Raw, lost and alone – Springsteen’s other side

Bruce Springsteen, 1982, from the inner sleeve of Nebraska.

Bruce Springsteen, 1982, from the inner sleeve of Nebraska (Columbia Records).

Ireland loves Bruce Springsteen. The bigger, the louder, the better.

His shows here this week were preceded by the usual raft of gushing previews. The reviews weren’t much different.

Three hours of surging, singalong, Born To Run down to The River rock, with your fist in the air and your heart on your sleeve. There’s no show like a Bruce show.

Not for me.

The best of Springsteen is a long way from 25,000-fan sports stadiums or a neverending string of sold-out shows.

Instead it can be found in recordings made in a small room at the songwriter’s home in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey, on a winter day early in 1982.

On and around January 3 of that year Springsteen, weary of working in the studio, sat down his bedroom and recorded a number of songs on a Teco 4-track machine.

The result was the album Nebraska, a sparse, intimate recording which is the pinnacle of Springsteen’s songwriting.

It’s an album populated with characters working menial jobs, dining in Bob’s Big Boy Fried Chicken, dreaming of a win at Atlantic City’s slots, their lives running out to a backdrop of late-century New Jersey, oil refineries and radio towers.

The title song, which recounts the tale of spree killer Charlie Starkweather, is the exception. Its violence and drama is at odds with the rest of the album, where most of the events take place in private, in cars, or behind the closed, confined night-time doors of suburban Jersey.

As such Nebraska is an album of limitations, a contrast to the driving surge of the Springsteen behind The Promised Land or Born To Run.

Circumstances place a break on ambition for most of the songs’ characters. Lack of money or opportunity, fear, resentment, anger – these are emotions and situations strung across the album.

The protagonist in the Open All Night is clockwatching on the night shift, driving past the “scrap metal hill”, factories and fields, to get home to his girlfriend.

New Jersey turnpike at Linden.  Pic: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

New Jersey turnpike at Linden.
Pic: USNARA

Salvation is listening to the radio, hoping that music will “deliver me from nowhere”.

This could be the same man who appears in State Trooper, running from an unmentioned crime. Driving without a licence all he hopes for, tonight at least, is that the patrol car will pass him by.

There’s an awareness of something better out there, but it’s out of reach. The singer in Mansion On The Hill lives out her days in the shade of a big house in Linden, NJ, and her life is defined by it.

The mansion and the impossible dream it embodies are as permanent as the full moon which rises behind it. She’s stared through its gates as a child and, now and adult, is still looking in.

The young man in My Father’s House stands on the porch of his old family home, his dad long departed, whether to the State line or the grave, we’re not told.

James Gatz in a different age, he’s left staring at his departed family home, the beacon he can’t ever reach.

Redemption, when it appears in Nebraska, is something rumored, hoped for. ‘Maybe everything that dies someday comes back?’ asks the departing singer who’s left for Atlantic City, before he decides to do a favour for a criminal he’s met on the boardwalk.

Three decades on who knows where these characters have ended up. Still running, still dreaming of lottery win or a new car, wondering what happened to their lives.

The stadium Springsteen may return to them, in various guises and at different stages as the years pass, but their voices are still heard best as they were recorded – raw, lost and alone.

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