The 1950s Murders Behind One of Bruce Springsteen's Most Disturbing Songs "Nebraska" and the Album That Still Represents Him Most (2024)

There’s a meanness in this world, sings Bruce Springsteen. That line is the crux of “Nebraska.” Written from the perspective of a killer, the song was one of the darker stories that unfolded on Springsteen’s sixth album of the same name in 1982.

“I tried to locate where the humanity was as best as I could,” said Springsteen, reflecting on the album in 2023. In an old rented farmhouse in Colts Neck, New Jersey, where Springsteen had been living, Nebraska was written and recorded on acoustic guitar within a few weeks.

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Hitting a Wall

Throughout Nebraska, Springsteen touches on the burnt ends of humanity, from “Johnny 99,” about an auto worker who loses his job and in a hopeless and drunken flash murders a night clerk or the death and violence surrounding organized crime in “Atlantic City.”

While writing Nebraska, Springsteen was also at a crossroads in his life and career and struggling with feelings of isolation and severe depression. Off the triad success of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and 1980 release The River and hit “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen, 32 at the time, felt more alienated.

The 1950s Murders Behind One of Bruce Springsteen's Most Disturbing Songs "Nebraska" and the Album That Still Represents Him Most (1)

“I think in your 20s, a lotta things work for you,” he said. “Your 30s is where you start to become an adult. Suddenly I looked around and said, ‘Where is everything? Where is my home? Where is my partner? Where are the sons or daughters that I thought I might have someday?’ And I realized none of those things are there.”

[RELATED: 5 Songs Bruce Springsteen Wrote That Were Made Famous by Other Artists]

Springsteen added, “I just hit some sort of personal wall that I didn’t even know was there. It was my first real major depression where I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something about it.'”

Just like when he wandered through unrelenting grief in “You’re Missing” or the tragedy of a brother who lost his way and his life in “Wreck on the Highway,” Springsteen’s trove of stories has veered into the heartbreaking and relatable, even on Nebraska, where he explored more of the unspeakable and from an unexpected point of view.

“Starkweather”

When writing the title track, Springsteen called up the story of Charles Starkweather, who went on a murder spree at the age of 19 in late ‘1957 through the ’50s. With his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Fugate in tow, Starkweather killed 11 people in Nebraska and Wyoming between November 1957 and January 1958.

Initially, Springsteen wanted to call the song “Starkweather” before landing on “Nebraska.” Springsteen also read a biography of Fugate and had Badlands in mind, after seeing the poster for the 1973 Terence Malick film, which was inspired by the Starkweather’s story and starred starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek.

“You’re not trying to recreate the experience, you’re trying to recreate the emotions and the things that went into the action being taken,” said Springsteen of the song in 1996. “Those are things that everyone understands, those are things that everyone has within them. The action is the symptom, that’s what happened, but the things that caused that action to happen, that’s what everyone knows about—you know about it, I know about it. It’s inside of every human being.”

Springsteen continued, “Those are the things you gotta mine. That’s the well that you gotta dip into and, if you’re doing that, you’re going to get something central and fundamental about those characters.”

To get inside the story more and what he wanted to write, Springsteen connected with the journalist who originally reported on the Starkweather murders. “I actually called the reporter who had reported on that story in Nebraska,” he said. “And amazingly enough she was still at the newspaper. And she was a lovely woman, and we talked for a half-hour or so. And it just sort of focused me on the feeling of what I wanted to write about.”

The song is sung as a first-person narrative by Starkweather, and begins when he meets Fugate then describes the murders, his trial, and inevitable execution. “Nebraska” is sung with little emotion, highlighting the lack of remorse Starkweather had shown for his actions.

Before his execution in 1959, Starkweather didn’t give any last words but wrote a letter to his parents. “Dad I’m not real sorry for what I did,” he wrote, “‘Cause for the first time me and Caril have more fun.”

I saw her standing on her front lawn
Just a-twirling her baton
Me and her went for a ride, sir
And ten innocent people died

From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska
With a sawed-off .410 on my lap
Through the badlands of Wyoming
I killed everything in my path

I can’t say that I’m sorry
For the things that we done
At least for a little while, sir
Me and her, we had us some fun

[RELATED: 5 of Bruce Springsteen’s Most Socio and Politically Charged Songs Over Five Decades]

The 1950s Murders Behind One of Bruce Springsteen's Most Disturbing Songs "Nebraska" and the Album That Still Represents Him Most (2)

Starkweather was sentenced to death and executed on June 25, 1959. Fugate was convicted as his accomplice and sentenced tolife in prison and was later paroled in 1976. The Starkweather murders were later depicted in the 1981 film Stark Raving Mad and again in the 1993 made-for-TV movie Murder in the Heartland, starring Tim Roth.

The jury brought in a guilty verdict and the judge he sentenced me to death
Midnight in a prison storeroom with leather straps across my chest

Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir and snaps my poor head back
You make sure my pretty baby is sittin’ right there on my lap

They declared me unfit to live said into that great void my soul’d be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world

“If I had to pick one album out and say, ‘This is going to represent you 50 years from now,'” said Springsteen in 2023, “I’d  pick ‘Nebraska’.”

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The 1950s Murders Behind One of Bruce Springsteen's Most Disturbing Songs "Nebraska" and the Album That Still Represents Him Most (2024)
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