In 1982 Bruce Springsteen made some rough recordings on a four-track in his New Jersey home. Those songs became his critically acclaimed album Nebraska. As its 30th anniversary nears, David Burke, the author of a new book about the album tells us what makes it so special.

Heart of Darkness Springsteen book

2012 marks the 30th anniversary of Bruce Springsteen’s seminal album, Nebraska. Why so seminal? Well, for one because it changed many people’s perceptions – indeed preconceptions – of Springsteen as an American rock’n’roll archetype. Remember, he was once heralded as the future of rock’n’roll by Jon Landau, then Rolling Stone journalist, later Springsteen’s manager.

While earlier Springsteen albums, most notably Born To Run, found him working on a more expansive canvas with both words and music, Nebraska was, by comparison, a lesson in stark minimalism. It represented his apotheosis as a writer in tune with the American heartbeat, a writer who, like Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck before him, recounted stories of the little people to reveal the awful truths about the big society in which they lived. On Nebraska, Springsteen the artist assumed the human responsibility to reflect what was happening around him.

In tune with the American heartbeat

In 1982, America, under the administration of former B-movie actor Ronald Reagan and his core policy of Reaganomics, was mired in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“The chief idea behind Reaganomics was that the wealthy and the corporations were taxed much too heavily,” according to Sean Wilentz, Princeton University historian and author of The Age of Reagan, in my book, Heart Of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.

Relieving the tax burden on the rich would lead to spectacular investment and growth, and narrow the federal deficit by increasing wealth that would compensate for the loss in federal revenues, with the benefits trickling down to ordinary Americans. At least that was the theory. But as Wilentz points out, inequality worsened.

Video: Nebraska

The video, above, is of Springsteen performing the album’s title track. The song Nebraska is inspired by the real life case of Charles Starkweather who, with his then 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate, murdered 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming during a two-month spree between late 1957 and early 1958. The case is also immortalised in Terrence Malick’s must-see film, Badlands.

Springsteen, the product of a blue-collar upbringing in New Jersey, was, despite his fame and wealth, affected by the suffering of these “ordinary Americans”. For many, the American Dream had turned into an American Nightmare. They felt dislocated.

“The record was basically about people being isolated from their jobs, from their friends, from their families, their fathers, their mothers – just not feeling connected to anything that’s going on – your government,” Springsteen said.

Where the highway doesn’t lead to a better place

Nebraska is spooky in the way that any piece of work that stares into the abyss is spooky. It’s not an album for the apathetic or the lily livered. It’s not for those who hear music as a balm or want music to suspend grim reality. These are narratives in which we are pitched into a world of meanness, where protagonists are encumbered by “debts no honest man can pay”, where the highway doesn’t lead to a better place but goes straight to hell, where folk struggle to find reason to believe at the end of every hard-earned day.

Spooky too in the way Springsteen delivers the narratives. Recorded on a four-track at home, there’s nothing but voice, guitar, harmonica – a voice that sounds like no other Springsteen voice before or since. A voice that is undeniably his own, yes, but a voice that sings in the tongues of the characters that populate the songs. A voice that nails down madness, loneliness, disaffection, abasement and a whole bunch of other stuff that is mostly unpalatable to popular taste.

Nebraska is raw, primitive, ancient, other worldly, spiritual, nihilistic, heartbreaking and horrifying. And it was made, don’t forget, by someone who was regarded as a rock’n’roll messiah. It took some balls for Springsteen to defy the expectations foisted on him as a consequence of his success. He hung himself out there, he was prepared to run the risk of ruining his reputation and, something which probably didn’t thrill his management, damaging his bankability. But he had the courage of his conviction – his artistic conviction.

About the author and his new book

In Heart Of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, published by Cherry Red in October 2011, David Burke evaluates its American folk roots, places it in the context of Springsteen’s entire body of work and hears from a generation of artists who cite it as a huge influence. The book will be available from Amazon UK and US.

David is News Editor of bi-monthly roots music magazine, R2, formerly Rock’n’Reel.

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