I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there never has been a book event quite like the one Warren Zanes presented for his “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska” (Crown/Random House, 302 pp., $28) at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, May 5. Zanes, who lives in Montclair and has performed at the Outpost in the past, wove segments from the book together with casually delivered (but, obviously, carefully thought out) commentary, creating a seamless narrative.
At times, after talking about a song, he would pick up his guitar and start strumming its basic guitar pattern. Three expert backing musicians who stayed onstage, behind him, throughout the show — multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, guitarist and backing vocalist Chris Harford, and percussionist Ray Kubian — would join in. After a short instrumental introduction, Zanes would put down his guitar, and another performer — Steve Earle, James Maddock or Laura Cantrell, who were featured on two songs each — would take over on lead vocals and guitar and perform the song in its entirety.
At one point in the 90-minute show — which was part of the Montclair Literary Festival, and celebrated the May 2 release of the book — Zanes showed the audience the type of small machine on which Springsteen recorded Nebraska: A TEAC 144 four-track cassette recorder, purchased by Zanes on eBay for $80. At another point, he interacted with a marionette puppet (with Harford doing the voice) meant to represent Charles Starkweather, the real-life mass murderer who was the protagonist of the 1973 Terrence Malick-director movie “Badlands,” which influenced Nebraska; as well as the person from whose point of view Springsteen wrote the album’s title track.
“Let me ask you this since you’re here: Did Bruce Springsteen get it wrong?” Zanes asked the Starkweather puppet.
The puppet told Zanes that Springsteen “made me feel somewhat more — how should I say it? — understood. That song, ‘Nebraska,’ was about me, but it was also about him, and that was brave, and somehow I felt less alone.”
This short part of Zanes’ presentation may not have significantly enhanced my understanding of the Nebraska album. But it did show how much of an effort he made to make this show unique and memorable.
If you were surprised to read Earle’s name two paragraphs above … you were supposed to be. His participation in this show was not advertised beforehand, though a “surprise guest” had indeed been promised.
Earle sang “State Trooper” and the album’s title track; Cantrell, “Mansion on the Hill” and “Used Cars”; and Maddock, “Atlantic City” and “Born in the USA.” All these songs were performed in a plainspoken, no-nonsense manner that was very much in the spirit of Nebraska itself; the dark, haunted quality of all the songs came through loud and clear.
Nebraska is an album that is “drenched in its own defiance,” as Zanes said early in his talk. Earle, Maddock and Cantrell all conveyed that.
Nebraska, released more than 40 years ago (in 1982), has 10 tracks, so this show included half of its songs. “Born in the USA,” of course, is not on Nebraska. But as Zanes explained in this show — and in far greater detail, in the book — the histories of the Nebraska and Born in the USA albums are intertwined. Maddock’s performance evoked the feel of the demo version that was included on Springsteen’s 1998 rarities boxed set, Tracks. Zanes called it “the Nebraska version.”
At the Outpost, as in the book, Zanes did not confine the content strictly to the album itself, but also discussed how the album related to Springsteen’s life and career, and how it influenced other artists. He also offered personally relevant anecdotes, including a story about listening to the album when it came out, and another about jamming with Springsteen as a member of the band The Del Fuegos, a few years later. And he discussed the times in which the album was released.
“There’s no detail (on the album) that sets you in the early ’80s,” Zanes said. “But everything we learn about the desperation of (Nebraska‘s) characters, that was the world that we saw behind the facade of (President) Reagan’s full-saturated color vision of America.”
The Nebraska album contains 41 minutes of music, and Zanes wrote a 300-page book about it. And that was a short version: His original manuscript was twice as long. At the Outpost, he brought into his discussions numerous topics that were cut out of the book, or perhaps occurred to him later. That is a testament to, among other things, how rich a work of art Nebraska is.
“If I had to pick one album out and say, this is going to represent you, 50 years from now, I’d pick Nebraska,” said Springsteen in a “CBS Sunday Morning” interview tied to the release of Zanes’ book. Not Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town, not The Rising or The River. Nebraska.
It’s not the music Springsteen plays most in concert: The same day as Zanes’ show in Montclair, he and the E Street Band performed in Dublin, and there was only one Nebraska song (“Johnny 99”) in the setlist. At his May 7 concert at the same venue, there were no Nebraska songs at all.
Yet that is the album Springsteen would want to represent him. I have to believe it’s not because he considers it his “best.” But it’s the purest look into his soul — his soul at the time of the making of the album, that is — and, because of this, it creates an endless fascination.
I believe Zanes’ book is one of the best ever written about Springsteen. But even after its 300 pages, I was ready for more, and this show gave it to me.
Click here to read my interview with Zanes about “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.”
Zanes will appear at another book-release event, May 11 at 7 p.m. at Little City Books in Hoboken. Visit littlecitybooks.com
For more about Zanes and the book, visit warren-zanes.com.
Here is a video of Steve Earle performing “Nebraska” at this show:
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