Recession Sounds: Revisiting Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska

In 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama was asked what was on his iPod, he mentioned “Bruce Springsteen” — but he probably wasn’t talking about Springsteen’s 1982 album, Nebraska. The songs on Nebraska are culled from home demos, with Bruce singing and strumming alone in his bedroom in New Jersey, spinning tales of characters that have been cheated, forgotten, are running from the law, or have already caught. Not exactly the get-pumped soundtrack for the candidate of Hope.

Now that candidate Obama has become President Obama, he faces an economic crisis, rising unemployment, and widespread anxiety about the country’s future. In light of these troubling events, perhaps it is time for him (and us) to revisit Nebraska.

Nebraska is a wired, exasperated, but exuberant missive, a time capsule from America’s last major recession, recorded without the veneer or bluster of the E Street Band. Springsteen sounds not like a cornball evangelist (as he did at this past Super Bowl), but rather a man haunted by the dashed and forestalled dreams all around him. It’s an album you might shelve next to other classics of rock ‘n’ roll alienation, like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band (“Mother / You had me / But I never had you”) or Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers (“Your eyes are almost dead / Can’t get out of bed / And you can’t sleep”). But Nebraska is different: the characters may be desperate, but they despair for something greater than themselves. They fear the country, the world, has left them behind.

The Album

The album begins with “Nebraska”, a story of a man who’s facing execution for a series of murders across the Badlands of Wyoming. The song received attention because it takes the point of view of a serial killer, painting a neutral if not empathic portrait. But “Nebraska” is not a singular case: it is part of a larger body of Springsteen songs that look beyond commonplace notions of guilt and innocence (see “Straight Time” from The Ghost of Tom Joad, or the Springsteen-favored Woody Guthrie song “Jesse James”). Call it moral relativism, or call it an open mind. The condemned man’s crimes in “Nebraska” are, in his view, simply responses to forces larger than himself:

They wanted to know why I did what I did

Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

This devastating couplet sets the tone for the rest of the album. One can argue, as many were beginning to in the early ’80s, that a man’s crimes can be explained away by the macro-level forces in his environment. But in 1982, Springsteen was willing to engage the meanness head-on, and he spends most of Nebraska wrestling with it.

“Nebraska” is the listener’s cue that the album is plumbing depths only hinted at by Springsteen’s earlier albums The River and Darkness at the Edge of Town. The song that follows, “Atlantic City”, heads out of town altogether. The narrator tells the kind of story we hear a lot in 2009, a story of economic desperation caused by unemployment, lack of opportunity, and the allure of short term fixes:

Now I been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard to find

Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line

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

Lots of homeowners currently underwater on their homes can relate to coming out on the losing end of a system that promised to bring them closer to the American dream. They may have been taken in by greedy lenders, and they may have told a couple of lies along the way. Either way, they got caught on the wrong side of “that line” — the other side is where bankers get bailed out. On their side, it’s the sheriff and the bill collector. So they are looking for a bus to take them out of town, in search of something new, something better — don’t worry, they say, we’ll turn out the lights when we leave — and mail back the keys.

“Atlantic City” is the heart of the album, and it is clear that Springsteen feels affection for it. Bruce has played the song over 300 times in concert since the mid-’80s. It was quickly rearranged for the E Street Band for his next world tour. The other songs on Nebraska have been performed far less often, ranging from a few times to around 200. (For comparison, though, Bruce and the band have played “Born to Run” over 1000 times in concert.)

At the end of Side 1, Springsteen introduces us to Ralph, the protagonist who would be renamed “Johnny 99”. He, too, lost his home — after they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late last month. He strives to make his case very clear:

Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay

The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ 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

Like the narrator in “Nebraska”, Ralph wants us to know that it’s the economy, it’s the meanness, that made him do what he did. But Ralph’s plea is not for forgiveness. Ralph wants to be executed.

So much depends on the delivery: on Nebraska, Springsteen embodies these anti-morality tales with such a fervor, fury even, that it’s hard not to feel as claustrophobic. The yelps and stomps that pepper Nebraska provoke a funny dual reaction: they shock us, prick our eardrums, they are unhinged exclamations. But they are also signs of life, signs of the continuance of struggle, of a masculine energy that is equal parts constructive and destructive. These rich outbursts are resistance of the heart, and in part, they signal hope.

After about 35 minutes of gloom, Springsteen turns his eyes towards the light. It’s faint, but it hasn’t gone out. The final song, “Reason to Believe”, ponders the image of a man “standin’ over a dead dog”, and another who has been left at the altar. Despite such circumstances, Springsteen sings, “People find some reason to believe”. It’s not an announcement of victory. It’s less and more than that: it’s perseverance.

The recession of the ’80s

When Nebraska was released, America was in the midst of the worst economic climate since the ’30s. The recession of the ’80s officially came in two parts: from January to July 1980, on the heels of the oil crisis, and from July 1981 to November 1982. The country experienced stagflation, a combination of economic stagnation coupled with rates of inflation that rose above 10%. Banks failed; industrial output crumpled.

It was partly considered an “oil shock”, when the cost of fuel spiked due to political events in the Middle East. As we know, America experienced record high prices for fuel in 2007 and 2008, but the reduction in consumption that followed has regulated those prices. The ’80s recessions were economically different from the one we are currently experiencing, with different causes and impacts. But for the person who has lost her home, wrecked her credit, and can’t find work, what’s the difference?

Springsteen’s Nebraska was a response to the uncertainty and fear that existed in America at that time. Just listen to the jangled narrator of “Open All Night” as he drives frantically down the New Jersey Turnpike:

In the wee wee hours your mind gets hazy

Radio relay towers, won’t you lead me to my baby?

There is barely any need for metaphor — the narrator is actually driving through the hazy early morning, with no idea where he is going. This feeling must have been common in an America that was coming out of 40 years of post-World War II prosperity. They were driving headlong into the twilight of the manufacturing economy. They arrived to the auto plants closing (Ralph’s plight in “Johnny 99”), the jobs being sent overseas.

How Nebraska was heard

Reviews of Nebraska were mixed. It was such a radical departure from the bombast of Springsteen’s five earlier albums that it seemed to split the critics. The Washington Post slammed it in their “Style” section, calling it “a bleak downer, a disturbing statement, a stark overview of the Union As We Know It Today.” To critic Richard Harrington, the sound quality is inexcusable, the moral murkiness unacceptable, and the melodies flat. He sums up his take with a zinger: “where [Springsteen] was once blinded by the light, he now seems hounded by the blight.” Game, set, and match.

The New York Times saw the album quite differently. Critic Robert Palmer saw Nebraska as an antidote to the bloat-rock of the ’70s, in his words: “big time rock’s colossal failure of nerve.” Instead, Springsteen was trading in on the trust that he had established with his fans through a decade of constant touring. Springsteen’s legendary’70s shows were three-hour marathons of exultation and catharsis. Now he was turning down the volume knob. The Times understood Nebraska as “a metaphor for an entire world facing bewildering technological changes, continuing economic crises, sharp and sometimes tragic generational divisions, and painfully diminished opportunities for growth and accomplishment.”

Rolling Stone, which still had the power to make or break a record in that decade, also loved Nebraska. Steve Pond praised it for its single-mindedness, its focus. Indeed, at 4.5 stars, the reviewer preferred it to the earlier records (which included Born to Run). Nebraska was Springsteen’s “abrasive, clouded, and ultimately glorious portrait of America.” Whatever the verdict, nobody was under the illusion that this was just a rock ‘n’ roll record.

Born in the USA

Springsteen left the production values of Nebraska behind with his titanic 1984 hit Born in the USA. The record seemed calibrated to Springsteen’s newly chiseled physique. But in some ways, it is not that different an album. The title song itself speaks to the plight of the veteran returned from Vietnam, unable to find work or much in the way of sympathy. Stunningly, Ronald Reagan used the song in his 1984 Presidential campaign. Here was Springsteen’s response:

The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kind of got to wondering what his favorite album must have been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album.

Luckily for Springsteen, he eventually got the President he wanted. He just had to wait 25 years.

After touring the world with the E Street Band in support of Born in the USA, Springsteen moved to California and spent most of the ’80s and early ’90s in musical limbo (remember “57 Channels and Nothing On”?). He returned again to the acoustic mode with 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, which was publicized at the time as a ‘sequel’ to Nebraska. Although Tom Joad was an affecting, heartfelt portrait of struggles at the US-Mexico border and other non-Jersey locales, Springsteen was no longer the hungry man, the skinny man. He was a rock ‘n’ roll diplomat, a statesman.

By the time Springsteen released the acoustic Devils & Dust in 2005, Americans were more interested in seeing the reunited E Street Band. Devils & Dust scored a Billboard #1 — Nebraska made it only as high as #3 — but Bruce’s direct activism, including an endorsement of John Kerry (Springsteen’s first such presidential pronouncement) was bigger news than the album.

And Now

Since Bruce Springsteen barnstormed across America, first for Kerry, and then for Obama, his status as an outsider, a rebel to the system, has been compromised. It is amazing that someone who has been selling out arenas for three decades made it so long as a symbol of the powerless, persevering American. His open support of Democratic politicians made some of his red-state fans unhappy (apparently he can tell the difference between the cries of “Bru-uce!” and the ones that sounded more like “Booo!”). Faced with the extremism of the Bush Presidency, Springsteen felt like he had to take sides. Before 2004, Bruce was partisan only to the workingman. Before 2004, he could even get away with singing the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.

Line at Unemployment Office, January 2009 (Photo by Brad Bobo)

The issue at hand is not the credibility or intent of the man, nor the service he renders this country: I doubt that many would object if Bruce’s face ended up on U.S. legal tender. But he cannot make an album as raw and ambiguous as Nebraska ever again. Like Obama, Bruce’s role is to recognize our hardships while simultaneously boosting our confidence in our country and ourselves. This recession might scare him as much as he was scared back in his bedroom in 1982, but he sure isn’t going to show it. Not like that.

Springsteen spoke of the challenges facing America recently on The Daily Show. And he is responding the way he has for most of the last 40 years: by taking the E Street Band on a nationwide trek that continues through the summer of 2009. As he put it recently: “I always said this band was built for hard times. We wrote songs in the ’70s and ’80s, when there were recessions, but we’ve never seen it like this.” And it seems likely that Springsteen and the band will address America’s economic turmoil head on. But maybe the frugal thing to do in these crazy times is to forsake the cost of a ticket, and curl up instead in a quiet place and take a new trip to Nebraska.