I saw her standing on her front porch just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride, sir, and ten innocent people died.
This could be the world’s shortest crime novel. It’s terse, evocative, quirky, and sinister. It’s also the opening couplet of Bruce Springsteen’s song “Nebraska,” which chronicles Charles Starkweather’s infamous 1958 murder spree. In the course of his long, high-profile troubadour career, “The Boss” has repeatedly put his pen and guitar to tales of criminality and mayhem. Whether the act is one of all-out evil as in “Nebraska,” or one of petty thievery born of despair, Springsteen’s narratives explore what occurs when someone takes that wrong branch of the road. The Starkweather character goes on to suggest a motive for his actions that, to varying degrees, holds true for many of Springsteen’s lawbreakers:
They declared me unfit to live.
Said into that great void my soul be hurled.
They wanted to know why I did what I did.
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Though Starkweather’s claim of life’s “meanness” comes off as particularly ingenuous and sordid, numerous Springsteen characters are led into wrongdoing by bad breaks and harsh situations. In “Straight Time,” for example, the lure of crime is presented as an ever present temptation for an ex-con:
Got a job at the rendering plant, it ain’t gonna make me rich.
In the darkness before dinner comes
Sometimes I can feel the itch…
My uncle’s at the evenin’ table, makes his living runnin’ hot cars
Slips me a hundred dollar bill says
“Charlie you best remember who your friends are.”
Now, without question, Bruce’s repertoire is certainly not limited to high crimes and misdemeanors. His love songs are legion, as are his joyous rollick-cause-you’re-alive asskickers. And not all his dirges are felonious—some acknowledge the hardships of life without having the characters wander into outlaw territory.
That said, there’s still a heap of misbehavior to be found in Springsteen’s lyrics. A partial rundown of indictable activities includes homicide, armed robbery, organized crime, meth cooking, drug smuggling, border jumping, prostitution, carjacking, and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. Even his arguably best known rock anthem, “Born in the U.S.A.,” has crime as its narrative kick-off. Often mistaken for some swaggering nationalistic boast, it’s actually a lament (admittedly a raucous one) with a protagonist who, facing undisclosed charges, accepts military service as an alternative to jail: Got in a little hometown jam/ So they put a rifle in my hand. In another moody rocker, “Johnny 99,” we see Springsteen’s ongoing theme of hard times and hopelessness leading to a criminal act. (The title comes from the judge’s sentence, Prison for 98 and a year and we'll call it even Johnny 99.) The lyrics are sparse and edgy:
Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine
He got a gun, shot a night clerk, now they call him Johnny 99.
Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop
Johnny’s wavin’ his gun around and threatenin’ to blow his top
When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind
Out in front of the Club Tip Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99.
Imagine that packaged with a lurid pulp cover—a la Mickey Spillane maybe.
For the opening of “Atlantic City,” Springsteen again draws from the headlines:
Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night.
Now they blew up his house too.
Down on the boardwalk they’re gettin’ ready for a fight.
Gonna see what them racket boys can do.
These lines refer to the March 1981 killing of Mafia boss Philip Testa, known, yes, as “The Chicken Man” or, more grandly, “the Julius Caesar of Philadelphia.” Though, as in many Springsteen ballads, it’s not the lot of the career criminal that takes center stage here, but rather the bad choices of its downtrodden, desperate narrator.
As in “Johnny 99”—and, in fact, countless Springsteen’s songs in general—it’s busted luck, unemployment, and a dead-end mindset that push a presumably good man into a dark place:
Now, I been lookin’ for a job, but it’s hard to find.
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.
The implications of “doing a little favor” can’t bode well for the character’s chances of staying on the straight and narrow. The song’s chorus accents the themes of desolation and yearning that drive Springsteen’s criminals:
Everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.
Don’t rely solely on my particular selections, though. Go crank up your iPod, laptop, or gramophone and track down Bruce’s lawless history for yourself. I’ll leave you with these lines from “Meeting Across The River” denoting the schemes and dreams of a small-time felon:
We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie
’Cause man, we got ourselves out on that line
And if we blow this one
They ain’t gonna be looking for just me this time.
All we gotta do is hold up our end.
Here stuff this in your pocket,
It’ll look like you’re carrying a friend.
And remember, just don’t smile
Change your shirt, ’cause tonight we got style…
“Nebraska,” “Johnny 99,” and “Atlantic City” are found on the album Nebraska. “Straight Time” is from The Ghost of Tom Joad; and “Meeting Across the River” from Born to Run.
Michael Nethercott is a playwright and writer of traditional mysteries whose O’Nelligan and Plunkett tales appear periodically in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. His first novel featuring this 1950s detective duo, The Séance Society, will be released in October 2013 by St. Martin’s Press.