Last month I saw Jimmy Eat World play a concert at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville with Community News managing editor Rob Anthes and his wife, Norine. It ruled for many reasons, but especially because I got to witness Rob (maybe the biggest Jimmy Eat World fan on Earth) in all his glory, and because the band played their song “Big Casino.” In this song is the line “I’m the one who gets away/I’m a New Jersey success story.”
Throughout the tour, they played the song pretty high up in the setlist. For Sayreville, though, they saved the song for the encore, because, I’m assuming, the band knows the one universal truth about people from New Jersey: we love to be acknowledged. I don’t think anybody on this earth loves anything more than people from New Jersey love hearing our home state referenced in a song.
Bruce Springsteen’s cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl” is maybe the best example of this. Bruce never recorded a studio version of the song, but a live performance from 1981 was released as a B-side in 1984 and then again when it was included on the Live/1975-85 box set, which came out in 1986. The song was recorded during a six-night Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band mini-residency marking the opening of the then-Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford—that’s a lot of New Jersey coming together on one track.
On that recording, the audience is hyped up before the lyrics even kick in, but they become completely unhinged during the following lines: “Tonight I’m gonna take that ride/cross the river to the Jersey side,” “Down the shore everything’s all right” and the irrefutably true “Nothing matters in this whole wide world/when you’re in love with a Jersey girl.” And I don’t blame them! I’d guess the same has happened every other time Bruce plays the song. I’ve witnessed (and, obviously, been a part of) it a few times—and one of those shows was in Philadelphia. A New Jerseyan’s ability to hulk out at the mention of a boardwalk cannot be contained, geographically or otherwise.
It doesn’t matter what the line implies about New Jersey. We will lose it. I think the “Big Casino” reference is pretty tongue-in-cheek, but, like, I get it! I dig the self deprecation. I appreciate it. So many writers and musicians have explored escaping from the relentless clutches of suburban New Jersey because it’s a pretty common feeling.
Like Bruce’s “Born to Run.” The song is literally about getting out of New Jersey. He calls it a death trap. A suicide rap. “Sprung from cages on Highway 9.” This is not a compliment. But my pea brain short-circuits every time I listen to the song because I’ve driven Route 9 many times, and it’s neat to hear it referenced.
Even Christopher Moltisanti wasn’t immune to the “Born to Run” charm. In an episode of The Sopranos, Tony asks Christopher why he’s late, and he responds with the iconic “Highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” It’s a joke, yeah, but that feeling is universal—down on your luck, trying one more time to make it right. That idea is echoed through Bruce’s catalogue, and it’s become sort of synonymous with New Jersey.
Also, anyone who says they haven’t had similar thoughts about their hometown at some point in their life is a liar. I get a similar vibe from Titus Andronicus’s “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future,” sort of a franker version of “Born to Run.” A Mahwah reference? “You will always be a loser” repeated over and over again? Oh, I’m in.
Wanting to get away from the place you’ve lived all your life is not a feeling that’s unique to this state, obviously. But I think people from here view it differently than other people might. There’s a fondness for New Jersey that never really goes away, no matter what. That’s why it feels so good to connect with someone else who has felt the same way—nobody gets it like somebody from New Jersey (or somebody who loves it here).
The world is a weird place, but singing along to your favorite band singing about your hometown or a place you’ve been makes everything feel a little less chaotic. Sharing that experience with hundreds or thousands of people at a concert, people who are feeling exactly what you’re feeling, really can’t be beat.
A little bit of “I love this place” will always linger beneath the “Get me out of here,” and vice versa. Look at Bruce—his signature song is about escape. He lived across the country for years. But he came back.