‘Put your make up on/fix your hair real pretty/and meet me tonight in Atlantic City’
Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City
My days of television over-indulgence are seemingly way behind me. A combination of children, work and insipid programming have reduced my viewing hours. Perhaps until either retirement (yeah, right) or senility catch up with me first. Were it not for Association Football, NFL, The Wire and The Sopranos I would have barely racked up more than an hour or two per week in front of the box these last few years. A recent addition to that list is HBO’s epic Boardwalk Empire. Set in Atlantic City during the Prohibition era, Boardwalk Empire is breathtakingly good, as you might expect from something that involves Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and Steve Buscemi. It also exposes the myth that only the Brits can carry off period drama when the reality is that only the Brits can carry off stultifying dull period drama. It’s such essential viewing that it makes me want to go visit Atlantic City, because anyone who has been reading any of my inane ramblings will know by now that my travels revolve greatly around my popular culture obsessions. In this case there is no need to take the long road to New Jersey’s version of Blackpool. I’ve already been there. And it wasn’t a TV show that made me go, because that would be slightly ridiculous. No, I went because of a song.
The evening I rode into Atlantic City it was only the fourth day of the Great American Road Trip (as it shall be trademarked from now on) which me and my wife were embarking upon. We started the day in Gettysburg in neighbouring Pennsylvania and looking at the road map it looked a mere hop, skip and a jump to AC. It was a hop that would leave Bob Beamon nodding in admiration as it lasted for a whole six hours. You could cross from one side of the UK to the other in half the time. After such a fatiguing car journey what I most needed from AC was a relaxing night and some good old American hospitality. What I got was the most annoying receptionist ever to park their arse behind a welcome desk.
“Hello Sir, welcome to Harrahs. How can I help you today?”
You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds like a pleasant enough welcome, but don’t be deceived. Firstly, the woman who said it had an unfathomably high-pitched voice. Secondly, she had a very unconvincing perma-grin and appeared unable to look at me directly in the face. Lastly, she bore an uncanny resemblance to Debbie McGee and I’ve never liked her. This particular disdain for the sidekick of one of the 80s most popular TV light entertainers arises from the fact I could never work out why so many people found her attractive. She was only attractive in relation to Paul Daniels, in that you always felt he was punching massively above his weight. But that’s no way of judging a person’s attractiveness as even if Paul Daniels had bagged Vanessa Feltz he’d have been punching a few notches above his true level. With all this in mind I took an instant dislike to the receptionist. Little did I know that this was just the build up of my overwhelming antipathy towards her.
“Hi, I have a reservation in the name of Gray.”
This removed the fake grin. Her face began contorting in much the same way mine would if forced to watch the entire box set of Sex in the City.
“I’m sorry Sir. I didn’t quite catch what you said. Could you repeat that for me?”
“I have a reservation in the name of Gray.”
Still the pained expression, only with a hand movement to her ear as though she had just been addressed by someone speaking fluent Cantonese.
“Could you spell your name for me please, sir?”
“G-R-I-Y?” Now squealed in an unprecedented high-pitched level to offend me further.
“No. G-R-A-Y. With an ‘A’”
“With an ‘I’? I’m not seeing that on our booking system sir. Can you spell that again please?”
“I’m sorry Sir; I can’t understand what you are saying. Could I see some ID please?”
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I was having trouble making Americans understand the noise emanating from my mouth. My mother would probably be sympathetic to their pain seeing as she spent much of my adolescence telling me to stop mumbling whenever I spoke. And then castigating me once I stopped speaking to her other than out of sheer necessity. I should have told helium voice to stick it. Or demanded to speak to someone who wouldn’t try to rob me of my dignity. At the very least I should have said I’d leave a shitty comment on Tripadvisor. Instead I wearily passed over my passport.
“Oh, G-R-A-Y. You said it wrong.”
“Sorry? What was I saying then?”
“You were saying ‘I’”
“Really? That’s strange. I’ve been spelling it with an ‘A’ all my life. Funny I should suddenly decide to change now.”
“That’s not a problem sir. Your room is on the 226th floor. Do you know what construction is?”
“Is that the same as building work?”
I metaphorically bit my tongue as I was given a detailed explanation of what construction work is (it does indeed involve building things) and how I may be woken up earlier than I wished for by the fact there was a hotel the size of Plymouth being built next door. I had stopped caring. Even if Debbie McGee had told me I was sharing a room with a touring group of flatulent Mongolian wrestlers I couldn’t have been more depressed than after our initial verbal exchanges. Call me touchy, but there’s something uniquely humiliating about being told you can’t spell your own name after the age of five.
After the hotel welcome I reasoned that the rest of our time in Atlantic City could only be an improvement. Which it was, but it was a close run thing for a while back there. AC is essentially a poor man’s Las Vegas with a seemingly average age of 74 on the night we were there. To me Vegas looks rather sad and stupid during the day without the lure of the neon to brighten the place up. Atlantic City looks sad and stupid even at night. Not Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal hotel though. That just looks incredibly funny. For all the wrong reasons. The famous wooden boardwalk, the first in America, was practically deserted bar the odd wino and staring at the closed tat shops it was hard to imagine that this place had once been a magnet for the rich and powerful. AC cannot only boast the nation’s first boardwalk, it saw the first Ferris wheel, first colour postcards, first Miss America Beauty Pageant and was the model for the first version of Monopoly. It was also very nearly the first (and potentially last) place I ever got run over by a man in a powered wheelchair who, from the way he was weaving from side to side, I detected may have been DUI. To be fair it looked like the most fun you could have in this one-Taj-Mahal-hotel town.
Inevitably my mind started to wander to the song that had made me come here – Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’. This was the song that made me look at Springsteen in a much different light. I don’t think I’ve re-evaluated a musician as much as I have with Springsteen. Growing up I saw Springsteen as representing everything that was corny and naff about American music – stadium rock, badly-acted MTV videos, insanely bad dress sense, and songs, as the Prefab Sprout song said, about cars and girls. I didn’t get it, and didn’t want to get it. He was just another rock dinosaur who said nothing to me about my life. The fact he was called The Boss just made me dislike him even more. What sort of person calls themselves the Boss? Brian Clough could maybe get away with it, but not some tight white t-shirt wearing bloke with an obsession with glory days and forever banging on about being born an American. But then, after constantly seeing artists I admired quoting their appreciation of Springsteen I decided to do some delving. What I found out was that Springsteen never gave himself the name The Boss and doesn’t particularly like it; and that song about being born in the USA isn’t in fact a pro-Republican fist-pumping ode to the greatness of America, but a tale of the alienation felt by returning Vietnam vets, abandoned by the government that had sent them half way across the world to fight and now despised by the people they were apparently fighting for. In my usual obsessive way I accumulated all of Springsteen’s back catalogue and discovered a hefty wedge of musical gems. The album I was most drawn to was ‘Nebraska’, a sparse sounding collection of demos recorded on a 4-track tape recorder. It sounded more like something Dylan would release and thematically it offers precious little hope. It was further confirmation that my initial misgivings about Springsteen representing the American Dream were way off target. Springsteen sings more about the American nightmare and the everyday reality of the struggles of life faced by most people. He’s an undoubted patriot, but an angry one, and he’s as angry as ever with his latest effort, Wrecking Ball; pissed off at the way the bankers and politicians are selling his country and the average man and woman down the river.
The crowning moment of ‘Nebraska’ is the track ‘Atlantic City. It’s a powerfully evocative tale of two young lovers escaping to the city to find a new life. By the end of the song it’s clear that the city’s murky underworld is about to draw the male character in; something he accepts with crushing inevitability
“Well now everything dies baby and that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”
It’s my favourite Springsteen track and even though he was singing of a different time much of what the song elicits is still true today. It’s a city clouded with a sense of gloom and eternal desperation intertwined with a hint of unwavering optimism. After all, this may just be the place where your dollar coin turns into a million dollar bills.
We walked through some of the casinos in search of somewhere to eat, but instead found ourselves gormlessly watching pensions disappear into slot machines. Finally we came across the rather new looking Pier at Caesars. The place was largely deserted, probably because the bars and restaurants inside had some semblance of style. I was drawn to Game On for no other reason than the fact the waitresses wore very few clothes and there was a television the size of your average UK cinema screen showing the baseball. We grabbed a booth and enjoyed a few Yuenglings and a meaty burger while watching the St Louis Cardinals take on the New York Mets. The ball game, beer and burger – it all felt distinctly American, and just the kind of experience I had come looking for, rescuing what had threatened to be a disastrous evening. But there was no escaping the fact that Atlantic City was a mess of a place. It lacked style and it lacked soul, clinging desperately to past glories that are unlikely to ever return unless Florida and Nevada are to suddenly reverse their gambling laws.
Springsteen perfectly captured the mood of the place with the song Atlantic City – it’s a town where dreams come to retire. And if everything that dies does indeed come back then perhaps there is some hope, as Nucky Thompson is probably the only person who could inject some life back into the place. That and some new hotel receptionists.