March 10, 2011
Nebraska is one of the saddest records in Bruce’s catalog. It starts with the title track, Nebraska, a story told in the first person of murder spree and its consequences. Resigned and mournful, it sets a tone of despair and misery that perfectly matches the LP’s cover of an overcast sky and an empty highway seen from a car.
But this is the Boss we’re talking about here, so even though the whole world’s against his characters, they all try to prevail despite everything. We hear this in the next song, Atlantic City, which is a bit faster than Nebraska. Atlantic City is just as frightened of the world as Nebraska, but here there’s still some hope.
Next up, with that haunting harmonica is Mansion on the Hill. Here the narrator tells of growing up in a factory town where the owners lived in a mansion surrounded by a steel fence. It’s clear that the gate that keeps the narrator out of that mansion will keep the narrator out of any mansion, and that the song is in fact a reflection on what it’s like to see some people be well off, knowing that despite whatever you do, you’ll never be as well off as they.
With Johnny 99 the everyday anxieties blow up, as Bruce shows off his love of the band Suicide for the first time on Nebraska. From the rockabilly riffing to that slapback echo. Ralph worked in auto plant that closed down and couldn’t find new work. The bank is going to take away his home and he’s in debt over his head. So Ralph gets drunk from “mixin’ Tanqueray and wine”, gets a gun, and shoots a night clerk. I guess everyone calls Ralph “Johnny”, Anyhow, the last two verses is where it’s at:
Now 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
We change viewpoints from criminal to cop with Highway Patrolman, told by Joe Roberts from the other side of the law. Even then, when you’re not about to be locked up, things aren’t any better. Frankie is Joe’s brother (perhaps Frankie Teardrop, if things had turned out a little differently) who is a Viet Nam vet who isn’t adjusting back to society too well, although Franky’s been in trouble his whole life. Being a cop wasn’t Joe’s first choice for a job. He used to grow wheat, but the prices kept getting lower and lower to the point where he couldn’t make ends meet, so now he’s a highway patrolman. Joe gets a call “about a quarter til 9” from a roadhouse where Franky started a fight. Joe’s got to do his job, even if he’s got to arrest his own brother, although he admits “But when it’s your brother sometimes you look the other way.” Joe tries to pull Franky over, but Franky gets too close to the border, at which point Joe pulls over on the highway and “watched his tail lights disappear.”
Side 1 ends with State Trooper, told by someone who’s out of options. The Boss’s scream here is unforgettable. Side 1 ends on a wet New Jersey turnpike speeding away to nowhere.
Hey, somebody out there,listen to my last prayer
Hi ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere