ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Growing up as a rock music fan near this coastal resort inevitably meant frequent treks to Philadelphia and its myriad great venues. Wayne Newton, Engelbert Humperdinck and other casino-lounge staples -- ordinarily, this would be the place to say something snide about "my father's music."
But I love my father's music.
Atlantic City's music scene served up something worse: my grandfather's music.
That's all changing, thanks to a pair of new music spaces and a general revitalization of the city's non-gambling nightlife that has attracted "younger, hipper, more affluent visitors," says Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, spokeswoman for Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority.
Tropicana Casino and Resort hotel manager Mark Giannantonio, an Atlantic City native, has seen the town's ups and downs firsthand. Legalized gambling, which arrived in 1978, was supposed to usher in a new era of prosperity, and it did -- but only for the casinos that flank the island's coastline and historic boardwalk. To their immediate west lay blighted neighborhoods and seedy boulevards.
"For a lot of years, the city had a not-so-great profile," Mr. Giannantonio says. "I think that's turned around. People realize now that you can come to the city and do a lot of different things."
The upscale Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, which opened in July 2003 after a long drought of new casino construction in the city, brought with it Las Vegas-style extravagance and fine dining. In the daylight, tucked away in a corner of the city's Northeast Inlet, it gleams like a giant chunk of gold. At night, it turns a dazzling purple.
Its 2,400-seat Borgata Event Center awakened the city's burgeoning new pop-music scene. Performers there have included Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Good Charlotte and the Killers. Classic rockers the Who will play the Borgata Friday night, and pop-folk singer Jewel will appear Dec. 2 in the casino's more intimate Music Box.
Sensing strong new market potential, the live-music company House of Blues last summer opened its first branded music club in the Northeast at Showboat Atlantic City. It, too, has drawn cutting-edge acts such as the hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley and industrial rockers Nine Inch Nails as well as journeymen rockers such as Little Feat.
Earlier this month, Billboard magazine named Atlantic City's House of Blues the top club-sized venue of the year. "It's a tremendous honor," says Michael Grozier, general manager and vice president of business development at House of Blues Atlantic City.
"The Borgata gets a lot of the credit for opening the collective Atlantic City mind-set," Mr. Grozier continues. "They showed that people will travel to Atlantic City for great live music. We're booking all kinds of contemporary acts in all genres."
Before the Borgata and House of Blues opened, rock and pop artists steered clear of Atlantic City for a couple of reasons. First, it was seen, at best, as an ancillary market to nearby Philadelphia and New York. Second, and perhaps more important, was the "comp" culture that defines casino entertainment. Complimentary tickets for music or comedy concerts are bestowed on blase big spenders and high rollers rather than fervent fans.
"In the past," Mr. Grozier explains, "if you played in a casino, you played to a casino audience. Now you're actually playing in front of real fans."
The Southern New Jersey resort -- the subject of a bleak 1989 Time magazine cover story headlined "Boardwalk of Broken Dreams" -- is diversifying its attractions simply to survive. The city no longer can count on a scarcity of legal gambling. Encroaching on New Jersey's borders are Pennsylvania and Delaware racetracks where gamblers can pull slot-machine levers while they handicap.
Maryland Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley wants to bring slots to his state's tracks, as did outgoing Gov. Robert L. Erlich Jr. Connecticut boasts the American Indian-run casinos Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Though Atlantic City has enjoyed the fruits of a local real estate boom, the city is banking its future on enticing more out-of-town visitors. Unlike Las Vegas -- in marketing parlance, a "fly-in" destination -- Atlantic City is a haven for commuters. Tantalizingly, the city is within a three-hour drive of up to 40 million people. It wants these visitors to stay overnight or even for the weekend.
"In all honesty, we're not penetrating that market," Mr. Giannantonio says.
They're trying hard, though.
Following Borgata's lead, Tropicana spent approximately $300 million in 2004 on a Latin-themed complex of shops and eateries called the Quarter, which also includes a state-of-the-art Imax theater. Mick Jagger brought his family there to see the animated feature "Happy Feet" last week and the Rolling Stones were in town to play Boardwalk Hall, the erstwhile home of the Miss America Pageant.
More risky is a recent venture at Caesars Atlantic City: In place of one of the city's most interesting eyesores -- a shopping mall in the shape of a cruise ship that jutted into the ocean -- stands the Pier Shops at Caesars, a high-end space with names such as Tiffany and Co. and Gucci.
The impetus behind this aggressive retail push -- as with the city's new rock-music venues and chichi nightclubs -- is to give tourists something to do with their money besides gamble.
Las Vegas, which never tires of billing itself as "family-friendly," learned this lesson years ago.
In some precincts, however, one hears melancholic murmurs about the city's bygone greatness. "Atlantic City losing quirky past," read the headline of a recent Associated Press story about the closure of Bader Field (a tiny airport) and the Steel Pier (of horse-diving fame).
Those who miss mob-ruled Vegas and pornography-plagued Times Square will give you the same line.
Please: Atlantic City has been trying to rid itself of its "quirky past" for as long as I have been alive.
And when I'm here -- home -- for Thanksgiving, I might just catch a rock show.