Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” makes A.M. Shuffle put its makeup on and fix its hair up pretty

Cranking up the morning’s writing engine with A.M. Shuffle, a few thoughts on whatever song pops up next in the random playlist. Today: Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”

Key lyric: “I’m tired of coming out on the losing end / so last night I met this guy, I’m going to do a little favor for him … ”

Somebody, I’m not sure who or I’d give them credit, pointed out recently that the patron saints of male sportswriters are Bruce Springsteen and Jason Isbell, and the one you pray to first depends on whether you’re over or under age 40. There’s a lot of truth to that; both are brilliant songwriters, both are storytellers, both give an eloquent voice to the losers and the lost who don’t otherwise speak for themselves.

That’s all in evidence right here in “Atlantic City.” Springsteen sings before the music even starts, so you can tell right off the bat that this here’s serious music. But beyond that, this is a complete story. (Well, almost complete. We’ll get to that in a second.)

You can see the complete narrative arc here: society’s falling apart (“trouble busing in from out of state,” etc.) and is being remade by criminals in finer suits, while on the low end you’ve got our narrator, a guy who wants and hopes for something more, even though he knows better (“maybe everything that dies someday comes back”).

It’s bad, and there’s no real hope of it getting better. “Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City” gets my vote for one of the most heartbreaking lines in music. The desperation, the prayer, the grim knowledge that this really probably isn’t going to work out … it’s all there. The odds are already long against our guy, and despite all the wealth on display, you know the first rule of the casino: the house always wins in the end.

So what happens to our narrator, who’s got those “debts no honest man can pay”? Put it this way: other than the chorus, the last we hear from him is about the “little favor” he’s going to do for some guy he just met. Our narrator is one of the poor sad bastards who serves as cannon fodder, taking the rap or taking a bullet for someone else.

This whole three-minute story plays out like an episode of “The Sopranos,” and it’s no coincidence that show mines the exact same mythical-Jersey territory as Springsteen. Hell, the video above presages the show’s opening credits by nearly two decades.

This song’s about as perfect as thinking music gets. It ain’t rock, but it’s something far more than the sum of its spare parts. Play it the next time you’re down, and remember: there’s always someone who’s got it much, much worse than you … and they’ll bring you right down with them if you’re not careful.

Jay

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