Image source: brucespringsteen.net
It’s Ash Wednesday, and I’ve been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska lately. Which is appropriate, IMO.
I was a DJ at my college radio station in the late 1980’s. We played R.E.M. and the Smiths and the Silos and Jane’s Addiction. As the vinyl spun we’d sit in the studio and talk music. On many points we were, as a group, in full agreement: Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues was a masterpiece; R.E.M. was better when you couldn’t understand Michael Stipe’s lyrics; the world needed more Replacements and less Lionel Richie; Kevn Kinney’s red Mosrite was badass.
But when it came to Springsteen, I was alone. This was, you must know, during the years just following the galactic-scale commercial success of Born in the U.S.A. It had been four or five solid years that you could not turn on the radio without hearing the title track, or “Cover Me,” or “Darlington County,” or “Dancing in the Dark.” Never mind that Tunnel of Love, a distinctly low-key and introspective album, had been released in the midst of those years. My friends at WPLS would have none of it. The Boss was Way Commercial. Which meant he was Way Not Cool.
I would not be moved. As a freshman at Young Harris College I had discovered Nebraska. Maybe it was the confluence of that music and that place, but Nebraska made me a Springsteen fan for life. Here was music that was intimate, astute, haunting, and pessimistic (in the best philosophical sense). It was sensitive yet extremely hard-edged. It resonated with my loneliness in a way that made me feel less, well, lonely.
The thing is, Nebraska made such an impression on me that to this day I can’t listen to any Springsteen song without hearing Nebraska pushing its way up through the drums and guitars. Even let’s-get-it-on party songs like “Pink Cadillac” and drenched-in-hope rockers like “What Love Can Do” carry for me, somewhere near their centers, the frustration so evident in “Used Cars,” the biting irony of “Reason to Believe,” or the stark loss of “My Father’s House.” This is why I defended Born in the U.S.A. at the radio station, but I didn’t (couldn’t?) articulate this at the time.
But with Nebraska the note of loss is exposed, naked really. There’s no hiding it. It’s right there. It can be hard to listen to at times, but other times not so much.
This all fits because Ash Wednesday is that day of the Christian year when nakedness is on the agenda. It’s about taking the varnish off, as a pastor friend of mine used to say. No fig leaves, no disguises, no distractions. It’s the season in which we’re called to consider the terrible truth of our lives. It’s when we are called to acknowledge, in the words of “Atlantic City,” that “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.”
Nebraska helps me remember that as Christians, our number one job is to die. That’s all we have to do, really, in a hundred different ways. And faith, I suppose, is trusting God to do the rest.