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Thunder Pie | Bruce Springsteen’s Atlantic City

Everything I tell you here happened the way I say it happened because I say it did. That’s the beauty of writing, of art. Even if I lie, who knows? Maybe it still happened.


“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.

So, yeah.

No regrets.

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. 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.

To read the rest of this essay and more from Serge Bielanko, subscribe to his Substack feed HERE.

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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin.


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