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Revisiting Nebraska

Back in the old days you needed money to buy records. “Stealing music” meant literally visiting a record store, shoving a record up your shirt, and doing a runner. As an irish catholic born with guilt, this was impossible.

I was a desperately broke teen, which meant I had to rely on the record collections of others.

Lucky for me I had (and still have) way cool sisters.

Whenever they weren’t around (of course I wasn’t allowed to even breathe on their records, must less touch them) I’d pour over their ever growing collection, which I seem to recall was combined in once stack. They leaned them all against the far wall in the bedroom they shared.

I’d devour Pete Townshend’s “Empty Glass”, and The Who’s “Who’s Next” and play air guitar to Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”. I was crushed when I heard Neil Young’s live “Cinnamon Girl” at a party and took note of the name “rust” in the record’s title….only to find it was “Live Rust”, not “Rust Never Sleeps”. The latter is the one my sister’s had. A rare lapse that was soon corrected.

One Friday night I slinked in (they, being popular, were out for the evening. Me, being not, was not)….and saw this bearded face staring back at me. Some dude with a hand over his mouth, as if he was about to suppress a giggle that hadn’t formed yet. I looked closer. Bruce Springsteen. I knew the name. But at the time….I’d never heard a note.

I put it on.

It made me dizzy. “New York City Serenade” and “Rosalita” were written by the same dude? This seemed impossible. Stuff about the circus and the boardwalk and pimps and Puerto Ricans and 57th Street and E street and some crazy fortune teller who pissed off cops and got arrested. Horns and accordions and a a guitar jam about some girl just back in town getting everybody worked up, alongside a piano played so quiet that I could hear the pedals being stepped on. The guy was from New Jersey and was 23 years old and looked like one of the guys on a road work crew who draws the short straw and is forced to hold the Go Slow sign. I heard one of his songs on the radio by Manfred Mann….the one with the line about being “wrapped up like a douche.” Something like that anyway. There were no lyric sheets in the early days.

What a night this was. There was another record behind it. And one behind that. One had a cover that still makes me laugh. Bruce with the worst case of bed-head I’d ever seen, standing in front of wallpaper that would have made a whorehouse madam blush. That was “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. The first time I heard “Racing in the Street” was when the connection started (Old time boss freaks know what I’m talking about. There’s that “moment” always, as corny as it sounds). I understood the cover. Nobody who wrote songs like this could possibly get a good night’s sleep. I played that song so much I wore the grooves out and it started to skip. I had to tape a penny to the arm of the needle to force it to stay in the wax.

“Born to Run”, of course. A friend of mine used to talk about (and, unfortunately, sing) this song called “Jungleland”. It was like 10 minutes long. If you went over 3 minutes you needed a note from a doctor back on those days (live drum solos got a pass, as did bad bands from Canada that are now in the rock and roll hall of fame. Not naming names…). There was another song that featured a trumpet. I tried to imagine a trumpet on Led Zeppelin II. That’s how my mind worked in them days. John Bonham might have killed a trumpet player just on principle.

I discovered “The River” at the same time I discovered the healing powers of beer. That record remains to me the greatest beer drinking record of all time. “Two Hearts” and “Out in the Street” and “Ties That Bind” and “Crush on You” and “You Can Look” and “Cadillac Ranch”……we’d be sitting down by the creekside with these songs pouring out of the truck tape-deck, creating dead solders by the score. By the time it got to side 4 (otherwise known as the “sad side”), we’d be drunk as monkey’s and spilling secrets. Guys aren’t supposed to hug but if they drank steadily through The River on a summer night by the end of “Wreck on the Highway” they’d be collapsing in each others arms. Try it. If you’ve got the guts.

But that side 4? Hmmm. Something was going on.

“Stolen Car” might have been the most desolate thing I’d ever heard. You weren’t exactly worried about the guy who wrote it but….well….ok…maybe you were a little.

nebraska_bg_siteBut still, “Nebraska” wasn’t as earth shattering to me as it was to others. It seemed perfectly logical. The next step when your band starts to bore you. A guitar player and singer releasing a record of him playing guitar and singing? Um…so what? Why is everybody getting so worked up? Nobody is buying this stuff because of Gary Tallent’s bass playing.

My sisters had a copy too. Bless their hearts.

You all know the story by now. Newly minted rock star (“Hungry Heart” was a huge radio hit you may recall) watches a Terrence Malick movie and then retreats to his bedroom alone with a 4 track tape recorder and creates a “folk” record that confuses the living shit out of everybody because he was supposed to be writing “Hungry Heart pt II” and is instead writing about serial killers and singing like he just ate a bowl of downers.

But a guy who spends 6 months working on a single song (“Born to Run”) while forced to toil in a studio with an out of tune piano is different than you or me. This is a control freak who sang the sax solo to “Jungleland” to Clarence Clemens….one line at a time, for 16 hours straight, and then heard the finished product and promptly flung the acetate into the pool.

Not the kind of guy who’s gonna work well with the accountants on the top floor. And besides, at the time he wasn’t married or in therapy or living in Beverly Hills so he had lots of time on his hands.

“Nebraska” is raw and home-made and all that (but it was hardly made in solitude. Bruce’s guitar roadie…who was later fired and sued Springsteen for not paying him required overtime…was with him for every note, which I find interesting and deliciously ironic).

But “Nebraska” still sounds great. Every note is clear. Every word is audible. Drenched in reverb, it’s not a “solo acoustic” record despite claims to the contrary. Nearly every track also contains a glockenspiel and a gorgeously understated mandolin. It’s perfectly mixed. In a decade (the 80s) that featured some of the worst sounding records of all time, “Nebraska” to my ears is a sonic marvel. It has certainly dated better than “Born in the USA”, it’s thudding follow-up. Not many people, transfixed as they were by Bruce’s ass on the cover and Roy Bittan’s ridiculous synth lines therein, noticed that more than half of the “Born in the USA” record contained songs that could have (and in the case of the title track, should have) been released on “Nebraska”. BITUSA was essentially a fast-food “Nebraska” released at a time when Bruce was writing songs for Donna Summer. That most of these new fans read the dog-depressing title track as a flag waving republican anthem says something too, but I’m not sure what. All I do know is that these people are still out there….and they vote in large numbers.

If Bruce had a crystal ball and could read all this shit in advance, it’s no wonder he sat at his rented kitchen table in Colts Neck, New Jersey and wrote songs about guys practically begging to be euthanized. Who could blame him? Poor bastard has never been the same since the the fashion faux pas of the head-band.

He said he released “The Rising” in 2002 because somebody called to him on the street after the 9/11 attacks and said “hey man, we need you now”….which is…well….breathtaking in its arrogance if you really think about it, which I try not to do. I hope Jon Landau or Dave Marsh made the story up to make Bruce sound noble. The problem with being treated like a deity is when you start believing you are one.

A deity can’t write a song like “Highway Patrolman” by the way, so there’s that I can fall back on. Which is nice.

“Nebraska” is a folk record, sure (“All music is folk music” said Louis Armstrong. “I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song”). When Springsteen sings in the voice of Charles Starkweather, he SOUNDS like Charles Starkweather. He SOUNDS like the morally compromised Joe Roberts, and like the little kid humiliated by Dad’s choice of yet another clunker. It’s a marvelous piece of ventriloquy.

It’s also a great punk rock record (no frills….quick…no fat at all, 3 chords, filled with eccentrics and done on the cheap). A great blues record too (“Reason to Believe” is as good and scary as anything Robert Johnson ever came up with). It’s as good as a set of Flannery O’Connor short stories. Or a Terence Malick film for that matter. Bruce has never really matched its power (“Racing in the Streets” comes close…”The Promise” too)…..but expecting someone to write songs as good as “Nebraska” or “Atlantic City” or “Used Cars” AGAIN is as goofy as expecting someone to write songs as good as those in the first place.

His best has always been good enough for me.

In a bit…


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