Albums A to Z: Nebraska

Goodman, Mansion on the HillOne of the most interesting cultural histories I’ve read is The Mansion on the Hill, former Rolling Stone editor Fred Goodman’s sprawling, well-researched examination of the development of the “rock and roll business” from the Sixties through the Eighties — how rock went from being a partner of “a counterculture professing to be so firmly against commercial and social conventions that” (p. xi) such a notion “seemed an oxymoron” to the “most dependable financial engine” of Warner Brothers and other media conglomerates.

Goodman has no pretensions that rock (or any art form) was ever so pure as its disciples might wish to believe it. But it’s no mistake that the hero of the book is Neil Young:

I believe it is possible to both achieve commercial success and rise above it, but that it requires an absolute faith and focus in the intrinsic value of the work itself rather than smart career moves. Over the years, I’ve developed a growing appreciation in this regard for the work of Neil Young, who I believe started out to be rich and famous and ultimately decided he’d rather be an artist. Young is as self-indulgent as any rock star, and the quality of his work has been uneven. But time and again he has been willing to fail in public—and that is not the mark of someone who is thinking only about his career. (p. xiii)

At the other end of the spectrum (among the musicians in the book at least — then there’s David Geffen…) is Peter Frampton, whose career saw a “brief and extraordinary commercial success followed by an insurmountable artistic bankruptcy,” illustrating that even though the “quest for authenticity and the rejection of mainstream values” by earlier folk and rock musicians “had been succeeded by a commercial industry… one thing hadn’t changed: the residue of that original ethos remained rock’s core appeal, and you couldn’t maintain a career without at least a nod to it” (p. 317).

Bruce Springsteen in 1988
The Boss playing a concert in East Germany, 1988 – Bundesarchiv
Somewhere in between those two poles, Goodman places Bruce Springsteen, who gets the spotlight for three reasons:

The first is that his work and success are worth examining, both on their own and for what they say about a time in which the lines between art and commerce, altruism and self-interest, have been obscured. The second is that while I like and am moved by much of his work, the claims that have been made for him—particularly by people with a personal interest in his career—are extravagant and perhaps purposefully misleading. And the third reason is my fascination with his manager, Jon Landau, whom I find even more interesting than his client. (p. xiii)

While a young Springsteen had declared that “The pressures of the business are powerless in the face of what is real” (quoted on p. 294), an early lyric comes closer to summing up his relationship to the music business, at least as Goodman tells the story: “It’s hard to be a saint in the city.”

More recently Springsteen acknowledged, in a generally admiring, long-form profile by David Remnick, “I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie… I liked Elvis, I liked the pink Cadillac too much, I like the simplicity and the tossed-off temporary feeling of pop hits, I like a big f**kin’ noise, and, in my own way, I like the luxuries, and the comforts, of being a star”.

Which is perhaps why his most Woody Guthrie-like album is so interesting.

Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska

Springsteen, NebraskaGoodman credits Jon Landau with learning the lesson of Peter Frampton and pushing his most famous client both “to accept the music as a business” and “to acquire a more explicitly political and social voice—a voice that echoed the work of earlier artists who clearly hadn’t been motivated by commerce” (p. 317). To that end, Landau encouraged Springsteen to read Joe Klein’s 1980 biography of Woody Guthrie. The singer added Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” to his live show (which ranked #1, lo these many years later, in a recent survey by Rolling Stone) and then spent September 1981 cutting songs that bore the clear influence of Guthrie.

Ten of those home-recorded, four-track demos were released (with little editing) as Nebraska in 1982. Not surprisingly, Goodman spends little time on the album, a song cycle about desperate people on the margins of society that one of my fellow historian-bloggers believes “captures the human condition more than any album [Springsteen] has ever produced.” An undeniable artistic risk that seemed like a bad career move and showed a willingness to fail in public, Nebraska aligns less with Goodman’s Springsteen narrative than the archetype he builds up around Young (who never failed more spectacularly than with his own 1982 album). He ends his two paragraphs on the album with grudging admiration:

…while there was an undeniable sameness in the minimal instrumentation and the mournful cadence of Springsteen’s nearly monochromatic vocals, the songs were clearly the work of someone trying to expand his artistic vocabulary. (p. 338)

Reviewing the record for Rolling Stone, Steve Pond was more enthusiastic:

Flying in the face of a sagging record industry with an intensely personal project that could easily alienate radio, rock’s gutsiest mainstream performer has dramatically reclaimed his right to make the records he wants to make, and damn the consequences. This is the bravest of Springsteen’s six records; it’s also his most startling, direct and chilling. And if it’s a risky move commercially, Nebraska is also a tactical masterstroke, an inspired way out of the high-stakes rock & roll game that requires each new record to be bigger and grander than the last.

For Remnick (who finds Hank Williams, Sr. at least as important an influence as Guthrie), writing, recording, and releasing Nebraska was part of a crucial transition for Springsteen:

Springsteen knew he had run out of things to say about desperate nights on the Turnpike; he wanted to write songs he could sing as an adult, about marriage, about being a father, and about larger social issues. As he listened again and again to Hank Williams, he said, the songs went from “archival to alive.” What had seemed “cranky and old-fashioned” now had depth and darkness; Williams represented “the adult blues,” and the music of the working class…. He was singing now about Vietnam veterans, migrant workers, class, social divisions, deindustrialized cities, and forgotten American towns, but never in an idiom that threatened “Bruce”—the iconic family-friendly rock star.

For Remnick this transition continued into the massively popular Born in the U.S.A., which included at least a couple songs left over from Nebraska (one being the title song, about a disgruntled Vietnam veteran… click below for an acoustic performance closer to the spartan feel of Nebraska), but also led to a new critique, as “Some detected in all this the stink of sanctimony.”

As to the album itself… There’s certainly a sameness in a collection that’s, to be charitable, light on melody and heavy on the sound of one man’s voice and his acoustic guitar. All the more so when successive tracks are about a “Highway Patrolman” and a “State Trooper,” or when they perform “Mansion on the Hill” — what Goodman rightly calls a “bastardized rewrite of the Hank Williams ballad ‘A Mansion on the Hill.'”

But having just turned thirty last year, Nebraska holds up better for having been recorded so simply. Goodman thinks that “The simplicity of the tracks bore a strong resemblance to the kind of raw, solo ‘field recordings’ that earlier folk and blues artists had made during the thirties and forties,” which may have lent Nebraska something of a timeless quality.

Probably more importantly, the storytelling on Nebraska is generally more naturalistic and persuasive than on earlier, more cinematic albums like Born to Run, which had inspired poet-activist John Sinclair (former manager of the MC5) to sneer that Springsteen was the product of a hype machine: “[Springsteen’s songs] are tales of a mythic urban grease scene which, taken together, form a script for a third-rate television treatment of delinquent white youngsters of the slums” (quoted in Mansion on the Hill, p. 284) Of course, the album kicks off with a title track inspired by Terence Malick’s film, Badlands, but more impressive and representative is the widely-covered second track, which tells of organized crime coming from Philadelphia (“Well, they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night / Now, they blew up his house, too”) to an “Atlantic City” that bears little resemblance to the Vegas East that it’s become (“Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find / Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t / Get caught on the wrong side of that line”). Elsewhere, Springsteen shows an impressive eye for mundane but telling details, as in “Used Cars”:

Now my ma she fingers her wedding band
And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands
He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could
But he just can’t

“Monochromatic” as the tunes, tempo, and tone can be, they generally serve the songs well — at the very least, they don’t get in the way of Springsteen’s still-wordy character studies. But admittedly, that formula works because it’s occasionally interrupted by songs that end up being the album’s highlights.

• The aforementioned “Atlantic City” has the strongest melody and, not surprisingly, has lent itself best to performance by the full band…

• Even more propulsive is the one song recorded with an electric guitar: “Open All Night.” I can’t really improve on the Wikipedia description: “…a Chuck Berry-style lone guitar rave-up, does manage a dose of defiant, humming-towards-the-gallows exuberance.”

• Then there’s the eery “State Trooper,” with the guitar playing a one-note heartbeat while Springsteen’s voice murmurs as minimalist a melody as he’s written. The lyric takes us into the desperate mind of a criminal (“License, registration, I ain’t got none, but I got a clear conscience / ‘Bout the things that I done”) driving the New Jersey Turnpike in the “wee wee hours.”

Though worlds apart musically, “State Trooper” inhabits the same universe as “Open All Night,” which not only takes place in Jersey’s “wee wee hours” when your “mind gets hazy” and the “radio’s jammed up,” but also has its character close with the same prayer: “Deliver me from nowhere.”

There are hints that such a prayer can be answered: “Atlantic City” hopes that “maybe ev’rything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe ev’rything that dies someday comes back,” and “Used Cars” for the day when “I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again”; the album-closer decides that “at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” But Nebraska is daring not simply as a business decision, or even an artistic risk, but because a songwriter whose central theme is redemption has most of his characters question whether there truly is salvation from the sins (structural and personal) that bind, perplex, and torment us all. “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” says the mass murderer of “Nebraska” when asked “why I did what I did,” while “Johnny 99” has “debts no honest man can pay” and tells the judge at sentencing, “I do believe I’d be better off dead.” While “My Father’s House” “shines hard and bright / It stands like a beacon calling me in the night,” it’s ultimately “so cold and alone / Shining `cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.”

Release Date: 1982

Three Favorite Tracks: “Atlantic City”; “State Trooper”; “Open All Night”

Other Nominees: Nirvana, Nevermind; REM, New Adventures in Hi-Fi; Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising; Uncle Tupelo, No Depression; The Faces, A Nod is as Good as a Wink… to a Blind Horse; Norah Jones, Not Too Late; The Byrds, The Notorious Byrds Brothers.

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