locked up rides?
Was it the guy from Atlantic City? The dude from the song?
Was it the guy whose luck never came trying this one last thing?
Was it Bruce himself? Was he the guy he was singing about?
What stood apart about Atlantic City to me right then is not so easy to put into simple English words. But I think it was something like this.
In the backing vocals that Bruce himself recorded, there are several men at once. I heard them first way back then, when I was a kid staring at the real Atlantic City in real time when the mob was down in there and so, perhaps, were your grandparents from Langhorne or Long Island or wherever, trying their luck, eating their fill.
They are there, these men singing, and what they sing, wordless parts/ wailing parts as well as: meet me tonight in Atlantic City over and over again: they are the painfully dug-up cries of the ultra frightened and the eternally damned. Like banshees, like ghosts of men who have tried before but were annihilated by their own villainous outsized dreams, the sounds the other Bruces make behind the sound the main Bruce makes are where we move beyond the hair standing up on the back of our necks into a realm we have rarely visited before.
It is here, I believe, in this chilling collision of Springsteens in the echoey night, that I first understood in this life that a narrator, no matter how believable, or even likable he may be, can still be run down by his own demons. Even right there in the final moments of a song that has done everything humanly possible to make us think that maybe/ just maybe/ this time it will be okay/ we are/ as the background vocals slowly rise/ bearing witness to the death of a man who just got done telling us he was about to shine.
A couple Bruce Springsteens kill off the main one, man. Right there in the final act, in the fleeting seconds of Atlantic City.
The guy from Born to Run. The guy from Darkness. The guy from Greetings from Asbury Park, they will find him wrapped up in a shitty rug out by the airport one of these days. Some tin can collector poking around the ends of the marsh out where the road is rotting away because no one needs it, he will smell something terrible and he will gag and kick the rug.
Then we will know for sure.
And most importantly, the other Bruce Springsteens will be able to carry on, unimpeded by the one that had to go.
It’s just a theory.
But again: I’m right.
Across that week, I don’t know why it all remains with me unlike almost anything else I have ever done.
Or does it?
I don’t know. I have vivid, mood-lit memories. I can taste the salt. I can lick my lips and still feel the bumpy chap from the wind on the bay where we caught so many flounder that my arms were sore by dinner.
In the night, I would listen to the Phillies in the dark of the guest room. I’d hear Aunt Betty flush the toilet across the hall, walk softly down the rug, close her bedroom door behind her. Sometimes I’d hear her cough. It sounded muffled and far. I would blink my eyes and watch the shadows climb the wall, the sound of the Phil’s announcers so familiar to me by then, and the occasional seagull, crying in the night, down towards the water in the darkness.
The sand crabs would wait nervous in their holes.
The mosquitos would bounce silent down the screen.
The American Flags limp on their poles, sometimes they stirred just a tiny bit in the sleepy breeze.
Once, a massive great white shark, 19 feet long, the size of two Cadillacs tied together, swam up by my Uncle Carl’s boat, his eyes fixed on the stars in the sky. They looked streaky to him underwater. He was lost back in this godforsaken lagoon. In the morning I saw a dead dog with its head chopped off floating on the far side by the reeds.
I didn’t say anything.
I played Atlantic City on my Walkman and watched the flies eat the guts out from the neck hole.
Time has come and gone. I don’t know where it is now. I am still here but so much has past. Redefining our lives seems ruthless work as we age. Revisiting long lost incidents or people, it all comes easily but crashes in time. The stark reality of our own passing existence is something I find fascinating. Death hasn’t scared me much yet, but that’s likely because it hasn’t spoken to me directly yet either.
The voice of a true killer is rattling. It must strike a person, upon first hearing it, as all wrong, all too different from what we expected. Death must sound cruel, like hacking coughs, right? Its timbre must be deep and low and forceful and cruel without even trying, no?
Well, I don’t know. I’m not so sure about any of that. Expectations have failed me so often. My own vision of things is a joke at this point. In the end of Atlantic City, the guy singing to his woman is the guy singing to us. But it’s the other guys in the shadows who eventually emerge to show us, not tell us, the rest of the story. The dreams of young Serge once upon a time, they were funny. They were ridiculous. In the dry shower, huddled with my friends, we whispered in the dark not to laugh and not to move. It was almost as if we really believed that he would come. That the guy would enter the house, sniff us out, and rip the shower curtain open to reveal teenagers pissing themselves with true horror.
It almost seems, in looking back at it all, that I almost wanted that guy to come after us.
Why? I don’t know.
Maybe to liven up a slow summer’s day.
Maybe because, somewhere deep down, I thought I deserved it. I had taken the money, spent it at the mall. I had destroyed a version of myself with another version that existed for no other apparent reason that I can figure but to ruin everything.
We walk out on those stones more than we think, I suspect. We tiptoe across the slippery rocks and we try to keep our balance, but between you and me: there’s a part of us (a big part sometimes) that kind of wants to feel what it feels like to lose all control. To begin slipping and then to understand that there’s no way to stop. There, down inside the razor slit of the freshest fear possible, each of us finds out what we are made of.
Human fear is everywhere.
Human expectations are born just to have their throats slashed by small time hoods.
Atlantic City across the long bay, man, that is a sparkling gem propped up against the highest wall possible. The endless towering wall of night. And anything can happen out there in it. That is what Bruce Springsteen was saying with the song Atlantic City, and with the album Nebraska as a whole.
We are bound to suffer. Bound to cry. Bound to lose so much along the way that it might even be our own background vocals that kill us one of these days. Just so we can move on, free from the chains of the versions of us that only ever drug us down.
Go ahead. Listen. Go listen again. It’s all there. Atlantic City. Go listen to it one more time. You’ll see.
I don’t know what you’re going to do with it, but it’s there.
Hello there. I hope you’re doing well. And I’m hoping you liked this Thunder Pie essay today. I wrote it because my friend, Tom Flannery, who is a wonderful writer, suggested that we should both write something about Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska. That was the only rule, Tom said. It just has to have something to do with that record. Other that, run with it. I really had a good time trying to find my way into one of my favorite songs of all time/ and then back out again. Please go to Tom’s Substack, Scranton Time, to read his Springsteen Nebraska essay. You have to. I swear, you won’t be sorry. And please subscribe to his stuff too. Tom publishes several times a week and he is just a really funny, insightful writer who makes you think.
Speaking of subscribing: today’s writing from me was a FREE one. But if you really enjoy my writing, maybe it’s time to help support me so I can keep doing it?? Just $120 a year or $10 a month for like 47 new essays a year. That’s several books worth for your hard-earned money. I depend on folks like you who ultimately decide to help pay for my art. If you already are a paid subscriber: thank you so much.
Things I Loved This Week.
Arle turned 40. She is the absolute best partner, wife, sidekick, boss, hero, villain, parent, step-parent, co-parent, lover, fighter, dreamer, schemer, artist, bacon eater, music fan, witchy spirit, super cool badass mountain woman who has ever lived in the history of the world. And I love her.
This Fool (TV Show/ Hulu). Season 2 of this show starring the wildly brilliant, Frankie Quiñones, has had me laughing out loud so much across just three episodes so far that I almost can’t believe that I’m not dreaming. The writers on this one have zeroed in on a version of Hispanic-American life that I know next to nothing about, BUT…. I somehow feel incredible love and affection for. That is the sign of damn good art, I’d say. This show is one of the funniest out there right now and it deserves a way bigger audience. So check it out.
My son Henry is currently very into Metallica, a band I have never really paid much attention to. So it’s been pretty awesome sitting with him lately on Saturday nights and letting him show me video (his favorite) after video of the band on YouTube. He has intense and very thought-out opinions about the band and its members and all of it, which makes me smile. I remember being that way when I was his age. And I’m still that way now. Like father/ like son?
Complete MTV Video Music Awards, September 13, 1985, Uncensored . (YouTube). Dazzling time capsule magnificence. The music back then was so much better than I ever realized. Plus: Tom Petty just sitting in the crowd behind David Lee Roth. Little things like that.
I got myself a copy of D. Scott Hartwig’s new book, I Dread the Thought of the Place. This is Hartwig’s long-awaited history of the Battle of Antietam. Two of Arle’s GGG grandfathers fought there! One from each side of her family! Insane. The 160 anniversary of the ‘Bloodiest Day in American History’ is September 17th….this Sunday. Here’s a cool 4 minute video you can watch if you’re curious about what went down.
Atlantic City / Bruce Springsteen. One of a kind.
Thunder Pie is Edited by Arle Bielanko
Photos: screen shots stolen from ‘Atlantic City’ video, 1982.
Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
But with you forever I'll stay
We're going out where the sand's turning to gold
So put on your stockings, baby, 'cause the night's getting cold.
- Bruce Springsteen, ‘Atlantic City’