Echoes From The Past 03 – Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
As the man they call The Boss is currently in the country doing his rounds of the festivals and arenas we thought there was no better time to let our resident Bruce fanboy, Martyn Coppack, wax lyrical on one of his favourite Springsteen albums. ‘Nebraska’ may seem a strange choice on the face of it but, as you’ll see, his argument is compelling.
“I saw her standing, on her front porch…”
And so begins one of the most desolate, desperate and downright depressing albums ever. It’s hard to believe now with the hindsight of the albums that followed but at the time Bruce Springsteen was steadily rising as a star in the making. His concerts were already legendary and the three previous albums ‘Born To Run’, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ and ‘The River’ had seen him slowly rise from a cult icon into a mainstream behemoth. This journey would not be complete until the album that followed ‘Nebraska’, the all consuming ‘Born in the USA’, but in the meantime Springsteen was struggling.
It is this struggle that has come to define Springsteen’s music. Finding a way to stay true to the songs he sings whilst dealing with adulation and the riches that are bestowed upon it. His songs have always dealt with the working class blue collar worker and in doing so he becomes a spokesman in the vein of Woody Guthrie. It is the dichotomy at the heart of success that played on his mind in the year following the success of ‘The River’ and it was through sheer bravery that he managed to avoid the pitfalls of fame and carve an entirely new path for himself.
Sessions for the follow up album to ‘The River’ were going badly with none of the new songs working in a band arrangement. Struggling to find a theme (something which Springsteen has always aspired to) all efforts to find a way to bring the songs to life were not working. It is interesting to note here that one of those earlier songs was one called ‘Born in the USA’, an anti-war song with a Vietnam theme. How could he bring the anger into his new found commercial success? That would become a story for another day…what happened first was to send shockwaves through the music community but in doing so provide future bands with a lifeline when stuck in the mire.
In a strange twist of fate, much like Bob Dylan went electric, Springsteen went acoustic. Whilst playing the demo tape of the songs he had written, it was suggested that he just released them as they were, with no overdubs or band arrangements. If he couldn’t find a way to augment the songs then maybe they didn’t need them…and if that was the case then you may as well release the demos. For that is what ‘Nebraska’ is…it is an album of demos released on a public expecting a big rock album…and it is this that makes it so special.
“everything dies baby, that’s a fact”
The songs on ‘Nebraska’ are not easy listening. They hold a litany of characters who are down and out, destitute or just plain criminal. Whatever was going through Springsteen’s mind at the time couldn’t have been happy as he was focusing on the forgotten and infamous. There could be no happy endings for these characters, look at Johnny 99 or the guy who wants to run away to Atlantic City…these are guys who have nothing left. Maybe it is a snapshot of Reagans America at the time, the America that no-one wants you to see. This is the America of boarded up factories, whitewashed walls…a place where all hope is lost and the only way out is through other means. This is a truth which demands a true style of music and that has to be stripped down.
Taking its cue from the Charles Starkweather murders, the title track relays the story of what happened in deadpan style. Emotion is replaced with a sort of empathetic distraction. Much like all the other characters on this album, the narrator of ‘Nebraska’ is staring death in the face and is going to have his final say if you like it or not. Based on real fact, Springsteen can’t resist playing with what really happened and bringing remorse into this most dangerous of people. Whilst this may be unfaithful to what really happened it is a necessity, if not for Bruce, but for his fanbase.
Redemption is a big part of Springsteen’s writing and nothing changes on this album…in fact at times it is accentuated. In some cases it is a dark sort of redemption though. This redemption needs to be met by any means necessary and that is why the guy wants to run away to Atlantic City. His fate is tied up in an unnamed criminal act of which we are compliant with and there can be no other way out.
“Take the baby to the river…”
As with all Springsteen narratives there has to be a happy ending of sorts. This arrives in the form of ‘Reason to Believe’. Whilst this song does offer some sort of hope it is if of a spiritual sort which may or may not work. What Springsteen is saying is that no matter how hard the world treats you, we still find something that keeps us going. It is this theme that would become the defining moment of his ‘Wrecking Ball’ album when faced with an America which is on the brink of economic collapse. In between the brutality of the Starkweather murders to the faux-redemption of ‘Reason to Believe’ we have been taken on a journey into the heartlands where the real America makes its stand.
What happened after this album was released is well known. He released a little album called ‘Born in the USA’ which managed to create a tidal wave across the world and he became the biggest star on the planet. It was through the songs of ‘Nebraska’ though that a future was laid out where Springsteen could do whatever he wanted to. This would lead to further acoustic based albums such as ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ and ‘Devils and Dust’, but it would also open up his songwriting and move it away from the B movie stylings of the American Dream and take it into more political territory. This was further impounded by a critical respect which classed ‘Nebraska’ as one of the best albums of the 1980’s.
Influentially it is churlish to underestimate the overall impact that ‘Nebraska’ has had. From the folk stylings of Bon Iver, the lo-fi movement of the last few years to the full blown rock of Rage Against The Machine, this album has touched many lives and although maybe never mentioned by the casual Springsteen fan, is revered for its beautiful simplicity and authenticity. In fact authenticity is probably the correct word to describe it. It provided a means for Springsteen to stay true to his vision and also introduced a future generation to a “fuck you” attitude where they could go out and do things on their own terms. An absolute classic which belongs in any self respecting music fans collection.
Tags: Bruce Springsteen, Echoes From The Past, Martyn Coppack, Nebraska