I’ve never been a big Bruce Springsteen fan. Growing up in the 80s, I heard exactly what Ronald Reagan erroneously did when he listened to “Born in the USA”: a rocking, flag-waving anthem. Not my thing at all.
I was a 20-year-old working in a restaurant in Alphabet City when I first heard Nebraska. The bartender in that restaurant could be counted upon to play two albums on a regular basis–Tom Waits’ Closing Time and Springsteen’s Nebraska. He said they made coming into another day behind the bar easier. At first, I had no idea that Nebraska was a Springsteen album. That was the guy who had written “Born in the USA” and “Human Touch” and “Glory Days.” Those were not my kinds of songs. But this low, minimal, breathless and beaten album–that was exactly my kind of album. I asked the bartender who it was. Springsteen, he replied. Nebraska.
It was some time after that that I got to know the album–you know, in that way that you only know a series of songs that you’ve listened to over and over, sometimes by yourself, sometimes while you’re between places alone in your car, sometimes when you’re having a drink with one or two friends in someone’s apartment and you can all sing every word. It’s an album that, aside from sounding the way I like, makes deep sense to me. In my mind, I divide the songs on the album into three categories, which some songs fit into more than one of. These categories are: song about beaten-down people fighting back (generally in misguided ways), dreaming childhood songs of (you guessed it) beaten-down people, and songs with an odd sort of (beaten) hope.
Take, for example, the song “Used Cars.” This is both a childhood song and a fighting-back song. The narrator is a young boy watching his parents test drive used cars from a lot. These used cars are the only ones his family knows. His father works and works at an endless job while he walks dirty streets. In lines like, “Now my ma she fingers her wedding band/
And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands/ He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could but he just can’t”, I am in that car. I am in that car with the narrator and his parents and his sister, by I am also in the million used cars my own parents test drove and were proud to bring home to our driveway, complete with little booklets marking the months and months of payments that would be made to the second-hand car dealers. The narrator of this song dreams of a day (his way of fighting back) when he wins the lottery, and later, when he is older, a day when his “numbers come in” that there will be no more new-used-cars.
“Johnny 99” and the title track “Nebraska” are fighting songs. In “Nebraska,” two lovers take a ride across the state killing everyone they meet. They do it for fun, to escape from the lives they lead in the broad, dead landscape of the song. They do it because “Sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” But is it their meanness, or a meanness that pushed them to be who they are? We learn more about this meanness in “Johnny 99” when a man named Ralph loses his job when a factory shuts down, can’t find another, and shoots a night clerk. When Ralph goes to court (with a public defender as his lawyer, of course), he tells the judge what drove him to murder.
Now judge I got debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away
Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man
But it was more ‘n all this that put that gun in my hand.
These rebels and outcasts can’t offer us any good explanation, nor are they particularly sorry. But the more you listen to the songs of the people in this world, the more you wonder how they don’t all end the way these two do.
The hope comes in odd places. In “Atlantic City”, a narrator who has the same “debts no honest man could pay” as Ralph from “Johnny 99” takes his savings from the bank to buy his lover and himself bus tickets to the epically ruined shore town. They are going to gamble, to escape, to meet a guy “and do a little favor for him,” to make a last attempt to win big or even win at all. In “Open All Night” a man on the graveyard shift drives all day to see his lover and it is worth every sleepless, speeding minute of the trip. In the story-song “Highway Patrolman,” a man who became a cop when his farm failed endlessly protects his wayward brother who is just back from Vietnam, even after he kills someone in a bar fight. Why? Because “a man who turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good.” And there, despite all the failed farms, all the Vietnams, is where the hope lies.
Rock legend has it that these were all Born In the USA album demo tracks that didn’t make it. That Springsteen carried them around on a tape in his back pocket trying to find a place for them until realizing that they were it, they were the album, just as they were. The album has that feel to it, too. They seem songs that have been carried, that have been lived, and worn. The lonely harmonica that haunts the album is like something that has been following, waiting to be noticed.
When Rolling Stone named their top 500 albums of all time, Nebraska came in at 224. That doesn’t say much to me, the way me loving this album probably doesn’t say much to anyone else. I’m not a music critic or scholar, and you probably noticed that most of what I talked about in this post is the stories and the words of the songs. These are stories that make sense to me, and though Springsteen’s singing mostly about destroyed Jersey towns and people, these could be the towns and the people in the Pennsylvania coal mining valley I grew up in. The parents driving the used cars, well those are my parents, and my friends’ parents. That guy who went off to Vietnam and came back all fucked up? Yeah, I know him. Those flat roads and skies on the album cover? Yeah, I’ve been down and under those, I’m quite sure.
The thing that is a bit frightening is how very real the world of Nebraska is 30 years after it was written. The closing auto plants, the failing economy, those same people wandering through a country that has made them great promises and failed them as they were left wondering what happened. “It was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” I think of how many could say this today, literally or figuratively.
The thing that is a bit comforting is the music. That beauty has grown from this dark world.
And did you know that “Born in the USA” is about a lot of the same things? I didn’t.