Bruce, Bourbon, and Books: All The Light Tends To Go To Atlantic City

This semi-regular series alternates between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen songs that perfectly complement a good bourbon and a quality book. You can make your own suggestions and recommendations in the comments section or by tweeting @WritersBone.


Daniel Ford: There are a handful of songs that immediately send me back to stumbling toward my potential in a small New York City apartment, not knowing when my limited supply of money would run out, leaving me with “debts no honest man can pay.” Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” might be at the top of that list. Despair permeates every lyric, but hope—even if it’s a fool’s hope—muscles itself in only to be smacked down again by unyielding obstacles. I’ve heard this song performed live multiple times, and the crowd reaction is immediate, guttural. We’re in the car with Bruce headed toward the hell that surely awaits us in Atlantic City, screaming as if we’ve finally discovered the only place we’ll feel at home. It’s a song about last chances, big dreams, the darkness that eclipses the small amount of light we’re allotted, and getting the fuck out of our own ways. “Put your makeup on/fix your hair up pretty” because damnation awaits and you’ve got to look your fucking best.

One of my favorite live versions of “Atlantic City” is the track on “Live in Dublin,” which features Bruce with The Sessions Band. The rendition, which breathes new life into early American music, hardwires even more desperation and bite into the tune. Blowing up chicken men in Philly has never been more fun.

Dave Pezza: Thank God, I thought we’d never make it to “Atlantic City.” This song has been my favorite Bruce song for as long as I can remember. It struck a chord with me in high school as a dowdy and socially frustrated teenager. The thought of having the balls to pack up your life, no matter how little is left of it, and risking it all on the open road felt so freeing, so hopeful in a sad way to me then, never mind the romantics of trusting that she'll meet you once your there, that you two will share it all or nothing at all with you. It made a deep impression on my psyche and always will. As I got older this song has always reminded me of the how much of a real bitch life is. Bruce’s somber, all but defeated tone makes you feel honest, desperate hope, a hope that I have since realized is such a daily necessity, just to get you up some morning, just to get you through some days. So much hangs on the balance in this song; he has no idea if he’ll make it to Atlantic City, that what he is running from won’t catch him before he gets there. He has no idea if she’ll even meet him there. And even then, once he gets there, he’s still got to risk everything.

Bruce’s mournful, gorgeous harmonica and his chilling guitar fade out reminds you that there always a hope that you can pack it up and make one last go of it. You might not make it, she might not follow, and you’ll still be screwed even if you make it there, but you sure as hell still got to try. Because maybe, just maybe, everything that dies someday comes back.


Dave: This week’s bourbon fits really well with our song and book, and we didn’t even plan it that way. Colonel E.H. Taylor, Jr.’s Small Batch bourbon whiskey is not for the faint of heart. My aunt bought me a bottle of Colonel Taylor’s for my birthday this year, and I was saving it until we needed to try out a new bourbon. I honestly could not form an opinion on this bourbon for the first few sips. Colonel Taylor’s is harsh like strong whiskey should be but finishes like some of its more refined brothers. This is a bourbon for when you want to drink. Period. It’s not for the weak of palate nor the faint of stomach. I can picture Bruce gulping down a few fingers before heading to the tables in Atlantic City to toss it all on red, or Jacob McNeely, the main character in David Joy’s Where All the Light Tends to Go, drinking it straight from the bottle as he loads his shotgun at his dining room table. I wanted to dislike this bourbon on first taste, but I couldn’t. I just hadn’t mustered up the stones for it. Next time I’ll be ready.


Daniel: As Dave correctly proves above, David Joy's Where All the Light Tends to Go pairs perfectly with "Atlantic City" because both involve characters' burning desire to flee a bad situation (and isn't bourbon usually the elixir to either get you moving, more likely, tie you to the dark place you're in?). You’d swear some of the perfectly crafted lines in this work swam out of a high-end bottle of bourbon, picked up the first shotgun they saw, and blasted their way through Appalachia. A few examples:

“Outlawing was just as much a matter of blood as hair color and height.”

“A girl like that couldn’t stay. Not forever, and certainly not for long.”

“I’d been around crank my whole life, so it had never been a drug, only money.”

“There are some souls that even the devil wants no part of.”

If that’s not enough for you, Joy’s debut novel also features vinyl records, redneck meth dealers, teenage angst, and bulls (aka police officers). Where All the Light Tends to Go closes with an final scene as shattering and powerful as: “Everything dies baby that's a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Based on the author’s answers during our recent interview, I have a feeling David Joy is going to be supplying readers with bourbon-infused material for years to come. 

For more Bruce/Bob, Bourbon, and Books, check out our full archive.