'Nebraska': Bruce Springsteen's 'Heart of Darkness'

In 1982, with the charts ruled by “Physical”, “Don’t You Want Me” and “Eye of the Tiger”, along came a low-tech record about killers, small-time thieves and other forgotten souls -- and it's still one of the best albums in American music.

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.

Book: Heart of Darkness Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska

Author: David Burke

Publisher: Cherry Red

Publication date: 2011-12

Format: Paperback

Length: 300 pages

Price: $19.95

Image: 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

Next Page

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

Keep reading... Show less

Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.