I can't say that I'm sorry
For the things that we done
At least for a while, sir
Me and her, we had us some fun
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Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate
The narrative of "Nebraska" and the tragedy of Charles Raymond Starkweather's murder spree begins in the town of Lincoln, a mid-size city today and quite a small city at the time of Starkweather's rampage in 1958. Surrounded by rolling hills and quite distant from the state's other large cities, which lie primarily along the paths of the Platte and Missouri Rivers, Lincoln was at that time a fairly intimate, rural community of blue collar men and women.
"From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, with a sawed-off .410 in my lap," Springsteen sings, assuming the perspective of Starkweather, "I killed everything in my path." Moving through the Great Plains, concentrating his directionless hate across Nebraska and his hometown, he still managed to meander through "the badlands of Wyoming." Starkweather found his victims across Nebraska (in Lincoln, Bennett, and throughout Lancaster County) and in Douglas, Wyoming. Starkweather, just 19, took the lives of 11 innocent people with the assistance of his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather's killings began in his hometown of Lincoln in November of 1957. Starkweather shot the clerk at the Crest Service Station near his family home after the man refused to allow Starkweather to pay for a small stuffed animal (that he was purchasing for Fugate) on credit. After returning to the store several times, Starkweather kidnapped the attendant and later killed him with a shotgun blast to the head. The next victims were Fugate's parents (both shot with Starkweather's rifle) and her two-year-old sister, who was strangled to death. So began Starkweather and Fugate's frightening string of crimes.
Nebraska... the good life
The first lonely notes of "Nebraska," the title track of Springsteen's sixth studio album, are as bleak as the landscape of the countryside just outside Lincoln. The spare music of a single guitar and harmonica emphasize the impassive quality of Springsteen's voice as he recounts Starkweather's chilling story. Starkweather's story and Springsteen's delivery set the tone for this highly acclaimed album based on stories of uniquely American desperation.
Much of the album draws inspiration from desolate Midwestern landscapes and the grim histories that often underlie the popular histories of small towns across the United States. Springsteen has confessed that he was interested in rewriting the American image with this album and was influenced greatly by Howard Zinn's reworking of the United States' national history in his book A People's History of the United States
(The New York Times
, Jan. 27, 2010). For this track, Springsteen also drew inspiration from the distinct American voice of Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor, whose themes in her short work, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," are echoed in the words and style of "Nebraska."
as an album marks a turning point for Springsteen, in which his attention is no longer fixed on the struggles of the regular blue collar American, but on the desolation of the American experience, the greed, hunger and desperation that permeates the life not just of Charles Starkweather, but of all the characters populating Nebraska
. The title track from this album is the most haunting and endearing example of Springsteen's evolution. The spareness of the language, the bare bones guitar and harmonica, the muted delivery and the lack of humanity reflect a landscape at once churlish and rich, violent and forgiving.
Like the vast prairie land matching the contours of the state of Nebraska, there is a great emptiness in this music, as every character struggles in the face of a callous world. No one can be certain what possessed Starkweather to become so chilled to humanity and act against it, but Springsteen sums it up with the closing line of the track, "Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world."
~ Maggie Grimason
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