Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska

on July 20, 2013, 12:00am

bruce springsteen - nebraska

In this week’s edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, staff writers Henry Hauser and Bryant Kitching revisit Bruce Springsteen’s dark and intimate 1982 sixth album, Nebraska. The two discuss its role in Springsteen’s disocgraphy, the stories behind the songs, the production style, and whether or not the New Jersey hero let go of hope.

Bryant Kitching (BK): By 1982, Bruce Springsteen was wholly free from the heavy legal shackles that had plagued him for the better part of the last decade. For the first time in his career, he could do whatever the hell he wanted, and his label or lawyers couldn’t say a damn thing. What does The Boss do with that freedom? Inspired by Charles Starkweather’s 1957-58 killing spree, he churned out Nebraska, one of the darkest, most macabre, utterly heart-wrenching albums of all time. Sandwiched between two stadium-sized rock monoliths, The River (1980) and Born in the USA (1984), that’s what we in the business like to call punk as fuck. It’s why it has always been my favorite Springsteen album and an album worth revisiting.

I think back to the photo of Bruce on the inside sleeve. It’s a fuzzy, distant shot that looks like the photographer snuck up on him while he was creeping around his abandoned childhood home in Freehold, NJ. It couldn’t be further from the smiling boardwalk goofball on the Born To Run cover, or the take-no-prisoners tough guy from The River. Nebraska oozes mystery and chaos while buckling your knees and wetting your eyes.

Henry Hauser (HH): It’s absolutely true that Nebraska stands in stark contrast to Bruce’s earlier work. Nebraska leaves behind the youthful exuberance of Greetings from Asbury Park, the bustling friskiness of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, and that delirious high of ditching “a town full of losers” anchoring Born To Run. What’s left is a requiem – a Mourner’s Kaddish for all those wretched souls too timid, too dumb, or shackled with just too much rotten luck to make it out of the “dead man’s town” where they were born and bred.

Nebraska finds Bruce’s rambunctious ragamuffin pals Sloppy Sue, Big Bones Billy, and Bad Scooter a decade down the line, still languishing in the suffocating towns from which they swore they’d escape. It’s about the folks that never glanced up at their rearview mirrors as their hometowns melted into the horizon. These are the ones that stayed behind or, worse yet, got left behind.

Strictly speaking, these people are still alive. They go about their monotonous, mundane lives as best they can, picking up double shifts at Walmart, schlepping their dull-eyed kids to and from peewee football practice or trying in vain to make ends meet as a single parent amidst the crippling tandem of colossal unemployment and double-digit inflation. Deep down, though, something inside of them has died — their joie de vivre extinguished by the unfulfilled promises of youth and tedium of adult life. Their once deeply held creed — that a tank full of gas is all you need to score freedom — and the light of flashier, more glamorous, greener pastures has been debunked.

 Dusting Em Off: Bruce Springsteen   Nebraska

Channeling this depressive, vacuous vibe by recording Nebraska on a four-track Portastudio 144, Springsteen chronicles the swelling divide between the haves and have-nots. On “Atlantic City”, he warns us that America, once the land of opportunity, has devolved into a land of “winners and losers/ and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” Pleading for leniency and compassion, the homicidal protagonist of “Johnny 99” reminds us that sometimes economic necessity, not rotten morals, paves the road to savagery and violence. After “they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah” and the bank threatened to take Johnny’s house away, he found himself utterly without hope.

Rather than asserting his innocence at trial, Johnny uses his last words conveying to Judge John Brown the realities of life in the socioeconomic gutter. Just like the blue-collar everyman in “Atlantic City”, Johnny, burdened with “debts no honest man could pay,” can’t reconcile the American dream with his living nightmare. In both songs, the protagonist searches (in vain) for relief outside the law, whether by doing a “little favor” for someone he met last night in “Atlantic City”, or “wavin’ his gun around and threatenin’ to blow his top” on “Johnny 99”.

You mention that Nebraska follows comparatively effusive 1980 offering The River. Does all this mourning over the squandered freedom and rust belt suffocation come out of left field, or does Springsteen tip his hand a bit on Nebraska’s predecessor?

nebraska sleeveBK: Yes, of course. Even as starkly as Nebraska stands out in the Springsteen cannon, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It might seem hard to trace any of Nebraska’s quiet, murderous desperation back to the 20-track opus The River, but it’s all there. The loneliness, the despondency, the idea as you put it, Henry, that sometimes you don’t make it out of the “dead man’s town.” Sometimes the gas tank runs dry.

The main character from The River’s title track can’t find work, he can’t give his pregnant 19-year-old wife a proper wedding, and he has no real prospect of ever getting out from “down in the valley.” This is the same person we see again on “Atlantic City”, “Johnny 99”, or even on “State Trooper” or “Highway Patrolman”. There is a difference, though: on The River, they have the titular river to wash away their broken promises. The people we meet on Nebraska have nothing. Or, as the borderline-homicidal character from “State Trooper” puts it, “The only thing that I’ve got/ been bothering me my whole life.”

Pre-Nebraska, Bruce offered glimpses into the depths of his darkest psyche, but there was almost always a ladder to help us climb out. Hell, “Hungry Heart” might just be the darkest song the guy has ever written, but lyrics about a man who gets fed up and leaves his family nearly lose their impact when paired with such bubbly instrumentation. Imagine that track recorded with just an acoustic guitar and Bruce’s shitty Portastudio, and you’ve got something that’d fit perfectly on Nebraska.

You don’t have to be a Springsteen scholar to know that redemption and salvation are two of his most common themes. Redemption comes in the form of a car, a girl, a killer sax solo. He preaches salvation through a song, a river, or a sunny day at the shore. On Nebraska, even death can’t bring deliverance. Probably my favorite line on the whole record comes on the title track, when his fictionalized Starkweather character is sentenced to death. He tell us, “They declared me unfit to live/ said into that great void my soul be hurled.” (If there’s a better metaphor for death, I haven’t heard it.) This person isn’t even going to hell. His soul is doomed to drift about in this “great void” for all eternity. The worst part is, he doesn’t even care because at the end of it all, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

One of the unsung moments on the album lies in the dry sarcasm Springsteen uses to tease us on closer “Reason To Believe”. Going by title alone, you think he’s about to leave us with a glimmer of hope, but he’s actually mocking us. There’s a man pulled over by the side of the road poking his dead dog with a stick, as if this will somehow revive his deceased canine. Instead of mourning or sympathizing, you can practically see Bruce roll his eyes when he sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day/ people find some reason to believe.”

Okay, so we’ve established that the Springsteen on Nebraska was a totally different animal than anything anyone had seen before, so let’s dive into the tracks themselves a bit more. Henry, do you have a favorite?

HH: I’ve always been a bit obsessed with the beautiful melancholy of “Reason To Believe”.  Rather than hearing snide sarcasm in Bruce’s downtrodden lyrics and gravelly vocals, I hear resilience, guts, and gumption.

It’s true that the folks in “Reason To Believe” have it rough. There’s the man mourning over a mutilated dog carcass, the tragically abandoned sweetheart waiting “down at the end of that dirt road for young Johnny to come back,” and that pathetic bridegroom shuffling his feet all alone at the altar as “the sun sets behind a weepin’ willow tree.” Their lives are chock-full of pain, hardship, and disappointment. But despite absorbing some brutal blows, they aren’t broken. They haven’t given up, and they sure as hell aren’t about to lie down and die. They’re survivors, they’ve found something to hold on to, something to get them through their 9-5 grinds with a few scraps of dignity and hope intact. Whether it’s God, six-packs of Bud, or a triumphantly cathartic Bruce Springsteen concert, these people have found something on which to graft their battered self-esteems and gutted personalities.

The precise form in which this “something” presents itself doesn’t really matter; what’s significant is that these rust belt everymen have found “some reason to believe” that maybe things aren’t so bad, that their fortunes actually could be on the upswing, or that by the time they’re six feet under, their communities will recall them with respect and admiration. Here even death has a silver lining, as Springsteen deftly alludes to the cyclicality of life by juxtaposing the passing of an old man “in a whitewash shotgun shack” with the baptism of baby Kyle Williams.

nebraska back Dusting Em Off: Bruce Springsteen   Nebraska

Set to a wispy harmonica and sparse acoustic guitar, Springsteen presents a phantasmagoria of disappointment and decay. Leading into each chorus with a fleeting glimpse of some wretched schmuck shunned by a disloyal lover or perturbed by the stark finality of death, we find the song’s protagonists on the precipice of surrender and despair. But just when all appears lost, faint rays of sunshine pierce through the clouds, drawing them back from the edge.  Moaning and groaning, Springsteen sings of this puzzling phenomenon. “At the end of every hard-earned day/ people find some reason to believe.”

Strongly emphasizing the phrase “hard-earned day” with his rasping vocal to highlight the interminable burden these people bear, Springsteen whispers the song’s titular lyric as the chorus segues seamlessly into a fresh portrait of heartache and sorrow. Sure, this “reason to believe” may be nothing more than an echo or a shadow, but at least it’s something. And in a world sharply divided between haves and have-nots, something is a whole a lot better than nothing.

So, Bryant, am I right to presume that you’re partial to the album’s title track?

BK: “Nebraska” is a monster, no doubt. But the one that has always resonated most with me is “State Trooper”. It’s just a bare-bones guitar line and Springsteen’s hollow vocals that sound both distant and like he’s whispering right into your ear. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to Suicide, who Springsteen was a big fan of during this period. He even famously said, “If Elvis came back from the dead, I think he would sound like [Suicide frontman] Alan Vega.”

Suicide’s 10-minute electronic murder ballad “Frankie Teardrop” deeply affected Springsteen, and it didn’t take him long to release a track brimming with just as much desperation and pent-up rage. The man he introduces us to is a loose cannon in every sense of the term. Driving on the Jersey turnpike in the dead of night, he tells us, “License, registration, I ain’t got none/ but I got a clear conscience about the things that I’ve done.” It’s an utterly terrifying experience for the listener, as their imagination starts running wild. How many people has he already killed? Where is he going? How long before he kills again? Even after hundreds of listens, it never fails to make my palms sweat and plant a knot deep in my stomach. It’s an amazing feat of craftsmanship that he’s able to elicit that kind of response with the limited toolbox he was working with.

The line “Hi ho Silver-o, deliver me from nowhere” encapsulates the entire album perfectly. Here is someone who is so dead inside that even God has given up on him. There’s no hope left, so he’s going to sit back and watch the world burn. That, to me, is what Nebraska is all about. It’s also why the album isn’t widely appreciated outside of Springsteen diehards. His storytelling had never been stronger, but these weren’t necessarily tales people were comfortable hearing, let alone playing at family BBQs or karaoke bars.

brucespringsteennebraska Dusting Em Off: Bruce Springsteen   NebraskaHH: While I agree that Nebraska paints a dark and dire picture, I just can’t believe that Bruce and his buddies have lost all hope. Take “Open All Night”, the only Nebraska song to feature an electric guitar. Though lacking the alluring and naughty thrill of escape heard in fellow nocturnal automotive ditties “Spirit in the Night” and “Thunder Road” (“Show a little faith/ there’s magic in the night”), the track poignantly champions the restorative tandem of rock music and the open highway.

Though the New Jersey turnpike’s “lunar landscape” may be “spooky at night when you’re all alone,” our protagonist swallows his fear, fuels up, and braves the long, winding road separating him from his Wanda. As the singer fights off physical exhaustion and emotional demons, the song ends with the promise of a new day (“sun’s just a red ball risin’ over them refinery towers”) and an appeal to that great haloed DJ in the sky (“hear my last prayer/ hey ho rock n’ roll deliver me from nowhere”). As long as he’s got a car and an FM radio, anything (even deliverance and redemption) is within reach.

Springsteen’s music bristles with the tension between the collective and the individual. There is a burning passion to escape, to strike out on one’s own, but a concurrent awareness of the need to connect and ultimately return to a larger community. Albums like Greetings from Asbury Park and Born To Run reveal the need to establish a unique personality through rebellion and escape and then reconcile that identity with community so as to alleviate the pain of alienation. Nebraska shows us that failure to balance these needs begets the intense heartbreak of sorrow and regret. Thankfully, it’s never fully hopeless. There’s always something to latch onto like a lifeboat amidst icy waters: a spouse, a rusty old Ford, or, as Springsteen boisterously and garishly channels on 1984’s Born in the USA, bright and blinding patriotism.

Still think there’s no hope, Bryant?

BK: Henry, you almost have me convinced. Almost. Listening to “Open All Night” as I write this now, I can hear the same guy who once begged Rosie to come out tonight. He’s buried deep, and probably has a body or two stuffed in his trunk, but he’s just as earnest about getting back to his baby. I still think it’s impossible to tease any inkling of hope out of songs like “Nebraska” or “State Trooper”, but there are times on the album I suppose a silver lining does peek its head through the darkness and pain.

Perhaps that’s what makes Nebraska Springsteen’s most rewarding album. Tom Morello is quoted as saying, “I didn’t know there was music like that, that was as impactful and as heavy as Nebraska was. The alienation that I felt was for the first time expressed in music.” The key word there is impactful. Springsteen’s more commercial work is certainly impactful, but in the way of your first kiss or a mother’s hug. Nebraska is more akin to your first fistfight. Each experience packs one hell of a wallop, emotionally and developmentally, but there are few things that teach you more about yourself than getting an ass whooping. The road may be paved with broken hearts and buried bodies, but the payoff is magnificent.

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