I was sent David Burke’s thorough and incisive new book, Heart of Darkness, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and was reminded that March is the 30th Anniversary of the release of Nebraska, so I figured that’s as good an excuse as any to muse on about one of the most extraordinarily brave records ever released by a major artist and the happenstance that helped bring it to creation.
A little context.
In the late fall of 1981, Springsteen returned from a year-long world tour that had elevated him from cult favorite to highly bankable arena-filling star. The River had become his first #1 record, which spawned the hit single in “Hungry Heart”. At last, Springsteen was poised for the kind of massive breakthrough critics had been predicting for almost a decade. He went home to Colts Neck, New Jersey that winter to decompress, and it was assumed he would continue perfecting the formula that had evolved over the course of his last three records, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River and resurface with a rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut hit.
That of course did happen, but not until 1984’s Born in the USA, and not until Springsteen reconciled what he was going to do with a set of deeply personal songs he’d laid down at his home on an old 4-track Tascam Portastudio recorder in just a few days in early January 1982. Just Bruce on guitar, some harmonica, and a glockenspiel and mandolin sprinkled for color, here and there.
In the latter stages of The River tour, it was the influence of film and literature that compelled Springsteen to start digging deeper into the darker corners of the everyman’s plight: John Ford’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, John Huston’s cinematic version of Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood and Joe Klein’s book, Woody Guthrie: A Life. Springsteen started working into the setlist solo takes on Guthrie songs like “Deportee” and an especially poignant “This Land Is Your Land” that accentuated the lesser known verses you don’t sing in grammar school. Introducing the latter he shared, “There’s a lot in (the history of the U.S.) that we’re proud of, and there’s a lot of things in it that you’re ashamed of. And that burden of shame falls down on everyone.” As the tour rolled on, he reminded his well-off audience that, “No one’s really free until we’re all free.”
Although Springsteen remained publicly apolitical at the time, the effect of the Reagan administration on Nebraska was significant. By 1982, the US was becoming increasingly defined by the growing gap between the haves and the have nots, high inflation, double digit unemployment, failing banks and farms and home foreclosures. As Burke opines, the Reagan administration “had turned its back on its moral responsibility to its citizens.”
It cannot be overstated just how jarring a release Nebraska was in 1982. The charts were being ruled by such vapid banalities as Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”. Then along comes a quiet folk record made on an old 4-track, basically just voice and guitar about killers, small-time thieves and other forgotten souls. It took some major stones to release it.
What Springsteen gleaned from the songs of Woody Guthrie, the writings of O’Connor and Steinbeck and filmmakers like Ford, Huston and Terrence Mallick was a humanity and a curiosity about why certain people lose connection with themselves, their families, their community, their government. And what then happens when that kind of alienation infiltrates the subconscious. Further, the profound effect that has on the people that love those alienated and disconnected souls.
What’s so extraordinary is how deeply Springsteen makes us care for these characters: unrepentant murderers, small-time thieves, disenfranchised night crawlers driving around all night at their wit’s end. Springsteen provides perspective: “You can put together a lot of detail, but unless you pull something up out of yourself it’s going to lie flat on the page. You’ve got to find out what you have in common with that character, no matter who they are or what they did. So “Nebraska is… written with the premise that everybody knows what it’s like to be condemned, which they do, of course.”
Springsteen not only casts these lost souls as working class, but he has them speak in a specifically old world kind of working class dialect. The use of “sir” or “son” brilliantly illustrates how they have accepted their subservient role in a kind of institutionalized lower class.
In Nebraska’s rollicking “Johnny 99”, Johnny is sentenced to 99 years in prison after shooting a night clerk in a moment of impulse, and the judge asks him if he wants to make a statement:
Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand
This verse is at the core of the characters of Nebraska. Folks that are trying to do it the right way but for a variety of reasons: fate, bad luck, a moment of impulse, the economy, the debts keep piling up that no honest man can pay. And at the end of the day, there’s a little more behind why they did what they did than simply: bad guys do bad things.
In “Atlantic City”, again, the main character has tried to do things the right and honest way but forces beyond his control have intervened:
Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus
He and his girl take everything they have to Atlantic City, lose it all and now, desperate, he tells her he has to turn to crime:
Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end
So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him
On the title track, Springsteen offers no excuses for the unrepentant Charlie Starkweather-based character, but we are drawn in and moved by the somber retelling of the terrible facts of his killing spree, none more so than in the last verse that’s, arguably, being spoken from the grave:
They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world