#221: Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (AKA Everything is "Atlantic City" And Nothing--wait--EVERYTHING Hurts)


Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (1982) 

Favorite Tracks: "Nebraska" and "Atlantic City" and "Mansion on the Hill" and "Johnny 99" and "Highway Patrolman" and "State Trooper" and "Used Cars" and "My Father's House" and "Reason to Believe"

Thoughts: Bruce!  Bruce!  Bruce!  Bruce!  Bruce!  Bruce! BruceBruceBruceBruceBruce!  Back so soon and it feels so right.  The River was just at #247!  We're being spoiled.  And at this point, in chronological order!

Truthfully, my familiarity with Nebraska isn't the same as some of his other albums.  (But that doesn't mean this post won't be suuuuuper long, so get ready.)  I think when I became a Bruce fan I was highly skeptical of any album that didn't feature the E Street Band.  It had to be too austere, too stark and depressing.  Give me that HUGE sound of an organ, sax, accordion, bass, piano, thundering drums--I want it all!  So I mostly stayed away from Nebraska, Ghost of Tom Joad (and later, Devils & Dust)... and that's OK.  I was in high school, and I probably wouldn't have appreciated the non-E Street stuff as much as I do now (that is, ME in high school--maybe your sophomore self would have appreciated it). In fact, there's only one song from this album that I know well and love (can you guess which one?) on the same level as songs from Born to Run, The River, and Tunnel of Love, and that's because it sneakily showed up on my Greatest Hits album and I became OBSESSED with it.  When I learned it was from Nebraska, I was shocked--so was my dad!  And that song is "Atlantic City."

Nebraska was originally a group of recorded cassette demos that Bruce meant to record with the E Street Band, but decided not to and just released the demos instead.  According to wikipedia, "he and the producers and engineers working with him felt that a raw, haunted folk essence present on the home tapes was lacking in the band treatments."  This September, the album will be 30 years old.  Since the demos were done by Bruce, he plays all the instruments: guitar, harmonica, mandolin, glockenspiel, tambourine, and organ.  Well, shall we get to the music?  Let's.

"Nebraska" is a beautiful, quiet soft song about a serial killer.

They declared me unfit to live 
said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world

Disturbing and gorgeous. 

And then comes "Atlantic City"!  I love this song so much.  The other night I was out to happy hour with some friends, and I heard the opening line of the song, and I think I groaned, covered my face, and whispered, "Atlantic City."  Ok, maybe I shouted it.  I can't remember!  It was happy hour.  I know I've mentioned before that I played guitar for a about a year in high school, and this song and "The River" were my two go-to Bruce songs.  How on earth I related to them as a conservative Christian teenage girl living in the suburban Northwest, I do not know.  But I think that's the thing with Bruce's music--you can hear the truth whether it's yours at that moment or not.

The echoing backing vocals, the desperate lyrics, the HARMONICA.

everything dies, baby, that's a fact
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back
put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City

well, I got a job and tried to put my money away
but I got debts that no honest man can pay
so I drew what I had from the Central Trust
and I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus

now baby, everything dies, baby, that's a fact
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back
put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty 
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City

now our luck may have died and our love may be cold 
but with you forever I'll stay
we're goin' out where the sands turnin' to gold
now put on your stockings, baby, cause the nights gettin' cold 
and maybe everything dies, baby, that's a fact 
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back

now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
down here it's just winners and losers 
and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
well, I'm tired of comin' out on this losin' end
so honey, last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him
well, I guess everything dies, baby, that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back

As with all my Bruce posts, I have to do comparisons between the album and live versions, specifically the 2000 New York City concert(s).  This is the only other version I listen to with any regularity.  It's incredible. 

In the beginning, just Bruce with his guitar and Max on drums, and then right after the first verses, the rest of the band erupts into the driving melody (?) and it gives me such chills every time.  Little Stevie on mandolin...tears well up in my eyes.  The difference that sticks out to me SO much and that I even prefer is the way Bruce chooses to sing the last verses.  Because he doesn't really sing it at all.  He basically just speaks it..with menace, deliberation, and a bitter weariness.  And then the band and crowd just end the song repeating, "Meet me tonight in Atlantic City" until Max builds it back to its angsty melody.  Bah!  Obsessed.  The live in Dublin version is pretty awesome too, but it could never replace the other two for me--too peppy!

"Mansion on the Hill" is sweet and darling and sad.  The National does a very special cover of it.

I've heard "Johnny 99" quite a few times, I'm not sure where or why.  Maybe it's just popped up on my iPod.  It's dark and folksy and like most if not all of the songs on this album, it's about a hopeless criminal.  And it has killer harmonica solos, of course.

In "Highway Patrolman" the narrator is a patrolman and his no-good brother is the criminal.  It's also a quiet ballad, just Bruce and his acoustic guitar.  The grief in the song is apparent both in the lyrics and his voice. 

Well Franky went in the army back in 1965 

I got a farm deferment settled down took Maria for my wife
But them wheat prices kept on droppin' till it was like we were gettin' robbed
Franky came home in '68 and me I took this job

Yeah, 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"
I catch him when he's strayin', teach him how to walk that line
Man turns his back on his family, he ain't no friend of mine

The night was like any other, I got a call 'bout quarter to nine

There was trouble in a roadhouse out on the Michigan line
There was a kid lyin' on the floor lookin' bad, bleedin' hard from his head 

there was a girl cryin' at a table, and it was Frank they said
Well, I went out and I jumped in my car and I hit the lights
Well, I must of done 110 through Michigan county that night

It was out at the crossroads down round Willow bank

Seen a Buick with Ohio plates behind the wheel was Frank
Well, I chased him through them county roads 

till a sign said Canadian border 5 miles from here
I pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear

The images and themes of this song are so strong, it's no wonder the lyrics inspired Sean Penn's film, Indian Runner. Has anyone seen it?  I need to.

If I still haven't proved the majesty of this album to you, we've arrived at a crucial point in it--the last track on side one.  It's a song I never paid much attention to until a few years ago when I made a 'best-of' post for Bruce songs, and my friend Kelly told me that "State Trooper" needed to be on my list.  I'd never listened to it!  So I put it on and oh, man.  It's a beast

It feels like a living thing, it's so raw and looming and ominous. The clean, simple, repetitive guitar immediately brings to mind the speeding steady flash of yellow lines along a highway.  The words and how Bruce sings them are creepy and seem pent-up, so much so that he breaks into quick, howling yelps near the end of the song. 

New Jersey Turnpike ridin' on a wet night 
'neath the refinery's glow, out where the great black rivers flow
License, registration, I ain't got none, 

but I got a clear conscience 'bout the things that I done
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me,

please don't stop me, please don't stop me

Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife
the only thing that I got's been botherin' me my whole life
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me 

please don't stop me, please don't stop me

In the wee wee hours your mind gets hazy 

radio relay towers lead me to my baby
Radio's jammed up with talk show stations
It's just talk, talk, talk till you lose your patience
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me

Hey somebody out there, listen to my last prayer

Hi ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere 

I think that last line really sums up this album: deliver me from nowhere. 

The second side of the album opens with no fanfare, but rather with a sweet childhood ballad, "Used Cars."

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

Now the neighbors come from near and far

As we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry 

and tell 'em all they can kiss our asses goodbye

My dad he sweats the same job from mornin' to morn

Me I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
Up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat blowin' that horn
The sounds echoin' all down Michigan Avenue 

"Open All Night" is another car song, and it actually features super similar lyrics to "State Trooper" about driving alone and fast, but this time on the way to his girlfriend.  The last line is even: "Hey Mr. DJ won't you hear my last prayer,  hey ho rock 'n roll deliver me from nowhere." It's decidedly more upbeat, though.  :)

Next up is "My Father's House" and let's have a show of hands from my Christian or post-Christian readers: who immediately thought of Rich Mullins?  Come on.  In my father's house, there are many, many rooms!  I will forever love Rich Mullins.  Anyway.  Let's get serious again.  Because just when you thought this album couldn't get any more serious...well, here we are.  This song is basically a poem:

Last night I dreamed that I was a child out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees and ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright 
the branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell shaking in his arms

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each others hearts
I got dressed and to that house I did ride 
from out on the road I could see its windows shining in light

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch 

a woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"

My father's house shines hard and bright 
it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling so cold and alone
Shining cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

I mean, COME. ON.  The top youtube comment for this song: "I'd like to say something... but I can't... no words.."

Finally, we end this album of harrowing heartbreak and merciless misery with "Reason to Believe."  No, not Rod Stewart's "Reason to Believe."  That would be weird (even though I love Rod Stewart and that song).  You could argue it ends the album on a light, hopeful note.  You could also argue that it absolutely doesn't.

At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe.

Is This Better Than The River?:

The wiser, hardened, heavy-hearted adult in me says 'yes,' the young, crazy, teenager-who-loves-to-dance in me says 'no.'  Bottom line: both are EXCEPTIONAL.

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