#226: Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska" (1982)

It’s 2017, and 228 million public, federal acres are leased to private oil companies for two bucks or less. Thirty-one years ago, Jeff Sessions condemned the NAACP because they force civil rights down the throats of folks. Six years before that the GOP declared war on secularism and Jerry Falwell trumpeted, We are fighting a holy war, and this time we are going to win. And in January of 1982, Bruce Springsteen recorded most of Nebraska, a quiet document written from and into a United States ransacking itself, in a single night. The record opens with the lullaby of a man harnessing the meanness in this world for murders devoid of rage or thrill and ends in Hope salvaged from a dog dead in a ditch by the highway. Data to crunch and songs to document the American Century’s unraveling.

There’s a lot to unravel. The Trust Busting and the 19th Amendment and the Geneva Accords; the Voting Rights Act and the funeral for Jim Crow and the funeral for poisoning wells for child labor for wife beating for gay bashing for cold, blue PD murder for for for et al. It was a hard-won Americanism we had scrapped and bled up to the top of the national agenda in a promise for a stronger, more righteous U.S.A., and one swiftly bartered away for a self-esteem predicated on smashing all the mirrors in the house. And now, in 2017, we crouch hunkered down in a corner watching Jesus and Jeff Davis, Big Brother and Jeff Sessions, whet-stoning their knives. In a land of endless horizons, promises skin easy. Born in the U.S.A.? You fucking know it.

Family has always been Bruce’s inspiration, his jam, his hurt and hope, whether from his old man grinding the whole home into dust or Joe Roberts wrangling brother Frank or his challenge to all of America to invest our dreams in the fundamental goodness of each other. The need, the dream, the insistence on strong-arming our better angels up out of the smear of trauma and into the holy glory of All for One and One for All is his mission, and what’s more needy and dreamy, demanding and traumatic, than Family? What abhors Truth and also demands it more than Family?

Bruce’s American Family? Nebraska is a tapestry of us dirt-scrapers’ needs and of our lives in various states of bruised and broken. Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive, and if you can, if your heart and guts don’t die, you don’t kill anybody or go to jail, well, Mister, then maybe you’ll get to dream of and believe in the Land of Hope and Dreams. But our boy in “Nebraska,” our first hero on the record, blows that right out the gate, is a dead-heart-still-beating when killing those ten innocents with a sawed-off .410 lap cat, the meanness in this world or any other goddamn place a dead-eyed-still-seeing kind of explanation well-suited to a midnight prison storeroom execution chair, fertile ground for Bruce’s harp, a gleaming scythe slicing our boy’s soul into that Great Void on account of the need to murderously jump-start the American Heart flat-lined like the prairies of the long-drained sea.

And then the record proceeds through the bludgeons, writ large and embossed, that threaten the promises of life. The Collapse of the cash carnival promises because of debts that no honest man can pay. The Sacrifice of the promises of brotherhood in the brutal grace of a-hundred-n-ten through Michigan County and those taillights disappearing over the Canada line. The Longing for the East-Egg promises rubbed raw on the steel gates that completely surround the mansion on the hill. The Justice as promised scraped off the dead auto plant closed in Mahwah late that month and our hero requesting that execution line as the only winnable salvation from the unwinnable scams of the men who fleece the world. The simmering Shame over the promises of street-level gold and the dream to hit the gas, let out a cry, tell ‘em all they can kiss our asses goodbye; the Exhaustion of the Manifest Destiny Highway promises gone itchy in the eyes and the sun gone a red ball rising over them refinery towers; the Menace of the scam of promised Answered Prayers, the please don’t stop me and please don’t stop me and then into the hi ho silvero, deliver me from nowhere before Bruce’s howl, one of the great banshee howls of Rock ‘n’ Roll, cracks the Menace away like an exoskeleton and leaves the American Madman, a thing demented on promises, a sick thing desperate unto itself. Complicated needs in The Promised Land? You fucking know it.


But then the record caps these stories and songs of the American Century’s unraveling with a curious, precarious incarnation of Hope. Of its Mystery. Poking a dead dog lyin by the highway in a ditch, a groom waiting waiting waiting alone by the river as the sun sets behind a weepin willow tree, the dogged faith that What Is need not be, that the American crossroads of Drive and Demand, of Hope and Fear, create the omnipotence of a god. Manifest Destiny. But also the American family bound together and willed into a faith.

And faith is hard. Family is so fragile that Genus Homo has to make songs and stories to even begin to look our origins in the eye. Our incestuous, grasping fathers; our embattled, dethroned mothers; our children and carnage and first nucleic sparks of ourselves, all these threads of who we are must be run through a factory of brain-stem squish and slurp to be stitched into Fairy Tale forest clearings, rainbow’s-end gold, heroes nailed to trees. The Titans to the Gods to the Greeks, Adonai to Eden to the Israelites, the Cave to Vader’s mask to Luke’s face—the endless reenactments in our stories and between ourselves are buoys in the endless fog of our human Family but also the endless anchors ‘round the neck. American needs are made ludicrous by the ludicrous promises America makes to itself. We meet them as we can so our minds don’t fry in their brain pans, so we can face the fundamental threats to our ability to sate them. The Hope that closes out Nebraska is the refusal to take “no” for an answer. That’s the faith left after Bruce’s surgical scrutiny of the promises we hold to.

At the end of every hard-earned day in 2017, Hope feels particularly willed into being against all evidence. Fear is fundamental; our luck’s run dry and our love’s gone cold. Just crunching the world historical data—the data of two and a half million years of Genus Homo existence—would compute Hope as a statistical zero, effectively nothing. And yet we’re here in the streets. Alone, we are dust. Together, we punch back. I love far more people than I hate, and I have never shied away from hating. In the cracking, crumbling world of The Now, in the broad shallow mudflats of 2017’s existential dread, we can shiver back to ancestors with dry, needley legs scurrying in terror from borough to hole, the savannah grass and the wind of the winged, famished feeder, and how much can you live in fear every instant of the sun throwing shadows over the land? Only so much. Or only every gasp until the last. You choose. We can crouch and flick our eyes across the sky forever, but we know that just leaves us at the lip of the Great Void waiting for our souls to be hurled.


Or we can dash out for where the sand turns to gold, where the Father’s House in the Fairy Tale clearing throws wide the door rather than leaving us on the dark highway where our sins lie unatoned. The American Century is long gone. Our leaders dream only of gold, and not any rainbow at all. The odds that the next handful of American years will be anything other than terrifying are slim. We will molt and melt and our needs will boil down to things much more basic. We can keep our eyes and hearts open for that dead ditch dog staggering up to its paws, for the endless river rushing the bride back to her groom. We can listen to stories and songs that, in their catharsis and commiseration, strong-arm our better angels up and into an American Family of All for One and One for all. And we can salve our needs and save our souls with Rock n Roll’s most mighty sword, the one that slays fear and the trembling immensity of living, the one that kindles and feeds a bright, fierce heart.

—Jason Leahey