The following is an excerpt from Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: His 100 Finest Songs, a new book available now from American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia. We’ll be offering a sampling of song entries — one out of each batch of 10 — over the next few weeks. Purchase the book here.
Nebraska is known as Bruce Springsteen’s folk album, but calling it that limits it in a way. Springsteen understood that just because a record consists of one man performing on an acoustic guitar and little else, it need not be a dour affair all the way through. With a few splashes of humor and a little musical variety, you can hold an audience all the way through and still get your points across just fine.
“Johnny 99,” based solely on the story it tells, could have easily been a rather somber affair in the manner of other songs on the album like “My Father’s House” or “Highway Patrolman.” Instead, it comes out of the gate firing, right from Springsteen’s falsetto exhortations at the beginning of the song through the rapid tempo that never hesitates for a moment.
That gives the song a different feel from “Atlantic City,” another Nebraska song that tells a similar story. Maybe the perspective makes a difference: Whereas “Atlantic City” is a first-person account of a desperate man, “Johnny 99” is told by a narrator with no stake in the game. Since he has an audience to entertain, he can afford to spice things up a little.
Springsteen puts a little rockabilly into his acoustic rhythm and subtly modulates his performance throughout the song so that it seems to rise in intensity as Johnny 99’s story unfurls. On other Nebraska songs, Springsteen used extra recording tracks to achieve little mini-arrangements, but here it’s just a full-steam-ahead, no-frills assault. It’s no doubt one of the most memorable performances on the album.
It also proved impossible to repeat or embellish when he took it into the studio to introduce it to the band. He explained this in a 1984 interview with Hot Press magazine of Dublin, Ireland, and his words could also be extrapolated to represent the Nebraska album at large.
“The songs had a lot of detail so that, when the band started to wail away into it, the characters got lost. Like “Johnny 99”—I thought “Oh, that’d be great if we could do a rock version.” But when you did that, the song disappeared. A lot of its content and style, in the treatment of it. It needed that really kinda austere, echoey sound, just one guitar—one guy telling his story.”
Of course, it helps when the guy telling the story is as deft with his characterizations and details as Springsteen. “Johnny 99” is structured like a thousand other outlaw folk songs: A man goes on a crime spree, gets caught by the law, and serves his punishment, which is usually death. Yet the difference is that “Johnny 99” is no larger-than-life Robin Hood who has noble intentions and a heart of gold. He’s just a normal guy pushed too far by his circumstances until he snaps.
Springsteen still manages to make him somewhat sympathetic by explaining just what brought him to this point. He lost his job in an auto plant in Mahwah, New Jersey, and his efforts to find a new job went for naught, putting him on the brink of financial collapse. As he explains in his closing statement before the unforgiving judge, “Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man / But it was more’n all this that put that gun in my hand.”
It’s a fine line that Springsteen walks here because giving this guy too much sympathy would negate the fact that he killed somebody. Over and over on Nebraska, his characters are put to the test by circumstances beyond their control, usually poverty and lack of work options, but ultimately their reactions are based on how they’re wired. For example, the guy in “Mansion on the Hill” doesn’t go on a killing spree because he can’t get into that closed-off community he witnesses. In “Highway Patrolman,” two brothers from identical backgrounds veer off onto wildly divergent paths.
Springsteen isn’t judging any of these characters, least of all “Johnny 99,” whose violent behavior earns him the ultimate punishment from the law. But it’s important to remember that “Johnny 99” was once just a guy named Ralph who had a job and a home. How he got from those humble beginnings to his gun-wielding theatrics is the important part.
“Johnny 99,” with its action-packed story-telling full of criminal exploits and courtroom histrionics, allows you to enjoy its thrilling surface. The almost nonchalant way in which Springsteen inserts the sociological subtext is where it leaves most other outlaw anthems way behind.