Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ haunted Warren Zanes. So he wrote a book about it

Warren Zanes remembers the first time he heard “Nebraska,” the landmark 1982 album by Bruce Springsteen.

The record, with its now-famous black, white and red cover, came as a shock to fans of the Boss, who weren’t expecting stripped-down instrumentation and production and dark songs about people on the margins, facing sometimes impossible circumstances.

Zanes, who had been turned on to Springsteen’s music by his older brother, first heard the album while at boarding school, where he had just been busted for drinking beer and smoking pot. (He didn’t get in trouble with his mother, who he says had bought the beer and grown the pot.)

“‘Nebraska,’” Zanes says, “just had this defiance and refusal to behave that I associated with punk rock, however different the sound, the instrumentation, the subject matter. I got a hold of that, and then the stories brought me deeper.”

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As a member of the garage-rock band the Del Fuegos — he was a teenager when he joined the band, fronted by older brother, Dan Zanes — he got to play with Springsteen in 1985 at a show in Greensboro, North Carolina. “When our dressing room door opened and Bruce Springsteen walked in,” he recalls, “we had one thought: that’s the guy who made ‘Nebraska.’”

Zanes writes about “Nebraska” in “Deliver Me From Nowhere,” published this month by Crown, and based on interviews with Springsteen and other musicians and producers. It’s Zanes’ second book dedicated to a single record — his dive into Dusty Springfield’s “Dusty in Memphis,” the first-ever installment of Bloomsbury’s now-legendary 33 1/3 series of books, was published in 2003.

Zanes, also a professor of songwriting at New York University, lives in Montclair, New Jersey. He answered questions about his latest book via telephone from New York City.

Q. This is the second book that you’ve written about one particular album. What made you decide to do this one about “Nebraska”?

The origin of the project really was a question that remained with me: “Why would an artist who just had their first No. 1 album [‘The River’] and first top-ten single [‘Hungry Heart’], make an official release that confused and threw so many people off the fence?” It was such a left turn, and on paper, such a bad career decision, that I was drawn to it.

Darkness is a word that comes up with Springsteen a lot, but this one had extra darkness. I wanted to find out where he was at, why he did this. Was there a strategy involved? At times I was suspicious because “Born in the U.S.A.” came next, and part of me thought, “Oh, it was a move to get the critics on board, and then he was going to do a big commercial release.” That theory didn’t pan out, but I was intrigued by that because I like seeing artists play the long game.

How do you have a long career? How do you set up for big success? But the thing that really set me on my way was in his memoir, however short the passage on “Nebraska,” that link between “Nebraska” and his little period of disappearance before he comes back as this heroic Bruce Springsteen. And having him cooperate with the process, sit and really talk to me in a meaningful, vulnerable way, it just gave me a chance to really answer this question that had been with me for, at that point, almost 40 years.

Q. You write in the book that “Nebraska” “might not have sounded like punk rock, but it sure behaved like it.” What was Springsteen’s relationship to punk music? 

My sense is that he knew he wasn’t punk rock, but he knew there was punk rock in him. I think that “The River” would have been different if punk rock wasn’t there on the horizon. Did he say, “Oh, I’m gonna go make my punk record?” I don’t think it ever got to that point, but it was a return to the raw, and for somebody who was making such layered, highly worked-on productions, I think there was some freedom.

Q. “The River” did have some songs that touched on darker themes, but not to the same extent as “Nebraska.” What do you think made Springsteen decide to release this bleak album that touches on themes of murder, loss, isolation and trauma?

I think a lot of it was instinctual. I really got the sense that, at that moment, he didn’t know why he was doing it. I feel like he learned over time, and now in talking to him about it, he touches on that moment in his own life where he was in his grandparents’ house, and it was a house where they never grieved their daughter who died, where they kind of froze time. When he left, his parents were living there. But the way he described it, they were out doing their thing, and he was with his grandparents. He was in a home where there was almost this refusal to process grief. He was living in the sickness of this unprocessed grief, and that kind of stuff [messes] with people.

He came off the “River” tour and there was something clinging to him. I think he thought, “If I don’t deal with this, it’s got the capacity to tear me down.” In most cases, when artists find themselves in a position like that, they tend to stop producing art, and they go and address what’s going on in their personal lives. But Springsteen made this record. And however dark the themes and however without redemption and unresolved these character studies, I find it enormously hopeful that a guy made art from the middle of the trouble, and he found a way out of the trouble. “Nebraska” reminds me of the power of art.

Q. You teach songwriting at NYU. Have you ever talked to any of your students about “Nebraska”? 

I have, and it’s a hard one to locate. I do it by looking at his discography up to that point, and then to “Born in the U.S.A.,” and tell them, “First of all, we need to look at what he was going through in his own life,” which I don’t always do when studying recordings. But I don’t think we can understand “Nebraska” without understanding what he was going through. I try to get them to really understand how strange it was to have an artist operating at Springsteen’s level to put out a recording that had so many exposed flaws. I’m looking at a classroom of digital-age music makers and telling them, “You can fix so much in your music, but I hope ‘Nebraska’ convinces you to leave some of the mess.” I have no problem with perfect recordings. There are many that I love, but I still treasure the power of the imperfect recording. So with my students, I hope that they think, “It can be muddy, it can have wavering tempos, it can be a little pitchy, it can be unfinished, and it can be complete.”

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