Friday, August 13, 2010

Jahnke's Record Collection: Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska

Cast your mind back to 1982. MTV had just celebrated its first birthday and was already beginning to change the way we heard music. Artists as diverse as Pat Benatar, Peter Gabriel, The Pretenders and Billy Idol had already started experimenting with this new music video thing. In May, Duran Duran released Rio, becoming arguably the first major group to owe most of its success to MTV. Even The J. Geils Band had popped up their signature blues bar-band sound, hitting the top of the charts with “Centerfold”. By the end of the year, Michael Jackson would release Thriller and the music industry would never really be the same again.

In the middle of all this, on September 30, Bruce Springsteen defiantly released Nebraska, a stark, stripped-down, unpolished collection of songs about murder, unemployment, loneliness and desperation. Recorded by Springsteen alone in his bedroom on a cheap four-track cassette recorder, Nebraska wasn’t even supposed to be an album. They were demo tapes meant to be played for the E Street Band, fleshed out, re-recorded and then released as a record. But everyone agreed that the full-band versions weren’t nearly as effective as the originals. Supposedly Springsteen carted the tape around in the back of his car for a few weeks while trying to decide what to do with the songs. That may be an apocryphal story but it’s a good one. Regardless, the demos were eventually released as the final album, technical limitations, tape hiss and all.

Considering that Springsteen had just enjoyed the biggest pop success of his career with “Hungry Heart” two years earlier, it’s a bit shocking that Columbia Records let him release Nebraska at all. There were no singles off the album in the US. Springsteen did concede to releasing a video for “Atlantic City”, although it’s really more of an anti-video, consisting entirely of grainy, black-and-white images of the city at its bleakest. The whole thing looks like it was shot from a car in about half an hour and the vibe is downright post-apocalyptic. Needless to say, it made strange bedfellows alongside the likes of “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “We Got The Beat”.

The no-frills approach resulted in one of Springsteen’s most enduring and cohesive albums. The individual songs are brilliant and often beautiful but the total is much greater than the sum of its parts. Nebraska is an intimate, poignant record that demands to be heard from start to finish. The album has inspired countless writers, filmmakers and other musicians. “Highway Patrolman” alone was covered by no less than Johnny Cash and provided the basis for Sean Penn’s film The Indian Runner, while “State Trooper” served as the end credits music for the finale of the first season of The Sopranos. Coincidentally, that was the first episode of the series I watched and I became addicted to it the second I heard that familiar, ominous guitar riff start to play.

If Nebraska isn’t my favorite in the Springsteen catalog, it’s definitely in the top three. Depending on my mood on a particular day, there’s a good chance I will cite Nebraska as my favorite Springsteen album. Back in my college days, I took a cross-country road-trip from West Virginia to Montana with my friend Andrew Hansen. (These days, Andy’s a big-time composer and sound designer in the Chicago area. That doesn’t really have any bearing on this story but it is pretty damn cool.) Our route took us through the great state of Nebraska and there was really only one choice of music to play across those rolling plains. Springsteen’s songs transformed what could have been a deadly dull stretch of empty road into a starkly beautiful American landscape. Suddenly every farm house and small town we passed had a dozen stories to tell. I’d wager we both could have criss-crossed the state a dozen times listening to that album. That’s a pretty good legacy for a record that could have been lost under the passenger seat of Bruce Springsteen’s car.

1 comment:

  1. Found you today via MusicTap... looking forward to checking out more of your blog.

    If you've not heard The Cash Brothers' tune "Nebraska", it's a nice companion: the lyric hook is literally "I'm just driving around.. listening to Nebraska."

    You can hear it here at their site: