Even in 2012 - twenty-eight years after its release - people still misunderstand the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album, ‘Born In The USA’. Just as former US President Ronald Reagan did at the time, there are those who assume it’s a fist-pumpingly patriotic celebration of all things America, rather than the scathing political indictment and anti-war anthem that it actually is. But trace the song back to its roots and its damaged, destabilised constitution and its spiteful, accusatory intentions become incredibly clear. Because the origins of that song don’t lie in the glossy bombast of that album, but in the solo acoustic record that preceded it - 1982’s ‘Nebraska’.
Recorded by Springsteen at his home on a four-track cassette recorder with (mainly) just his guitar and harmonica for company, its ten songs - initially intended as demos - are sparse and sallow, dark and stark, a reflection of the trampled hearts, ruined lives and barren landscapes of its subject matter.
Opening gambit and title track ‘Nebraska’ immediately sets the bleak tone of the record, its first-person narrative telling the true life tale of Charles Starkweather and his teenage girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate, who, in 1958, went on an eight-day killing spree and murdered eleven people. The song ends with the protagonist - and, by default, Springsteen himself - explaining his actions. His chilling conclusion? “Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
That meanness flows through the ten songs that follow, as their characters tell their stories. ‘Atlantic City’ - probably one of the greatest songs of the ’80s - details a failing relationship in a time of economic turmoil. Sadly, its resigned desperation (“Well, I got a job and tried to put my money away / But I got debts that no honest man can pay”) is just as apt in Cameron’s Britain now as it was in Reagan’s America then. Elsewhere, despondent characters struggle with the pain of day-to-day existence - these are lost souls who have nothing, and for whom the American dream has manifested itself in reverse, not showing them what they could have, but highlighting everything they haven’t got. ‘Mansion On the Hill’ expresses the sad envy at those with money by those who have none, ‘Used Cars’ tells of a child’s shame that his family can only afford a secondhand vehicle, and ‘Jonny 99’ details the fate of a car worker driven to crime after losing his job.
These are not, however, didactic songs which tell the listener how or what to think, but rather portraits of American lives at a specific moment in time. They don’t judge, they don’t moralise, they don’t condone or condemn the actions of their protagonists - that’s up to the listener. What’s inescapable, however, is the sense of abject melancholy and loneliness of this album. ‘My Father’s House’ - an intensely personal song reflecting on Springsteen’s difficult relationship with his dad - is one of the saddest songs in his repertoire, while ‘Highway Patrolman’ is an account of a family torn apart by circumstance and crime, but which, despite is morose subject matter and downbeat tune, nevertheless manages to capture and convey the bittersweet nostalgia of good times long since lost. It all adds up to make ‘Nebraska’ a lonely, late night drive of an album through a scarred, ragged country, one that echoes with the hollowness of empty promises and dreams destroyed. There is, in closer ‘Reason To Believe’, a hint of redemption and hope, but only in the face of extreme adversity. Of course, ‘Born In The USA’ in its original guise didn’t make the cut - it has since been released on the odds‘n’sods box-set ‘Tracks’ - but it still belongs, thematically, to this record, and Springsteen’s brilliant vision of a bruised, battered and broken America.
Words: Mischa Pearlman
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN ‘NEBRASKA’
RELEASED SEPTEMBER 30th 1982
PRODUCER BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN
MUSICIANS BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN VOCALS, GUITAR, HARMONICA,
1982: IN THE NEWS
• The Falklands War lasts from April to June.
• Prince William is born in Paddington, London.
• Two IRA bombs explode in London, killing eight people and seven horses.
• The first CDs are released on sale in Germany.
1982: THE ALBUMS
• The Jam - ‘The Gift’
• Sonic Youth - ‘Sonic Youth’
• Duran Duran - ‘Rio’
• Kate Bush - ‘The Dreaming’