Darkness on the Edge of Asbury Park: Bruce Springsteen Revisited

Asbury Park, N.J., en route to Atlantic City. Every now and then I like to drive down to the Jersey Shore and revisit Asbury Park’s decline–and Bruce Springsteen’s rise. I’ve always had a guilty fondness for tacky beach towns, the bittersweet, decaying glamour of splintered boardwalks, melancholy bungalows, boarded-up Dairy Queens and disintegrating Tilt-A-Whirls. Particularly in the winter months when the desperate pleasures of the short summer season give way to chilly desolation and bleak abandonment. My favorite emotions!

I’ve always had a guilty fondness for Bruce Springsteen too, the bittersweet fusion of exhilaration and dread bred in disintegrating boardwalk towns like Asbury Park. Although I can go through long periods of not listening to him at all, suddenly a single song on the radio will drive me back to incessant, obsessive replay of certain others to the point of emotional exhaustion and drained walkman batteries.

This happened most recently with two songs on his Greatest Hits tape, two songs that share a fateful overlap, such that if you’ve got an auto-reverse on your walkman, you can hear “Atlantic City,” then flip the tape-direction switch and hear “Secret Garden” on the other side–a one-two punch of mesmerizing emotional power. Sometimes I think “Atlantic City” may be the great Springsteen song. In the same way that Atlantic City itself seems to sum up in an intense, compressed way all the desperate longings and anxieties that roll down all the pitted boardwalks of all the beach towns of the Jersey Shore to fester in close quarters in that casino hell, “Atlantic City” as a song can be seen as a compression of all the most urgent and powerful Springsteen songs, a single that combines his multiple songwriting strengths–narrative, musical and emotional. It’s a terse elliptical account of a desperate guy with debts “no honest man can pay,” who’s called on to “do a favor” for a friend down in Atlantic City in the midst of a bitter mob war. He’s hoping the deed (presumably a hit) will wipe the slate clean, settle the debts of the past, allow him to disappear into America and start a new life with his sweetheart. It’s what he hopes, but it’s clear from his tone in the terse, compressed James M. Cain-like cadences of his voice that he doesn’t believe it for a minute.

And when you hear the refrain–” Meet me tonight in Atlantic City “–you know he’s meeting more than his girl; he’s meeting–after one last gaudy night–his grim destiny. There’s something about that refrain that captures that peculiar, haunting Springsteenian urgency, that fusion of romance and dread, of love and metaphysics, that kills me:

Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty

And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.

Meet me tonight in Atlantic City.…

He’s meeting more than a girlfriend, he’s dressing up for Death. It’s Antony and Cleopatra on the boardwalk. (“Let’s have one other gaudy night. Call to me all my sad captains.”) It puts you in a state and I’m not talking about New Jersey. And then when the final incantatory reiteration of ” Meet me tonight in Atlantic City ” comes to a close on an echoing diminuendo, you can flip the auto-reverse and right there on the other side it seems like the same brooding chords start stirring themselves into the somber erotic mystifications of “Secret Garden.”

Don’t give me the ol’ raised eyebrow about “Secret Garden” either, just because it was on the Jerry Maguire soundtrack and some idiot West Coast Top-40 DJ started the fad of interpolating movie dialogue into the song’s silences and turned it into a mega-hit that made way for the even more unfortunate mega-hit remix of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” with moist Titanic dialogue morsels.

It’s always seemed to me that the trick to truly appreciating the glories of American popular culture at its best is to overcome the tacky adhesions of mere popularity–to get over the Jerry Maguire associations of “Secret Garden”–and tune into the thing in itself, appreciate its pure empyrean pop sublimity. So if you lower the raised eyebrow and listen to “Secret Garden” you’ll find it to be an ecstatic expression of awe at the elusiveness and mystery of women, a mystery that transcends traditional “chicks are strange, man” mystification to gesture lovingly at some mystical apprehension beyond that–something akin to the beautiful awestruck hopelessness of Neil Young’s “Helpless” with its “Blue, blue windows behind the stars” gesturing to a Mystery beyond the mystery. Like “Atlantic City,” “Secret Garden” puts you in a state, and again, it ain’t the Garden State.

So I set out for the Jersey Shore, for the drive to Asbury Park and then down to Atlantic City with the echo of those two songs ringing in my ears–and thoughts of Springsteen as a songwriter revolving in my head. My “Atlantic City”/”Secret Garden” jag had prompted me to shell out fifty bucks for the big new Springsteen lyric book Songs (Avon Books), a fascinating document in the history of fin de siècle popular culture whose release seems to have been overshadowed and overlooked in the hype over the release of the expensive four-disk box set of unreleased Springsteen songs, outtakes and alternative versions. I’m still listening to that, studying it, and I’ll have more to say about it, but I found the lyric book (which contains the words for all the songs that had been released on previous albums) a revealing and thought-provoking evocation of Bruce’s evolution as a songwriter, one that might require more than one column to explore. But one thing it did was focus the Bob Dylan comparison for me.

When I spoke of the way Springsteen was “a guilty pleasure” for me, part of the guilt comes from the fact that a powerful strain of pop-culture conventional wisdom holds that if you like Bob Dylan you can’t really like Springsteen, too, or you can’t like him as much because he’s so derivative of Dylan, or you can’t like him in the same way. Or if you really like him then you don’t really like Dylan (in the correct way) and you’re kind of shallow for not realizing it.

I disagree. I think there was really a kind of premature judgment on Springsteen made too early in his career by many, especially by many Dylan fans, a judgment based mainly on a dismissal of his early Dylan-derivative work, a judgment that ignores his extraordinary subsequent growth as a songwriter, a growth the lyric book demonstrates: the way he shed the Dylanesque training wheels, the shallow surrealism and cheap carnivalesque imagery that hobbled his early work and permitted him to emerge full-fledged as an artist in his own right, with a voice and a spell all his own.

The lyric book itself seems a deliberate echo of the Dylan lyric book, Lyrics 1962-1985 (now out of print, with the long-promised updated successor apparently stuck immobile in some Dylanesque publishing limbo). Bruce’s book is a big production, featuring words to nearly 150 songs interspersed with reproductions of the lined sheets of three-hole-punch notebook paper on which Bruce scrawled many of his first drafts. The inclusion of the first drafts with the writerly cross-outs, revisions and re-thinks suggests that Bruce wants to be taken–like Dylan–as a real writer, not just another pop singer. And that he deserves to be.

Sure, you see the way–particularly in the lyrics for his first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. , and its follow-up with the painfully pretentious title, The Wild ,The Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle –Dylanesque pretensions crippled his early work and prevented many people from taking his later work seriously for too long. I know it did for me. Sure I loved “Rosalita” (if you don’t love “Rosalita,” your soul’s too dead to appreciate any pop music) but whenever the super-fast tempo of songs like “Blinded by the Light” slowed enough for me to hear the lyrics, I felt repelled by what seemed to me such obvious copping from Highway 61 Revisited -period Dylan. It was Highway 61 Revisited revisited. “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is “Queen Jane, Approximately”–all too approximately. (And the lyric book now reveals to me that the one line I thought original and daring–a line in “Blinded by the Light” I always heard as “cut loose like a douche”–a line I kind of admired for injecting a joyful vulgarism into Top 40 pop–is really the far more conventional “cut loose like a deuce .” I hate when that happens.)

Still, despite many bad-Dylan moments (like the opening of “Blinded by the Light” which goes, “Madman drummers, bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat”–yuck!) you can catch glints and glimmers of what’s to come, particularly in “Spirit in the Night,” that soar beyond the still-clunky derivativeness (did he lift “Crazey Janey” from Yeats’ “Crazy Jane”?) to some ecstatic incantatory Springsteenian realm of its own.

And there’s a line I hadn’t paid attention to before in “Growin’ Up” that could be the metaphor for the way Bruce unlocked his own voice, his own place in the rock-‘n’-roll pantheon; “I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.” That engine in that old parked car was rock-‘n’-roll when Springsteen started playing with a bar band in Asbury Park in the late 60’s. Post-Dylan, post-Beatles, the engine of its inventiveness was stalled and–like Van Morrison, like Neil Young, like Tom Petty–Bruce found the key not in some new means of transportation but in hot-wiring the old. It wasn’t dead, or if it was, it was a case of maybe everything that dies someday comes back , and with Born to Run it came back. He brought internal combustion back to that dead engine again.

Part of it had to do with a trade-in: He traded in Dylan for Roy Orbison and Phil Spector, a shift signaled in the opening lines of the very first song on Born to Run , the still incomparable “Thunder Road”: “As the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely/Hey that’s me …”

“That’s me”: That’s him finding his voice, finding a purer, simpler lyricism, but one no less haunting and powerful. A process of purification and simplification would rid his work of sophomoric Dylanesque surrealism and ultimately produce such elegant, compressed masterpieces as “Atlantic City” and “Secret Garden.”

But I have to admit I was slow to catch on. I liked “Born to Run” as a radio hit, but I refused to buy the album until finally someone turned me on to its successor, Darkness of the Edge of Town , which was so dark, so noir, so edgy , it finally caught my attention, and then sent me back to Born to Run and forward to The River . He’s done some great songs since then, but to me Darkness on the Edge of Town is the heart of Springsteen’s darkness–and greatness. Darkness featured what still might be the three strongest Springsteen songs: “Badlands” (an homage to the amazing Terrence Malick film), “The Promised Land” and the searing, soaring title track.

Before I get deeper into Darkness on the Edge of Town , before I get deeper into the Darkness on the Edge of Asbury Park that has enveloped not just the edge but the whole, the soul of the town, indulge me. Let me cite from my study of the lyric book my newly revised, highly personal list of absolutely indispensable Springsteen songs. A list that includes only two songs from the first two albums, “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita,” then three from Born to Run , “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets” (which at times rises to a doomed grandeur) and the title track. Three from Darkness (“Darkness” itself, “Badlands” and “The Promised Land”), three from The River (“Hungry Heart,” “The Wreck on the Highway” and “The Price You Pay”–one of the all-time greats). Only one from Nebraska , “Atlantic City.” (I just don’t like Bruce in his ersatz Woody Guthrie mode, it’s well intentioned but it just doesn’t play to his strengths as a songwriter. So no selections from The Ghost of Tom Joad .) Only one from Born in the U.S.A. , “Dancing in the Dark.” (I just don’t like brassy stadium rock.) Two from Tunnel of Love , “Tougher than the Rest,” one of his most beautiful pure love songs, and “Brilliant Disguise.” Only one from Human Touch , but it’s a killer: “I Wish I Were Blind” a shattering ballad of stricken jealousy. One from Lucky Town , “If I Should Fall Behind”; and two that appeared only on the Greatest Hits compilation “Streets of Philadelphia” (commissioned for the Jonathan Demme film) and, of course, “Secret Garden.”

There! Dispute it if you like, but I’d argue that these 19 songs, my personal greatest-hits list, rival Dylan’s at his most powerful and lyrical (although not at his most visionary and Joycean). I’d argue they approach the level of the songs Dylan was writing in his love-tormented Blood on the Tracks period. A period in which Dylan’s work–and I know this will be heresy to some of his fans–sounds most Springsteenian.

I’ll return to these songs and their strengths in a later column but I want to return to the Jersey shore for a moment, to that Jersey shore pilgrimage that took me as far south as the Hieronymous Bosch-like hell of the Trump Taj Mahal on a holiday weekend, just about as low as you can go. But I want to talk about an earlier moment, a moment on the desolate, blighted, boarded-up Asbury Park boardwalk.

In the best of Springsteen songs you hear the echoes of Asbury Park in its first stages of decline, a distillation of its disintegrating beach-town glamour that transformed the tacky organ-grinder grandeur of beach music into something rich and strange.

But the decline and fall that Springsteen limned has turned into a dismaying plunge. Some 10 years ago, when I last checked out the Asbury Park boardwalk, it had turned grim, dingy and menacing, but I could still play Skee-Ball and get a little frisson of post-Bruce boardwalk vibe. But now it looks like frozen death, a desolate, blasted landscape of the sort I used to see when I hung out with Brooklyn homicide cops in the bad days of East New York in the late 80’s. A bitter, blighted wasteland. I hope someday if Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey gets nominated for national office (as many speculate she will in the year 2000) that someone comes here with a camera crew and captures the reality–the skull beneath the skin–of Govenor Whitman’s New Jersey. But it’s Bill Clinton’s boardwalk and Al Gore’s America too, this scarred and scary damaged vista that gives the lie to the notion that the rising Dow lifts all boats. There’s a lot of wreckage here, structural and human, that should wipe the grin off Alan Greenspan’s mug when he boasts about our fabulous full-employment economy.

And where’s Bruce, why isn’t he doing anything about the hellhole his home base has turned into? Shouldn’t he be writing an open letter to Governor Whitman demanding that she take some action to revive the corpse of this boardwalk, this town that was the birthplace of his sound and sensibility? Maybe everything that dies someday comes back .

Where’s Bruce? Well, one place he could be found, in spirit at least, in the frozen desert the Asbury Park boardwalk has become, is in a haunting image I came across on the wall of a long-decayed and shuttered barn-like structure called “Palace Amusements,” that once featured something called the “SKOOTER RIDE.” A kind of Pompeian mural of lost joy in a city of the dead.

The damaged signage seemed to have more to communicate than mere decay: all that was left of PALACE was ACE and the T had dropped off AMUSEMENTS. So if you stared too long at that Asbury Park Skooter Ride mural (as I obviously did) it could be saying ACE, AMUSE MEN! Or ACE, A MUSE, MEN! Was this an oracular message the young Springsteen, Asbury Park ace, saw speaking to him from the Skooter Ride Wall? There is that line from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”: “Teardrops on the city, Bad Scooter searching for his groove.”

I found myself transfixed by the frozen smiles painted on the depictions of the Skooter Riders suspended on the wall in their primitive bumper-cars. A strange mixture of what appeared to be terror and pleasure affixed on their faces. Frozen smiles that seemed to reflect some alchemy of fear and desire–that signature Springsteen fusion of exhilaration and dread. Is this where Bad Skooter found his groove–his muse? Is this where he first saw the skull beneath the skin of the Amusement Palace of life? The darkness on the edge of fun there in those painted faces. The price you pay for a few brief moments in the promised land. Meet me tonight in Atlantic City and I’ll tell you.