It’s official. Bruce’s Springsteen’s 1982 album Nebraska is his masterpiece. Says who? Well The Boss himself, that’s who!
Springsteen’s fondness for the sparse acoustic album he recorded in a rented bedroom, has long been a matter of record. He was once asked by Stephen Colbert on The Late Show to name his five favourite Springsteen songs. He replied instantly: “Nebraska was a good one.”
Now he has recounted in stark personal detail the significance of this album of more than 40 years ago during what was a particularly bleak period in his life
To promote the release of a new book, Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, by author Warren Zanes, Springsteen took CBS correspondent Jim Axelrod back to the small bedroom in an isolated farmhouse in Colts Neck, New Jersey. It was there he not only wrote all the songs for the album, but single-handedly recorded them on a four-track Teac cassette deck.
“If I had to pick one album out and say this is going to represent you 50 years from now, I’d say Nebraska,” Springsteen told Axelrod as he sat, guitar in hand, on an old chair beside the bed.
He was 32 when he retreated into himself to write what would be Nebraska, his sixth album. He had just completed a sell-out tour of the U.S. and Western Europe with the E Street Band to promote the immensely-popular album The River which included his first top ten hit “Hungry Heart.” But despite now being one of the biggest names in rock, he was personally troubled.
“I think in your twenties a lot of things work for you. Your thirties is where you start to become an adult,” he said. “Suddenly I looked around and said where is everything? Where is my home? Where is my partner? Where are the sons or daughters that I might have someday. And I realised that none of these things were there.”
In his 2016 biography, Born to Run, Springsteen devoted one chapter (43) - but only two pages - to Nebraska. He was far more expansive when he spoke to Axelrod on Sunday Morning and detailed how the concept for the album finally came together.
He was channel-surfing on TV one night when he came upon the Terrence Malick movie Badlands, loosely based on a killing spree by 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend Caril Ann Fugate across the Midwest – mainly Nebraska – in the late 1950’s. It was the “black-bedtime” story he was looking for and immediately began his research.
“I actually called the reporter who had reported on that story in Nebraska and amazingly she was still at the newspaper,” Springsteen told Axelrod. “She was a lovely woman and we talked for a half hour or so and it just focused me on the feeling about what I wanted to write about.”
And write about a surreal killer he did, with the remarkable opening lines – one of the finest stanza’s in popular music – imitating a scene in Malick’s film:
I saw her standing on her front lawn/Just a twirling her baton
Me and her went for a ride sir/And 10 innocent people died
The theme of criminals, loners and losers soon led to other dark songs on the album – “Johnny 99,” “Highway Patrolman,” “Atlantic City” and “State Trooper.” And mingled with these are relics from his at-times troubled upbringing – “Mansion on the Hill,” “My Father’s House” and “Used Cars.”
For Springsteen, many of the songs were from the confusion left by childhood. “’Mansion on the Hill,’ ‘My Father’s House,’ ‘Used cars’– they’re all written from kid’s perspective, children trying to make sense of the world they were born into,” he said. “There’s a very stark, dark, lonely sound. Very austere, very bare bones.”
Once written, it was time to record. Springsteen decided he would record 15 songs – only 10 made the album – on a compact Teac 144 cassette deck. The 4-track apparatus would allow him to mix, somewhat primitively, his sparse instruments - acoustic and electric guitar, harmonica, mandolin, tambourine, organ. The night he actually recorded all 15 is now etched in music history – January 3, 1982.
Once the demos were complete, it would be a couple months before he would end up in the studio where he aimed to record rock versions of the songs with his E Street Band. Meantime, he revealed to CBS, he wandered around New Jersey with the tape cassette in his pocket. “My back pocket. I never even had it in a case. I’m lucky I didn’t lose it,” he laughed.
But when the studio production got underway the following April, it was soon clear to both Springsteen and his co-producer Jon Landau that the real, raw, reverb sound he achieved in his small, shag-pile carpeted bedroom could not be bettered by the full-band treatment.
“It was a happy accident. I had planned to just write some good songs, teach them to the band, go into the studio and record them,” Springsteen told CBS. “But every time I tried to improve on the tape I made in that little room, it’s the old story that if this gets any better it’s going to be worse.”
Among the five tracks created in the bedroom but not chosen for Nebraska was one, “Born in the U.S.A.,” which would - with the full E Street Band electric treatment – go on to become one of his most successful singles when it was released with the album of the same name two years later.
And while Springsteen may have rejected what became known as Electric Nebraska, he has over the years performed in concert many of the original songs with fully-fledged musical ensembles – among them E Street and the Sessions bands.
The importance of Nebraska – and indeed its sheer influence – soon became apparent when a year after its release, country legend Johnny Cash included versions of “Johnny 99” and “Highway Patrolman” in his album, suitably titled Johnny 99.
Now 73, Springsteen has no regrets about the risk he took in releasing an album as sparse as Nebraska.
Axelrod asked, "Did any part of you worry, 'Oh my goodness, what am I putting out there?'"
"I knew what the 'Nebraska' record was," Springsteen replied. "It was also a signal that I was sending that, 'I've had some success, but I do what I want to do. I make the records I wanna make.”
In his research for his book on the making of Nebraska, Zanes soon came to the conclusion that Nebraska was for Springsteen a liberation of his past.
“Here’s Bruce Springsteen making a record from a kind of bottom in his own life.
Springsteen’s pain was rooted in a lonely childhood,” he told Sunday Morning. “They (the Springsteen family) were very poor. Then he becomes Bruce Springsteen. He felt his past was making his presence complicated and he wanted to be free of it.”
Zanes then gave a conclusive perspective: “Nebraska was muddy. It was imperfect. It wasn’t finished. All the things that you shouldn’t put out, he put out.”
Maybe this is a new definition of perfection?
Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation