Thursday, September 20, 2012

Flashback, September 1982: Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ Released

Coming off the most commercially successful LP of his career to date, Bruce Springsteen radically scaled back expectations for another rave-up rock ‘n’ roll blockbuster with Nebraska, a somber, acoustic meditation on an America in economic distress, released in late September 1982.

Over the past several years, Springsteen has made a point of performing certain LPs in their entirety, including Born To Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and even his double album The River. I'm not aware that he has accorded similar treatment for Nebraska, and I doubt if fans would react quite as ecstatically as they have for the other albums. But this LP has its secure place in The Boss’s discography.

Last night, I noticed that three friends had posted on Facebook that they would be seeing Springsteen in concert in a couple of hours at MetLife Stadium. After I recovered from my jealousy, I reflected that he would doubtless be serving up songs from his latest release, Wrecking Ball. But he could just as easily have placed these tunes in a medley with several from Nebraska and they would have still fit snugly together.

Well, except for one thing: Partly in an attempt to make up for the joyful musical vacuum left by deceased soulmate Clarence Clemons, partly as a tip of the cap to other musical protest traditions, Wrecking Ball features Irish fiddles, loops, electronic percussion—you name it. In contrast, Nebraska was recorded with the singer alone on a four-track cassette ministudio, with the intention that the full band would be employed for a traditional rock ‘n’ roll record. But as the singer and his producer-manager Jon Landau pondered, it became apparent that much of the spare, brooding intensity of the original was being lost. so they decided to stick with the demos.

I can imagine how Columbia Records execs felt when they heard these results. Maybe, they must have thought, it’s noble. Maybe it was even a work of genius. But all they knew was that, after the five million units sold by The River two years before (including the first top-five single of Springsteen’s career, “Hungry Heart”), this would not be what fans would be expecting…at all.

It was all so low-profile and old-fashioned, this LP--just Springsteen, his acoustic guitar and his harmonica, forcing listeners to focus on the lyrics alone. Hell, Dylan had gone electric 17 years before and had never looked back.  This was a folkie record, for heaven’s sake! (Even the promotion would be minimal: For his first appearance on MTV,  the revolutionary new video medium that had appeared since his last album, Springsteen chose the downbeat if powerful "Atlantic City.")

I have to admit that when it first appeared, Nebraska initially did not make the impression on me that its predecessors did. There were no infectious sing-alongs such as “Hungry Heart,” no fist-in-the-air anthems such as “Badlands,” no transcendent rock ‘n’ roll love songs such as “Thunder Road.”  But over time, I grew to appreciate this album for its lyrical—and, what seemed harder at the time, its musical—quality.

Perhaps more than on any prior Springsteen album, Nebraska offered characters clearly distinguished from the singer-songwriter: a serial killer, law-enforcement officials, a two-bit hustler on the lam from the Mob, an unemployed man pushed beyond the limits of what any human being can endure. (The one track that may have been most autobiographical, “Mansion on the Hill,” still continued the pattern of dissociation: Springsteen was singing about himself as a child peering off at the estates of the wealthy, never dreaming he could occupy one of those structures.) It was a landscape filled with people who, even if they had been living by the rules, now found, in the collapse of Rust Belt America at the start of the Reagan era, that they had become misfits and even outlaws.

From the first, the rock star was telling fans, with the title tune, that they weren’t (metaphorically or geographically) in Kansas anymore. The songwriter who had used the auto as a symbol of freedom now found it simply a vehicle for nihilism: “Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died,” he sings, in the voice of infamous killer Charles Starkweather, in the title track.

And yet, Springsteen remained at pains to show how people endured. Long after he had given up on what he regarded as the hidebound rules of the Roman Catholicism in which he was raised, he still saw, in a world filled with sin (including the structural sin of a soulless modern economy), how people opted for faith, hope and charity. The album that began with one of the coldest, most searing summaries of the human condition (“Sir, there’s just a meanness in this world”) ended with one of its most resonant rationales for hope (“At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe”).

The John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, the left-wing historian Howard Zinn, and the synth group Suicide were among the influences on Nebraska. From a frankly provincial musician (Greetings From Asbury Park), Springsteen had moved to claim the wider American Heartland as his region, becoming in the process a national, even international, troubadour of the working class, even more than one of his childhood heroes, John Lennon. “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Highway Patrolman,” and other songs would be taken to heart by fellow musicians as well as fans who listened with open minds and hearts to his tales of the newly American marginalized class.

(For an interesting take on this landmark album, see this post on the Web site of the New York Public Library from Andy Wagstaff: "Great Albums You May Have Missed: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska.")

1 comment:

Jon Springer said...

The thing about this record for me was that, because it was so stark and not jammed with radio-friendly singles, I discovered it largely on my own and played it alone in my bedroom, the way I think it was meant to be heard (I was 16 then).

Hey Mr. DJ, won't ya hear my last prayer/Hey-ho, rock n' roll deliver me from nowhere