Graded on a Curve:
Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Born to Run changed my life. Oversized, operatic, and full of grandiose musical gestures, it sounded like a Phil Spector album and I loved it for its outrageous flourishes, its sheer joy in its own majesty, and its wild and outrageous poetry about life on the Jersey shore. It turned my teenage hormones to 10, and made me want to break free of all the constraints of my small town life. It conjured up a world of desperate and romantic characters—set against a backdrop of turnpikes, oil refineries, and billboards—making last ditch attempts to get out, escape, and set themselves free, no matter the cost.

It seemed impossible that Bruce Springsteen could ever top the grandiosity of Born to Run, and he didn’t. Instead he began a process of relentlessly stripping his sound down and paring his lyrics to the essentials. No more operas out on the turnpikes; his concerns shifted from the fervent fantasies of adolescence to the constraining realities of adulthood, a process that reached its apotheosis with 1982’s Nebraska, which featured just Springsteen and a handful of instruments, all of which he played himself. The back story is well known; the Boss originally recorded the songs as demos for an album with his E Street Band, but after recording a version of them with the band—which has never been released, although there has long been talk of its emergence—he decided the demos were better, and ultimately decided to release them rather than the E Street versions.

Nebraska is bleak—much of Springsteen’s canon is dark, and I’ve had many an argument over the years with people who failed to pick up on that darkness, especially on Born in the U.S.A.—so dark indeed that there isn’t what I’d call an upbeat song on the thing, although “Open All Night” comes close. What is remarkable is the beauty he conjures from that darkness. Haunting and haunted, he sings song after song of bad luck, murder, crime and punishment, economic hard times, and looking for reasons to believe—in life, in goodness, in the meaning of it all.

“Nebraska” is Springsteen’s account of the killing spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1958, and Starkweather’s subsequent execution. Springsteen has acknowledged that his lyrics reflect the influence of Flannery O’Connor, the Southern Gothic writer who wrote the homicidal short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The song is slow and opens with some doleful harmonica, and Springsteen sings it in a matter-of-fact voice from Starkweather’s point of view, giving it a greater impact. Starkweather is unrepentant, singing, “I can’t say I’m sorry for the things that we done/At least for a little while, sir, me and her had us some fun.” The more musically upbeat “Atlantic City” also stems from real events, the mob war (which I remember well, as I lived in Philly at the time) that was waged in South Philadelphia in the early 80s, and opens with the bombing that killed Philip “Chicken Man” Testa, and moves from there to a first-person account of a bit player in the bloodshed, who agrees to do a job in Atlantic City for a man because he has “debts no honest man can pay.” It’s a moving song about a man reduced to desperate straits, and doing his best to believe in some kind of redemption, singing, “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/But maybe everything that dies someday comes back” while howls echo in the background and Springsteen wails on his harmonica.

“Mansion on the Hill” has always been the LP’s weakest link for me; a harmonica opens the tune, and then Springsteen comes in, singing about “a place at the edge of town” where a mansion sits, and how his father would drive him there to look at it. Later he would hide with his sister at night in the high corn to listen to the laughter from the lawn parties being held there. But though I’ve listened to the song 1,000 times I still don’t understand what it all means or why I should care; there is no life or death in it, no stakes of any kind. Much cooler is the jaunty, almost rockabilly beat of “Johnny 99,” about a distraught unemployed autoworker turned killer who is sentenced to 99 years but requests to be executed himself. He echoes the words about having debts no honest man can pay that the character utters in “Atlantic City,” and takes the song out with a cool series of whoops and hollers that are at contrast with the murderer’s dismal fate.

“Highway Patrolman” is a truly great song, a masterpiece about the loyalty of blood over anything else. Sung by a patrolman with a brother Franky who is no good, he perpetually looks the other way when Franky gets caught up in one form of badness or another, singing, “A man turns his back on his family/He ain’t no friend of mine.” The chorus (“Me and Franky laughin’ and drinkin’/Nothin’ feels better than blood on blood/Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria/As the band played “Night of the Johnstown Flood”) is immensely moving, as is the moment when, hot in pursuit of his brother after the latter commits a potential murder, he pulls over and watches his brother’s headlights disappear in the direction of the Canadian line. “State Trooper” sounds like a haunting, as the narrator drives the New Jersey turnpike hoping not to run into any state troopers. Why? It isn’t said. He doesn’t have a license or registration but he has “a clear conscience about the things that I done.” Springsteen’s strumming of the electric guitar is hypnotic, and the narrator’s lines, “Maybe you got a kid/Maybe you got a pretty wife/The only thing that I got’s vague/Been botherin’ me my whole life” are ominous in an undefined way. His final lines, “Hey somebody out there/ Listen to my last prayer/Hi ho silver-o/Deliver me from nowhere,” are as doom-laden as the loud whoops and hollers that follow are ecstatic.

“Used Cars” is a song about the humiliations of working class poverty, with the narrator being a little boy riding with his family to buy a “brand new used car.” And the boy swears that the day his “number comes in,” he “ain’t gonna ride in no used car again.” It’s a simple little song; there’s virtually nothing there, but it packs a punch, that child’s resentment burning his cheeks as they return to the dirty streets of their neighborhood in whatever beater his father has managed to afford from a remorseless salesman. And I can relate, because my father on some whim once bought a neighbor’s ancient beater, so ancient it had running boards, and we kids learned to slouch down in the back seat on the way to school, not certain that relic would even make it. “Open All Night” is a full-blown rockabilly number, and to be honest I’ve never paid too much attention to the lyrics because I like the song’s propulsion so much. Like “State Trooper” it references “radio relay towers” that are going to lead him to his baby, features some ecstatic cries and howls, and has the narrator asking to be delivered from nowhere. It’s a haunted version of The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” ghost-laden, the New Jersey Turnpike a lunar landscape with nary a Stop’N’Shop in sight.

The doleful “My Father’s House” is slow, features acoustic guitar and harmonica, and in it the narrator dreams he’s a child again, lost in the forest with the darkness falling. “Heart pounding” he runs, and finally discovers his father’s house “shining hard and bright.” And he runs until he falls into his father’s arms. Then he awakens to realize he has long been estranged from his father, so back he goes to the house, where he is told, “no one by that name lives here any more.” Is it all a metaphor for Heaven, that house shining “hard and bright” and standing “like a beacon,” calling him in the night, “across that dark highway/Where our sins lie unatoned”? I believe it is, just as I believe that dark highway is life. But you’re free to read it any way you want. The closing track, “Reason to Believe,” seems to sum up Springsteen’s beliefs about life; to wit, it’s hard, tragic even, yet people persist in finding something to believe in. Each stanza presents a different scenario; a man pokes a dead dog with a stick at the side of the highway, a woman waits for a man who isn’t coming back, a baby is born while an old man dies, a groom is left waiting at the altar. And at the end of each stanza Springsteen sings, “Struck me kinda funny seem kinda funny sir to me/At the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” The narrator is dumbfounded by such faith, and sings “Lord won’t you tell us what does it mean?” But no answer is forthcoming, just as that dead dog in the ditch won’t “get up and run” if that man pokes it long enough.

Springsteen is an ambivalent figure; he has a tragic view of life, but believes in the redemptive power of rock’n’roll and sees it as a form of communion, and takes hope from that. Along with Neil Young he has never faltered over the passage of decades and continues to release vital music, music that matters and inexplicably inspires despite its dark message. And that’s an amazing thing. It’s the reason why his epic concerts are so inspirational; life may be hard and even rotten to the core, but he has found a way to transcend it with his music. And he shares that with an adoring audience. Me, I wish he’d find it within himself to write and release another Nebraska, because it’s the most miraculous of his LPs—with nary a good thing to say about life, it somehow manages to be life affirming. At least to me anyway; songs like “Atlantic City” and “Highway Patrolman” will always move me, and give me reason to go on. And I can’t think of any greater gift than that.


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