Starkweather.Carson

An Incomplete Guide to Nebraska Musical References: Part Two | The Nebraska Index

[Editor's Note: This is the … newest part in an overly long series about the musical legacy of Nebraska. Click for parts onethree and four.] And check out the Omaha-focused series here.

by John Wenz

Our journey continues, folks. We didn't find the heart of Nebraska in music before, but will we as we continue on? What person from outside our fair state portrayed it best? And where does Hot Free Lunch! get off calling us boring? The answer to at least some of these questions lies below as we continue on with The Nebraska Index.


1989 – Gretchen Goes to Nebraska by King's X (album)

A maybe Christian, definitely metal band that has spent two-and-a-half decades building a solid reputation for itself, this album reflected on the band’s spiritual outlook. Maybe that describes a lot of their albums, but the guitars don’t care.

Degrees of Nebraska: 2 / 5

Nebraska is in the title of the album. Beyond that, the band admits the name is more or less a joke. The songs on said album reference Gretchen once (on “I’ll Never Be the Same”) and Nebraska … nonce. Shame, shame.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 2.5 / 5

Value neutral, unless we want to get deep into the Christian imagery of the album and decide to take it literally, at which point we find Gretchen on the road to temptation and false idolatry, and find the true redemption at the end to be Nebraska, which I guess is heaven. Or something.

Overall Quality of Song(s): 4 / 5

Listen, make fun of me if you will, but this is a case in which a borderline Christian band makes overtly secular metal music. This isn’t some creepy, Pat-Boonized thing, or blatant Jesus punk. It’s a band that was signed at one point to Megaforce Records, which also housed early Metallica, Testament, Anthrax, Stormtroopers of Death and countless others, even ignoring their association with Frehley’s Comet. They also happened to lyrically reflect on their struggles and triumphs with faith. Too bad they don’t reflect on Nebraska. This is a strong album of late '80s prog-metal that even a fuddy-duddy atheist like me can get behind.

Nebraska index: 8.5 / 15


 


1989 – “Badlands” by Metal Church off Blessing in Disguise

Early arrivals in the American thrash scene, Metal Church released some solid albums, never quite rising to the level of the “big four” — Slayer, Megadeth, Metallica and Anthrax, but maintaining a consistent following. Also, they once teamed with Sir Mix-a-Lot.

Degrees of Nebraska: 1 / 5

It’s a bit of a stretch here: 1) The song is about murder. 2) most songs about murder associated with the Badlands are a reference to the Starkweather murders, and thus it’s not a huge leap of logic to call this song about the Starkweather murders or something similar — or maybe a vague retelling of the movie Badlands starring Martin Sheen, which was most certainly about Starkweather. But despite some common geography, most of the Badlands are in South Dakota, and the Badlands popularized with Starkweather come from Terrence Malick’s Badlands, which transposed the story to South Dakota. Confused yet? So am I.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 1 / 5

Words used: Wasteland; desert; no more paradise; a dusty godforsaken path; endless to my dismay. If this happens to be in the northwest part of our state, which contains some of the most beautiful geologic formations in the region, they sure aren’t helping out tourism there. It makes us seem downright bleak, even. “Death Valley ‘69” by Sonic Youth did more for its locale, and it was also about murder.Then again, it’s not like anyone would be keen on a “killing path of Charles Starkweather” tour.

Overall Quality of Song: 3.5 / 5

Thrash metal doesn’t hold quite the same esteem and reverence it once had, especially as metal acolytes pushed things further into extreme metal territory — whether black or death. I think it would be rare to hear a band perform straight across thrash without a hint of what came after in metal. As such, the golden age of thrash has sort of passed, and Metal Church doesn’t hold the same gravity or influence as, say, early Black Sabbath, whose sounds carry on in doom and stoner and sludge metal. As an artifact of its time, this song is effective, however. It’s well done, fast and with grizzly imagery. They may not have been big four, but Metal Church stayed a force in '80s metal.

Nebraska index: 5.5 / 15


1990 – “I Hate to Wake Up Sober in Nebraska” by Free Hot Lunch! off Eat This

Folkie/bluegrassy goofballs from Madison, Wisc. Never a massive hit, the band maintained a small dad-rock following.

Degrees of Nebraska: 5 / 5

The song lyrics are basically the I-80 drive starting in Omaha, and name checking Lexington, Ogallala, Grand Island and Lincoln. It’s fairly accurate as far as the drive goes. They are quick to point out the terrain on the way into Nebraska, Iowa side, to the way out, at the Colorado line.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 1 / 5

They really, really hate it. The band calls it the worst, most boring drive and would prefer to endanger other motorists with drunk driving than to find themselves in the eastern end of our state searching for the western end. This reflects poorly on us as a state, especially considering that Iowa is so much more boring of a drive.

Overall Quality of Song: 3.5 / 5

A nice little novelty song, quirky and catchy. There’s not really a ton to say. This is the type of song that’s destined for one note status, a cautionary tale that folks like Mojo Nixon once learned. Ol’ Mojo, he could have had the world on a platter. What did he do with it? Released a song called “Don Henley Must Die.” From then on, Mojo Nixon would forever be the dude who sang “Don Henley Must Die.” He could save the world from nuclear destruction, and “Don Henley Must Die” would still be on his epitaph. Because it’s the sort of song that passing unfamiliar people came to know him by. “He’s the guy who wrote the Don Henley song.” This song falls into that same category, except you might not even go so far as to know the artists name. And it’s not like Hot Free Lunch! is a household name these days.

Nebraska index: 9.5 / 15
 


 


1991 – “Hazard” by Richard Marx off Rush Street

An '80s/'90s schlock ballad merchant, Marx made his name with prom anthems like “Right Here Waiting.” This song, about a fictional killing in small town Nebraska, made No. 9 on the Billboard charts.

Degrees of Nebraska: 4 / 5

The stage is vividly set and placed firmly in small town Nebraska, with smalltown values, especially regarding an outsider. Hey, it’s an old trope, but whatever. Here, the town isn’t entirely made up — while Marx may have been reaching for a two-syllable destination in Nebraska when writing the lyrics, he and Hazard, Neb. (a real place, but not a killing) have developed a weirdly symbiotic relationship, and the real town is now tied to the fictional imagery fairly well.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 4 / 5

The town of Hazard’s response says to me that it’s OK. I mean, they invited Marx to come play the song, and didn’t use it as a clever attempt to drown him in the river, unlike the Mary portrayed in the song whom the narrator swears he didn’t kill. But is that just “Nebraska nice” showing through? Who knows, really. The narrator of the song is entirely unreliable. Maybe the townspeople had perfectly valid reasons for hating him all along. So maybe the townspeople of Hazard understood distrust of the ne’er do well, and felt that yeah, this might be how they’d react to that.

Overall Quality of Song: 3 / 5

Schmaltzy crap, but enjoyably so. Picking on adult contemporary music misses the point of the audience, which tend toward safe, well produced and emotionally resonant music. This song fulfills those criteria, and paints a story in the process.

Nebraska index: 11 / 15


1992 – “Fairbanks Alaska” by Joe Walsh off Songs for a Dying Planet

A former James Gang guitarist, Walsh eventually found chart success with “Rocky Mountain Way” before slipping into The Eagles just in time for Hotel California. After that bands 1980s break up, he rode through a few more solo albums and a large handful of guest slots.

Degrees of Nebraska: 2 / 5

Walsh sings "But I've never shot 18-under par, And I still don't know where all those balls are, Expect the one that went in some doctor's car, One Time in Lincoln, Nebraska." So, we know from the song's bragging about stupid crap that he has probably been in Nebraska — Lincoln, to be exact — and that somewhere, there is a very pissed off GYN. But the real point of the song is that he's never been to Fairbanks, Alaska. And thus, there is a very low degree of Nebraska, though it does get two lines, which is better than some.


Portrayal of Nebraska: 2.5 / 5

Nothing negative to say except for Walsh’s apparent behavior and affinity for golfing. An affinity for golfing is borderline terroristic, though.

Overall Quality of Song: 1 / 5

Can I just say I hate this song? From the aped guitar licks to the lazy barroom lyrics to whatever else they can possibly throw into the mix, this insincere bit of early '90s vomit is the epitome of utter wrongness in late-career revivals. Uninspired, uninspiring, overly cynical at both itself and its audience, there is little joy to be derived from hearing such artistic stagnancy. That said, it’s not like “Rocky Mountain Way” was much better, so it’s par for the course for ol’ Joe’s jangly insincerityfest.

Nebraska Index: 5.5 / 15


1993 – “Nebraska” by Love Battery off Far Gone

The grunge band’s grunge band, a not-quite-household name from Seattle who released a series of well regarded, psychedelia-tinged grunge releases featuring a revolving door of musicians who would go on to Mudhoney, Green River and Mother Love Bone.

Degrees of Nebraska: 3 / 5

Like any good grunge song, the lyrics are barely discernable, and nigh unsearchable. I got the part about driving through our state, which leads me to believe the entire song is in Nebraska. I guess? I think he spends the rest of the song getting messed up in some way or other. There’s a condescending chill? There’s an open line? Mostly, I’m confused, but he is driving through here, so the rest of the lyrics likely do pertain to the state. Maybe.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 2.5 / 5

Can I just put an unpronounceable symbol in place of a rating? Fine, this gets the ever-middling rating on account of not quite being able to make out a focal point for the song. He’s amazed at the grace displayed at some point, so I guess it’s not all bad, even if there are condescending chills.

Overall Quality of Song: 3 / 5

This isn’t the highest point in grunge. While the band has a history in the scene, at this point, they were indistinguishable from myriad other grunge groups gaining national attention. It’s definitely b-list grunge rock — not bad, but not remarkable.

Nebraska Index: 8.5 / 15


1994 – “Nebraska” by Grandaddy off Complex Party Come Along Theories

A Modesto, California-based indie rock group who became NME darlings but fell short of a household name by the time of their split in 2006. This song is off a 1994 cassette only release early into their career.

Degrees of Nebraska: 3 / 5

The song is about saying “screw it” and heading to Nebraska … but not actually being in Nebraska. There’s a crucial difference there. The narrator longs for the pastoral grasslands — which are certainly here — but it’s not so much Nebraska the place as Nebraska the idea.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 4 / 5

It’s a positive place of longing! While neglecting specifics, it sounds like Modesto, to quote The Hold Steady, is just not that sweet. The Great Plains, on the other hand, are. Advantage, us. And unlike a lot of songs about Nebraska, this one doesn’t involve dead people. Bonus points!

Overall Quality of Song: 3 / 5

I think it’s obvious that, for what Grandaddy would become, this song is still a band finding its way. There are some weird production gaffs, a needless, “Kurt Cobain did it so we can too” quasi-metal scream and a sound not yet fully formed. It’s hard to fault a band that would go on to a somewhat fervent following for their early releases, but I would’ve laughed in 1994 if you had told me they’d be on the cover of NME someday.

Nebraska index: 10 / 15


1997 – “Starlings of the Slipstream” by Pavement off Brighten the Corners

Lo-fi darlings of the '90s alterna-boom, Pavement had a profound influence on a long series of very boring bands to come.

Degrees of Nebraska: 3 / 5

A singular line: “There’s no coast of Nebraska.” But, God, if Nebraska people didn’t latch onto that one line and make it theirs. The No Coast has become our thing, sort of, or at least if you follow roller derby. You know what? I’m bumping this up a point or two just for that.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 2.5 / 5

It’s pretty much just the facts here. Lead singer Stephen Malkmus is right: There’s no coast in Nebraska. There’s some shore line for like, Linoma Beach and however much is at Lake McConaughy. But that’s not a coast because it's inland, surrounded on all sides by Nebraska. That and most lakes in Nebraska are man-made.

Overall Quality of Song: 3 / 5

I have never understood the allure of Pavement. I understand from references to this song that it is probably somewhat well regarded in some respect, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I’d recuse myself from this case due to inability to impartially rule. Instead I’m giving it three points before all the boring people who like boring bands light my house up in what I assume would be a very boring fire. Pavement was what helped pave the way for the adult contemporization of indie rock.

Nebraska index: 8.5 / 15


 

1997 – “The Nebraska Song” by Sawyer Brown off Six Days on the Road

Sawyer Brown has spent 30 years together as a band, rising the ranks to become a respected country group in the mid-'90s.

Degrees of Nebraska: 5 / 5

The song is about Nebraska football. I don’t even know if I have to go beyond that. It’s a song sung from the perspective of late Husker player Brook Beringer (a personal friend to lead singer Mark Miller) to Tom Osborne about his pride in joining up with the team. I mean, this song is Nebraska and the concerns of most day-to-day Nebraskans.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 5 / 5

“It’s been my dream all my life to play football on this field.” “It sure would be an honor, sir, to call you coach someday.” “Here in the middle of the middlewest we ain’t afraid to fight.” I mean Jesus, they’re just bludgeoning you with the Nebraska-ness of it all, and how great it would be to get the chance to be at Nebraska’s weekend third-largest city.

Overall Quality of Song: 4 / 5

It falls short of anything that will fall on a greatest songs of all time list. But it’s a powerful acoustic song written from one friend to another, and the emotion feels real and raw coming from Miller. It’s hard to find fault in someone having such pride in their friend. As an unintentional memorial song (the pair had been friends since Berringer snuck backstage in 1992 Sawyer Brown concert, and the song was written before his death) it’s simple lyrically and haunting and authentic in a way a lot of late-'90s country never could be.

Nebraska index: 14 / 15


1998 – “Nebraska Bricks” by Save the Day off Can’t Slow Down

From the not-so-punk town of Princeton, N.J., Saves the Day has played emotionally laden pop-punk since 1994.

Degrees of Nebraska: 1 / 5

The song, about lead singer Chris Conley’s tense relationship with his parents, takes place in Princeton and not anywhere in Nebraska. However, there is a tiny, tiny place in Lancaster County called Princeton, so I guess if you really, really want to believe, just go for it.

Portrayal of Nebraska: 1 / 5

I’m giving it one point for not having anything to do with Nebraska whatsoever. Nothing. Nada. It begins and ends at the name. However, there’s reference to making his anger into a brick and throwing it at a glass house. Or something.

Overall Quality of Song: 4 / 5

I have a soft spot for Saves the Day. While pop-punk never struck a chord of having the most authenticity, Saves the Day always managed to pull through with real song craft and feeling. The band was always a step above their peers, and this song was a great way for the band to estasblish themselves early on in the game. Too bad that doesn’t save its index score.

Nebraska index: 6 / 15


Our clear winner, then, is a song about Nebraska football. Shock of all shocks. But our quest for the most Nebraska song of all time continues … and yep, there is totally yet another song about Charles Starkweather. 

John Wenz once wrote a song about Nebraska, but nobody was ready to hear "Hershey Highway." Now based in Philadelphia, he can be reached at johnwenz@hearnebraska.org.