It’s the final words of the songs on Nebraska that describe the bleakness within. The last, lingering scenes in the purposefully cinematic stories that came flowing out of Bruce Springsteen in the final weeks of 1981.
“They wanted to know why I did what I did, well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
“Let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line.”
Murder, crime, disconnection. Song after moonlit song ends like this. Empty highways. Haunted houses. A world shot through with darkness.
“So, honey, last night I met this guy, and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.”
The sound is just as desolate. A voice and guitar, a harmonica, the rattle of a tambourine, the chime of a toy glockenspiel.
“Hi-ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere.”
For a man who’d spent his life measuring his faith in decibels, the emptiness between the notes looms like a spiritual void. The engine stalls, the highway vanishes, the radio fades to static. He sends up one last prayer:
“Hey-ho, rock and roll, deliver me from nowhere.”
The song ends, his plea echoes into silence.
Springsteen’s earliest memories were full of ghosts. Living with his parents in his grandparents’ house as a toddler, Springsteen took his first steps in a living room decorated with the portrait of a dead girl. She was his father’s older sister Virginia, killed beneath the wheels of a truck when she was five years old. The girl’s death devastated Fred and Alice Springsteen. Already working class and poor, the aftershock pushed the couple to society’s outer limits. Fred, an electrician, made money by picking broken radios out of the trash, restoring their innards and selling them to itinerant farmers and other poor folks. Alice didn’t work. Douglas, their surviving child, grew into a moody young man, physically powerful but emotionally vulnerable. The woman he married, Adele Zerilli, was a blessing: warm, unsinkable, always ready to roll up the rugs and dance. The newlyweds came back into the family home when she gave birth to their son Bruce in 1949, and Fred and Alice lavished love and attention on the new child. But the shadow of the lost daughter remained, refracting in the house’s cracked windows and sagging floors.
Doug and Adele Springsteen moved their young family into their own house in 1955. Doug’s erratic behavior — from periods of bleakness to flights of hyperactivity that took him beyond the bounds of reality — made it difficult for him to hold a job. Adele worked steadily as a secretary, but money was scarce, and Doug’s omnipresent, if undiagnosed, mental health problems were a constant source of anxiety. Particularly for his son, who found it nearly impossible to connect with the father when he spent his evenings sitting alone in the kitchen, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer and staring into the darkness. Invigorated by rock ’n’ roll, Springsteen picked up a guitar. Determined to win the love his father couldn’t express, he played it until no one could ignore him.
The harsh circumstances of his childhood and Vietnam-era youth informed each of Springsteen’s first five albums. Darkness seeps from the surreal militarism that backdrops Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.’s “Lost in the Flood,” the decaying metropolis in Born to Run’s “Backstreets” and the nameless driver whose death haunts The River’s final song, “Wreck on the Highway.” And yet, brighter horizons always glimmered. The redemption beneath the hood of the car, the place we really want to go, the promised land. Salvation never came easily, and sometimes it didn’t come at all. But faith fired your engine, and hard work kept you moving. “Keep pushin’ till it’s understood, and these badlands start treatin’ us good.”
Springsteen sought his own deliverance on the rock ’n’ roll stage. After getting his start playing the bars of the scuffed Jersey Shore town Asbury Park in the late 1960s, Springsteen landed a deal with Columbia Records and released a pair of critically praised but scant-selling albums in 1973. Born to Run reversed his fortunes in 1975, with enough force to land his face on the covers of America’s two reigning magazines, Time and Newsweek, in the same week. Springsteen’s next album, 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, deepened his reputation as a songwriter while 1980’s The River, led by the Top 10 single “Hungry Heart,” made him an international star.
Meanwhile, Springsteen’s impassioned concerts built him a reputation as a peerless showman, a living testament to rock ’n’ roll’s power to transform audience and performer alike. Picture the sweat-drenched Springsteen, at the end of a marathon show he’d performed during the year-long River tour, hanging onto his microphone stand like a man on the verge of ecstatic collapse. “I ammmmmm,” he’d scream over thousands of cheering fans, “just a prisoner of rock ’n’ rollllll!” Then, he’d reach deep inside himself and play another song. Or three. Or 10. No one had ever rocked harder or longer. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go,” he told me in 2012.
The River tour circled the globe in 1980 and 1981, depositing Springsteen into the heart of the rock star dream he’d been chasing since he was a teenager. More than a conduit to riches and fame, or merely an outlet for artistic expression, his music animated his existence. It gave him a war to wage, a mountain to climb, a solution to all his problems. Until he won. At 32, he had money, critical acclaim and the kind of public adoration few musicians dare to imagine. It wasn’t nearly enough. Back in New Jersey, living in a rental house in the woods close to the blue-collar town where he’d grown up, the musician felt subsumed by the silence. At night, he’d steer his car down the old streets and contemplate the past he’d left a dozen years earlier.
Everywhere he looked in the early 1980s, Springsteen saw the same emptiness. In the veneration of greed and the fading economic prospects for the working class. In the Reagan administration’s purposeful fraying of America’s social safety net. In the way society seemed to be crumbling, leaving so many people isolated and angry. Reading late into the night, Springsteen was drawn to James M. Cain’s crime novels and the gothic southern stories of Flannery O’Connor. He identified with the heroes of classic noir plots, characters beset by forces they couldn’t see or understand. At the movies, he fixed on Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter and especially Badlands, the fictionalized retelling of Charles Starkweather’s 1957-1958 murder spree through Nebraska and Wyoming. The last one sent Springsteen to his guitar, where Terrence Malick’s film and Starkweather’s real crimes merged with the musician’s memories of his grandparents. At first he titled the song “Starkweather (Nebraska).” “I was trying to capture the mood of what that house was like when I was a child,” he told me. “Austere and haunted. This incredible inner turmoil.”
Other songs followed in quick succession. All but one were first-person accounts of life on the fringes of society, told by narrators pushed to the brink by circumstances beyond their control. Characters in two songs declare they have “debts no honest man can pay.” A lone driver slips through the night, edging toward madness. A veteran of the Vietnam war returns to an uncaring, unsparing nation. Crimes are contemplated, then committed. The police close in. Prison doors slam shut. Songs drawn from Springsteen's own experience allow us to peer deeply into his childhood: moments of loneliness, humiliation and yearning. The smallest details betray the most overwhelming feelings. The rustle of corn on a summer night. An impoverished father’s empty hands. The chain securing the door of a home against an unexpected visitor. “Still, at the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe,” Springsteen sings, unconvinced.
By the start of 1982, he had 15 songs ready to be taped as demonstration recordings. Rather than drive to New York to work in a professional studio, Springsteen sent his assistant Mike Batlan off to buy a four-track tape machine, one of the relatively sophisticated, but affordable, devices that had become available for home recording. He still planned to make finished versions of the songs with his band in a professional studio but figured adding a second guitar or other instrumentation would help the musicians understand how he wanted each song to sound. Batlan set the machine up and returned on the afternoon of January 3 to start the recording. The two men worked deep into the night, most often capturing the songs within a few attempts. Sometimes Springsteen nailed it in one try. The overdubs — harmonica here, another guitar there, the toy glockenspiel — were spare. “I got a lot of ideas but I’m not exactly sure of where I’m going,” Springsteen wrote in the cover letter he sent with the cassette to his manager and producer Jon Landau. “They may not hit you right away, or they may sound foreign.” That was the point of the songs. He felt foreign.
Springsteen convened his band in a recording studio, but most of their attempts to capture the songs fell flat. Something about the demo tape conveyed the desolate feeling of the compositions in a way the sleeker versions didn’t. The solo performances, captured in a spare bedroom in Springsteen’s home, had the bracing feeling of nighttime confessions. But there was something else, an echoey murk, that made the songs even more mesmerizing. Eventually, they traced the sonic eccentricity to the Panasonic beatbox Springsteen had used to mix the recordings. A few months earlier, the thing had gotten drenched on a boat trip, died on the spot and then, weeks later, unexpectedly came back to life. A technically savvy musician might have taken a few moments to check for rust, or even applied some cleaning solution to the device’s heads before using it as a mixing board. But Springsteen didn’t, and whatever had rusted or warped inside wound up distorting the signal in a way that harmonized with the twisted heart of the new music. Realizing that no professional recording could ever match what he’d created in his bedroom that night, Springsteen tossed the tape (literally) to studio engineer Toby Scott. Could they master an album off a cassette? Scott thought they could. A few months later, the album Springsteen titled Nebraska was ready to be released.
A lone harmonica echoes over the first notes of the album, heralding the Charles Starkweather doppelgänger who narrates the title track. Singing over his acoustic guitar, Springsteen recounts his story with a clear-eyed frankness. He meets a girl, they go for a ride. He drives with a sawed-off shotgun in his lap and murders everyone they come across. He’s not sorry, either. “At least for a little while, sir, me and her, we had us some fun.” Captured and sentenced to death, the murderer’s final wish is to take his girl with him to the electric chair and the “great void” of death. “Atlantic City” comes next, setting its down-and-out narrator in the shadows of the newly legalized casinos marching down the boardwalk. The flood of easy money washes everything else away, including any trace of human empathy or morality. “Down here, it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line,” he sings. “Mansion on the Hill” digs into Springsteen’s family story, recalling the luxe home his grandfather, Anthony Zerilli, occupied on a hilltop in nearby Englishtown, New Jersey. Once a lawyer, the old man had been convicted of embezzlement during the Depression, served a short bit at Sing Sing Prison, then built a new career as a tax accountant. He seemed wealthy, but the elder Zerilli paid scant attention to his daughter and her perpetually strapped family. Springsteen’s memory of the place is from outside the steel gates, where the laughter of strangers echoed from the house in the distance.
The auto plant is shuttered. An unemployed worker goes berserk. “Got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99.” Like its hard-strummed guitar rhythm, the lyrics are taut, desperate. The man’s crime is terrible, but his circumstances even worse. Debt, no work, no hope to be found. Captured, tried and sentenced to life in prison, he begs to be obliterated once and for all. “If you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head.”
Economic collapse pushes the narrator of “Highway Patrolman” in the other direction. Law enforcement gives Joe Roberts a career and a purpose, but it can’t dim his love for his brother, a Vietnam veteran who can’t control his temper. One night, the brother erupts, brutalizes another man in a bar and vanishes into the night. Joe gives desperate chase, then pulls over and lets his brother escape. “A man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good.” Another song addressed to a lawman, “State Trooper,” comes from the driver of another car hurtling through the dark. No matter how fast he goes, he can’t escape the voices coming through his radio. “It’s just talk, talk, talk, talk, till you lose your patience.” The driver in “Open All Night” gets a lift from the rock ’n’ roll stations, and from his thoughts of the girl waiting for him at the end of his journey, but the sunrise bends his vision and the organ trills of gospel music overrun the vital sound. “Hey, Mr. DJ, won’t you hear my last prayer?”
In Springsteen’s childhood memories, prayers go unanswered and work is unrewarded. “My dad, he sweats the same job from mornin’ to morn’,” he recalls in “Used Cars.” Labor doesn’t matter. Love doesn’t win. When he dreams of his childhood in “My Father’s House,” the family home is filled with strangers, but he can’t stop returning to the old place. “Calling and calling, so cold and alone.” The final song, “Reason to Believe,” turns philosophical. God is beseeched. Love is extended. Hope springs eternal. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. “The river rush(es) on, so effortlessly.”
Better luck next time.
Released on September 30, 1982, Nebraska came in a stark sleeve, dominated by David Michael Kennedy’s black-and-white photograph of a perfectly flat highway stretching down a barren wintertime plain, shot through the windshield of a pickup truck. Advertisements accompanying the release were understated, most consisting solely of the cover image. Posters emphasized that it was a solo album, a shorthand way to caution consumers not to expect any full-band “Hungry Heart”-style rave-ups. It sold enough copies to earn a Gold Record award, and if some listeners were mystified, or even disappointed, by the gloomy music, critics doubled down on their praise for Springsteen’s writerly skill and artistic daring. Other artists were inspired by the work. Johnny Cash recorded his own versions of “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman,” and artists including Los Lobos, Aimee Mann and Hank Williams III contributed to a song-by-song tribute album called Badlands: A Tribute To Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, released by the influential indie rock label Sub Pop in 2000. The actor, director and writer Sean Penn expanded “Highway Patrolman” into a feature film, The Indian Runner. Generations of subsequent musicians, ranging from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to pop country singer Kelly Clarkson, cited Nebraska as a crucial influence on their careers.
Springsteen, writing about Nebraska in his 2016 autobiography, seemed uniquely untouched by the album. It sold respectably, he recalled, got good reviews and next to no airing on the radio. He concludes with a “Reason to Believe”-esque shrug. “Life went on.”
Oh boy, did it ever. Springsteen’s next album, Born in the U.S.A., sold more than 20 million copies and made him one of the most popular musicians in the history of rock ’n’ roll. Some of its songs were first aired on the tape that became Nebraska. For years, he’d doubted his ability, and desire, to pursue that level of fame. But in the wake of his journey, through the dark of Nebraska, he felt ready face down the spotlight. “At that point, I got there and I was that guy,” he said to me in 2012. “You can kid yourself that you’re not, but then what have you been doing? You’re curious about the power of your music.”
Forty years later, the power of Nebraska is undiminished.
Peter Ames Carlin is the author of Bruce, the biography of Bruce Springsteen, published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster. His most recent book is Sonic Boom: The Impossible Rise of Warner Bros Records. Carlin lives in Seattle, Washington.