Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Desperate Confession of Springsteen’s Nebraska

I’ve always been interested in the phrasing Bruce Springsteen used during his writing explosion that produced his critical masterpiece Nebraska and the majority of his stratospherically popular Born in the U.S.A. record. The former will garner the attention of this blog.

The opening lines of the opening song (Title Track, Nebraska) lay the foundation for the underpinning confessional tone:

I saw her standin' on her front lawn just twirlin' her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.

The title track is a narrative on the Charlie Starkweather / Caril Ann Fugate spree killing that took place during the late 50’s. Much of the imagery for the song is from the Terrance Malick film, Badlands, which is a fictional story inspired by the events.

What I find interesting and what perpetuates the unique confessional identity of this album is hidden right there in this opening stanza. It is the use of the word sir. By placing a singular person, a confessor, in the line it is not simply a story being told but a narrative of confession. A simple and powerful tool used with great purpose and effect by Springsteen.

As a listener the change is evident, the narrator of the story isn’t talking to the listener but instead the listener is given a third party pass to a personal confession changing the effect of the song entirely. The listener is now an eavesdropper on something sacred, freeing the listener from the need to respond, he/she only needs to tune in unfiltered.

This confessional device shows up time and time again. For this opening song the confessor is identified as a sheriff, maybe the one responsible for bringing Starkweather in, or the one set to preside over his execution. In this case the confessor is one of social authority, not spiritual.

The song ends in this same manner.

They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.

The last line is taken from Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and there is that word sir slipped in again, infecting the narrative with the direct personal experience of the confessed. Stark and beautiful.

On the heels of Starkweather’s rampage Springsteen sets us on a course for the casino driven underside of Atlantic City. A story of a man who has struggled to do things the “right way” who has “got a job and put his money away” but who has “debts no honest man can pay.” This man’s confessor is a common one, a woman or more to the point the woman in his life. His confession blurs the line between right and wrong, Atlantic City is an absolute pillar of the Springsteen catalog.

The opening two stanzas set the tone of the environment this man and woman find themselves in.

Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night now they blew up his house too.

Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade and the gamblin' commission's hangin' on by the skin of its teeth.

The chorus of the song jumps in and propels this opening setting head long to the core of the confessional belief.

Well now everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Desperation is often the motivation of confession, this man is backed up to the wall and then some, he had a hard decision to make, he wants his confessor, this woman to understand.

“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
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him”

The listener doesn’t know the fate of the man and his favor or if the woman will follow. This scenario seems to have no good ending only varying degrees of tragedy.

As the curtain is closed on the Jersey Shore Casino we are taken to a hillside on the edge of town for Mansion on the Hill. Once again the confessor device asserts itself in the opening line.

There's a place out on the edge of town sir

Here there is a sin to be confessed, the wanting for what another possesses, envy. A have not reminiscing about his memories of a symbol of have. Also there is an assertion that this was fate; that his place was meant to be on the other side of the iron gates.

At night my daddy'd take me and we'd ride through the streets of a town so silent and still
Park on a back road along the highway side
Look up at that mansion on the hill

I’ve always tried to interpret who the sir is in Mansion on the Hill. I like to think of this character being interviewed about his retirement from the mill mentioned in the song by a young reporter from the small town newspaper. He is asked the standard questions but veers off to talk about evenings spent in the presence of the mansion on the hill.

In the summer all the lights would shine there'd be music playin' people laughin' all the time
Me and my sister we'd hide out in the tall corn fields
Sit and listen to the mansion on the hill

If your confessor is your judge then one better be ready to plead their case. And so it is for the man from track #4 Johnny 99.

Johnny lost his job to no fault of his own, couldn’t find work. Hits the bottle, gets crazy, kills a night clerk. Guilty before proven innocent. We find his confessor to be the Judge Mean John Brown. He’s gonna give Johnny prison for 98 and a year he has one question for poor Johnny:

Well son you got a statement you'd like to make
Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away

Confession time:

Now judge judge I had debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they was takin' my house away
Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man
But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I'd be better off dead
And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head
Then won't you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let 'em shave off my hair and put me on that execution line

“And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head” this type of confession can rattle the rafters and demolish the foundation. As the eavesdropper the listener is left longing to have not been in on this exchange. The implications are just too foreboding. Johnny 99 was guilty but that isn’t what’s important it’s the reasons behind his guilt that are resonant, that tell the story. The live version of this song from “Bruce Springsteen Live 1975-1985” is devastating, imbued with the intensity that this confession demands.

The next song Highway Patrolman removes this confessor and speaks directly to the listener, while this very well could be the best single on the album I will move on to the song following Highway Patrolman, State Trooper.

Hey, we know this confessor! “Liscense, registration please.” “Well you see officer, I was on my way to my parents and..” “Have you been drinking tonight mam?” Simple enough right? Not totally, we are in a desperate landscape and our driver being followed here perhaps says too much, has to let his situation be known.

License, registration, I ain't got none but I got a clear conscience
'Bout the things that I done

Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife the only thing that I got's been both'rin' me my whole life
Mister state trooper, please don't stop me
Please don't stop me, please don't stop me

The song Used Cars comes next, no longer is the confessor a sir but a mister, reflecting a less respectful if not more defiant tone of desperate confession.

We find ourselves on the corner lot on automobile way. The salesman with hungry eyes, making judgments on his prey. The whole family is there for this is an American notion of family. The car as another living breathing member of the progeny. Little sister with an ice cream cone, ma in the back seat all alone.

Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again

The lottery as savior, the confessor as the enemy, a grim story indeed. Our character here has found his life to be worse than dead end. It is a grid of streets that just lead you back and forth, to work and home in that old used car. He is poisoned with the knowledge of what this means, whoever this mister is he wants to ring his neck.

Open All Night follows with a man rushing to get to his woman, in the lunar landscape of the late night Jersey Turnpike. Propped up and propelled Open all Night sends us blasting into a seminal song for Nebraska, My Father’s House.

Father and Son confessional, God and man confessional, reality stripped to where it may only exist in dreams.

Last night I dreamed that I was a child out where the pines grow wild and tall
I was trying to make it home through the forest before the darkness falls

I heard the wind rustling through the trees and ghostly voices rose from the fields
I ran with my heart pounding down that broken path
With the devil snappin' at my heels

I broke through the trees, and there in the night
My father's house stood shining hard and bright the branches and brambles tore my clothes and scratched my arms
But I ran till I fell, shaking in his arms

There are some regrets, some mistakes that endanger the soul, that shake it with fear and trembling. Here is one of those stories, one in which the listener treads lightly with face turned fearful of the end.

I awoke and I imagined the hard things that pulled us apart
Will never again, sir, tear us from each other's hearts
I got dressed, and to that house I did ride from out on the road, I could see its windows shining in light

Once again our confessor comes in, that inevitable sir. Even he too is now unstable and wobbling from the weight of this displaced son confession.

I walked up the steps and stood on the porch a woman I didn't recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door
I told her my story, and who I'd come for
She said "I'm sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore"

My father's house shines hard and bright it stands like a beacon calling me in the night
Calling and calling, so cold and alone
Shining 'cross this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned

Heart breaking, unpardonable conclusion. A son lost in the world unable to atone to his father. Could the confession of this save him?

And so what of all this here confessin’ brothers and sisters. Does it do any good, does it sway the mansion on the hill or change the face of the used car salesman? Does it leave us with hope for our man on a back street in Atlantic City? Will the State Trooper show mercy? I suppose Springsteen was wondering the same thing and we find in this our closing song Reason to Believe. Somehow in the faith of this confession people find some reason to believe.

Take a baby to the river Kyle William they called him
Wash the baby in the water take away little Kyle's sin
In a whitewash shotgun shack an old man passes away take his body to the graveyard and over him they pray Lord won't you tell us
tell us what does it mean
Still at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe

Nebraska is a masterpiece of desperate confession.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Best analysis of this masterwork I have seen yet. I am curious as to where My Fathers House comes from. Is the melody drawn from an old spiritual? I know there is a virtually identical song by the Felice Brothers that is called The Devil Is Real. It is also wonderful.