written and recorded alone at a rented house in rural COLTS NECK, NEW JERSEY after the conclusion of a long tour in support of THE RIVER (COLUMBIA, 1980), BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's NEBRASKA (COLUMBIA, 1982) is a masterful turning point in his evolution as a songwriter and observer of AMERICAN life. at this point in his career SPRINGSTEEN was already an ICON, arguably the most CELEBRATED singer-songwriter since BOB DYLAN (with all due respect to NEIL YOUNG, STEVIE WONDER, JOHN FOGERTY and JONI MITCHELL). he'd made a string of successful records with his E STREET BAND companions that thoughtfully penetrated and examined the AMERICAN PSYCHE, but he found himself at a CROSSROADS both personally and professionally. if anything his all-encompassing fame and notoriety left him feeling ISOLATED and DETACHED from society. maybe its easier in this digital era of social media AVATARS to consider how DISILLUSIONING it must have felt to become socially trapped by a PUBLIC PERSONA you fought to create but is now out of step with your own sense of IDENTITY.
for me that SELF-REALIZATION is what makes NEBRASKA such an INTRIGUING album. its a STRIPPED-BACK affair that was recorded alone utilizing a handheld TASCAM PORTASTUDIO (meant for recording interviews) and a pair of industry standard SHURE SM57 microphones in a guest bedroom. it was in essence LO-FI before the LO-FI aesthetic was a thing. standout tracks include "STATE TROOPER," "ATLANTIC CITY," "JOHNNY 99," "REASON TO BELIEVE" and the title track "NEBRASKA." all starkly deal thematically with the DOWN-AND-OUT and petty criminality that besets DOWNTRODDEN characters with no resources and no hope for the future. in other words NEBRASKA is basically the antipodal perspective of the OPTIMISM and faith in middle-class values that marked most of SPRINGSTEEN's earlier work. the title track itself is written from the perspective of a death row inmate looking back over their life, partly inspired by the debut BADLANDS (WARNER BROS, 1973) film by TERRENCE MALICK. that film was a fictional account of the real-life 1958 murder spree of CHARLES STARKWEATHER and his girlfriend in rural NEBRASKA, one of which was conducted seemingly out of BOREDOM. the NEBRASKA album cover itself with its bleak, black-and-white dashboard depiction of a lonely snowy road makes one consider where the viewer is headed towards or away from. its INTERESTING that this is one of the few major records in his catalogue that doesnt trade on SPRINGSTEEN's looks or physique on the cover, the other notably being his debut WELCOME TO ASBURY PARK, N.J. (COLUMBIA, 1973). the focus with NEBRASKA is unquestionably on the ETERNAL MORAL CROSSROADS that SPRINGSTEEN, our country and even the listener find themselves trapped within.
no E STREET BAND, no production and arguably no hope. it is INCREDIBLE that this album (which is arguably a demo) even exists and was made to be released on a major record label, especially after SPRINGSTEEN's recent more outwardly PERFORMATIVE and sonically DECORATIVE affairs. NEBRASKA is definitely my favorite SPRINGSTEEN record and one that people interested in the power of songwriting and songwriters should take note of. i consider it in the tradition of all the great folk and blues songwriters from ROBERT JOHNSON and LEADBELLY to WOODY GUTHRIE, JOHNNY CASH, BOB DYLAN and beyond. definitely worth checking out.
back in the 1980s there was a distinct cultural moment were everyone got excited over bloated charity singles that often featured a chorus of god-knows-how-many notable artists singing in unison. two that come immediately to mind was the MICHAEL JACKSON/LIONEL RITCHIE-penned "WE ARE THE WORLD" (COLUMBIA, 1985) for USA FOR AFRICA (over 45 POP musicians) and the RONNIE JAMES DIO-penned "STARS" (POLYGRAM, 1986) for HEAR 'N AID (made up of over 40 prominent METAL musicians), both of which raised funds for famine relief in ETHIOPIA. buying these singles was less about musical enjoyment, since the songs were objectively horrendous, and more a form of altruism. although it begs one to wonder why the artists just didnt advocate for direct funds as there is no doubt corporate record companies made a pillaging off these recordings.
enter STEVEN VAN ZANDT.
during this period he had recently departed BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN's infamous E-STREET BAND right at the cusp of the release of what would become their commercial breakthrough BORN IN THE U.S.A. (COLUMBIA, 1984) record. at the time a journalist friend that had reported on the horrors of APARTHEID in SOUTH AFRICA suggested he write a protest song as a charity-style single. at the time it was still deemed acceptable for prominent musicians to perform at the SUN CITY resort/casino in SOUTH AFRICA. in fact prominent acts at the time such as QUEEN, FRANK SINATRA, ELTON JOHN, LIZA MINELLI, ROD STEWART and LINDA RONSTADT had done just that to their own shame in retrospect. the "SUN CITY" (EMI, 1985) single took aim at the resort specifically and the regime and its racist power structure politically at a time that the UNITED STATES still supported it. even in retrospect its a pretty bold and impressive statement, even if the song is a little bland. participating artists in the ARTISTS UNITED AGAINST APARTHEID activist protest group (who similarly took a vow not play in SOUTH AFRICA until the abolishment of APARTHEID) included the likes of BOB DYLAN, GEORGE CLINTON (PARLIAMENT FUNKADELIC), BOBBY WOMACK, LOU REED (THE VELVET UNDERGROUND), RAY BARETTO, RUN-DMC, KEITH RICHARDS (THE ROLLING STONES), JIMMY CLIFF, BONO (U2), HERBIE HANCOCK, GIL SCOTT-HERON, PETER GABRIEL, HALL & OATES, KURTIS BLOW, STIV BATORS (THE DEAD BOYS), AFRIKA BAMBAATAA, RINGO STARR (THE BEATLES), BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and JOEY RAMONE (THE RAMONES) among many other JAZZ, R&B, ROCK N ROLL and early HIP HOP luminaries. PAUL SIMON was offered and declined participation due to his friendship with LINDA RONSTADT and the fact that he was then working on his GRACELAND (WARNER BROS, 1986) album at the time with SOUTH AFRICAN musicians, of which he has received (well-founded) criticism ever since for cultural appropriation. that recording was also in violation of UNITED NATIONS cultural boycott against APARTHEID. so there is that.
in this digital era we are all too comfortable with the idea of charity telethons and hashtag activism getting the word out on efforts to encourage fundraising for disaster relief efforts or the victims of the latest international tragedy. its part of the fabric of how our capitalist society functions at this point. but an activist single that take aim at altering AMERICAN foreign policy stances with regards to one of its allies. that i cannot find another example to compare. its a complete anomaly. and a singular achievement for all those involved, especially VAN ZANDT.
fuck PAUL SIMON.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
JOSH FREESE is renowned as a studio musician of the first order having recorded and/or toured with the likes of everyone from A PERFECT CIRCLE, STING, NINE INCH NAILS, PARAMORE, THE REPLACEMENTS, WEEZER and GUNS N ROSES to BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and QUEENS OF THE STONE AGE. and that credits list literally goes on. and on. but id argue that primarily he is known as the longstanding drummer of both the LOS ANGELES PUNK ROCK band THE VANDALS and the legendary NEW WAVE band DEVO.
less known or celebrated are his solo records and the one-off songs hes done over the past few years. they are often very brief, super catchy and hilarious. they are also normally off-the-cuff affairs with an almost FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE-esque POWER POP sense of melodicism and pop construction that seem designed to primarily embarrass his friends or make an ass of himself.
FREESE is an uber-talented musician that is literally capable of anything. i just love the fact that when he chooses to write and release his own material that it literally has nothing to do with his day job in tone or demeanor. definitely an artist worth checking out.
im writing this review having completed the book on election night 2020 still unsure of how we proceed as a nation. we are at a crossroads that very much reflects our where we are as a nation and what we value. it very much feels like the soul of AMERICA is up for grabs, or whatever is left after four years of TRUMP.
its interesting because these are the types of all-or-nothing existential stakes that inform the songwriting perspective of legendary musician and NEW JERSEY's favorite son, BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN as expressed in his autobiography BORN TO RUN (SIMON & SCHUSTER, 2016). he is one of those unique songwriters that is able to collapse the personal into the political without diminishing either, in fact their collision empowers the music with a definite edge that marks his best work in the tradition of BOB DYLAN, PETE SINGER, HANK WILLIAMS and others in the FOLK and early COUNTRY narrative traditions. but make no mistake he is also a ROCK AND ROLL lifer, part of a generation that was old enough to be of age for the BRITISH INVASION and appreciate the BLUES forebears that preceded (when they were still alive and touring late career), as well as take not of later revolutions like the PUNKS, HIP HOP and beyond. there is a definite narrative to his music that parallels that of his family, his relationships, his evolving sense of national and masculine identity and his status as an AMERICAN.
what i take from this book is his preternatural ability to self-evaluate and have the confidence and courage to trust his sense of self. that compass doesnt always do him well, flawed as it is by a self-identity plagued and complicated by a childhood marked with a absentee father prone to fits of outburst and isolation. this left a son that was left to believe that love and affection were conditional and needed to be earned. it almost feels like a metaphor for the payoff of performance in general. what i admire is his ability to look inside and write about themes and people he knew, making organic connections with a local NEW JERSEY audience. throughout BORN TO RUN he acknowledges his limitations as a vocalist but such only motivated him to double down on his craft with blue collar workmanlike zeal. his success was earned with blood and sweat.
now full disclosure: i live in NEW JERSEY. i am a child of CALIFORNIA and have lived abroad for more than a decade (NIGERIA, KUWAIT, ALBANIA, MYANMAR, CYPRUS, VENEZUELA and JAPAN), but since the age of twelve the only geographical constant were the summers i spent staying with relatives along the JERSEY SHORE and later relocated to LONG BRANCH and MIDDLETOWN. it just so happens that such are ground-zero for the story of SPRINGSTEEN. i have cousins that have lived in FREEHOLD and SEA BRIGHT and have had coworkers and friends that had apartments in NEPTUNE CITY, BRADLEY BEACH, BELMAR and ASBURY PARK. for me one of the great pleasures of this book, much like reading or learning about local film director KEVIN SMITH, is learning the history of my adopted home of NEW JERSEY.
for me SPRINGSTEEN is a shaman who slips out beyond the ether and through mysterious sets of divinations produces tangible visions of ourselves as a nation, worts and all, set to a melody. it is a service he continues to provide. we are riding copilot with the king, the boss, as he circumnavigates our national psyche and the complicated emotions that abound. he provides a sense of a better future while taking not of the very real NOW.
on election day with a future undetermined his work feels more relevant than ever. everything is up for grabs. all the marbles. just like his music.
this is a phenomenally crafted book that is among the better written autobiographies by a musician that i have ye to come across. there is a lyrical bent to his prose that is deeply personal and right up there with that of LIFE by KEITH RICHARDS (review linked HERE). BORN TO RUN is definitely worth your time and investment, even if you are not an adopted son of NEW JERSEY.