Entertainment Music

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Once upon a time in the Midwest

"When you lose that sense of community, there's some spiritual breakdown that occurs. And when that occurs, you just get shot off somewhere where nothing seems to matter."

These words may sound like a state-of-the-nation address delivered in 2012, but they were actually spoken by Bruce Springsteen about his 1982 album Nebraska. Nearly 30 years after its original release, the record retains its hold over Bruce's fans and fellow songwriters, many of whom see it as his finest hour.

The above quote comes from a new book on the album written by David Burke, a native of Mullingar, Co Westmeath. Heart Of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is an involving and comprehensive analysis of The Boss's most daring opus.

Sandwiched as it was between the sprawling double album The River, which was all bells and whistles, and Born In The USA, which ramped up the decibel level so as to fill the world's enormodomes, Nebraska stood out like a eunuch at an orgy.

Recorded live in a couple of days using the most primitive recording equipment -- specifically, a Tascam Portastudio 144 four-track -- with no overdubs, Nebraska must have seemed like career suicide to the record company suits.

In a reverse of Bob Dylan's sacrilegious journey, Bruce gave his E Street Band the week off, abandoned his iconic Fender Telecaster, and lovingly clutched a battered acoustic guitar and a harmonica to his side. If the resulting 10 songs sound like they were recorded on a rocking chair in his bedroom, that's because they were.

Pared down to the bone, these songs would stand or fall on their own merits -- there was no big Clarence Clemons sax solo to hide behind here, no thundering Max Weinberg drum roll. Please leave your sweatbands at the door.

"There was no problem with nobody playing on Nebraska," remembers E Street Band guitarist 'Miami Steve' Van Zandt.

"It was my idea to put it out like that. He played me the four-track demos and I said to him: 'This is going to sound off but it should be released as it is -- the fact that you didn't intend to release it makes it the most intimate record you'll ever do. This is an absolutely legitimate piece of art.'"

Shorn of the big-band trappings of Bruce's trademark Wall of Sound songs like 'Highway Patrolman', the title track and the extraordinary 'Atlantic City' burned with an intensity and an immediacy that saw Springsteen hailed as the greatest American songwriter of his time.

It was folk music, Jim, but not quite as we knew it: homicidal lovers on the run; gambling addicts looking for that big score; compromised cops torn between fidelity to the badge and loyalty to kin ...

But Burke points out that the Spartan nature of the recordings was not some purist attempt to get back to the source, man.

Rather, they were conceived as demos -- it's just that Bruce's attempts to record them with the E Street Band proved unsatisfactory. Try as they might, Clarence, Max, Steve et al could not recapture the magic of the original session in New Jersey.

The song 'Nebraska' was inspired by the true story of a 1950s serial killer -- Charles Starkweather -- whose maniacal rampage through the Midwest formed the basis of the film Badlands, which Springsteen adored. Bruce even rang the paper who first reported the story and spoke to the journalist who had covered it a full 30 years before.

Although Burke's requests for an interview with his subject were refused, he does talk to the photographer who took the evocative photos on the sleeve. Bruce chose the image of the open road as seen from the front seat of a car. But the grey atmosphere of the photo alludes to the troubles contained within the album's grooves.

Burke does a good job of placing Nebraska in its historical context -- he sees it as a reaction to the Reaganomics that was then decimating the US -- and in its broader musical context: it's closer in spirit to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Dylan than it is to, say, the shoulder-padded synth-pop on heavy rotation on MTV at the time.

Springsteen would later return to the folk idiom on albums like The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils And Dust and The Seeger Sessions, each showing a more reflective side to the man once famously heralded as the future of rock 'n' roll.

It is this Bruce Springsteen that is eulogised by the likes of David Gray and Judy Collins in the book, who speak of the profound influence that Nebraska has had on their own craft.

Heart Of Darkness is published by Cherry Red Books. Bruce Springsteen & The E Etreet band play Dublin RDS on July 17 and 18. nkelly@independent.ie

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