Real Life Rock (11/82)

We must mobilize every asset we have—spiritual, moral, educational, economic, and military—in a crusade for national renewal. We must restore to their place of honor the bedrock values handed down by families to serve as society’s compass.
Ronald Reagan, September 9, 1982

In the summer all the lights would shine/There’d be music playin’ people laughin’ all the time/Me and my sister we’d hide out in the tall cornfields/Sit and listen to the mansion on the hill.
Bruce Springsteen, “Mansion on the Hill”

…schools can avoid taking attendance [as a requirement for the receipt of] federal per-pupil monies. This last provision will put the farmworkers’ and coal miners’ children back to work without cost to local schools.
Mary C. Dunlap, The Sentinel (San Francisco), July 10, 1981. On the Family Protection Act, an Omnibus bill endorsed by Ronald Reagan

Now mister the day that lottery I win I ain’t never/Gonna ride in no used car again.
Bruce Springsteen, “Used Cars”

That we are created equal has never meant that Americans were supposed to live alike. What it does mean, what it has always meant, is that the citizens of this republic cannot be treated in law and by government as mere social and economic functions. Yet this is exactly how the Reaganites propose to treat the citizens of the commonwealth. The administration intends to bestow wealth upon the wealthy because it is their function to invest in productive enterprise. The administration intends to impoverish the poor because it is their function to perform menial services and not be a drag on investors…

What the Reaganites really care about is this: they want capitalism in America to become what Karl Marx thought it would be by nature—the transcendent force and the measure of all things, the power that reduces free politics to trifling, the citizen to a “worker,” the public realm to “the state,” the state to an instrument of repression protecting capitalism from the menace of liberty and equality… Marx’s description of capitalist society is the Rea­ganite prescription for America. That is the meaning of National Renewal.
Walter Karp, Harper’s, October 1981

I have interwoven lines from Bruce Springsteen’s new solo album with words on Ronald Reagan’s USA because any separation of the two would be a fraud. Nebraska (CBS)—recorded last January in Springsteen’s New Jersey living room with acoustic guitar and harmonica, with a bit of synthesizer and an occasional backing vocal added later—is the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance and refusal that Ronald Reagan’s USA has yet elicited, from any artist or any politician. Because Springsteen is an artist and not a politician, his resistance is couched in terms of the bleakest acceptance, his refusal presented as a refusal that does not know itself. There isn’t a trace of rhetoric, not a moment of polemic; politics are buried deep in stories of individuals who make up a nation only when their stories are heard together. But if we can hear their stories as a single, whole story, they cannot. The people we meet on Nebraska—the mass killer Charley Starkweather; a cop who lets his brother escape after a barroom killing; the kid who watches his father patronized by a used car salesman; the man who loses his job, gets drunk, shoots a night clerk, is given life and begs for death; the man who discards his beliefs and goes to work for the Mob; the mill workers who’ve grown up in the glow of the mill owner’s mansion—cannot give their lives a public dimension, because they are alone; because in a world in which men and women are mere social and economic functions, every man and woman is separated from every other.Two songs here outstrip anything Springsteen has written: the title tune, about Charley Starkweather (“From the town of/Lincoln, Nebraska/With a sawed-off .410/On my lap/Through the badlands/Of Wyoming/I killed every/Thing in my path”), and “Highway Patrolman.” With the voice Bob Dylan used in “With God on Our Side”—a young man’s voice with hundreds of years of unwanted knowledge in it—Springsteen’s patrolman, Joe Roberts, tells us who he is, what he does, what he’s about: “I always done an honest job/As honest as I could.” And then the story is twisted, just a bit, a turn at once off-hand and purely ominous: “I got a brother named Franky/And Franky ain’t no good.” With a timing too delicate to measure, Springsteen barely rushes the first two words of that last line—and then with the same sort of timing pulls back from the last three. The words curl; he hooks the story right in your heart, and then pulls slightly: not to reel you in just yet, simply to make sure the line is fast. The same grace is there in “Used Cars,” as the boy in the backseat watches the car salesman looking over his father’s hands, watches his mother nervously twisting her ring; it’s there when the music rises, almost secretly, as it becomes clear that generations of workers, not just one boy, will spend their lives in the shadow of the mansion on the hill.

The countless details of craft and compassion that underlie this album portray a world of desperately meaningless killings and state executions, a world in which honest work has been trivialized and honest goals reduced to a bet on the state-run lottery, in which the rich live as a different species, so far above the aspirations of ordinary people as to seem like gods. And it is a world in which blind faith in America, the subject of Springsteen’s brutally sardonic “Reason to Believe,” the last word of Nebraska, has become the cruelest ruse: the belief of a man standing over a dead dog that “if he stood there long enough/That dog’d get up and run.”

The only acts of rebellion presented on Nebraska have to do with murder. They are nihilistic acts committed by men in a world in which social and economic functions have become the measure of all things and have dissolved all other values. In that context, these acts make sense. And that is the burden of Nebraska.

Real Life Rock Top Ten

1. Au Pairs, Sense and Sensuality (Kamera import)
2. Ted Hawkins, Watch Your Step (Rounder)
3. Peter Gabriel, “Shock the Monkey” (Geffen)
4. Amy Heckerling, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Universal)
5. Arkansaw Man (Modern Masters 12″)
6. Yaz, Upstairs at Eric’s (Sire)
7. Nightingales, “Elvis—The Last Ten Days” (Cherry Red import)
8. Pulsallama, “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body” (Y America)
9. Ravyns, “Raised on the Radio” (Full Moon/ Asylum)
10. Don Henley, I Can’t Stand Still (Asylum)

California, November 1982