Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin' for a job but he couldn't find none
He came home too drunk from mixin' Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99

Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop
Johnny's wavin' his gun around and threatenin' to blow his top
When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99

Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown
He came into the courtroom and stared poor Johnny down
Well the evidence is clear, gonna let the sentence, son, fit the crime
Prison for ninety-eight and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99

Fistfight broke out in the courtroom, they had to drag Johnny's girl away
His mama stood up and shouted, "Judge don't take my boy this way"
Well, son, you got any statement you'd like to make
Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away?

Now judge, judge I got debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and takin' my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that make me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well, your honor, I do believe I'd be better off dead
And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over just one more time
And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line (woo)

Lyrics submitted by oofus

Johnny 99 Lyrics as written by Bruce Springsteen

Lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

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Johnny 99 song meanings
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  • 0
    General CommentI always loved this song, but it utterly confuses me. I don't understand how in the first verse the character is introduced as Ralph, yet from that point on is referred to as Johnny 99. Even before he "became" Johnny 99 by being sentenced to 99 years in jail. The second verse is a continuation of the night he gets arrested, yet even before he is arrested Bruce says "Johnny's waving his gun around...". Wasn't he still Ralph at that point?
    Shadowboxon February 07, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentSo Ralph/Johnny shot that night clerk and after that wants to shoot himself outside the Club Tip Top right?

    I always understood it the way that they named him Johnny 99 after he shot the clerk but before he got sentenced.

    And the judge knows of that nickname and that is why he sentences him for 99 years of prison.

    "Prison for 98 and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99" is such a great line, I love this song.

    Bruce uses the line "I had debts no honest man could pay" in "Badlands" as well.
    Lwison May 22, 2005   Link
  • 0
    General CommentThis song is filled with great lines. "Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop" "Too drunk from mixing Tanqueray and wine"
    "The judge was Mean John Brown."

    I agree with Lwis that "Johnny 99" is the nickname of anyone serving a 99 year sentence. Once Bruce says "Now they call him Johnny 99" he continues to refer to him as Johnny from that point on.
    Pirtyfool22on May 10, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentSo I interpret the song as Ralph, wasted and aggravated, shot a store clerk, fled the scene, ran a light and got hit, threatened the other driver or whoever else was around, and was then arrested by the off duty cop. Thoughts?
    Qbsean10on June 16, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentQbsean10, I don't see it that way with the car crash. The idea of a "part of town where when you hit a red light you don't stop" is a reference to driving through any real scary neighborhood in America. Bruce wasn't saying this was something Ralph/Johnny did literally.

    Instead, he talks about him waiving his gun around. So I see Ralph/Johnny having shot the night clerk, drunk and belligerent in the worst part of town, looking for a fight where it is easy to find one. (Underlying suggestion, Ralph/Johnny is white working class guy, he's waiving his gun in the black neighborhood). The cops arrest him before he gets himself killed (perhaps his hidden desire at this point).
    Pirtyfool22on July 20, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentInteresting side note, at a concert, Bruce was talking about Ronald Reagan talking about "Born in the USA" as a source of American pride, even though the whole song is about how badly we messed up in Vietnam, Bruce said at the concert, "I don't think Ronny's listening" and then played this song. Basically this song is Bruce's ode to the loss of blue collar jobs, something that Reaganomics did plenty too help with later on. Ralph/Johnny loses his job, can't afford to support his family or even keep his house, gets drunk, loses it, and shoots a night clerk.
    ScubaDooon December 10, 2007   Link
  • 0
    General CommentI heard Bruce at a concert talking about how Reagan used Born in the USA as a campaign song for re-election in '84 without his permission. He said that if the president thinks that his songs are pro government, than he obviously hadn't listened to the Nebraska album. This song, Highway Patrolman, and Used Cars are some of the greatest blue collar songs out there.
    avg823on August 08, 2008   Link
  • 0
    General CommentJohnny is a reference to Johnny Cash, bruce said that this song was a tribute to cash who he admired very much for his rebel/man in black attitude and style, when Ralf becomes Johnny he takes on that outlaw poersona and goes about living that life. The 99 year sentence refers to Cahses infamous time in jail and concert at San Quentin , he was the true outlaw Johnny 99
    tramps like uson October 02, 2008   Link
  • -2
    General CommentWoops, my bad, of course the line "debts no honest man could pay"" does not reappear in "Badlands" but in "Atlantic City".
    Lwison May 23, 2005   Link

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