Decades after its release, the haunted highways and haunted characters of the Boss’s largely acoustic masterpiece still haunt the American psyche
It is not an exaggeration to say that an entire way of American life died in 1981.
Ronald Reagan’s summary dismissal of the striking PATCO—the union of federal air traffic controllers—was a shot directly across the bow fired at working people with the temerity to organize. A footnote to history at this juncture, but a prophecy in the moment. The circumstance was complex—the union overreaching in their demands, Reagan philosophically draconian—but the net result meant the end of the modern labor movement as it had previously existed.
Per labor historian Erik Loomis: “It had three massive impacts. First, it ended the great militant decade of public sector unionism that had begun with the 1970 postal workers strike and that had led to major strikes throughout the decade. Second, it gave space for private employers to bust their unions too—and the ’80s was filled with companies breaking union contracts that had existed for decades. Third, it made unions scared to strike. The number of workers on strike each year plummeted after 1981 and has never recovered.”
The punishments just kept coming for working people: NAFTA and wage stagnation, the opioid crisis and mass incarceration, the cold shoulder of a Democratic Party too interested in courting Silicon Valley and suburban elites to remember their rank and file, and the false profiteering of Donald Trump. None of it was unforeseeable, or unavoidable. It’s just that, save for lip service, no one within the political class really cared. Watching the beginning of that long downward trajectory commence, Bruce Springsteen worked on Nebraska.
“I Guess There’s Just the Meanness in This World”
Notoriously on any short list of the bleakest LPs ever rendered by a major recording star near the apex of their commercial powers, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska turned 40 this year. The initial shock of its fathoms-deep menace remains undiminished, its major themes more resonant than ever. It’s a 40-minute recitation of corruption and violence that reimagines the to-live-outside-the-law-you-must-be-honest folk heroes of Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding as a promenade of pointlessly marauding psychopaths.
Recorded almost entirely to a Tascam four-track, Nebraska is a stark vision of American degradation seen through the lens of a guilt-ridden lapsed Catholic grown prosperous as the world around him becomes less and less reasonable. Its central mystery feels in many ways unresolved: How did Springsteen get from the joyous automotive liberations of Born to Run to the hellscape highways of Nebraska in seven short years? Or was the distance really that far?
Sprung from cages on Highway 9
I went out for a ride and I never came back
I killed everything in my path
“A Suicide Rap”
There isn’t, so far as I’m aware, a psychological term for convincing yourself that you love a thing you actually hate. But say for example you are surrounded by something all your life, surrounded so much that it invades your synapses and defines your personality from infancy. It is noisy and crowded and polluted and then it is lonely and empty and then noisy and crowded again. It is inescapable, and it is the escape—an unresolvable paradox. You internalize this as a means of survival—you celebrate it!—but on some fundamental level, it’s destabilizing. As much as Lou Reed’s downtown or David Bowie’s outer space, Springsteen’s highways map his music in forensic detail.
In his 2016 autobiography Born to Run, Springsteen tells a strange story about a visceral disturbance from his early 30s. It’s shortly after the release of Nebraska. He’s signed up for a cross-country road trip with his buddy Matt Delia, a childhood friend, car repairman, poet, and frequent fellow traveler. A ’69 Ford XL tricked out with every manner of delightfully garish shit. Springsteen’s so psyched he’s made bespoke mix tapes for every region they’ll pass through: Chuck Berry for the Midwest, Professor Longhair for the Delta, etc.
Things start out OK enough, but the experience is not what Springsteen was hoping for. For one thing, his stalwart running buddy Matt has recently experienced a painful break-up and is riding disconcertingly in the passenger seat clutching a teddy bear. It’s apparent from the book that the stuffed toyfreaks Springsteen out profoundly, but it isn’t totally obvious why.
Heading further west, things get weirder. Springsteen writes: “As we cross the Mississippi and venture into Texas, it’s beginning to feel a little … wide open … out here.” He wrestles away the teddy bear from Matt and hides it in the trunk. Bruce is days away from a full nervous breakdown. The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
“This Turnpike Sure Is Spooky at Night When You’re All Alone”
In sonic terms, the principle dissonance is not what is present, but what is absent. Nebraska is the sound of a guy who always rolls with a crew, showing up all by himself and not in a good state. Usually he’d be boasting and strutting and capering for his boys, as they confidently shred and peacock behind him. Instead he’s rambling about traffic stops and state police and industrial skylines.
Countless miles from the overstuffed banquets of Greetings From Asbury Park or The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,Nebraska’s songs are weird vignettes and character studies, half-captured dreams and hellish nightmares, rockabilly and rebel-folk like Sun Records had been born under CCR’s bad sign. Exit Roy Orbison, enter Raymond Carver.
The creeping “State Trooper” is one of the most insinuating and frightening performances of Springsteen’s career: a plea from a homicidal criminal fruitlessly praying to avoid more carnage.
“Mansion on the Hill” evokes a different sort of menace, that of the chilling effect of cyclical poverty and the experience of literally living in the shadows of those who have benefited from the arbitrary-at-best auspices of upward mobility and material wealth. Album closer “Reason to Believe” is a half-reverential, half-ironic spiritual.
The song “Nebraska” is an unvarnished retelling of the 1958 killing spree perpetrated by Charlie Starkweather, which started in Lincoln, Nebraska, and stretched to Wyoming. These were the murders covered in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands, a cinematic forerunner to our contemporary vogue for artfully rendered scenarios of slaughter. Eleven dead on a murder spree, a 19-year-old misfit on a pitiless rampage of cruel umbrage. Familiar to us now, but shocking at the time. Some fucking white dude with a gun and a chip on his shoulder.
Springsteen sings in the first person, from Starkweather’s perspective. It’s disturbing. All unhurried tempo punctuated by a stately harmonica, Springsteen-as-Starkweather is unrepentant for his actions, but he’s not raving mad either. He is deeply insane, but with dignity. The melody is plain, the roll call of violence nearly perfunctory. The two men merge together. The final revelation is apocalyptic:
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world
I read a few books about Charlie Starkweather in the run-up to writing this piece. I was hoping to provide some journalistic or sociological context to the story. I didn’t really get very far. It was too depressing—especially after 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate became involved. Starkweather was bullied as a child—was bow-legged and had a speech impediment—and kids can be so cruel.
He became a fighter and loved the taste of fighting. He was not big but he was fierce, and some classmates came to fear him. The others regarded him with sympathy. He got along well with his parents and siblings, and while certain teachers found his outsized intensity and modest intellectual acuity concerning, no one thought he was a killer. He joined a street gang and fashioned himself after James Dean. He got weirder. Visions of violent death came to him in dreams. The Occam’s razor conclusion is the most unsatisfying one: He just had worms in his brain. Some people do.
But one detail stuck and bothered me. His first murder was the year before the spree in November 1957. Starkweather became enraged with a service station attendant named Robert Colvert and ultimately murdered him with a shotgun after a brief struggle. The animating conflict was this: Colvert refused to sell Starkweather a stuffed animal on credit.
“A Dead Man’s Town”
What’s the option, really? You exhaust yourself—every moment, every opportunity, overkill in every direction. You knock on every door, and then eventually every tour causes riots. The fortune teller said you’d be a star. She didn’t tell you how strange that would feel. Springsteen was simultaneously working on Born in the U.S.A. while he was working on Nebraska. They were two sides of the same coin, in the way in which that cliché is annoyingly true. The umbrage-filled bluster of one and the quiet violence of the other taken together are a prophetic nightmare vision of a contemporary America, which can’t tell the difference between an execution and a compliment.
When the prophecy was fulfilled—when Bruce Springsteen became the biggest star in the world—he could hardly contain himself. Ten million Springsteen fans can’t be wrong. Some kind of self-destructive grenade loomed. He recounts in his memoir:
I could be very dangerous [behind the wheel]. I would use speed and recklessness to communicate my own rage and anger, with the sole purpose of terrorizing my rider.
In a weird way this is a quote that doubles as an ultimate summation of his career. The relationship between Springsteen and his audience is as moving and unhealthy as rock has ever had on offer. Nebraska was a low confidence vote in a country that simultaneously made him rich and made him doubt everything. His doubt was ratified as the working poor were increasingly marginalized, city by city, union by union, one canceled promise following the rest. Of course this would turn out to be the guilt-driven fracture on the disjunctive avenues he was rockily treading. How many roads does a man speed down? The answer, my friend, is pissing in the wind.
“Well They Blew Up the Chicken Man in Philly Last Night”
Phil Testa died when a nail bomb exploded beneath his porch in March 1981. He was the boss of the Philadelphia mob family, having succeeded Angelo Bruno, who had been killed by his own consigliere Antonio Caponigro. Now Testa had too been murdered by an underboss, Pete Cassella, in an attempted coup. A tidy legacy if not an elegant one. Testa was called “the Chicken Man,” ostensibly for his legitimate involvement in the poultry industry, and consider what a terrible, chilling nickname that is. “I want to see the Chicken Man!” exclaimed no cherubic, mirth-filled child ever, in the way they might Santa Claus or Goofy. The very idea of the Chicken Man jangles some terrifying place in the consciousness where we house Grimm’s Fairy Tales and David Cronenberg movies.
Like “I Heard It Through The Grapevine’’ or “Pretty Vacant,” “Atlantic City” is a song that sounds scared of what it knows. Four minutes of nervous reportage and pointlessly forensic detail, all jittery confusion and I-don’t-want-to-be-here cowardice.
“Everything dies / baby that’s a fact / but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Every nightmare psychic alarm clock blaring in his head. The erratic father and the sainted, unknowable mother. The ties that do not bind. The memories that won’t stop returning. The delirium of grief that attends so much of his music. The he-won’t-let-you-go four-hour stage spectacles. The liminal space between Jersey’s most sainted son and the Chicken Man. A weird but not-inexplicable coincidence: They both want to be known as “the Boss.”
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, D.C.–based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.