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Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska at 40
Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 Born in the USA album transformed him from a favorite of rock audiences with a big cult following to a megastar. The album spawned seven top ten singles and has sold thirty million copies worldwide. The timely production and upbeat arrangements made the songs acceptable to Reagan-era America despite their sometime critical content. The title song was famously appropriated by Ronald Reagan despite it highlighting the failure of the country to live up to its promises or acknowledge the human wreckage created by the Vietnam War.
It must be said, however, that the Boss did try to have it both ways. For example, it’s hard to feel the absolute despair in “Dancing in the Dark” beneath the poppy synths. The album cover and the 45 sleeve of the title track prominently feature the American flag in what looks to be a celebratory fashion. The verses of “Born in the USA” are an accusation, but the chorus sounds like a grittier Lee Greenwood. No wonder people got confused.
Two years before, however, Springsteen put out an album that stripped away the artifice and faced the Reagan-era destruction of working-class America straight with no chaser. Nebraska turns forty this month, a stark mostly acoustic album that remains as relevant as ever.
The cover couldn’t be any different, a black and white cloudy plains sky seen from a the dashboard of a snow-covered car, the red on black lettering vaguely ominous and threatening. It begins with the title track, telling the story of Charle Starkweather’s famous 1950s murder spree across Nebraska in his own voice from the grave. The facts of the case are a story of inexplicable violence. After killing his 14 year old girlfriend’s family, Starkweather shot his way across the state before getting caught in Wyoming. All in all he killed eleven people.
'“Nebraska” is a whisper of a song, and unsettles the listener by forcing them to hear what this man has to say. I grew up in rural Nebraska and my mother vividly remembered Starkweather’s killings and the fear he created across the entire state. After she would tell me these stories as a kid I would have a hard time sleeping at night. In fact, when I first bought this album I would sometimes skip this song. “Nebraska” is an opening statement by Springsteen that he is going to take you to places that you’d probably rather not visit. There’s also no comfort there. In the song Springsteen says the only reason “I did what I did” was “just the meanness in this world.” It sounds like eleven people lost their lives for absolutely no reason. The world’s cruelty and its lack of redemption are running themes throughout the album.
While Starkweather is a relic of the 50s, the rest of the album tells the story of an 80s America of lost opportunities and broken promises. The next song, “Atlantic City,” directly references Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey. It appears to be about a man who has lost everything, who has “debts no honest man can pay.” He agrees to perform a mob hit to get himself out. After all, “everything dies, that’s a fact.” In the end economic desperation drives people to do the very worst. In a recurring theme of the album, suffering is not redemptive. It makes people bitter and cruel; it does not sanctify them. This song also happens to be the only thing approaching a single on the album, a far cry from what Born in the USA would unleash.
It’s also a comment on the changing economics of the country. Atlantic City added casino gambling in the late 1970s, the only place to have it outside of Nevada. This once thriving resort town was promised that a jolt of capitalism in its purest form -a casino- would be the answer to its prayers. Forty years later and Atlantic City is once again on hard times, many of the casinos closed.
“Mansion on the Hill” comes next, quiet and haunting like “Nebraska.” It’s a beautiful song, but ironically so. The song’s narrator describes seeing this mansion of a hill in his hometown growing up, a place full of happiness and life that is completely out of reach for him. In my book it’s one of the most powerful songs Springsteen wrote about social class. It gets at a hard truth, which is that being working class at its root is about having to accept a second rate life. I also see something even deeper, as this song came out after Reagan took office, a man who enjoyed calling America a “shining city on a hill.” In the 80s most people didn’t live in it, they only looked at it.
The next song makes the Reagan-era connection far more explicit in the first line “They closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late last month.” Indeed, the Ford factory in Mahwah, New Jersey, shut down amidst the mass deindustrialization of the period. The titular character, “Johnny 99,” goes out and gets drunk after losing his job, then shoots a night clerk in a frenzy. The judge sentences him to 99 years in jail, Johnny begs to be put to death. In pleading his case he echoes “Atlantic City” by saying “I’ve got debts no honest man can pay.” The rhythm and harmonica are jaunty but this is a deeply disturbing song. Yet again, people are killed over nothing and the killers are wounded people who go out and hurt others after getting kicked around their whole lives. The reasons for it all seem pretty hard to find.
Just when you think things can’t get sadder, Springsteen comes in with “Highway Patrolman.” It’s a song so rich that Sean Penn made a movie based on it. The narrator is indeed a highway patrolman who has a brother who is always getting in trouble. The narrator lost his farm and became a highway patrolman; his brother Frankie came back from Nam in bad shape. Eventually the narrator gets word that Frankie has almost killed someone in a bar fight. He tries to chase him down in his patrol car, but then decides to give up, watching his brother’s tail-lights disappear. He repeats a common refrain in the song “A man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.” Earlier in the song it was about how he was trying to save his brother. Now that he’s failed to keep him on the straight and narrow, the best he can do is just let him go, never to see him again. Yet again the forces of the world just seem too big to overcome.
The last song on side one is not as sad, but far creepier and also about the highway patrol. “State Trooper” might be the best song ever written about driving at night. The narrator never says what he did, but the song sounds like confession. The references to the New Jersey Turnpike evoke classic rock and roll car songs like Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me.” Instead of a celebration of the open road, it feels totally claustrophobic. The narrator says “mister state trooper please don’t stop me” like he's got a dead body in the trunk. (Perhaps he’s the amateur hit man from “Atlantic City.”) The song and side one end with a kind of strained wolf cry, probably the most haunting noise I’ve ever heard Springsteen make.
Side two opens with “Used Cars,” a quiet companion piece to “Mansion on the Hill” about social class. As with the other song, its about the humiliation that comes with the working class acceptance of a second rate life. Needing to buy a used car is a pretty good example. The narrator remembers his parents buying a used car, and vows “Mister the day the lottery I win/ I ain’t ever gonna drive in no used car again.” Notice the lottery is his deliverance. His job won’t pay him enough to get there on his own.
The next song is the most innocuous on the album, “Open All Night.” It’s an enthusiastic paen to late night driving, far more upbeat than “State Trooper.” It treads the same ground as the former song, but with joy instead of desperation. It’s the one time on the album that Springsteen sounds happy.
Perhaps he needed to cushion the listener for the blows that come on the last two tracks. “My Father’s House” and “Reason to Believe” might be the bleakest on an album of bleak songs. The narrator of “My Father’s House” discusses a nightmare where he was a child again and had to run through dark woods to his father’s house. He then reveals his estrangment from his father. He tries to visit him at his house, but a stranger lives there now. Full of unrequited longing, the narrator calls it a place where “our sins lie unatoned.” He knows he can never make up for the rift with his father. Yet again, redemption is an illusion.
If it’s not clear yet that Springsteen thinks this is a cruel world without hope, he gives us “Reason to Believe.” In the song he presents all kinds of scenes from daily life. A man pokes a dead dog on the road with a stick. A man leaves a woman and never comes back. A baby is baptized. A poor old man dies in a shotgun shack. A groom gets left at the altar. The characters cry out to God for relief, but none comes. Still, “at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” The words out of context sound pretty positive, but in the context of the song they cut deep. People never get an answer to their prayers, but they still find a reason to believe because if they can’t this life would be impossible to endure. After an album spent on the dark side of life it’s quite the wow finish.
It’s hard to imagine how the man singing these songs of despair about low lifes in a fragile and cruel world would sell thirty million copies of his next album. Nebraska is a true prophecy of what would be wrought by Reagan and neoliberalism as well as a statement of existential philosophy. When Sprinsgsteen wrote these songs in 1982 they were describing a new phenomenon. After four decades of it we have mostly inured ourselves to a world of limited opportunities and gross inequalities.
Even before COVID, life expectancy in America was going down. A large number of people in this country have basically been tossed on the trash heap. The people responsible will never pay a price. Nebraska saw all this coming.