Editor's note: For some terrific interviews with "Deliver Me From Nowhere" author Warren Zanes, read the Boston.com Q&A by Lauren Daley, and listen to another great SetLusting Bruce podcast by Jesse Jackson!
It’s tempting to call Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” a happy accident, but there’s something that seems just a little bit off about that designation; after all, there’s nothing happy about his stark, unrelenting 1982 masterpiece. It might be more accurate to refer to it, to paraphrase his contemporary Elvis Costello, as a “brilliant mistake” — one that is in turn brilliantly explored in Warren Zanes’ wonderful new book on the subject, “Deliver Me From Nowhere.”
Zanes, a New Hampshire native and the guitarist for the 1980s Boston band the Del Fuegos before entering academia — he holds a Ph.D. in visual and cultural studies — knows what it means to be a band guy. He also knows about what it means to break away from a band, which is something that Bruce Springsteen did with “Nebraska,” albeit unintentionally.
The album’s provenance, as a series of home-recorded demos that Springsteen released as-is after unsuccessful attempts to give them the E Street Band treatment, is well-known, certainly in Springsteen lore. But how and why Springsteen unraveled those dark story-songs, and the sheer effort it took to release them in the form they were in, has never been as thoroughly and fascinatingly explored as Zanes does here.
The book is basically an “Everything you ever wanted to know about ‘Nebraska’ but were afraid to ask.” And thankfully, Zanes — in his research, his discussions with artists influenced by the album, and his sit-downs with Springsteen himself — is anything but afraid in plumbing those depths. In particular he lays out how this particular group of tracks, laid down smack dab in the middle of the far more boisterous “Born in the USA” sessions, came to be in the first place.
“I was writing a type of song that I probably would have been embarrassed to sit down and sing in front of the band in the studio,” Springsteen admits to Zanes, discussing the sessions he recorded on a four-track TEAC 144 at a rented house in Colts Neck, New Jersey. “If I’d gone in the studio and just introduced that music in a normal way, I don’t know if ‘Nebraska’ would ever have occurred.”
It was the first of many fortuitous circumstances in the album’s inception chronicled by Zanes — things like Springsteen coming across Terrence Malick's “Badlands” on TV, inspiring the album’s title track. Zanes investigates Springsteen’s discomfort with success coming off “The River,” the period of self-isolation that followed — “for a while none of us even knew where he lived,” E Street drummer Max Weinberg recalls — and the way those things resulted in the least self-conscious work of Springsteen’s career to that point, and maybe since.
“The guy known for laboring over ‘Born to Run,’ ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ ‘“The River,’ a legend in second-guessing himself and perfectionism, wasn’t getting in his own way,” Zane writes. “Because he didn’t know he was making an album.”
What he was making was something raw, personal, and dark — the tenor of those tracks “concerned me on a friendship level,” Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau told Zanes, who doesn’t shy away from Springsteen’s battle with depression and anxiety during that period.
Beyond the personal, though, are the downright fascinating technical details involved in the multiple aborted attempts to make a “professional” recording of the songs, and in the positively Herculean efforts it took to create something releasable from a cassette you could buy at the corner drug store. “He had it in his pocket, no case,” Zanes writes. “There was lint on it.”
Interwoven among the entire narrative are Zanes’ conversations with Springsteen, throughout which the artist is frank, open, and generous in the details of both his personal and professional life — including an acknowledgement that “Nebraska” was his best work to that time, and “still may be.” Their discussions culminate with a call from Springsteen to Zanes from the house where he’d recorded the album, chronicling an unexpected homecoming of sorts and a fitting close to Zanes’ years-long journey.
It’s a journey we’re lucky to now be able to take with him: In short, anyone interested in how music gets made – both the inspiration and the process — will be fascinated by ”Deliver Me From Nowhere,” an amazing chronicle of one of the most unlikely albums ever recorded. And for students of Springsteen, it’s an absolute must.