Picture: Getty Images
Deliver Me From Nowhere
According to himself, Bruce Springsteen is “a conceptual optimist yet a personal pessimist”. The duality has defined his entire career, and more often than not the light has prevailed. Only a supreme conceptual optimist could turn a song about depression into a glitter ball-friendly hit single. Yet there would have been no Dancing In The Dark without the preceding Nebraska, the one record where Bruce Springsteen admitted no light whatsoever.
“I wanted to know where Nebraska came from, [and] what it led to,” declares author Warren Zanes. In BruceWorld, Nebraska is both Holy Grail and Death Star, still resolutely elusive even after 40 years, an album recorded alone in a bedroom onto a cassette, its skeletal, otherworldly songs thwarting subsequent attempts with the E Street Band to be whipped into a more digestibly Springsteenian form. There was no tour, no interviews, no explanation why America’s ascendant rock’n’roll star was following up his first Number 1, The River, with a bleak album about murder and isolation. It’s also the album Springsteen regards as possibly his best. So as the key to understanding the artist and the man, Nebraska requires a biography to match – and Deliver Me From Nowhere truly delivers.
In January 1985, the teenage Warren Zanes was guitarist with Boston bar-busters The Del Fuegos when Bruce Springsteen walked into their dressing room at a North Carolina club, declared himself a fan, then joined them on-stage. Zanes duly brings a musicianly rigour to his dissection of Nebraska, poring over the cultural and historical contexts which influenced Springsteen: the music of Hank Williams and Suicide, the novels of Flannery O’Connor, and the story of ’50s America’s first celebrity serial killers, as portrayed in Terrence Malick’s 1973 film Badlands and voiced by Springsteen in Nebraska’s title track. He also emphasises the importance of its accidental genesis, the fact that Springsteen pressed ‘record’ on his new TEAC 144 4-track with no intention that these demos would be his next album, rather than sketches for what became Born In The USA. As the music industry rushed to greet the digital dawn, says Zanes, Springsteen made “a cave painting in the age of photography”.
The author draws on new interviews with key associates, but securing the participation of Springsteen himself greatly broadens the book’s emotional scope. Until his 2016 memoir, Springsteen had barely discussed the personal demons which inspired Nebraska and led to a subsequent breakdown. Zanes takes us with him into Springsteen’s New Jersey home, just a few miles from the house where Nebraska was made and not much further from his childhood home in Freehold, host to the trauma that seeded Nebraska’s desperate core. “It destroyed me and it made me,” Springsteen says. In one exchange, Zanes gamely compares the conjoined Nebraska/Born In The USA diptych to the heroic trials of Homer’s Odyssey, with Springsteen hilariously deadpan in response: “Go on”… “Incredible”.
Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau characterises Nebraska as the “art movie” to BITUSA’s “Star Wars”. By going with Nebraska first, Bruce Springsteen gave himself artistic immortality. Whatever else he did, or is yet to do, he can always play the ultimate get-out-of-jail card: he’s the guy who made Nebraska. “Hundred years from now, what’s gonna play well?” Springsteen asks Warren Zanes, before answering his own rhetorical question. “That record will play pretty well.”
Deliver Me From Nowhere by Warren Zanes is published on June 2 on Penguin/Random House.
READ MOJO'S VERDICT ON ALL THE MONTH'S BEST MUSIC. Plus, receive every new issue of MOJO on your smart phone or tablet to listen to or read. Enjoy access to an archive of previous issues, exclusive MOJO Filter emails with the key tracks you need to hear each week, plus a host of member-only rewards and discounts by BECOMING A MOJO MEMBER