Bruce Springsteen has no shortage of original songs about New Jersey that he could have played near the end of the Jersey 4 Jersey fundraising event on Wednesday night. “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” would have been a touching tribute to his adopted boardwalk town, while “My Hometown” would have been a bittersweet look at his childhood in Freehold, and “My City of Ruins” would have gone back to its original, pre-9/11 meaning as an elegy for the struggling community of Asbury Park, now devastated once again due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, he went with “Jersey Girl.” It’s been a fan favorite ever since he first played it live on the River tour in 1981. It got more exposure in 1984 when it appeared as the B side to “Cover Me.” Two years later, he included it on the Live 1975–85 box set. It never fails to rev up a crowd and get them singing along to the “sha la la” chorus, but he’s done it just 48 times in the past 37 years and it’s often reserved for special nights in New Jersey.
What’s odd is that Springsteen didn’t actually write the thing. That may be like learning that Brian Wilson didn’t pen “Surfer Girl” (he did), but “Jersey Girl” is a Tom Waits tune. It was written about his wife Kathleen Brennan and it appears on his 1980 LP Heartattack and Vine. Waits and Springsteen sang it together at a 1981 show at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Check out this video of Waits singing the song alone at a 1986 gig in San Remo, Italy.)
The Waits version is about an idyllic evening with his love at a carnival in New Jersey where they dream about a life together. There’s not even a hint of darkness or despair. The “Party Lights” verse changes that quite a bit. The Jersey Girl is suddenly drained after a long day at a job she hates. “Go in the bathroom, put your makeup on,” Springsteen sings. “We’re gonna take that little brat of yours and drop her off at your mom’s.”
Their night together is now a brief respite from the pressures of single motherhood and an unfulfilling career. Things are even grimmer in “Party Lights,” where the woman desperately misses her care-free evenings before she had the baby, but even the isolated lines end “Jersey Girl” on a very different note. (Many other “Party Lights” lyrics were later used on “Point Blank.” And “Atlantic City” also has a line where the narrator instructs a woman to “put your makeup on” before they head out.)
Springsteen didn’t sing the “Party Lights” verse at the end of the Jersey 4 Jersey telecast. It was basically the Tom Waits rendition minus the “whores” line, which probably seemed like the right choice considering the occasion.
Waits himself hasn’t played the song a single time since a 1999 gig at the Orpheum Theater in Vancouver. He also hasn’t toured since 2008 or played an extended set since the 2013 Bridge School Benefit.
Hopefully when this all ends, Waits and Springsteen will both hit the road for long overdue tours. At the very least, Waits could come out again at an E Street Band show to sing “Jersey Girl.” If it does nothing else, it will remind people that he wrote it.