“Nebraska is always sitting there to remind us that what we’re looking for in music is not something that’s perfect,” says Warren Zanes, explaining part of the fascination of the subject of his new book, “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska” (Crown/Random House, 302 pp., $28). It will be released on May 2.
Zanes, who lives in Montclair, is a professor at NYU, a solo recording artist, a member of the band The Del Fuegos (who jammed with Springsteen in 1985, as Zanes recounts in the book’s opening anecdote) and the author of four prior books. He has taken a book-length look at an album before — 2003’s “Dusty in Memphis,” about Dusty Springfield’s album of that name — but is best known for 2015’s “Petty: The Biography,” which is considered the definitive book about Tom Petty. He also has collaborated with Garth Brooks on his “Anthology” series of book/CD releases.
For “Deliver Me From Nowhere,” Zanes interviewed Springsteen and Springsteen associates such as Jon Landau, Steven Van Zandt and producer-engineer Chuck Plotkin. He also was brought, by Springsteen, to the Colts Neck home in which Springsteen lived, from 1981 to 1983, and in whose master bedroom Nebraska was made. Zanes also interviewed musicians — including Steve Earle, Richard Thompson, Rosanne Cash, Dave Alvin and Matt Berninger (of The National) — about what Nebraska means to them.
“Nebraska would become a reference point for people who write songs and record them, a reminder that you can strip off all the wallpaper, tear out the drywall, take it down to the studs. And probably every now and then you should,” Zanes writes in the book.
This is not a book in which Zanes analyzes every word and every note in every Nebraska song — “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Reason to Believe” and so on — and explains how they conjure something magical. He is more concerned with exploring the significance of the album in the context of Springsteen’s life and career; and delineating the unusual process in which the lo-fi masterpiece — originally intended as demos for something else — got made and released. It’s must reading for any Springsteen fan.
May 5, as part of the Montclair Literary Festival, Zanes will make an appearance at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, talking about Springsteen and reading from the book; James Maddock and Laura Cantrell will also sing Nebraska songs, with backing by guitarist Chris Harford, drummer Ray Kubian and multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield. Zanes also will make an appearance at Little City Books in Hoboken, May 11.
I spoke to Zanes about the book in mid-April.
Q: It surprised me a little in that most books about albums that I’ve read are more focused on the music. I mean, this book, as the title says, is about the making of the album. And you really kept your focus on that. Obviously, you get some details about the songs, but it’s not, like, a song-by-song explanation of why every song is great. And so, it almost seems like a Nebraska-like approach, in that it’s an unconventional way to approach a book about an album.
A: Well, I like that reading; I appreciate that. And, you know, it might be the record-maker in me that veers away from explaining songs: In a way, you want to leave that to the listener. I feel like what I can do as a writer is enrich the listener’s experience by letting them know how Bruce got to it, what was going on around it, and still leave that cavity of activity for the listener to go into those songs.
Q: And also, because Springsteen has such fanatic fans, they know the songs inside and out anyway. So in a way, you don’t have to explain them,
A: Yeah, I think that’s the case. In general, I’ve always looked at it as one of the the big left turns in the history of American music. And it’s always lingered for me. I just felt like I didn’t have enough information that allowed me, as a fan, to understand why he took such a hard left turn right before Born in the USA. And I feel like the launching pad for this investigation was his memoir (Springsteen’s 2016 book “Born to Run”). In the memoir, Nebraska goes by real fast and I just thought he practically handed me the space to write a book.
Q: In regard to it being a left turn … the only album I can think of that’s really anything like it is The Basement Tapes (by Bob Dylan & the Band). You know, something that wasn’t intended for popular consumption but did eventually get out and became very highly regarded.
A: I think that’s definitely the closest comparison point that I could think of. And the big thing that differentiates them to me is one is a band in a room, or members of a band (in) different little combos, vs. one guy in a room.
Part of my question (about Nebraska) is like, why would you do it? It’s crazy. But it’s not crazy. And the proof of this as a really smart, soulful decision (to put the album out), is its afterlife. It’s had this incredible afterlife where, you know … Nebraska is always sitting there to remind us that what we’re looking for in music is not something that’s perfect. We’re looking for something that has the emotion … really, like, as much human crisis as you can pack in. Sometimes that crisis comes in the form of an after-the-fact resolution, sometimes it’s anticipated. But really, as listeners, we go for the emotion, and here’s this record that just came from the heart of one man’s crisis, and it’s just so rare to get a document from a major artist that chronicles that kind of experience.
Q: As soon as you finished the Petty book, were you immediately focused on this or did it take a while?
A: I wandered in the desert. There were some years .. I mean, life keeps life-ing, and so as much as I wanted to get right on to the next project, I had my own crises to deal with: family stuff, marriage stuff. I don’t think I was capable of getting right into another project. I think, ultimately, the gods are looking down on the scene and they generally aren’t going to give you a project until you’re ready to do it. I did try … I wrote some proposals and they weren’t accepted, they didn’t get off the ground. Then this one came and everything felt right about it. And it was so different from the Petty book because the Petty book really was, you know, a life-and-career biography and it was a band story. This is about a bandleader needing something other than a band experience. And so I felt like they fit together, but there wasn’t a lot of overlap.
Q: Did it have anything to do with the pandemic? I mean, it feels like a pandemic book.
A: I was already under way when the pandemic hit. But I think you’re absolutely right. Nebraska is a pandemic kind of album, and it was 1982. Like I talk about in the book, and like Bruce has said in interviews, (the album is) about isolation. So there we were. I’m working on this thing right in the fucking heart of (the pandemic). That’s nothing you can plan. That’s just like … I’m gonna call it good fortune, because if you can be situated in the right place for a long-term project of this kind, man, all the better. If you’re writing about isolation and you’re isolated, like, go into it.
Q: So you’re teaching at NYU now, is that right?
A: I’ve been teaching there, once a week, for about eight years. I’ve always kept a foot in the classroom. After I talk to you, I’m going to be going up and doing a class on early ’90s and Nirvana. Last week we were looking at Garth Brooks. It’s a class that you’re looking at American life through the lens of American popular music. And for me, the benefit of the classroom is, you know, I’ll know when it stops working and that’s when I stop learning something new about what I’m studying by standing in front of a group of students. But I’ll tell you, I know I’m gonna know more about Kurt Cobain and the Nevermind album just by virtue of standing in front of these students and trying to piece it together and decode it and find out, with them, why it happened when it did. I’m a big believer in the classroom.
Q: Tell me a little bit about the show you’re doing in Montclair. I guess the idea is you’ll play some of the (Nebraska) music and talk about it and read from the book and it’ll be a combination of things?
A: Well, I’m not even gonna play any music. I’ve got some guests coming in. James Maddock is gonna do a few Nebraska songs. Laura Cantrell is going to do a few Nebraska songs. One guest that I can’t announce — but who, trust me, you wanna see him — is going to be there. And then in between groups of one or two songs, I’ll be doing readings, mostly not from the book, mostly talking about the making of Nebraska. Talking about my own relationship with this artist’s music and why Nebraska kept coming back to me and how I think you can understand it. It’s storytelling combined with music.
I find that … I get a little impatient when I go to a book talk and people read from the book and then they want me to buy it. I go, “Hey, wait a second! Why do I have to buy it? You just read it to me!” I feel like there’s so much that can be done before you even pick up your own book, just in talking about how you did it. I mean, in the case of this book, I wrote another book. I wrote it twice, and it’s the second one that you can buy. But there’s one that’s twice as long that no one will ever see. But my agent and my editor … that’s just to say there’s a lot to talk about, in the process. There’s a lot to talk about in the aftermath, even between completion and publication.
Q: What kind of stuff is that?
A: In this case, after my editor and agent, the book went to Springsteen and (Springsteen’s manager) Jon Landau. So then, you know, your book is almost completed and then Bruce brought me out to the Nebraska house and I wanted that in the book. So I put that in. But then you’ve got this relationship around this book that’s coming. And so the story keeps going, and I like to talk about that stuff, just like I like to talk about the aftermath of Nebraska. I like to talk about the aftermath and the leading up to, for any project. There’s such a density to it.
I’m very lucky, having lived a life that’s involved making a few records and writing a few books. There were plenty of forks in the road where I might not have been so lucky. So I’d like to share what I was lucky enough to get myself into.
Q: The people who are doing the show with you in Montclair, are they big Nebraska fans, too? Have you talked about the album with them?
A: I feel like in the world of musicians that I’ve come up through … it’s just a given that Nebraska is a touchstone. I feel like for people making music, it was so striking to have an artist go from his first No. 1 record (The River), his first top 10 single (“Hungry Heart”), and then make something so kind of opaque, and so far from obvious as a followup to a No. 1 record. I think it registered for everybody, in that world that I was raised in. So I assume they all have their own relationship with that record. And every time I ask, they confirm it.
Q: Are there any other albums you would consider doing a book about? Have you thought about it?
A: When you get a book-length chance to do a single album … well, it’s gotta be a really fucking important album, first off. And they’re out there, you know. One that I thought of, and I did a pitch on it — but my editor and my agent, both of whom I trust completely, were like, “This doesn’t feel like it’s got a full book in it” — was the Stones’ Some Girls album. I think it’s a really interesting moment in the Stones’ career. I think it’s a really interesting moment in music. I think the way they’re drawing on what was happening in disco and dance culture and punk culture … it was a really unlikely hybrid. I think it’s got quite a bit of density and, you know, Keith Richards is just coming out of the bust in Canada. First album with Ron Wood. It’s just really complicated. There’s a lot to work with. But that may be more of an essay than a book. And I’ll add this: Having done it with Nebraska, I’m ready to move on to another territory.
I like biography because … you know, Nebraska allowed me a chance to look at the life as it informed the art. A biography … that’s more just what you’re supposed to do. That psychological piece is expected. And I like that.
I don’t think anybody gets into the circus of music by mistake. And biography is there to explain why they did that. So I have a hankering for that. I’m also starting on my fifth book, working with Garth Brooks on his “Anthology” series. The plan right now is for six. It’s a walk through his career in music. Now that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done, and they’re Garth’s books. I’m there to work with him. But we’ve gotten closer and closer as we’ve gone along. And that one came from left field and it pulls me in other directions. You know, sometimes I think that, outside of country culture, we don’t think enough about country music. So one part of me wants to go deeper into that territory.
He’s an amazing guy. He reminds me … in ways, this might sound crazy, but in ways, Bruce and Garth have a lot in common with one another in terms of the strength of their vision, the character of their leadership, and knowing when to be loose with it and when to reel it in a little bit. Just really, smart, emotional human beings.
Q: Do you think Nebraska had an effect on Petty? I mean, you look at the Southern Accents album, or at least the initial idea of that album, and it is, in a way, a very Nebraska-like album. Did you ever talk to Petty about Nebraska?
A: No, never. But there is a part in the Petty book where Bruce enters as a character that I fucking love. Petty had just, in L.A., gotten his first Camaro, which obviously was (also) Bruce’s first brand new car. And Springsteen comes out to Los Angeles and calls Petty up and they go for a ride in Petty’s new Camaro, and they go to (the record store) Tower on Sunset and they buy … I think Petty said it was five eight-tracks. They pick them out and then they get in the car and drive till they’ve listened to every one and Petty described listening to … I can’t remember if it was The Rolling Stones, Now! or The Rolling Stones’ 12 x 5. But that one came on and Springsteen raised his hands in the air and said, “You can take me now.” And Petty loves this, all these years later.
It was, like, you could tell these guys made their way through the same thicket, and they knew that. It’s a very small brotherhood. They were connected through (producer-engineer) Jimmy Iovine, but they really saw one another. And there wasn’t a lot of that kind of stuff from Petty. But it was moving, to me, to hear him describe that day.
That was our conversation about Bruce. But for the most part, in a biography you’re moving so fast to get from childhood to the present. A biography seems so formidable. I know I don’t want to write a 500-pager, so (“Deliver Me From Nowhere”) kind of cooks right along. There I really went … you know, the recording structured the story.
Q: Being that Nebraska is such a special record for Springsteen, I’m sure he’s glad that some attention is being paid to it in this way.
A: He truly loves the Nebraska record. I’m always interested in … I know my relationships to the records. I know which ones are my favorites. To have an experience where you get to talk to an artist and you both have these strong feelings about this thing, and you get to have conversations about it … that is a very privileged territory to be in.
I mean, I was a teenager when Nebraska came out and I hooked into it, and then to be in my 50s and to sit with Bruce and to talk at length about it … this is my favorite part of the life I’ve led. On one side, I’ve got my parenting and my relationship with my sons. On the work side, I’ve got experiences like sitting with Bruce and talking about Nebraska, or sitting with Petty after being an opening act (with The Del Fuegos) on his tour when I was younger. Much later, to sit and go through his whole life and career with him … this is precious stuff for me.
For more on Zanes and the book, visit warren-zanes.com.
Here is a “CBS Sunday Morning” segment on Springsteen, “Nebraska” and the book:
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