Whenever I hear this song, I’m reminded of a movie.
Back in the Seventies, director Terrence Malick produced Badlands, from where I sit one of the greatest films ever made. It’s a visually gorgeous and unexpectedly poetic account of the cross-country killing spree of a couple of otherwise unremarkable young lovers, played by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. Malick’s inspiration was the murderous saga of Charles Starkweather, who killed eleven people in Nebraska and Wyoming over a short stretch of just a couple of months in the late 1950s, teenaged girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in tow. In the film, the protagonists are little people set against a vast, empty landscape that’s as flat and featureless as the open ocean on a calm day, him gunning his way mercilessly toward the only sort of fame he’s ever going to attain, her along for the ride as an almost neutral observer, and a model of dull affect. She describes her feelings at one point as being “kinda blah, like when you’re sittin’ there, and all the water’s run out of the bathtub”. The final act of the movie has them on the run, tearing across the badlands of Montana in a stolen Cadillac, moving fast and seeming to go nowhere, surrounded on all sides by this:
Sheen’s character, “Kit”, might be a dangerous predator, but he’s still over-awed by his societal betters. You can sense this when, in an interlude little short of surreal, the two of them take a break from being on the lam, and carry out a home invasion of a “rich man’s house”, aiming to stock up on food and sundries. He and “Holly”, Spacek’s character, wander around the house like little kids, wide-eyed at the trappings of wealth. They try out sitting in the ornate chairs. They take a turn at the big dining room table, while Holly rubs the rim of a leaded crystal goblet to hear it sing. Kit parks for a while at the rich man’s desk and plays with his Dictaphone, trying to record something profound for posterity. When they reckon it’s time to leave, you expect Kit to kill the wealthy homeowner, held captive throughout, since after all, Kit kills just about everybody that crosses his path. Instead, the “rich man” is locked in a closet with his maid. It’s as if Kit feels that somehow, you don’t just up and kill somebody who lives that high on the totem pole, it just isn’t done. It’s almost like a sub-conscious, instinctive deference. Those are the people whose respect he craves, and never gets.
In 1982, Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska, an incomparably bleak collection of what were originally intended to be demos, recorded at home on cassette, just Bruce and his guitar, telling the stories of small people desperate for a break. One look at the album cover and I felt like I was back with Kit in his stolen Cadillac, on a long road through the badlands going nowhere:
In a lot of the songs we hear a voice not so different from Kit’s, less pathological, but just as small, just as unimportant to anybody that matters, and sometimes just as flat and matter-of-fact. The one that grabs me most powerfully is Reason to Believe. Springsteen often writes from the perspective of small-time hustlers and grifters, and in my mind’s eye the narrator of Reason to Believe is one of those, maybe under interrogation in a small room somewhere, maybe in a little trouble, referring to his listener as “sir” as if by reflex, ever mindful of his obligation to pay due deference. It’s like he’s talking to someone off camera, while the conversation comes around to how he just doesn’t understand where people find hope, or how they manage to persist when hope runs counter to what’s obvious:
Seen a man standin’ over a dead dog
lyin’ by the highway in a ditch
He’s lookin’ down kinda puzzled
pokin’ that dog with a stick
Got his car door flung open
he’s standin’ out on Highway 31
Like if he stood there long enough
that dog’d get up and run
Struck me kinda funny
seemed kinda funny, sir, to me
Still at the end of every hard day
people find some reason to believe
You see it all the time, sir, don’t you? Abandoned women who can’t believe that Johnny isn’t coming back. Some stiff left jilted at the altar, who must have been nuts to think that girl really loved him. People full of hope who get their kids baptized – man, those kids are likely going to die alone in some shotgun shack. When that time comes, they’ll lay them in the ground while everybody prays, doing them about as much good as it did when everybody mumbled prayers back when they were little kids, and some priest trickled water on their heads. Perhaps the good Lord could tell us what it means.
He’s not angry at anybody, he’s not even frustrated, and he’s not asking when the poor slobs are going to wake up and smell the pile of crap they’re standing in. He’s just sayin’. No matter what, they still believe. Maybe he envies them.
For years I wondered, did Springsteen see Badlands? The movie is full of little moments that Bruce could have scripted. Kit, warned by his girlfriend’s father to stay the Hell away from the girl, backing away respectfully, apparently without rancour, saying only that “it takes all kinds, sir.” The two fugitives out in the middle of nowhere, bickering about something until Kit gives in with a flat and ambivalent “well, I’m not sayin’ I know”. Holly, in voice-over, relating how when she got bored with Kit, she stopped listening, and spelled out whole sentences with her tongue on the roof of her mouth, where nobody would ever read them. Kit, working as a garbage man, staring down bemusedly at a dead dog that somebody put out with the trash. “I’ll give you a dollar to eat that collie” he says to his co-worker, who doesn’t seem to think that’s a strange thing to say. “I wouldn’t eat it for a dollar”, he answers, as if he might for a little more, “and I don’t think that’s a collie neither…it’s some kind of dog though”. Some kind of dog, thrown out in the garbage. I saw a man standin’ over a dead dog.
These are Springsteen’s sort of characters. They seem imbued with a sort of detached fatalism. They don’t have much to say, and nobody would listen if they did. They’re used to life on the bottom rung, swimming in boredom and banality. They aren’t noble. They’re just people, none too bright maybe, but they might have been able to do better than this, if they ever got a fair shake. They know the score, though: by the rules, they belong at the bottom of the heap, that’s just how it works, and you just have to accept that none of your betters are there to cut you a break, or leave you with something to feel proud about. Of course, the downtrodden folk who populate Bruce’s songs are usually much more sympathetic, and often still have hopes of busting out of their current ruts, like the characters in Meeting Across the River, Atlantic City, and Thunder Road. Still, they’re made out of a lot of the same stuff as Kit and Holly, and even in his love songs they sound a lot like Kit to me. Take this from I’m on Fire:
Sometimes it’s like
someone took a knife, baby,
edgy and dull,
and cut a six-inch valley
through the middle of my skull
At night I wake up
with the sheets soaking wet
and a freight train running
through the middle of my head
In Badlands, there’s a scene with Kit lying awake on a bed, his eyes fixed and glazed over, while Holly’s narration relates how when he’s awake at night, he hears a constant roar like somebody is holding a seashell up to his ear.
It’s all about the class system we like to pretend doesn’t exist, when you get right down to it. That’s what Springsteen writes about, and that’s a large part of what Malick’s movie was about, too. About ten years after Badlands was released, a scholar named Elliott Leyton produced what’s come to be regarded as a classic psychological study of mass murderers, Hunting Humans. He has a chapter about Starkweather. Leyton’s conclusion is what Malick had already communicated with eloquent clarity on film: mass killings are very often a kind of class warfare. It’s revenge against the people that hog the top of the pyramid, often displaced and meted out on the wrong targets, but revenge nonetheless. Keep enough people down, and let them stew in a culture that glorifies violence, grants fame to mass murderers, fetishizes guns, and romanticizes loners who aren’t going to take it anymore, and look what you get.
You get the feeling this is something Springsteen would understand. The plight of the common people from the wrong side of the tracks isn’t merely unjust. It’s dangerous.
In a way, there are two Springsteens. One writes thundering stadium rock tailor-made to get people out of their seats, and the other writes quiet, contemplative vignettes of people leading mournful and often desperate lives. There might seem to be a world of difference between Reason to Believe and, say, Born to Run, and there is, musically, but no matter how he writes it, Springsteen is always writing about the same thing. His concern is for the little guy, and all the crap he’s put through by those above him, whether that’s losing a job, watching his beloved home town corrode into Rust Belt dust, or being sent to fight a pointless war in some jungle or god-forsaken third world sandlot. He writes songs about guys who work border patrol, and guys whose wives stopped loving them a long time ago. Sometimes they’re resigned, sometimes they’re determined to take a chance, but they’re all starting behind the 8-ball, one way or another. They all sound real. I can’t think of anybody else who’s so determined to tell their stories, not since Woody Guthrie, anyway.
Nebraska, its songs as cheerless as its cover photo, isn’t for the faint of heart; but Bruce knows, and a large enough part of the public seems to have appreciated, that sometimes you have to take an unblinking look at reality and tell it like it is, and the truth is, a lot of the time it’s desolate and brutally unfair.
Last year, I read Springsteen’s autobiography, and sure enough, he cites the films of Malick as part of his inspiration for Nebraska.
Of course, prior to that he also had a song titled Badlands, off the album Darkness on the Edge of Town.