Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska
“The ability to fill arenas is always there, even in his starkest songs, and when combined with extreme emotional honesty the effect is devastating. Nebraska resonates to this day.”
Bruce Springsteen didn’t know he was making a record when, in the bedroom of a rented ranch in Colt’s Neck, New Jersey, with orange shag carpeting, he pressed “record” on a newly acquired TEAC 144 four-track cassette recorder and put down song after song.
The idea was to record demos for the next record with the E Street Band. Springsteen was coming off the massive, bombastic success of fifth album The River, and turning next to a stripped-down project was not on his mind at all. The songs he recorded in that bedroom are not those best-known to the casual Springsteen fan. Among them were “Nebraska,” “Atlantic City,” “Mansion on the Hill.” “Johnny 99,” “Highway Patrolman,” “State Trooper,” “Used Cars,” “My Father’s House,” “Wanda” (“Open All Night”) and “Reason to Believe” (not the Tim Hardin song). And, oh yes, “Born in the U.S.A.” was also first recorded at those sessions. Fifteen songs recorded in multiple takes, 10 of which (not including “Born”) ended up on Nebraska.
The songs were mixed down to a cassette that Springsteen carried around in his pocket for weeks. When finally taken out of there, it was covered with lint. As Warren Zanes’ emotionally wrought Deliver Me from Nowhere documents, attempts were made to translate the demos to full-band versions, but it didn’t work—the characters populating the songs were getting lost. “It seemed like it wasn’t working,” said producer Jon Landau. “Bruce wasn’t coming into the control room after the takes and high-fiving everybody.”
Of course, the band recording of “Born in the U.S.A.” did work, as did “Cover Me,” “Glory Days” and about two thirds of what became, in 1984, one very big hit album. But, for a time, those extroverted songs went on the shelf. There was an album waiting to be born, and it was on that cassette—and only there. Springsteen said, “I pulled it out of my pocket one day and said, ‘I think this [the cassette] is it.” And so it was, an album that despite its lo-fi origins, went to Number 3 on the charts.
The bulk of Zanes’ book puts Nebraska in context, including influences as diverse as Terence Malick’s Badlands (the source of the song “Nebraska”) and the music of death-obsessed rockers Suicide. Zanes got generous access from Springsteen, and together they visited that New Jersey bedroom—still with its shag carpet. Springsteen tells Zanes that Nebraska might be his best album, and in the book many other songwriters—from Patty Griffin and Rosanne Cash to Steve Earle—agree with him.
Soon after laying down all this music on the east coast—and deciding to release Nebraska—Springsteen headed to California in an old Ford Galaxie 500 XL. He was in a somber mood that grew darker as he went west, and culminated in a breakdown after reaching his new Los Angeles home. Nebraska grew out of that no-way-out state of mind, and Springsteen was only able to work his way through to getting on board with Born in the U.S.A. after some fairly intensive therapy.
Zanes is very good on Springsteen’s emotional states, in part because his subject is so open. The only thing Zanes (himself a rocker in the Del Fuegos) doesn’t do is thoroughly dissect the songs that make Nebraska so great. It’s a short book. “Nebraska,” for instance, is told from the viewpoint of serial killer Charlie Starkweather, who killed 11 people in a rampage across Nebraska and Wyoming with girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate in 1957 and 1958. It’s striking how non-judgmental the song is—with Starkweather talking respectfully to a law-enforcement figure and calling him “sir.” It opens with, “I saw her standing on her front lawn/Just a-twirling her baton,” and that’s straight out of the Malick movie.
“Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world,” the song concludes. That’s as close to self-analysis as Charlie Starkweather was going to get, and the line is derived from another influence, the novelist Flannery O’Connor. Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues,” about John Walker Lindh, the “American Taliban”—from Lindh’s point of view—would have been impossible without “Nebraska.”
Because of the stripped-down nature of Nebraska, with just Springsteen’s guitar aided by his haunted harmonica, mandolin, tambourine and glockenspiel, you could think of it as a “folk” album, but that’s not quite right. Springsteen was inspired by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, but he never sounds like them. The ability to fill arenas is always there, even in his starkest songs, and when combined with extreme emotional honesty the effect is devastating. Nebraska resonates to this day.