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Back to Nebraska With Bruce

Bill Kauffman at The American Conservative

Photo by John Dame / Unsplash

Bruce Springsteen’s album of American despair remains an arresting collection of stories by a literate and thoughtful depressive.

Those who know Bruce Springsteen as a sententious septuagenarian who vacations with Masters of the Universe and shills for corporate-progressives who deplore the people who populate his canonical songs cannot understand what he meant, once upon a time, to dreamy boys from small towns and outer boroughs. 

We may not have courted “Puerto Rican Janes” or known the difference between “a Hurst on the floor” and Thurston Moore, but Springsteen wove the seemingly quotidian lives of his friends and family into parables and ring-of-truth vignettes. Like the Beach Boys, Bruce made myth of the sand (or asphalt) under his feet. And contra his detractors, I don’t think it was all a con.

If his early songs drowned the listener in Dylanesque word torrents (“madman drummers bummers Indians in the summer”), he hit his stride with Darkness on the Edge of Town, a magnificently gloomy meditation on working-class life punctuated by irruptions of Kerouacian exuberance as the narrator insists “that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

I wore out that lugubrious L.P., and his concert at Shea’s Buffalo kicking off the 1978 tour in support of the album was breathtaking, but by the time I was 20 I had caught on to the specious way Springsteen was marketed. My favorite bar in town had “Badlands” on the jukebox, but those who lived rather than poetized “the workin’ life” vastly preferred Michigan’s Bob Seger. 

I’ve been thinking about Bruce since reading the excellently titled Deliver Me from Nowhere, Warren Zanes’s new book about the making of Nebraska (1982)—the “rural” album that is the oddest entry in the Springsteen oeuvre.

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