I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen fan for a long time, so when I had an opportunity to take a class based on his songs I couldn’t resist. The class in question was offered at SDSU and focused on a selection of Bruce’s earlier albums. The class and my classmates were wonderful. I’m not saying that to be polite – I was going through a rough patch of life at that time. Studying for class and engaging in lively debate were some of the best (and cheapest) healing tools I found.
The final project for the class was an in-depth analysis of a single album. My group was assigned Nebraska. It’s a sparse, dark album and the first album that Bruce did solo. We ended up creating a hypertextual Nebrasklopedia (encylopedia of the Nebraska album) and posting our project on line. I’m a bit biased, but I thought our project was one of the best in the class! You can judge for yourself by checking it out here:
I have included my favorite piece of my writing from the project below.
Big thanks to my collaborators on this: Pete Turner, Jim Ricker, Wayne Sottos, Zac Walsh and Travis McCauley. You guys rock it til the wee wee hours!
Reason to Believe
Reason to Believe is the final song on Nebraska, the end piece to Bruce’s dark, soul-searching journey and should give an indication of what he found at the end of the road. Perhaps this is why the interpretations of Reason to Believe are so starkly divided – critics and listeners are looking for one song to sum up the “meaning” behind an entire album. That is a lot to ask of any song, but Reason to Believe is an enigmatic powerhouse that lends itself to debate. For most, the question is whether Reason to Believe is a pessimistic or an optimistic summation of the album.
The song features a very measured, symmetrical structure: four images and four repetitions of the chorus. The images are balanced as well, alternating between the death of the dog in the road, Mary Lou being abandoned by Johnny (Johnny 99?), the death of Kyle William and the Groom being abandoned by his Bride. Even the abandonments are meted out equally, one to a man, one to a woman.
The first image, that of a man poking a dead dog with a stick, is shockingly graphic, especially considering the laconic, conversational tone of Bruce’s voice. The surprising nature of this image is effective. It strips away any romanticism or idealism behind the search for faith. A man poking at a corpse in a ditch is not a philosopher or a poet or a priest. He is one individual faced with and puzzled by inevitability of death. His response is to attempt to understand what is in front of him with his only tool at hand, a stick. Presented so plainly, mankind’s search for meaning is almost laughably inept.
The third image, that of the life and death of Kyle William, is equally powerful, if not as immediately shocking. Bruce sums up Kyle’s entire life in a mere four lines, so quickly that it is easy to miss “what passes in between the second line and the third – between life and death – is an entire lifetime, that the baby dunked into the water and the old man flung into the earth are the same person.” (Marsh, 373). This image also works to strip away the noise of everyday life, all those quotidian details that seem so pressing. Birth, sin and death are the most important matters in life, the only ones we pray that someone will “tell us what does it mean”.
The second and fourth images of Reason to Believe illustrate love offered and rejected. Mary Lou loved her man so much she would work for him every day. The Groom loved his gal so much he would marry her, commit himself to her for everyone to see. Offering love, offering yourself to another is perhaps one of the greatest acts of faith a person is capable of. Opening up to another person in this way requires faith that the person you love is not only decent enough to treat you fairly, but also has enough love and goodness in them to share it with you. When the offer of love is sincere and public, as are the offers of Mary Lou and The Groom, they render the offerer pitifully vulnerable. When these offers of love are rejected, there is no way to take them back or to erase them from the community’s memory. The broken heart must stand.
Proponents of the pessimistic reading of Reason to Believe say that the unexplained death and rejected love in the four verses indicate that the chorus of the song is a dark joke.
Struck me kind a funny, seem kind a funny, sir,
Still at the end of every hard-earned day people
find some reason to believe
In Two Hearts Dave Marsh says reads the chorus as staring down “all of Bruce’s Rock n’ Roll idealism and mocks it’s certainty” (Marsh, 372). He argues that if the chorus is an affirmation, it is an affirmation of nothingness, since each of the song’s images offer no explanations and no hope. The possibility of redemption/resurrection – the idea and magic behind so many of Bruce’s earlier songs – is symbolized here by a dead dog. Stripped of its romanticism the ideas of redemption and rebirth are ridiculous, bizarre and foolhardy. Faith in your fellow man is symbolized by the love offered by Mary Lou and The Groom, both of whom are burned for believing that this world and the people in it will treat them decently. They are wounded and publicly humiliated for believing that love is possible. In the pessimistic read of this song there is no reason to believe. For the lost souls of Nebraska “it’s all over but the shrouding” (Marsh, 370).
The optimistic reading of Reason to Believe takes the chorus at its word and believes that it is an affirmation of mankind’s relentless ability to find hope where there seems to be none. True, the four images in the song are dark and bleak, but they still embody faith. The man with the dog is still trying to understand death. He hasn’t given up his search. The congregation at the graveyard is mourning the death of Kyle, but they are still asking for answers, praying together as a community and trying to figure out what is all means. Even the rejected lovers still believe that they will have love again. They haven’t left the driveway or the riverside. They are keeping themselves open to the possibility that they can have their desires satisfied in this life. No one in this song has given up or accepted the nihilistic conclusion that life is pointless. The characters in this song still have clear dreams and desires.
These personal, improbable hopes are, in fact, what define the characters in Reason to Believe. Of the seven characters mentioned in the song (man, dog, Mary Lou, Johnny, Kyle, congregation, groom, preacher, bride) Bruce gives only three of them proper names and gives none of them physical or social features like descriptions of their looks, their jobs, their cars or their homes. Four of the characters, – the man, the groom, the preacher and the bride – are almost archetypal in their simplicity. They could be anyone, even you at some point in your life. Springsteen’s thrift with detail in this song points us to what is most important in it: that each character still possesses and is defined by their belief.
In researching this song, I found myself reading “Reason to Believe” in a way that didn’t focus on whether the ultimate message was pessimistic or optimistic. I kept listening to and reading the chorus and being reminded of Bruce’s influences: the blues, Hank Williams, the idea of the American Dream. I kept coming back to The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s writings about the American Dream. Finally, I found a Fitzgerald quote from a letter to his daughter that allowed me to tie my ideas together. He wrote that he had a “sense that life is essentially a cheat and that it’s conditions are those of defeat and the redeeming satisfactions are not ‘happiness and pleasure’, but the deeper satisfactions that come out of the struggle” (Marcus, 23). Achieving the dream couldn’t buy Gatsby his happiness. It was only through struggle that he was able to define himself and the same could be true for artists like Robert Johnson or Hank Williams. Their music is linked by the fact that it is about struggle, not success, not failure, not hope. By the time Bruce recorded Nebraska his music was about struggle as well. In one sense it was about personal struggle – the struggle to define himself as an artist, to continue to grow as a musician, to keep his lyrics and themes from stagnating (as happened to Elvis and so many other legends), to see if he could have a career as a solo performer, away from the band that had become his family. But in another sense, it was about a larger struggle – the struggle everyone faces – to find a job, a community, safety, love, some kind of order and sense to life. There is no way to outrun these problems; there is nothing to be done.
The conclusion that struggle is the only thing we can be guaranteed out of life, however, is not completely bleak if we can find some pleasure in that struggle. Music about the struggle is a pleasure. Dark songs, bleak songs, songs about loneliness, despair, failure, isolation and the devil snappin’ at your heels do describe pain so well that they make them even more real, but they also take away some of the sting of those hurts. Musicians like Bruce show us that beauty and order, in the form of the music they write and sing, can come from fear, terror and ugliness. That is, in itself, a miracle and a reason to believe.