Up until this point this blog has focused on books and a few casual interviews. My intention at the beginning was to create a blog that would focus on all aspects of writing, from essays to poetry, and I intend to stick to that ideal. Now that I’ve gotten my feet wet with some looks at books, I’m moving into the domain of lyrical interest. My subject of interest for this piece is Bruce Springsteen, the New Jersey native with a hoarse voice and an honest pen.
I need to extend some kind of warning before I jump into this article because of all of the figures I’ve spoken of thus far, Springsteen is my favorite. Joyce understood what it meant to put identity on paper, but he is too flighty to be idolized. Chabon writes some of the best fiction I’ve read, and he is an absolute exemplar of how to write, but his creations are hundreds of pages long. This post will be unabashedly pro-Springsteen, and if that’s not ok, well, listen to more of his music and change your damn mind.
Bruce is admittedly aided by his medium–music is rooted by a mixture of instrumentals and lyrics that writing can obviously not produce. That said, his ability to condense a story into a few verses is remarkable. I’m going to use the last verse of “Atlantic City” as an example, breaking down the story and hopefully observing how Springsteen’s thrifty word choice does not affect his ability to convey a message.
“Now I’ve looking for a job and it’s hard to find/down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.
Well I’m tired of coming out on this losing end/so honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.
Well now, 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.”
Before I really get going here I should announce that this song interpretation is my opinion. I imagine Bruce keeps these lyrics vague as a way of encouraging conjecture. I haven’t read any other analyses of this song, and there are definitely other ways to read into the lyrics. One of the best things about art is that while the artist’s intent should be considered, (because it can add additional depth to the work) the audience’s reaction is as important.
The beginning of the song details the violence of organized crime and how the main character is heavily in debt, in spite of his best efforts to fight out of poverty. The end shows how the man has made a choice: he will earn his money by killing somebody for the mob. His thought of “maybe everything that dies someday comes back” is an attempt to rationalize his action, by hypothesizing at the potential afterlife or immortality of his victim he can make the murder easier to justify. It also hints at potential hope for the main character. Even if this life doesn’t work out for him, maybe the next one will, because the next life is the only hope he has left.
Springsteen gives indication throughout the song that the protagonist is a good-hearted man and is more a victim of circumstance than a villain. This makes the man’s decision to kill much harder, and there is a clear inner conflict weighing the importance of morals and meat. By adding the character of a wife or girlfriend, a simple idea, really, Bruce lets us know that the protagonist is not just committing this act for personal gain. He has other people to support, and that makes his choice that much more difficult.
In the span of a four minute song Springsteen has given us a character and his largely unknown significant other in a desperate situation, surrounded by evil in the form of the mob and forced into a terrible decision. It’s a tragic song regardless of how you look at it (my other thought was that the protagonist is gambling away whatever small savings he has) and it is a feat that Bruce makes it a full, rounded story with a developed character and a vague ending. It’s a superb example of writing regardless of the medium it is presented through, and I feel like many writers, new or experienced, could gain by taking a page out of the Boss’s book and making sure stories are clear and shattered.