“Nebraska is raw, primitive, ancient, other-worldly, spiritual, nihilistic, heartbreaking, horrifying and a whole bunch of other things that come to you like apparitions whenever you enter its province (ideally under cover of darkness).” ― David Burke, Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
Certain things just aren’t supposed to happen. We’d never seen something so ordinary twisted into something so ugly. Certain people and institutions aren’t supposed to be punished for the sins of one individual. When and if they do come, the metaphorical chickens are meant to roost home-adjacent, not inside the walls of the baby’s nursery. – Andy Greenwald of Grantland on Breaking Bad’s ‘Ozymandias.’
As a fanatic of AMC’s Breaking Bad, and who isn’t these days right, a pop-culture connection gut-punched me at the end of last week’s penultimate episode when Walter White, turned runaway alias from his spiritually decrepit Heisenberg alias, sat at a bar in New Hampshire resigned to capture and ordered his Dimple Pinch whiskey neat. I could hear in my head the narration of highway patrolman Joe Roberts from Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska.
After discovering that his often-troubled brother had beat a man hard at a local bar, Joe jumps in his patrol car and hits his lights but in the end, after a high-speed chase, he lets his brother go, pulling over watching his blood brother’s tail lights disappear. It’s his sin, but he places family in front of duty and is subjected to whatever that means. Then like a flash wave the inescapable down spiraling of Mr. White kept making covalent bonds in the synapses of my brain to other songs from that record. I started from the beginning…
In the title track and opener, “Nebraska,” a murderer, based on the real-life Charlie Starkweather, is asked why he committed his awful crimes and he responds, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
And then there’s “Atlantic City,“ and at this point I was overwhelmed with the connection, the chemistry between this television show and album. Bad decisions emerging from poor conditions escalated by further corruption. Violence is sewn and the character has surpassed the breaking point and made his call. “Everything dies, baby that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.” Later the man explains to his woman why he’s broke bad. “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line. Well I’m tired of comin’ out on the losin’ end. So honey last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a little favor for him.”
A part of me has always pulled for that guy from “Atlantic City,” but maybe if I knew the rest of his story that would change. What’s that favor? What line gets crossed and justified in his mind. I used to pull for Walter White as a pork pie hat-wearing symbol of vigilante justice, but no more. He’s got to pay for his wrongs… But will he? It’s open-ended just like so many of the hard scrabble songs on Nebraska.
The idea of family, and the notion of its moral hierarchy is a prominent theme in the crystal-blue-persuaded world of Walter’s mind. Through all of his misdeeds and thought-out crimes he rested against the sovereignty of having done it all for his family. But there’s the truth of a long-ago planted seed that manifested itself late in his story. The one of Grey Matter and how he sold out his share and was left to the life of a humble chemistry teacher. This truth burns him, is the catalyst for his ability to push himself to become the infamous Heisenberg, one in the business of empire making, and sends him onward to one last return to the desert lands.
With this comes “Mansion on the Hill,“ a song that shows the reflections of a grown man thinking of his sister and father and admiring a nearby mansion in which everything seemed so promising. “In the day you can see the children playing on the road that leads to those gates of hardened steel. Steel gates that completely surround sir, the mansion on the hill.” The man here has memories of being closed off from something that appeared so beautiful, I think of Walter paying $10,000 just for an hour of someone’s company. I also think of Jesse alone in that big home he forced his parents out of and the disconnect between what is imagined and what often lies on the other side of hardened-steel gates.
“Johnny 99…” Ralph didn’t get cancer but he lost his job and couldn’t find another. He took to drinking, got a gun shot a night clerk, ran into a hard judge that let the sentence fit the crime and sentenced him to prison for 98 and a year. Ralph killed a man in cold blood but his proclamations to the court as his crying girlfriend is hauled away almost make you understand the desperation. His plea haunts me as I think of how Walter ruminates over his prior convictions on his long drive back to the home he’s lost and forsaken with the echo of his only son incredulous as to why he hasn’t died yet.
Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead
And if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head
Then won’t you sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time
And let ‘em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line
Moving on and there’s the economic spite of the man in “Used Cars” who wishes his dad would honk the horn of their brand new used car in order to tell all their neighbors to kiss their asses goodbye. In what seems like a lifetime ago, Walter had gotten Jr. a brand new ride, and a sweet one at that and there was a sense of vindication, but the catch here and there’s always one with this album and this show, is that it wasn’t earned – at least not legally and was based on Walter’s lies and deception.
My Father’s House speaks of the disconnect between father and son, a divide that seems will never be breached. Whatever becomes of Walter, there are sins that will forever lie unatoned. “I walked up the steps and stood on the porch a woman I didn’t recognize came and spoke to me through a chained door. I told her my story, and who I’d come for. She said “I’m sorry, son, but no one by that name lives here anymore.”
And this leads us to an end we already know that might provide clues to one we don’t. “Reason to Believe” runs us through several scenarios in which the singer is left wondering, in spite of everything, how people are left with hope. A groom is abandoned, a man is standing over his dead dog incredulous that it’s gone, poking it with a stick. An old man passes away, a baby gets baptized. Why? Why do they bother and where does the source of their faith come from? These are not the questions to be answered for Walter but they are what’s left to be pondered for those left in the wake of his monstrous deeds.