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Deliver Me from Nowhere

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Bruce Springsteen is one of rock and roll's most dynamic performers, and also one of its most thoughtful songwriters. Warren Zanes, a member of the legendary Boston-based band The Del Fuegos, knows the worlds Springsteen inhabits: the stage, the recording studio, the often difficult internal workings of bands, as well as the solitary creative spaces where the songs themselves are born. He brings all this knowledge to bear, along with in-depth interviews with Springsteen and his most important collaborators, to produce a fascinating account of the moment Springsteen stepped away from the spotlight at the height of his career to create a spare, solo acoustic collection of songs that many consider to be his deepest and most meaningful work -- before reemerging a short time later with an album that would catapult him to even greater commercial success, the epic Born In The USA. This book is highly recommended for musicians and others who believe in the transformative power of music and the creative process. Five stars.

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I’m a diehard Springsteen fan and also loved Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty, and so when I saw this book, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.

Springsteen, yes; but why Nebraska, of all albums? Nebraska just may be the one song that leaves me cold. In the early portion of this story, I wasn’t as enthused as I expected to be, but as the narrative moved forward, I totally got it. Nebraska was written and performed during a crisis period in Bruce’s life. He had grown up in horrible, grinding poverty, and now suddenly he had all this fame and money. On the outside, his life was looking mighty good, but inside, the walls were crumbling. He was clinically depressed, sometimes suicidal, having never dealt with the traumas of his formative years. He rented himself a farmhouse and went there by himself to write songs and tape some demos. He took no friends or family, nor his band; he took one guy along to see to his creature comforts, and that guy’s second job was to be invisible. For most of the book I was convinced that the farmhouse was in Nebraska; nope. New Jersey. And it seems that my lack of enthusiasm for this music was not atypical:

“Nebraska was going to ask a lot of the listeners. If they loved Springsteen for the sliver of hope and possibility of redemption his songs offered, they were out of luck with Nebraska. If they loved the sound of the E Street Band and the way Springsteen led the group, that, too, was gone. If they loved the way he produced and arranged the songs into recordings rich in dynamics, nope, it wasn’t there in the same way…This was the sound of a man forcing out songs while held under water, a rough hand on his neck.”

The album’s structured to tell the story of murderer Charles Starkweather and his accomplice, Caril Fulgate. He tells the story without judgment, and considers the characters to be a pivotal part of his work.

Here’s the fun part. As Springsteen wrote and recorded the songs, one after another, right there in the master bedroom of the house he was renting, he didn’t worry about any of the finer points of recording, because these were essentially supposed to be demos. For musicians that don’t read or write music in the formal manner, the demos are critical. How will you remember the song you came up with when it’s time to put the album together? You need a recording. So there was Bruce, perched on the end of the bed, with the water damaged Panasonic boom box nearby. He pops in a cassette and commences recording. He writes prolifically, practically vomiting up song, after song, after song. Sometimes you can’t feel better until you get it all out of your system, right?

But later on, when it’s time to do the mixing and whatever technical processes usually go into a professional recording—which Zanes describes in an easy to follow manner—nothing works. After trying every imaginable method, they end up publishing the music on the cassette, exactly as he recorded it.

Those that want the full story of Springsteen’s life should read his autobiography, Born to Run, which is excellent. But there’s a lot to recommend this smaller little slice of the least known part of this rock and roll icon’s life. For those that love Springsteen’s music, and for those interested in rock music in general, or the technical side of recording, this book is highly recommended.

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"Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska" by Warren Zanes

"Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska" by Warren Zanes

Print length: 277 Pages

Publisher ‏ : ‎ Crown

Publication date ‏ : ‎ May 2, 2023

"Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska" by Warren Zanes offers a captivating exploration of Bruce Springsteen's album "Nebraska" and its profound significance in his career. Zanes, a former guitarist for the Del Fuegos and someone who has briefly shared the stage with Springsteen, takes readers on a journey through the background and creation of this unexpected and influential record. In this illuminating account, Zanes unravels the enigma that is "Nebraska," a stark departure from Springsteen's usual bombastic rock anthems, and examines the profound impact it had on both Springsteen's artistic trajectory and the music industry as a whole. Through meticulous research and personal insights, Zanes sheds light on the origins, themes, and enduring legacy of this groundbreaking album.

Released in 1982, "Nebraska" deviated from the expected path that followed Springsteen's highly successful album, "The River." (Columbia, 1980) Rather than delivering a hit-packed album like "Born in the U.S.A.," (Columbia, 1984) Springsteen presented a collection of dark, introspective songs that he had recorded alone on a simple four-track cassette recorder. Despite its raw and unfinished nature, "Nebraska" has become one of Springsteen's most important albums, offering profound insights into both his artistic vision and personal struggles. The album stands as a haunting and introspective masterpiece, capturing a bleakness rarely seen in popular music.

“Nebraska” became the doorway to my fascination with Bruce Springsteen's world. I stumbled upon it by chance in my friend's dad's CD collection, and driven by pure curiosity, I picked up the album with its enigmatic cover photo. Back in the '80s, I wasn't a fan of his, and the popular hits of that era held no meaning for me. I was too young to understand and appreciate his songs. However, “Nebraska” proved to be a distinct experience, unlocking a new realm that continues to captivate me to this very day. Needless to say, his music gradually grew on me, and I transformed into an ardent fan.

In "Deliver Me from Nowhere," Zanes takes readers back to the era when "Nebraska" emerged, providing a behind-the-scenes glimpse into Springsteen's creative process and the influences that shaped this enigmatic album. Through interviews with over a dozen artists and music insiders, including Springsteen himself, Zanes weaves together a multifaceted account of the album's creation. No stone is left unturned as Zanes delves into the technical details of the recording process and the challenges faced in transforming the home-recorded demos into a releaseable album.

During the early ‘80s, Springsteen experienced a profound sense of alienation and a yearning for connection. He channeled these emotions into his songwriting, resulting in a collection of 15 songs that would become the demo tape for "Nebraska." Initially intending to record the songs with his band in a professional studio, Springsteen found that the starkness and rawness of the original demos captured the true essence of the compositions. The decision to release the album as it was, masterfully created on a four-track tape machine in Springsteen's own bedroom, added to the haunting and intimate quality of the songs.

His earlier albums were imbued with darkness, reflecting the tumultuous times of the Vietnam era and the struggles of the working class. However, even amidst the bleakness, there was always a glimmer of hope and the promise of salvation. Springsteen sought his own deliverance on the rock 'n' roll stage, using music as a transformative force that could bridge the gap between artist and audience. But as he reached the pinnacle of success, he found himself yearning for something more, disillusioned by the emptiness he perceived in society.

Zanes skillfully delves into the musical and artistic inspirations that informed "Nebraska," including the influence of rockabilly obscurities and anti-commercial punk songs. He also explores the literary and cinematic references that contributed to the album's unique atmosphere. The songs' lyrics paint vivid pictures of desolation and despair, revealing the influence of literature in shaping Springsteen's artistic vision and the powerful emotions conveyed in the album. With evocative storytelling, Springsteen creates characters and narratives that resonate with listeners on a profound level. The record seems to be populated with a diverse cast of characters whose tales and destinies are told in the form of songs, reminiscent of the great American tradition of short story writers such as Raymond Carver or Flannery O'Connor. This approach is probably best exemplified in Bob Dylan’s songwriting, where the songs aren’t just songs but short stories that impact listeners on multiple levels. In the same manner, Springsteen’s songs aren’t just songs, they are short stories.

"Nebraska" stands as a testament to Springsteen’s artistic depth and his ability to draw inspiration from a diverse range of sources. As Springsteen sought to capture the essence of the desolate world he saw around him, he turned to literature for inspiration. In particular, the renowned Southern Gothic writer Flannery O'Connor's unflinching exploration of the human condition and powerful portrayals of moral dilemmas resonate throughout the album. Springsteen's lyrics in songs like "Johnny 99" and "Highway Patrolman" capture the essence of O'Connor's characters, who often struggle with guilt, redemption, and the consequences of their actions.

"Nebraska" also delves into the rich traditions of American folk music, drawing inspiration from its storytelling roots. The album echoes the spirit of Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl ballads, capturing the struggles of ordinary people and their deferred dreams. Songs like "Atlantic City" and "Reason to Believe" reflect this influence, evoking a sense of social commentary and a connection to the broader folk tradition.

Movies like Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" and Terrence Malick's "Badlands" also left a profound impact on Springsteen, merging with his own memories of childhood and family as depicted in songs such as “Mansion on the Hill,” “My Father’s House,” and “Used Cars.” Each track on the album paints a picture of a world marked by isolation, crime, and despair. From the chilling tale of a murderer on the run in the title track to the desperation of an unemployed worker turned criminal in "Johnny 99," Springsteen explores the fringes of society through deeply introspective narratives. The songs are filled with characters pushed to their limits, trapped in circumstances beyond their control. Themes of loss, longing, and the search for meaning echo throughout the album, reflecting Springsteen's own experiences and the societal struggles of the time.

The first half of the '80s marked Bruce Springsteen's most productive and influential period in his career. During this time, Springsteen experienced a surge of creativity, resulting in an enormous output of songs that would shape the musical landscape of the era. This prolific period not only impacted this record but also spilled over to other records, most notably the iconic “Born in the USA” song that was produced during the Nebraska sessions.

In addition to the impact made by this particular song, the Nebraska experience provided Springsteen with a new path to explore, which he did occasionally. The intimate and introspective nature of the album served as a departure from his blockbuster records, allowing him to delve into a more personal and contemplative realm. This creative detour paved the way for Springsteen's later work, notably seen in the album "The Ghost of Tom Joad." (Columbia Records, 1995). This record continued Springsteen's exploration of stripped-down and socially conscious songwriting. It showcased his ability to tackle poignant themes and deliver powerful narratives that resonate with listeners.

The emotional depth of the book is enhanced by Zanes' candid discussions with Springsteen, where the artist opens up about his personal struggles and battles with depression and anxiety during that period. Throughout the book, Zanes demonstrates his deep connection to and personal reflection on "Nebraska." His analysis of the album's profound impact on listeners and its enduring appeal is captivating. "Deliver Me From Nowhere" is a compelling read for music enthusiasts and fans of Springsteen's work. Zanes' expertise and passion for the subject shine through, offering a fresh perspective on one of Springsteen's most significant albums. By intertwining personal anecdotes, musical analysis, and cultural context, Zanes creates a ghost story that resonates long after the last page is turned.

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The following review appeared in my DISPATCHES newsletter's June 2023 issue. The link is at the bottom of the page. Excellent book and thank you for the ARC!

"Springsteen’s Nebraska was a pivotal record for me. When I first heard it, I felt like I’d just heard the soundtrack to a very dark America. The hauntingly spare music and aching, broken voice immediately intrigued me. I felt like I’d been visited by a ghost who shared some of the bleakest stories I’d ever heard this side of Flannery O’Connor. “Is this song in the voice of a serial killer?” I remember thinking, stunned at the revelation. Learning Springsteen recorded the LP in his bedroom on a four track machine blew my mind. Was such a thing even possible? It shattered what everyone thought had to be done up until then.

Warren Zanes has done an extraordinary job of telling the history of what led up to Nebraska’s recording and the impact it’s had since. Even long-time, die hard fans will gain lots of new insights. A fascinating read exploring the deep psychology and creative process Bruce went through. A phenomenal book about an amazing LP. There’s been a ton of coverage about this book and story for anyone wanting to learn more. Zanes interview with Hal and Flynn on the None But The Brave podcast was a terrific deep dive into not only Nebraska, but his own journey as a creative, spanning his youth in the Del Fuegos to his current life as a writer. Very inspiring stuff all around. "

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Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for the opportunity to read Warren Zanes' Deliver Me from Nowhere. Anyone following Bruce Springsteen's long career is going to want to read this book. The mythicism surrounding Nebraska is explored and discussed and remains mysterious and mythical. An earlier reviewer described the book as "a biography of an album . . ." which is, i think, perfect.

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My thanks to both NetGalley and the publisher Crown Publishing for an advance copy of this history on the making of one of Bruce Springsteen's best albums, one that's influence continues to this day.

Growing up I was familiar with Bruce Springsteen, but not really a fan. I liked the songs, especially the Born in the U.S.A. songs, which were inescapable on MTV and on FM radio which I was starting to listen to a lot. My taste was probably more prog at the time, rather than rock. When I began working at an independent music store, which carried an amazing amount of bootlegs, the statue of limitations has to be over for that, and I was stunned by the amount of Springsteen boots. All of them featuring 15 to 30 copies of the same songs. Slowly I grew to appreciate the Boss, hearing Nebraska for the first time solidified my thoughts in thinking, this guy is special. The music was everything I didn't like, not jazz, not 20 minutes long, not Rush, but I was enthralled. The sparse sound, the mistakes, the recording quality, the songs. It was almost a bootleg in sound, and I could not get over that anyone would release this. Especially that it came before Springsteen biggest album. Warren Zanes has in Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska written a biography of an album, what created it, how, the reception of the album, and the special place that many have for this rare work of art.

Warren Zanes was practicing with his band, the Del Fuegos, when he first met Bruce Springsteen who came in to tell them that their album was great, jammed on a few songs, and like a ghost was gone. Zanes was a fan of Springsteen's especially the Nebraska album, one of which he knew many other musicians of the early 80's also had a love for. Zanes has since become a writer of music biographies, a college professor, and worked on movies, and had the idea that he needed to write about this special album. Zanes discusses the album with musicians, members of Springsteen inner circle and of course the Boss himself. Zanes looks at the creation, why Springsteen needed to create such a dark album, and the influences from books, films and more. Every aspect is looked at from recording in a small bedroom, to the reception of the album by Springsteen's record label.

Zanes is a very good writer who understands both the life of a band, writing music, and working in the record industry. Zanes knowledge of the creative arts allows him to understand what went into the making of this album, which really wasn't supposed to be an album, just a series of demos for the band to work on better in the studio. Zanes can look at the lyrics, and explain bot influences and allusions, as well as describe the TEAC 144 recorder that Springsteen used to tape his demos. Having Springsteen's assistance on the project helps quite a bit, and really fills out the story. Of course with a lot of very creative people in the room, some stories are a little biased one way or the other, but Zanes does a really wonderful job of getting to the truth. A very rare kind of music book, one that I really loved.

This is a book not only on music, but on creativity. Sometimes the simplest art can hit the hardest. I listened to this album quite a bit while reading, and the songs still have a power to them, a power that is rare now, though there are quite a few bedroom rappers who come close. A lot of things had to happen to make this album, and Zanes does a very good job of describing all of them. Recommended for fans of Bruce, and for music fans in general. Also for creative people. Springsteen had no idea he was making an album, something he could never do again. However he made art that will last. All an artist can do is try, and maybe, possibly, hopefully the art will resound with others like Nebraska did.

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"Nebraska was a cave painting in the age of photography."

This quote by the author sums up what makes Nebraska such an enduring record. And the more you read about the origins and history of it, the more shocking it becomes that it was released when it was. If this record had come out in 2023 as a collection of demos related to Born In The USA, the songs would still be amazing, but we would have been robbed of all the artists and albums that were influenced by it. Zanes is a musician and he knows what to ask when he has access to The Boss. Great read for fans of Springsteen and music fans in general.

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