But this is not just a record about criminals. In “Mansion on the Hill” and “Used Cars”, Springsteen takes another tact classically used by O’Connor or Harper Lee, by writing through the eyes of a child. On the former, we alternate between memory and the present as the child recounts being taken by his father out to look up at the mansion on the hill. But the purpose of the trip is not to, as Burke points out, “foster aspiration in the boy, more as though he is letting him see what will never be his… beyond the grasp of his kind.” In the last verse, the boy is now a man and like his father, he too has been excluded from opportunity, “feted to accept the preservation of wealth in the hands of the wealthy.”
In “Used Cars”, the child goes with his folks to buy yet another used car because new cars are not what his kind can afford or qualify to buy on credit. The salesman notices his “old man’s hands” are hard-working hands, and the child confirms his dad sweats the same job every day; that his mom walks the same streets where he was born: a continuum with seemingly no way out. The kid takes it all in and swears the day his number comes in, he’s “never gonna ride in no used car again.” So simple, but speaks to the conditions that sink into the consciousness and haunts.
“Highway Patrolman” juxtaposes the duty to carry out the law with the blood ties of family loyalty. This is not only Nebraska’s finest song, but one of the great narratives ever. Again, we have a main character in Joe Roberts, a police sergeant who “has always done an honest job, as honest as I could,” but he’s got a brother named Franky, “and Franky ain’t no good.” Joe tells us:
Well if it was any other man, I’d put him straight away
But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way
Burke points out that “Highway Patrolman” is one of only three songs on the record that has an actual chorus, and it’s a real heartbreaker:
Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”
I catch him when he’s strayin’ like any brother would
Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good
At the song’s end, Franky gets into a fight in a roadhouse and hurts someone badly and flees. Joe gives chase after his brother to the Canadian border and then pulls over to the side of the road and watches Franky’s taillights disappear.
Burke poignantly points out that the song illustrates the “imminent aloneness of belief in what we hold to be right, even when we know it to be wrong… we sometimes do things that are wrong for the right reasons.”
In “State Trooper” we get pulled inside the head of a man who’s been pushed past the point of cracking. He’s driving around in the “wee wee hours…when the mind gets hazy…”
License, registration, I ain’t got none, but I got a clear conscience
‘Bout the things that I’ve done
Mister State Trooper, please don’t stop me.
Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
The only thing that I got’s been both’rin’ me my whole life
Its Nebraska’s imperfections (the creaking of a chair, the “P’s” that pop, the over-modulated harmonicas and Jimmy Rogers-like howls that pin the VU meters), that create what Burke calls Nebraska’s “spooky underworld”. These quirks send anal retentive purveyors of production perfection screaming into the night, but credit Springsteen for sticking to his artistic convictions and recognizing what Neil Young did when he released the harrowing and gloriously flawed Tonight’s the Night.
Nebraska is a kind of magic in the bottle that’s only captured through sheer happenstance. It’s no coincidence that Bruce walked around for weeks with the cassette in his back pocket, unaware it would not only become his next record but be talked about, and rightfully so, as one of the true masterpieces in American music.
Interestingly, Springsteen remains a polarizing figure with the indie rock crowd with their annoying self-imposed rules of “cool”. But what you always hear from that lot is, “I don’t like his other records, but I worship Nebraska.” And that’s because Nebraska is the penultimate and original DIY record. It’s punk rock without the manufactured angst, safety pins and Magic Marker drawn anarchy symbols. The work of a truly independent artist, in the purest sense of the word, steadfast, this album is resolute and armed with the courage of his convictions as Springsteen’s sole motivation.
Paste Magazine recently named Nebraska the greatest homemade record ever, and its influence was momentous. I can tell you it made me go out and buy a 4-track machine and start recording home demos. Countless others did, too. I’d go so far as to suggest if Black Flag and the Minutemen’s pioneering treks by van across the country was the DIY touring template for a generation of indie rockers, then Nebraska was the blueprint for the record you could make on the cheap and tour behind—a principle that has come to full fruition now not just for the underground, but major artists as well.
It’s no wonder Nebraska is still resonating 30 years later. How eerily similar a time it is now, with the cultural and class rift torn wider than ever. Nebraska is such a beautiful offering about the forgotten segment of society we, as Americans, try desperately to forget. We keep telling ourselves life is black and white and that all you have to do is be virtuous and your life will turn out fine, but the simple fact is there are forces in place that debunk that theory again and again.
Nebraska is high art on a par with Guthrie, Steinbeck and O’Connor. It’s a work that endures because it reveals something about ourselves, particularly as Americans, about the loneliness that lives in all of us and a reminder that we share more than we’d like to admit with those we loathe and try to put out of our minds. At the very core of America’s foundation is what Springsteen reminded his audiences before playing “This Land is Your Land” just a few months before he wrote Nebraska: “No one’s really free until we’re all free” and that “that burden of shame falls down on everyone.”
If you love a good history lesson pick up David Burke’s new book. If you haven’t listened to Nebraska in a while, or never heard it before, put it on and take a drive in the wee wee hours, when the mind gets hazy, and allow yourself to get lost in it.