When I was a budding young music nerd, yellowing back-issues of Rolling Stone and Creem introduced me to a number of records I’ve loved ever since. Yet one satirical essay almost ruined Bruce Springsteen for me. Its author imagined a visit to the singer’s absurdly all-American house, complete with a white picket fence and a Chevy in the driveway, where Springsteen could be found grilling hot dogs in the back yard and spouting vapid clichés in the third person (“Bruce Springsteen sure does like a cold one after a hard day on the job”).
With this image in mind, I carelessly wrote Springsteen off for years as just another cornball Americana act. More fool me. Walking by the TV one night, the chorus of a song I didn’t know stopped me in my tracks. A hoarse and weary yet painfully earnest voice echoed through the speaker like it was trapped in the middle of a long dark tunnel: “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact/Maybe everything that dies someday comes back/Put your make-up on, fix your hair real pretty/And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” The twinkling city lights beckoned the singer and his girl with the promise of romance or doom, and he didn’t seem to know which. I’ve been a devoted Springsteen fan ever since.
Journalist, academic, and former member of the Del Fuegos Warren Zanes has the perfect credentials to write Deliver Me from Nowhere, a new book-length examination of Springsteen’s austere 1982 acoustic album Nebraska. Arguably the bleakest of all of Springsteen’s records, it has also become an unexpectedly beloved and influential entry in his back-catalogue, probably in part because it broke the established rules of rock stardom. As Zanes describes it: “Rough home demos. Mastered at a low level. No singles. First track is about a serial killer. No tour or press. If you could make a list of the things a record company does not want to hear…”
This resolutely dark turn was a gutsy move, especially for an artist who was as big as Springsteen was in the early eighties. After struggling during the early ’70s, relentless touring and prolific songwriting finally paid off and he struck critical and commercial gold with a streak of stunning rock records—Born to Run (1975), Darkness at the Edge of Town(1978), and The River(1980). Yet all was not well. “He felt as if he no longer belonged with the people he grew up with and wrote about,” writes Zanes, “but neither did he feel at home where he’d ended up, as a celebrity.” Exhausted and broke, Springsteen felt alienated from his own success. “I eat loneliness, man,” he remarked. So, he rented a cavernous old house in Jersey to rest and recuperate, recording what he assumed were merely demos for a new album on a home recording system he set up in his bedroom.
Zanes compiles a list of works that can help us understand and appreciate Nebraska, including Flannery O’Connor’s coruscating short story A Good Man is Hard to Find; Robert Frank’s moody photographic record of 1950s America, The Americans; films like Terence Malick’s Badlands and Charles Laughton’s gothic classic The Night of the Hunter; the music of Hank Williams, Hank Mizell’s reverb-drenched ’50s rockabilly number “Jungle Rock,” and the apocalyptic “Frankie Teardrop” by the post-punk band Suicide. It’s a rich mixture of inspirations, heavy with dread.
These references illuminate the connection point between the chilling lines in “Nebraska” that Springsteen places in the mouth of Charlie Starkweather, the real-life inspiration for Martin Sheen’s character in Badlands, as he awaits his execution: “I can’t say that I’m sorry/For the things that we done/At least for a little while, sir/Me and her just had us some fun.” As for his motivation, the killer of ten people offers only this: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
That casual remark recalls what the Misfit, another serial killer, flatly states at the end of A Good Man Is Hard To Find about what life is like without Christ: “No pleasure but meanness.” Evidence of that nihilism, so disturbing in its matter-of-factness, can be found throughout Nebraska’s desolate stories of economic desperation (“Used Cars” and “The Mansion on the Hill”), isolation (“Open All Night” and “My Father’s House”), and family strife (“Highway Patrolman”). It touches on what D.H. Lawrence might have meant when he remarked that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
From the haunting harmonica notes that open the record to the ruminative chords that close it, Nebraska has an evocative and sepia-toned cinematic quality. In 1991, Sean Penn wrote and directed a fine debut film called The Indian Runner inspired by “Highway Patrolman,” a Cain and Abel story of two brothers on either side of the law, starring Viggo Mortensen and David Morse. The eerie two-chord chug of “State Trooper” makes you feel like you’re riding shotgun with the paranoid narrator as he mutters to himself (“The only thing that I’ve got/Been botherin’ me my whole life”) and glances at the police lights in his rearview mirror. The song owes much to Springsteen’s obsession with the avant-garde duo Suicide, whose ominous deconstructions freaked out even their avant-garde peers at CBGB’s.
Nebraska is the kind of record that asks a lot of its creator, because it takes us to the dark reaches of human experience that aren’t usually found on the rock and roll map—a challenge for singer and audience alike. The listener needs to believe in what the singer’s saying and trust that he knows what he’s doing, otherwise its morbidity risks sounding merely morose or melodramatic. But the raw sincerity and sensitivity with which Springsteen sings these songs about people who have nothing left to lose hits you in the gut. It doesn’t matter that Springsteen had spent years merrily rocking under stadium spotlights; he still knew what it meant to be alone.
The imagery in the album’s closing track “Reason to Believe” isn’t exactly uplifting, with its dead dog, jilted groom, and so on, but the chorus offers a sense of redemption: “Struck me kind of funny/Funny yeah indeed/At the end of every hard-earned day/People find some reason to believe.” The line that gives the book its title may sound like a hopeless plea, but it also carries a sense of possibility and the chance of emotional deliverance.
Springsteen would no doubt agree that if rock and roll can do anything for you, it’s that. I find myself recalling that wonderful line from Springsteen’s “Badlands” (another reference to Malick’s film): “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” Zanes is surely right to point out that Springsteen needed to make Nebraska if only to bring his hard rock records into sharper relief: “Nebraska got the critics on board, made a bold statement about art before Born in the USA stormed the marketplace.”
According to some of Springsteen’s notes, reproduced by Zanes, the title track of the blockbuster record that followed Nebraska was also written during this period. It was inspired by a script Paul Schrader had given to Springsteen but which he never got around to reading. He did like the title, though—“Born in the USA.” “On this number song should be done very hard rockin’. This song is in very rough shape but it is as good as I can get it at the moment. It might have potential.” And, of course, it did—that song took Nebraska’s concern with dead-end lives, and with its rousing beat and galvanizing hook, transformed it into an anthem of disaffection that would bring stadiums to their feet. If that’s not deliverance from nowhere, I don’t know what is.