“Atlantic City” – A Tale of Two Covers
Bruce Springsteen is one of the most captivating and influential musical artists of the last 100 years. Appropriately nicknamed “The Boss”, Bruce embodies the true definition of both sophisticated poet and dynamic entertainer. His sound evokes the best that arena rock has to offer while his style and versatility remain the standard for the modern day rock star. But it is Springsteen’s songwriting prowess that will write his legacy.
The mark of a great songwriter to some extent is the magnitude to which their work is covered. Springsteen’s has been covered more than most. He proudly points out, “A lot of people had hits with my music that I did not, could not, and would not have hits with”. Bruce is the working man’s poet, a blue-collar bard. His tunes deal with the grim truths that consume most of us and the sobering insecurities that confront us all. They are genuinely relatable which is why people love them. It is also why they beg to be covered. “Atlantic City” is a beautiful example of this.
Origins of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”
Released in 1982, “Atlantic City” appears on Springsteen’s album Nebraska. The effort is Bruce’s sixth studio album but his first as the sole artist. Nebraska consists of demo versions of songs that The Boss wrote and intended to record with his band. The decision was eventually made between confident Jon Landau and Springsteen to release the songs in their original, raw iterations.
In addition to vocals, Bruce plays all instruments on “Atlantic City” including harmonica and the mandolin. The song is a tale rife with struggle and laden with despair. The stark delivery lets the listener focus on the disheartening lyrics. Made during the east coast mafia wars during the early 1980s, the tune makes reference to an actual mob slaying. It also uses the city’s underworld reputation as the backdrop for the lyrical narrative. A hopeless story set to a beautifully haunting melody.
Oscar Wilde once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Poorly written songs seldom garner the compliment of being covered. Some artists have a problem with their work being covered. Springsteen is not one of those. “I always loved it”, Bruce says. “Anytime somebody covers your song it’s flattering, and I always get a kick out of it no matter who does it”. Springsteen’s legendary songbook has been widely covered during his long career but few as extensively as “Atlantic City”. The impressive list of artists to record the tune include John Anderson and Hank Williams III. However, there are two cover versions that resonate more than the rest. One comes from classic rock royalty, the other from a new age bluesman.
The Band (1993)
“The Last Waltz”, directed by Martin Scorsese, is perhaps the finest rockumentary ever produced. The film captures the 1976 farewell concert of the revered group known as “The Band”. Seventeen years later, The Band decided to put it back together. Released in 1993, “Jericho” was the name of the comeback album. It consists almost entirely of covers with material from artists like Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters. But it is their recording of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” that stands out.
As The Boss’s version is superb in its simplicity, The Band’s take is splendid intracity. With the band version, the layers of sound are noticeably felt, punctuated with incredible accordion play. Lead singer Levon Helm imparts a wonderful, weathered nuance to the lyrics while the group shifts the style to more of a bluegrass groove. The more refined delivery is the perfect vehicle for Bruce’s intended vision. The song remained a fan favorite for the remaining years of The Band and for Helm personally. Levon said simply, “We enjoy doing it. And people like it when we do it so that’s the bottom line for us”.
Ben Harper (2012)
As one of the more versatile artists to come along in the last quarter century, Ben Harper incorporates eclectic influences to create his own fusion. It’s a vibrant sound containing heavy doses of blues, folk, funk, rock, and soul with traces of gospel and reggae. He is well known as a hyper talented multi-instrumentalist specializing in the guitar including 12-string and slide. Harper has also been playing “Atlantic City” in his live shows for over a decade.
In March of 2013, thirty-one years after it was first released, “Atlantic City” was covered for a Springsteen tribute DVD. The performance features Ben Harper along with Natalie Maines of The Chicks and blues savant Charlie Musselwhite. The performance is a glaring highlight in a concert that includes acts like Elton John, Sting, Neil Young and John Legend. Prior to this, Harper gives a blistering rendition of the song with his band at the legendary “Machine Shop”. Ben’s version takes parts from each of the earlier interpretations but successfully makes it his own. Unlike The Boss and The Band, Harper does not utilize the mandolin. Instead, his heavy electric guitar leads the action. Poignant and powerful.
More than just a song with a funky break, the tune is one of Bruce’s most heartfelt compositions. Originally released as a solo acoustic demo, “Atlantic City” has become a mainstay of Springsteen’s setlists with his band. The song is always a highlight of the live shows and a glorious reminder that maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
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