In August of 1981, despite incredibly grim economic prospects, my wife and I were married. We lived in an upstairs apartment of an old house in an older neighborhood in Kenosha, and although our income was barely enough to cover the rent, it remains probably the happiest year of my life. It was just my wife and I, and we were discovering each other and growing deeper in love every day. The setting was the warm and bright apartment we rarely ventured outside of, and the soundtrack was the album The River, by Bruce Springsteen. "Jackson Cage", "Two Hearts", "Independence Day", "Hungry Heart", Out in the Street", "The River", "Point Blank", "Fade Away", "The Price You Pay", and our favorite, "Drive All Night." If we were home, odds are one of these songs was playing. The River remains my personal all-time favorite album, and the one I've listened to more than any other album over the years.
|1982 vintage Bruce|
It was in the fall of 1982 when I started hearing rumors that Springsteen had released a new album. This seemed unfathomable, because the success of The River had made Springsteen a global superstar. Surely any new release by such a major artist would be widely publicized and heavily marketed. Surely, I, being such a big fan, would have heard something about it. But I remember going to a record store (I can't remember which one - maybe "One Sweet Dream" on 7th avenue in Kenosha?) and sure enough, there it was:
It was a strange cover, a black and white photo of a barren landscape taken through the front windshield of a car, with the words "Bruce Springsteen" in large red capital letters against a black background on top and in the same font, "Nebraska" on the bottom.
I flipped it over, and the back cover was just as sparse, the names of ten songs in red capital letters plastered across the same bleak black drop. Looking at it in the store, I thought, okay, so he's going minimalist, big deal. Turns out, I'd really have no idea until I got it home and put the vinyl on my turntable.
I bought the thing, and, like I used to do with all of the albums (and I mean "albums" - the big vinyl packages music used to come in) I purchased, I sat in my car and unwrapped the cellophane wrapping and looked at what materials were inside. Springsteen albums always contained a sheet of lyrics, so I sat there and started reading.
I saw her standing on her front lawn
just twirling her baton
me and her went for a ride sir
and ten innocent people died
Huh? This wasn't Backstreets! This wasn't Independence Day! What the hell is going on here? I sat in my car, and decided I'd try the next song, something called Atlantic City:
Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
now they blew up his house too
Chicken man? Blowing up his house? WTF? I quickly realized I had to hear these songs; maybe then they'd make some sense.
So I got home and put the album on and from the haunting, opening blues harmonica rift at the beginning of the title track to the final chord of the last song, "Reason to Believe", I was absolutely stunned. My first reaction was, where's the E Street Band? The second reaction was, what did I just hear? I still wasn't sure what it was, but I knew it was great, and that I had to hear it again, all the way through. I think that night I played the album probably five or six times, each time picking up something new, appreciating it on a deeper level.
Musically, the sound is as minimalist as the album cover implied it would be. It was just Springsteen, most of the time with an acoustic guitar and harmonica. There was something else odd about the album, the way it sounded, the speed, the background noises. I'd learn later that the album was a collection of demos he and an assistant recorded in his bedroom on a simple four track cassette recorder, and that they were originally intended to be fleshed out with the full E Street Band. Bruce and the band went into the studio, but no matter how hard they tried, something was missing, something was lost from the original recording. They soon realized it was the intimacy, the feeling of Springsteen alone in his room recording it and the listener alone in his room, and the contact, the shortening of distance between the artist and the consumer, that couldn't be replicated with the band or the studio. So they released the demos, remastering them from a beat up cassette tape that Springsteen had been carrying around in his pocket.
Contributing to the intimacy of the record was the songwriting, which was unlike anything Springsteen had done before. He was turning inward, affected by the depression he was suffering from and questioning the validity of the dreams of super stardom that he'd always held, now that they were within his reach, now that they were attainable. He was also examining his relationship with his audience, the blue collar working class he came from, and what they were going through. Nebraska is the among the rawest and most personal albums ever recorded, right up there with Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago and Springsteen's own, later Tunnel of Love.
The first couple of listens, on songs like "Johnny 99", I thought he was singing about the plight of the working class in the messed up economy we were living in at the time, that theses songs were an extension of the characters in the song "The River." This may have been true to some extent, but I quickly realized there was more to it than that.
Here's a song-by-song look at the album:
"Nebraska"--Springsteen's telling of the Charles Starkweather killing spree through the Midwest in the 1950s. Springsteen had been reading a lot of Flannery O'Connor and he responded to her Catholicism, the naming of sin.
In a confessional tone, the character in Springsteen's song says:
I can't say that I'm sorry
for the things that we done
at least for a little while. sir
me and her we had us some fun
Later, awaiting the death penalty, the murderer is asked why he did it:
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 the world.
Compare this to the great O'Connor short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find", in which a family encounters a mass murderer called "the misfit" (note Springsteen's choice of the word "unfit"), who explains his non-belief to the grandmother's failed faith before he kills her:
"If He (Jesus) did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but to throw everything away and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said, and his voice had become almost a snarl.
In both "Nebraska" and "A Good Man is Hard to Find", the murderer has fallen from grace, and finds "pleasure" and "fun" and meaning only in "meanness."
Everything dies, baby that's a fact
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back
put your makeup on and fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City
After the first couple of verses describing the decay and fall of the city, the song turns inward, to a guy who's experiencing the same things on a personal level. He's deep in debt, without work, and his relationship with his girlfriend/wife has reached a breaking point. Before he loses everything, he offers up his soul:
Well, I'm tired of coming out on the losing end
so honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him
The song then goes into the chorus, with the "everything dies" lyric, and we realize that with the death of his soul, everything has died. The song has a ghostly feel to it, haunted by Springsteen's own
backing vocals and the strange grunts and moans that accompany his voice. "Atlantic City" is one of the few songs on the album that is an instant classic. Unlike many of the other songs that grow on you in their subtlety, "Atlantic City" is recognizable as spooky and haunting and undeniably great the first time you hear it.
The next song, "Mansion on the Hill", is one of several songs on the album that are directly about Springsteen's childhood. Born in the poor part of a small New Jersey town, Springsteen's childhood was bizarre and difficult, dominated by his explosive father, who suffered from a severe bipolar personality disorder and was unable to hold a steady job. By the time he was writing the songs on Nebraska, Springsteen was on the verge of super stardom yet suffering from depression. Dominated by memories of his childhood, he found himself night after night driving to houses he grew up in, and sitting outside parked on the curb. Mansion on the Hill describes the isolation he felt growing up, and the knowledge of his family's economic class.
In the summer, all the lights would shine
there'd be music playing and people laughing all the time
me and my sister, we'd hide out in the tall cornfields
sit and listen to the mansion on the hill
The last verse is somewhat ambiguous:
Tonight down here in Lyndon town
I watch the cars rushing by home from the mill
there's a beautiful full moon rising
above the mansion on the hill
To me, this verse always felt a little lonely, like he's still isolated. He watches the cars rushing home from the mill, but he's not one of them. I've always wondered, is he now inside the mansion? I think this verse is at the core of what drove the creation of the album: with Born to Run and The River, he'd achieved the success he always dreamed of, and was surprised to find he still felt just as isolated as he always had. It's this internal conflict and his ability to articulate it through music and lyrics in a form we can all understand that makes Nebraska such a powerful experience.
The next song, "Johnny 99", is one of the purest folk songs on the album. It tells the story of a guy named Ralph who lost his job at the auto plant, got drunk, shot a cop, and was sentenced to life in jail. His sentence becomes his identity, as from that point on he's known as Johnny 99. The song ends with Johnny addressing the judge who'd sentenced him:
Well, your honor, I do believe I'd be better off dead
and if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that are in his head
then won't you sit back in that chair
and think it over judge one more time
and let 'em shave off my hair
and put me on that execution line
"Highway Patrolman"--The most complete story song on the album. This song is so rich in detail and emotion that Sean Penn later adapted it into the film The Indian Runner. It tells the story of the Roberts brothers, Joe and Frankie, from the point of view of Joe, the older and responsible one of the two. Both brothers find themselves in a place they didn't expect to be; Joe has lost his farm and taken a job as a state trooper, while Frankie is freshly home from Vietnam, and violently exorcising demons. The conflict in the song is Joe's anguish over doing his job and protecting his little brother:
I've always done an honest job
as honest as I could
I got a brother named Frankie
and Frankie ain't no good
Frank is always getting in trouble, and Joe keeps responding to the calls he gets:
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
Until one night, Frank goes too far, and Joe knows this is it:
There was a kid lying on the floor looking bad,
bleeding hard from his head
there was a girl crying at a table
and it was Frank they said
He finds Frank's car on the country roads outside of town:
I chased him through those county roads
till a sign said "Canadian border five miles from here"
pulled over to the side of the highway
and watched his tail lights disappear
The song ends with the poignant chorus:
Me and Frankie laughing and drinking
nothing feels better than blood on blood
taking turns dancing with Maria
as the band plays "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's straying
like any brother would
man turns his back on his family
well he just ain't no good
Joe says goodbye to Frank, and also to his ability to "catch him when he's straying", and the family that he treasured will be forever fractured. Letting Frank escape is a testimony to the love he feels for him (or rather the memories of his little brother), while at the same time he is sacrificing any future relationship the two could have. In order to preserve the warm memories he has of him and Frank, he has to let Frank go.
The song is pure heartbreak and testimony to Springsteen's power as a storyteller.
"State Trooper" follows and closes out side one of the vinyl version. It is pure darkness and desolation and desperation, as it begins with Springsteen rhythmically strumming the same hypnotic chords over and over.Then his voice reaches out of the speakers and grabs you and puts you on the empty New Jersey turnpike on a rainy night:
New Jersey turnpike
riding on a wet night
'neath the refinery's glow
out where the great black rivers flow
A sense of desperation is then added to the mix with:
I ain't got none
but I got a clear conscience
about the things that I've done
He never tells us what those things are he's done, and while his conscience may be clear, he's still anxious:
Mister state trooper
please don't stop me ...
An internal conversation with the State Trooper reveals a man at the end of something:
Maybe you got a kid
maybe you got a pretty wife
the only thing that I've got
has been bothering me my whole life
Again, Springsteen's command of just the right detail is perfect, as the night horizon is dominated by the red flashing of radio relay towers:
In the wee wee hours
your mind gets hazy
radio relay towers
lead me to my baby
There are the hoots and hollers that one says aloud when trying to stay awake on a long drive. The song closes with a prayer of desperation:
Hey somebody out there
listen to my last prayer
deliver me from nowhere
"Used Cars" is the most nakedly autobiographical song on the album. It tells the story of one in a parade of junker used cars that his father brought home. The song reveals that even at a very young age, Springsteen comprehended the failures of his father and where the Springsteens fell on the socio-economic ladder:
Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
and watches the salesman stare at my old man's hands
he's telling us all about the break he'd give us if he could
but he just can't
He feels the shame of the neighbor's superior and sympathetic eyes on the Springsteens:
The neighbors come from near and far
as we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
and tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye
The song closes with a brief and poignant acknowledgement of sympathy for his father and his family's place in the world:
My dad, he sweats the same job from morning to morn
me, I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat, blowing that horn
the sounds echo all down Michigan Avenue
His voice almost breaks as he sings the last verse, and it's an honest and emotional moment.
Then comes "Open All Night", and he is again out on the highway at night, but this time he's driving with a girlfriend as his destination:
I remember Wanda up on scrap metal hill
with those big brown eyes that make your heart stand still
Th song is rich in imagery and detail, and it's the closest thing to a happy song on the album. It ends with a variation of the same prayer that closes "State Trooper."
Hey ho rock and roll
deliver me from nowhere
The song, just Springsteen and a guitar, has a rhythm and beat to it, and is almost rock and roll; at least the closest thing to a rock song on the album. And although the singer is alone again in the darkness of night, there's still hope. In that respect, it's the most Springsteen-esque song on the album.
"My Father's House" is next, Springsteen's song about the late night trips he found himself taking to the houses he grew up in. In the song he has dreams about being a child again, and running through the night woods from some unnamed menace, until he reaches his father's house:
I broke through the trees and there in the night
my father's house stood shining hard and bright
the branches and brambles
tore my clothes and scratched my arms
but I ran until I fell shaking in his arms
He awakes from the dream determined to put aside all of their differences and reestablish a relationship with his father. He gets dressed and drives to the house and goes to the door, only to find "a woman I didn't recognize" tell him that his father doesn't live there anymore.
The song closes with a verse that sums everything up much better than I ever could. There is no redemption to be found here, yet the house maintains its grip on Springsteen's psyche:
My father's house shines hard and bright
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
calling and calling, so cold and alone
shining across this dark highway where out sins
"Reason to Believe", a rare exercise in irony, closes he album out. It opens with:
Seen a man standing over a dead dog
lying by the highway in a ditch
he's looking down kinda puzzled
poking that dog with a stick
got his car door flung open
he's standing out on highway 31
like if he stood there long enough
that dog'd get up and run
Again, his selection and use of detail and images is exquisite. How does he react to seeing such a sight?
Stuck me kinda funny
seems kinda funny, sir, to me
still at the end of every hard earned day
people find some reason to believe
In the verses that follow, he describes a woman who supports her lover only to have him leave her at the end of a dirt road, where she waits for him to come back. He describes the birth of a boy named "Kyle WIlliam" and in the next moment his death and burial in a "whitewash shotgun shack." Each verse is followed by the "Struck me kind of funny" lyric, and how people find some reason to believe when the bleakness of what he describes would seem to be indicative of no reason to believe.
Finally, the song (and the album) ends with:
Congregation gathers down by the riverside
Preacher stands with his bible
groom stands waiting for his bride
the sun sets behind a weeping willow tree
groom stands alone and watches the river rush on
where can his baby be
still at the end of every earned day
people find some reason to believe
In this verse, the groom is Springsteen himself, jilted by his faith, his Catholicism, his faith in rock and roll, his faith in humanity. On the precipice of super stardom, he finds himself alone and abandoned, haunted by the same darkness he ran to music to escape from. "Reason to Believe" is the summation of the crisis of faith the entire album tried to articulate.
By writing and recording Nebraska, Springsteen wrestled with these demons, in the process creating an enduring work of art. The songs can be hard to listen to, and they can take you to your own dark places, but if you're willing to go there, you might find some things you recognize, and in the process, feel a little less alone. This is what great art has always done for me, and Nebraska is art of extraordinary depth and substance.