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Bruce Springsteen and the spectre of stardom

In 1981, the singer sensed his future fame – and retreated. Nebraska, his darkest and most personal album, was the result.

By Ed Smith

I was about ten years old when I first heard songs from Bruce Springsteen’s darkest album, Nebraska. Only now do I see how fully they succeeded, even for a listener very removed from its subject.

My dad had just bought the new triple cassette of collected Springsteen songs, Live 1975-85, which shows off Springsteen in his stadium-rock pomp: blazing floodlights, cut-off denim shirt, bulging biceps and, barely out of view, the ecstatic euphoria of packed sports arenas across the US.

But Springsteen likes to subvert expectations and there is always a counter-rhythm. The live albums found room for a run of songs from Nebraska, the introspective solo record he released in 1982, two years before the barnstorming Born in the USA. “Nebraska” itself, the first-person confessions of a serial killer (based on the true story of Charles Starkweather); then “Johnny 99”, the story of a bankrupt murderer; finally “Reason to Believe”. There is no redemption on offer here, just people coming off the tracks.

It’s many years ago, but I think I can remember what I thought and felt listening to those unblinking songs and the voice at their heart: life has gone wrong; things have not worked out. And that was it. No moralising. No searching for an authorial position. Just an acceptance of the unhappy facts. Life has gone wrong. Things have not worked out. As plain and unjudgemental as that.

Springsteen, immersed in stories of American despair, was reaching into the bedroom of an English kid in the Home Counties, with their perfect lawns fading into manicured cricket pitches. From the decaying Rust Belt into a Ralph Lauren pavilion. Quite a leap, but Nebraska had landed – clean and direct – into a ten-year-old’s world. Luck is cruel, justice is difficult, and that’s the world as it is. And to help us to see that, the artist might have to get judgements and opinions completely out of the picture, to the wipe the lens clear.

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[See also: It’s his life: the secluded world of Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis]

Warren Zanes’ superb new book, Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, shows us Springsteen on the brink of a breakdown, drifting away from his band and his girlfriend. In the autumn of 1981, he rents a drab property in Colts Neck, New Jersey, where he withdraws into films and books about the dark side of the American Dream. He is also burrowing back towards his own difficult childhood. That’s central to Nebraska, in which a child’s perspective often gives the album a primitive directness and freedom from judgements.

Springsteen acquires what was then a new technology: a four-track home-recording system, the TEAC 144, which he installs in his bedroom. “It was beyond casual,” Springsteen reflects. He finds songs are coming to him fast, but he’s definitely “not making a record”, or so he tells himself. No, he’s just recording songs for himself, almost like little memos that he can re-record with the band at a later date.

But that transformation never materialises. When the band gathers months later, the bleak authenticity of the songs home-recorded at Colts Neck refuses to be reconfigured into a professional-sounding album. After many false starts, Springsteen eventually holds up the master tape to his technical team. “What’s the chance of mastering it directly from this?” he asks. They groan, “because here it was, mastering from a cassette you’d buy at Walgreens”.

And that’s Nebraska, which is released into the world with scarcely a scratch added to what Springsteen produced in the bedroom of a rental.

A classic album was created on the conviction that no one would ever hear it. By the most circuitous route, Springsteen had reached the place he needed to get to: if you’re only writing and singing for yourself, you might as well tell the whole truth.

By the early 1980s Springsteen is haunted by a peculiar kind of nightmare: megastardom. His previous three albums had been critically acclaimed, and now a final affirmation has arrived – the hit single and dance-floor filler, “Hungry Heart”. The tone of the song will find full expression in the 1984 album which takes Springsteen to the level of pop culture icon: Born in the USA. In January 1985, when pop music royalty come together to record a charity record in Los Angeles, Michael Jackson sees Springsteen’s empty beer can and asks to be photographed with it.

All that was still to come when Nebraska was created. But Springsteen can see the head-on collision looming. He has always craved big success, fought hard for it, but now senses the heavy price factored into the deal. Springsteen’s compulsion to succeed in the world, really succeed, brings fundamental tension with his desire to tell the truth as an artist. And Nebraska is created out of the need for the artist to have some place all of his own.

The album becomes a refuge from his future – epic celebrity, misappropriation by the “patriotic” right, accusations (potentially internal ones) of selling out, or at least overselling himself. Many future fans are going to arrive at his work through belted-out uptempo rock songs: so listeners are going to find Springsteen’s work back to front, tempted in by a superficially mainstream rock superstar and only then, if they’re serious or curious, delving into his earlier catalogue.

That’s a high-class problem for an artist to have, but a big problem if you’re Springsteen. He had long been preoccupied by the deindustrialisation of America; now he’s facing the industrialisation of himself. He’s not just uncomfortable about that, he’s horrified. And the bleakness of Nebraska offers a peculiar form of safety.

Springsteen has sensed that commercial success will hugely complicate, and at worst ruin, the task for which he was born. Nebraska is about wrestling his future triumphs into a more authentic story – rebalancing his work and how it will be seen. Springsteen is subtly undermining a phase of his life and career even before it happens.

Here I diverge a touch from the author. According to Zanes, the making of Nebraska depends on a series of authentic “failures” – the inability of the band and its leader to translate his bedroom recordings into studio material; then the impossibility of cleaning up the recording to make it more conventional and presentable. I don’t doubt Springsteen’s testimony that there was never an overarching or conscious plan. But I do suspect that Springsteen, in the tradition of instinctive creative savvy, both didn’t know what he was doing while also knowing exactly what he was doing. The primitive, echoey sound of the do-it-yourself TEAC machine – resistant to being polished up – artfully protects the album from slickness, from commercialism, protects it from other people full stop. Springsteen doesn’t just create Nebraska, he entombs it. Safe, all his own.

There is a moment in the book when a colleague tells Springsteen that technical flaws may make it impossible to release Nebraska at all. It’s the only time they’ve seen Springsteen cry.

[See also: The problem with Glastonbury]

Springsteen was right to see how he’d soon be misinterpreted. I’m one of millions of fans who was first introduced to Springsteen as That Very American Rock Star. Before 1985, there had only been two kinds of music in our family home: classical music and Bob Dylan. That changed on one long drive from my grandparents’ house, when my dad leant over to my sister and me in the back seat, turning on the car cassette player in our family Ford. “This could be loud,” was all he said, in a sensitive and slightly amused English way. And it was loud, but we were hooked, and where Born in the USA fitted in to the wider, darker Springsteen journey was for another day. First things first: wind down the windows, turn up the volume.

Yes, Reagan absurdly co-opted Born in the USA for his own dubious Make-America-Great-Again purposes. But it wasn’t just Reagan who misread the album. The sound sweeps you along, so you’re not always paying attention to the stories. That’s a total contrast with Nebraska, where the stories are close to being the only thing.

Springsteen argues that his big mistake was failing to leave a version of the song “Born in the USA” on Nebraska (where it started life). Different versions of the same song, he thinks, should have appeared on both his most commercial record and his least commercial one. That would have avoided a lot of mishaps. Instead, the two albums have an intense but polar relationship – bound together while miles apart.

The absence of a shared song makes the point in a different way. As with Wagner’s operas Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the albums fix two extremes on the Springsteen spectrum. Everything he has produced is somewhere between the two.

Zanes’ book is a model of how to use access. He has spent half a lifetime thinking about Nebraska. Instead of humbly “tidying up” the artist’s interpretation (Zanes interviewed Springsteen at length and in depth for the book), Zanes brought his own thought-out reading of the album, which the songwriter burnishes with personal touches and memories. The conversation between Springsteen and Zanes has its own imaginative energy. 

There is gold here for anyone interested in creativity. Springsteen has to work harder than some artistic talents – where Dylan smiles lightly and keeps moving, Springsteen is slogging it out – which means the creative process leaves more of a trace. In making Nebraska, we observe the artist willing himself towards the place he needs to go.

First, Springsteen has to convince himself that what he is doing, singing into a home-recording device in a bedroom, is just for himself. To reach his listeners most truthfully, he has to convince himself that they aren’t yet listening – a paradox that’s worth internalising.

A connected point: his authentic voice depends on freedom from consequences, especially career consequences. He’s as far as can be from being “led by the market” – a phenomenon that is getting worse all the time across the arts (especially the ghastly “book proposal”, in which publishers get writers to squeeze the pips out of an idea before it’s even come alive).

Third, “professionalism” is revealed as exactly what it is: the enemy of greatness. Professionalism can raise bad work to competence, but just as easily drag great work down to mediocrity. Springsteen wants to cleanse his life of professionals. He puts it like this:

“I was not interested in professionals. They like schedules. They like somebody who’s going to approach their work as a piece of work, and not very obsessively. I was into crafting an identity… I needed people who were going to be willing to go in as deep as I needed and was willing to go myself. Generally those are not professionals, just people who were passionate and had some skills.”

In assembling his team, Springsteen had no interest in their “track record”. His manager had never been a manager before. The mixer on one of his records had never mixed a record in his life. The less attached they were to what they’d done before, the more he liked it. The slate was clean. What mattered was that they had talent and were “all in”.

Backing talent and passion – and distrusting credentials – brings me back to how Deliver Me from Nowhere found its way into my hands. I had been chatting with the American football coaching guru Michael Lombardi about his former colleague Bill Walsh, who created the San Francisco 49ers dynasty in the 1980s. Walsh had only one principle when hiring: people who were “intelligent before they were anything else”, and preferably weren’t attached to doing things a particular way. It was easier to get good ideas into people, Walsh argued, than to get bad ideas out of them. Intelligence trumped experience hands down.

In the same conversation, Lombardi asked me about a book project he was planning, and I replied with something like this: “No publisher is ever going to tell you this, but instead of broader ‘takeaways’ and ‘life lessons’ and ticking those boxes, I want to read you writing on the things only you know, through the brilliant minds you’ve helped, and I want it so short and truthful that it might scarcely make 120 pages.”

The football coach smiled and said I needed to read a book. The next day, Zanes’ Deliver Me From Nowhere landed on my doorstep. Just like that – that’s how I read it.

Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska
Warren Zanes
Random House, 320pp, £23

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia