Bruce Springsteen’s stark and ageless Nebraska: A song-by song second look

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When Nebraska came out in 1982, it took me by complete surprise. Long before the Internet told us everything we needed to know about our favorite artists, we had to rely on publications like Hit Parader, Creem, and Rolling Stone. So, if there was a hint of this album in any of those magazines, I completely missed it.

I’d walked down the hill to the University of Maine bookstore, intent on buying a record or seven, and here was Nebraska, this shiny new album recorded primarily on January 3, 1982 in Bruce Springsteen’s bedroom at Colts Neck, New Jersey. I just couldn’t believe it. Of course, since I had absolutely no idea of what to expect, I was really knocked out by the starkness of the musical presentation and the stories. It was some harsh listening.

Some have said that Nebraska is an outlier in the Springsteen catalog. (Some have said worse, of course.) Though it may have seemed so at the time, it’s fairly easy to draw a line from the desperation and turmoil shown here, moving back through The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town, as well.

From the chilling harmonica opening through the cold resignation of the first person account of the killing spree seen through Charlie Starkweather’s eyes, the album-opening title track of Nebraska is as relevant today as it was all the way back in 1982. The truth is that we can gather up the all of the information we want in the effort to figure out why people like Starkweather and James Holmes are driven over the edge. “I guess There’s just a meanness in this world” is both a distillation and an over-simplification of things. And yet … it rings true.

“ATLANTIC CITY”: Like so many of Bruce Springsteen’s songs, a relatively simple story ends up going a lot deeper. So what appears to be a gangland tale presented with cinematic detail, ends up reflecting shadows back onto the listener. I hear that in the lines “But I got debts that no honest man can pay,” and “And everything dies baby that’s a fact — but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

That first line is drenched with a kind of desperate honesty and the situation it infers is sadly all too common. The latter, haunting pair comes loaded with multiple meanings. Is it that a person can run away from his past? That redemption isn’t possible? Maybe so. A lot of people feel that way these days. Maybe they always have.

There have been a lot of great covers of “Atlantic City” (my favorite being the one on the Band’s Jericho album), and Bruce himself has for years played the song in a terrific full band arrangement, but for me its full power is on display in the acoustic form.

“MANSION ON THE HILL”: A few months before my dad passed away, we were driving through some city streets on the way back from his cardiologist appointment at the hospital. At one point when we were stuck at a light, Dad looked to his left and said, “Hey Mark, look at that bright blue house. When you were a little boy, you always said that we should have a blue house.”

I hadn’t thought about that in decades but he was right, I did want a bright blue house. We never had a house of our own until my early teens and by then my desire for blue had long since been forgotten. Many years later, Dad’s memory brought forth our versions of some of the things implied in “Mansion On The Hill” — his job at the factory, and our weekend trips out into the country to admire the big, beautiful houses we dared not to hope for.

I’ve always loved what Bruce and Patti did with this live, transforming it into a romantic country ballad, the mansion now a metaphor for something else to hope for. True love? Peace? A life well-lived? Yes, all of those things.

“JOHNNY 99”: When I first heard “Johnny 99,” it was the driving, almost rockabilly bent to Bruce Springsteen’s guitar that drew me in. But it was the combination of such upbeat music with a truly nasty story (unemployment, murder, imprisonment … basically, a life unhinged) that made me pick up the needle and drop it back for another listen.

Was it my first experience with ironic juxtaposition of styles? Probably not, but since I hardly ever paid attention to song lyrics back then, this surely made me conscious of the phenomenon.

These days, Bruce amps up the irony by playing “Johnny 99″ as a glorious rock & roll rave-up. Yeah, it might be an awful story, but in the telling, there’s a whole lotta fun to be had. Just check out this version from night #1 at Fenway Park. The horns just push it over the top.

“HIGHWAY PATROLMAN”: Unlike the “tough choices” that politicians claim to have to make (you know, the choices that don’t actually affect them in any direct way?), there are folks whose daily loves are shadowed by the forces that they can’t control, and the decisions that they have to make. “Highway Patrolman” has always reminded me of that fact. Here, we have a man who represent the law, but feels he has to look the other way when a family member crosses the line.

The wistful chorus has him looker back at happier times…

Yea we’re laughin’ and drinkin’ nothin’ feels better than blood on blood
Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood’

… knowing full well that the shimmering past can turn into the ugly present in one shocking instant.

“STATE TROOPER”: I’ve always loved the tension that builds up in this little ticking bomb of a song. The sparse yet insistent guitar, the unhinged shouts and howls, and a man carrying that one secret that’s been with him for a long, long time:

… the only thing that I got’s been both’rin’ me my whole life

Every time I listen to Nebraska, “State Trooper” makes me think about all of the stories that are carried around in the cars passing by. Surely some of them are just like this one.

It’s a perfect and spooky vignette, where Bruce sets up a simple scene that’s played out in our guy’s head as he drives through the industrial night. It feels like something is about to happen. And years later, it still does.

“USED CARS”: Is the automobile used too often in American songwriting? Some folks say so. Those complaints — particularly the ones aimed at Springsteen — have always made me wonder just how blind people can be to culture. The car has been a symbol of freedom and free spirit for as long as pop music has been around. The thing is, you’ve got to maybe separate the songs that are purely about vehicles from those employing them either as metaphor or to attach crucial detail to a setting.

and the car still has that new car smell
and dad looks like he might smile
and the world is big and full of Autumn
– Greg Brown

Bruce Springsteen’s “Used Cars” reminds me of folk singer Greg Brown’s “Brand New 64 Dodge.” The car itself is secondary to the event — in this case the actual purchase of the Dodge — and how it made that family feel. The kid in Springsteen’s tune, in contrast, longs for better days … when he’ll be well enough off to be able to avoid this embarrassment…when a supposed symbol of freedom and prosperity won’t feel like a badge of dishonour.

Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again

“OPEN ALL NIGHT”: Unlike most of the rest of Nebraska, here there is no ominous subtext, no angst, no life about to be split apart. Instead, it’s just a guy rocketing down the highway toward his girl, fighting off the threat of speed traps and the weirdness of the Jersey nightscape, all of it set to an insistent guitar shuffle.

And as simple as the tune may be, Bruce Springsteen went ahead and dropped in some nice details to paint a few more pictures. The image of Wanda sittin’ on his lap, the fried chicken, and the Texaco road map — that one scene is my favorite. It’s a moment of pure pleasure that seems all too rare these days.

I truly love the original, but check out the “Mutant Texas Swing Rap” take that came out during the Seeger Sessions tour, above. Some folks seemed almost offended by Bruce’s re-imagining of his own song. All I know is that the night I saw that show, it rocked the joint.

“MY FATHER’S HOUSE”: I had a great relationship with my father. He was always there for me is so many ways. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to realize just how much of his personality is with me. I’m here so he’s here, you might say.

So it’s hard for me to imagine just how difficult it must have been for Bruce Springsteen to deal with the complexities of what went on between him and his dad. The relationship was an elemental one, and we’ve seen some of the brittle fibers that held them together (and kept them apart) woven into many of his songs, from “Adam Raised A Cain” and “Factory” to “Independence Day” and on to “My Father’s House.”

People are sometimes shocked to discover that celebrities are actual people, and that they might have had to deal with life’s problems just like everybody else. So when we read that it took Bruce Springsteen years (and some late night soul-searching visits to Freehold) to get some closure on this, we realize that yeah, just maybe money and fame can’t solve all of a person’s issues. In some cases, those very things can serve to amplify the problems.

“REASON TO BELIEVE”: Nebraska comes to a close with a song that sums up one of the underlying themes of the album: redemption. And man, we need some redemption here, what with the people dyin’ and folks being left at the alter and well, you know … just a few of the many happenings that can intrude on a life struggling to be well-lived.

Redemption is what the blues is all about, though there are a lot of characters on this record who never got there. Hell, some never even bothered to seek it out. But hey, that’s life in all of it’s pure sadness and joy. “Shit happens” is both a cliché and a fine bumper sticker.

It’s also a bit of truth that’s unavoidable. In the meantime, check out what happens in the above video when Bruce’s “Reason To Believe” meets ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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  • JC Mosquito

    I love how the last few lines of the relatively light “Open All Night” are nearly identical to the last few lines of the spooky “State Trooper.” Their similarity makes me go to the next step of wondering how Nebraska might sound interspersed with Darkness, The River, BITUSA and many of the outtakes from that time period. Although The River is often cited as Springsteen’s album of “paradoxes” (as described in Marsh’s Born to Run bio), his collected written output has always centered around this concept.

  • Tinman

    Thanks, Mark. This should be required for reading for die hard and occasional Bruce fans, who seldom rank this as one of his best simply because it lacks the uplifting energy of his full-tilt rockers. But, as you pointed, out, his revamped concert versions reveal that these songs, too, are as much worthy of adulation as his more popular classics.

  • bcrd500

    The author’s fawning over Springsteen’s non-rock albums is lost on me. I have been listening to Springsteen since 1980 and have never liked the solo material because it is missing what attracted me to his music: the rock band sharing the spotlight with the lyrics.

    All of the songs on Nebraska are good if listened to on the Live:1975-85 record. Springsteen produced his best work between 1975-1992 with the exception of Nebraska which was rectified by the Live album.

    My main point is Bruce Springsteen is a rock icon because of albums made between 1975-92 because they represent strong lyrics supported by exceptional rock music provided by the E Street Band and to a lesser degree by the 1992-93 No Name Band.

    If Springsteen have only released Nebraska, Tom Joad, and Devils and Dust, he would have two jobs to support himself while he played bars on the weekend. It was Born To Run, Darkness, River, and BUSA that lifted him legend status.

    • Ryan Tidd

      Sometimes people build up albums because they found them at a meaningful time. Other times, the discovery of a record can occur at any point because the music is honest and good. You have a right to your opinion, of course, but people who don’t love the bombastic Springsteen still love Nebraska. Nebraska isn’t just Springsteen’s best album, it is one of the greatest albums ever recorded. It is flawless in concept and execution and his ability to make very different albums people love is the reason for his iconic status.

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