I scraped the snow from the December -beaten car this morning, opened the door, sat down in the driver’s seat, stuck the keys in, just sat there. For a couple of minutes, there was no traffic, no sound: a pre-industrial peace. This calm stillness was pricked, suddenly, by a rush of fierce thoughts and blurred, threatening memories and I quickly scrabbled around for some music to put on. I stuck Nebraska in the CD player, wondering briefly why this was the first time I’d listened to it for years, wondering when I’d actually bought a CD of it, wondering if the heater was ever going to start working, wondering if Springsteen had ever driven a bloody Seat Leon. I put off turning the key a little longer, just sat there, shivering, as song followed song, as the thoughts and memories shifted and as, slowly and surely, a misty, twisted, echoing cloud of tired, sick ghosts eased into the car with me: young people whose zest and fire was long-ago extinguished by the adult world’s sly envy; unemployed middle-aged men who’d worked all their lives for family and self-respect and their country; lovers whose joy in each other had turned to pity and alienation; coppers and criminals whose ideals had disappeared in nights of need and desperation; women whose love and desires and heat had been suffocated, petrified. I turned to look at all these familiar strangers, felt an angry, insistent guitar slice through me and I thought: this is the soundtrack to our future. For what seemed like hours, I didn’t move, just listened, still cold but OK with it until, halfway through Johnny 99, I brought myself back, took a deep breath, turned the engine on and drove us all off, carefully, down sharp-white, funereal roads towards our English town.
The first time I heard the album, nearly thirty years ago, its deep-dark cry struck me as a violent, doomed, beautiful thing. Originally a collection of shadowed, bleak and intimate demos intended to help Springsteen develop proper songs for the E Street Band, a brave, contrary and magnificent decision was made to release them pretty much as was- raw and immediate. Pleading, moaning and whispering melodies, potent, dead-end stories of working-class pain and striving, guitars that ferociously, crudely pounded on blues and folk and a melancholic rock ‘n’roll: all formed a whole that was tough, alienated, despairing, complete, a planet away from our expectations.
Back then, Nebraska carried messages from the Badlands to North London that had little of the redemptive uplift of a lot of his previous stuff and none of the crass bombast or rocky emptiness he would so easily slip into. It demanded we confront the fact that things for a lot of people were shit, that somehow they carried on, stoic and dreamless, their hopes long gone, stolen by bankers and politicians and husbands and wives and friends and neighbours. These ten old/new songs let us know that there was a man of our time who wanted to tell these universal stories, wanted to use his talent and fame and passion to rage at injustice, to illustrate the ways we’re all connected, to show America to itself: occasionally with hope but always without sentimentality or any certainty that things could improve. There was an overwhelming, bitter message here that this was it, this was The Truth- take it or leave it…
This morning, listening to Springsteen’s sad, yearning harmonica, I felt the album’s original, haunting power shift and spin and harden, my own vanished years and histories and intimations of mortality insinuating themselves into my responses. Some of the ghosts merged, one or two disappeared altogether, a few metamorphosed into something new and, as time wrapped round itself, I felt colder and warmer simultaneously, both pushed away from and pulled into the fierceness of this ancient thing. I became uncertain for a while if I loved it anymore- wasn’t convinced I ever had- and, when it was all over, I realised it’ll be another year or two before I can listen to it again.
I will go back to Nebraska, though: it’s part of me. Right now, I feel I need the thrill of Motown or the optimism of Bob Marley to blow the seductive hopelessness away. But the ghosts, I know, are looking over my shoulder as I write this, some of them out there, still, roaming the empty streets. And the forecast said it’s going to be another freezing night.