It is not an exaggeration to say that the whole American way of life died in 1981.
Ronald Reagan’s summary dismissal of PATCO—the Federal Air Traffic Controllers Association—was a direct shot across the bow to the people working diligently to organize. A footnote in history at this point, but a prophecy in the moment. The situation was complicated—the union yielded to their demands, Reagan philosophically rigid—but the net result meant the end of the modern labor movement as it existed.
According to labor historian Eric Loomis: “It had three major effects. First, it ended a decade of public sector union militancy that had begun with the postal workers’ strike of the 1970s. It led to strikes. Second, it gave private employers room to bust their unions as well—and the ’80s were full of companies breaking union contracts that had been in place for decades. Third, these unions feared strikes. The number of workers striking each year fell after 1981 and has never recovered.
Punishment is coming only for workers: NAFTA and wage stagnation, the opioid crisis and mass incarceration, the cold shoulder of a Democratic Party eager to remember their rank and file with Silicon Valley and the municipal elite, and Donald Trump. misuse. Trump. None of this was unexpected or unexpected. It’s just that, for lip service, no one in the political class really cares. Bruce Springsteen worked by looking at the beginning of this long downward spiral. Nebraska.
“I think there is only cruelty in this world”
On any short list of major recording stars near the peak of their commercial powers, Bruce Springsteen is mentioned. Nebraska He turned 40 this year. The primal shock of its deep perils still lingers, its core themes sounding better than ever. It’s a 40-minute recital of the riots and violence of Bob Dylan’s true folk hero living outside the law. John Wesley Harding As a way of dealing with unnecessary mental illness.
Recorded almost entirely to Tascam four-track, Nebraska There is a clear vision of America’s decay, seen through the lens of Catholicism because of sin, which makes the world around him less and less reasonable. Its central mystery in many ways feels unsolved: How did Springston get the pleasure of automatic freedom? Born to run To the highways of hell Nebraska In seven short years? Or was the distance really that far?
Out of the cages on Highway 9.
I went out for a ride and I never came back.
I killed everything on my way.
“A Suicide Rap”
As far as I know, there is no psychological term for convincing yourself that you love something you really hate. But say for example that you have been surrounded by something all your life, so surrounded that it invades your composition and defines your personality from childhood. It is noisy and crowded and then lonely and empty and then noisy and crowded. It is inescapable, and it is escapist – an irresolvable paradox. You internalize it as a means of survival – you celebrate it! – but at some fundamental level it is destabilizing. Like Lou Red City or David Bowie’s Outer Space, Springsteen’s Highways maps his music in forensic detail.
In his 2016 autobiography born to run Springsteen tells a strange story about a nervous breakdown from his 30s. This is shortly after release Nebraska. He signs up for a cross-country road trip with his friend Matt Delia, childhood friend, car repairman, poet, and frequent travel buddy. A ’69 Ford XL driven with all kinds of fancy gear sheet. Springsteen is spirited enough to make mixed tapes of the size for each area they’ll be passing through: Chuck Berry for the Midwest, Professor Longyear for the Delta, and so on.
Things start out well enough, but the experience isn’t what Springsteen had hoped for. For one thing, his steady driving buddy Matt has recently experienced a painful break-up and wanders around in the passenger seat hopelessly clutching a teddy bear. It appears from the book that it is a stuffed toy Springston is out Deeplybut it is not entirely clear why.
The further west you go, the weirder things get. “When we cross the Mississippi and go into Texas, it feels a little…wide open…out here,” Springsteen writes. He removes the teddy bear from Matt and hides it in the trunk. Bruce is days away from a complete nervous breakdown. The highway is for gamblers, better use your common sense.
“This turnpike sure is scary at night when you’re alone”
In sonic terms, the principle discord is not what is present, but what is absent. Nebraska There is the voice of a man who is always on a roll with the crew, all showing themselves and not in a good mood. Usually he would be proud and run away for his boys, as they confidently cut to pieces behind him. Instead he rambles on about traffic stops and state police and industrial skyscrapers.
Countless miles from the most lavish banquets Greetings from Asbury Park or Wild, Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, Nebraska The songs are whimsical vignettes and character studies, half-arrested dreams and hellish nightmares, rockabilly and rebellious folk like Sun Records born under the sinister imprint of CCR. Exit Roy Orbison, enter Raymond Carver.
One of the most haunting and terrifying performances of Springsteen’s career is the haunting “State Trooper”: a plea from a murderous criminal who prays in vain to stop more murders.
“Mansion on the Hill” evokes a different kind of danger, that of the chilling effects of cyclical poverty and the experience of literally living in the shadow of those who have enjoyed the mutual advantages of upward mobility and material wealth. Album closer “Reason to Believe” is half-reverential, half-repentant spiritual.
The song “Nebraska” is a retelling of the 1958 murders committed by Charlie Starkweather that began in Lincoln, Nebraska and spread to Wyoming. These were the murders that were covered in the 1973 film The Master of Trance bad areas The cinematic predecessor to our contemporary popularity is artistically presented murder scenarios. Eleven people were killed during the massacre, a 19-year-old unsatisfied in the merciless brutality of the brutal robbery. Familiar to us now, but shocking at the time. A couple of white men with guns and a chip on their shoulder.
Springsteen sings in the first person from Starkweather’s perspective. This is confusing. All of a sudden stopped in time by Starkweather’s harmonica, Springsteen-as-Starkweather isn’t remorseful for his actions, but he’s not crazy either. He is deeply mad, but with dignity. The song is simple, the violent roll call is almost impossible. Two men join. The final revelation is apocalyptic:
“They wanted to know why I did what I did / Well, sir, I guess there’s only one ruthlessness in this world.”
I read a few books about Charlie Starkweather while writing this piece. I hope to provide some journalistic or social context to the story. I really wasn’t very far. It was so sad — especially after 14-year-old Karyl Ann Fugate got involved. Starkweather was bullied as a child – lame and had a speech impediment – and children can be very cruel.
He became a warrior and loved the taste of war. He wasn’t big, but he was scary, and some of his classmates were afraid of him. Others looked at him sympathetically. He was good friends with his parents and siblings, and while some teachers found him overly intense and mildly intellectual, no one thought he was a murderer. He joined a street gang and styled himself after James Dean. She became even more awkward. He had nightmares of brutal death. The result of Occam’s Razor is very unpleasant: he just had worms in his brain. Some people do.
But one detail stuck out and bothered me. His first kill was in November 1957, a year before the spray. Starkweather became enraged with a service station attendant named Robert Colvert and eventually shot him dead after a brief struggle. The animating conflict was this: Colvert refused to sell the stuffed animal on Starkweather’s credit.
“Town of the Dead”
What exactly is the option? You are exhausting yourself – every moment, every opportunity, in every direction. You knock on every door, and then eventually every visit leads to mischief. Bakhtoor said you will become a star. She didn’t tell you how awkward it would feel. Springsteen was working at the same time Born in America While he was working Nebraska. They were two sides of the same coin, in a way that cliché is painfully true. The juxtaposition of the brooding bluster of the one and the quiet violence of the other is a dream come true for contemporary America, which cannot distinguish between execution and praise.
When the prophecy came true – when Bruce Springsteen became the biggest star in the world – he could hardly contain himself. Ten million Springsteen fans can’t be wrong. Some kind of suicide grenades went off. He writes in his memoir:
“I can be very dangerous [behind the wheel]. I will use speed and recklessness to convey my anger and rage, with the sole purpose of scaring my rider.»
Oddly enough this is a quote that doubles as the final summation of his career. The relationship between Springsteen and his audience is as volatile and unhealthy as rock suggested. Nebraska A vote of confidence was lacking in a country that simultaneously enriched it and cast doubt on everything. His suspicions were confirmed as the working poor became increasingly marginalized, city by city, union by union, one pledge after another was canceled. Of course it will turn out to be a devastation caused by crime in the unforgivable ways that he goes through. How many roads does a man speed on? The answer, my friends, is in the wind.
“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night”
Phil Testa died when a nail bomb exploded under his porch in March 1981. He was the head of a Philadelphia mobster family, succeeding Angelo Bruno, who was assassinated by his self-styled boss, Antonio Caponegro. Now Tessa was also killed by an underboss, Pete Casella, in a coup attempt. A neat if not pretty legacy. Tessa is apparently called “Chicken Man” for his legitimate involvement in the poultry industry, and consider what a dangerous, interesting nickname that is. “I want to see the chicken man!” No cherubic, joy-filled child ever spoke, as if they might be Santa Claus or Goofy. The idea of a chicken man haunts a somewhat frightening place in the consciousness where we have Grimm’s fairy tales and David Cronenberg movies.
Like “I Heard Through the Grapevine” or “Beautiful Hollow,” “Atlantic City” is a song that’s afraid of what it knows. Four minutes of nervous report and unsubstantiated forensic explanation, all chaos and I don’t want cowardice here.
“Everything dies / Baby it’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday will come back.” Every night the psychological alarm clock goes off in his head. The wrong father and the holy, ignorant mother. Relationships that don’t close. Memories that don’t come back. The delirium of grief that attends much of his music. He won’t let you watch the stage for four hours. The liminal space between Jersey’s holiest son and the Chicken Man. A strange but inexplicable coincidence: they both want to be known as “the boss”.
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, DC-based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter of the garage-punk band Paranoid Style.