[6 February 2012]
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
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.