Book Review: Warren Zanes “Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska”

Random House Inc, 2023

When a tortured artist sat in a bedroom recording demos on a cassette tape… and came out with a lo-fi masterpiece.

"Deliver Me from Nowhere" Warren Zanes Book CoverThe epilogue to this book has Warren Zanes being contacted by Bruce Springsteen to ask if he’d like to visit the bedroom where ‘Nebraska’ was made. This was before Jim Axelrod’s invite, for a CBS Sunday Morning news story on the landmark album. Zanes got interviewed for the CBS story. He is a worthy contributor and his book ‘Deliver Me From Nowhere’ gets a plug. What is clear, is that both gentlemen behave like pilgrims allowed access to an almost mythological figure and a revered location.

I’m not a believer but I am a huge fan of ‘Nebraska’. Indeed, I only bought this book for research thinking I’d write about ‘Nebraska’ for the classic Americana album feature. I even watched the Terrence Malick film for the first time. Sissy Spacek does indeed twirl that baton on her front lawn. I was seventeen in 1982. Believe it or not I first heard the album in a car, on a friend’s cassette tape while driving through a dark Angus night. Is resonated the right word? My own vinyl copy was bought the following summer in Pula before the collapse of Yugoslavia. I can’t remember where I lost the outer sleeve. I still think I can sing a decent version of ‘Reason to Believe’. Past friends and lovers might say otherwise. I know the chords and the words to all ten tracks. The album means a lot. However, I don’t think I can write anything more interesting, enlightening or persuasive about ‘Nebraska’. It is a classic album and there’s a shedload of more eloquent writers out there singing its praises.

Zanes is an eloquent writer. He also knows a lot of celebrated artists and musical insiders who were willing to give their reactions to the album. Without giving too much away, ‘Deliver Me From Nowhere’ chronicles where Springsteen’s mind was at pre and post ‘Nebraska’. It also describes the recording done on a simple four-track tape machine before the digital home-recording revolution. “I was writing a type of song that I probably would have been embarrassed to sit down and sing in front of the band in the studio”, Springsteen admits to Zanes. The book further tracks the steps needed to extract the music from that cassette tape before the album’s release. Zanes describes ‘Nebraska’ as a cave painting in the age of photography.

Zanes definitely nails the album’s provenance. He interviewed the wonderful Patty Griffin and she also gets the darkness within ‘Nebraska’. “To me, Nebraska is an album-length description of how America has struggled to find its soul, has never had much of an identity beyond the brand that’s been sold over and over again to people living here. But lives are lived behind the brand, and Springsteen is unearthing them, exposing them to the light.”

Springsteen wasn’t quite alone in his bedroom. Road crew member Mike Batlan purchased and handled the TEAC 144 used for recording ‘Nebraska’ at the rented house in Colts Neck. He has a recording credit on the album. Batlan is not interviewed for the book perhaps because of a settled lawsuit back in 1991. He certainly contributed to Bruce’s golden era. The tech challenges of mixing and mastering ‘Nebraska’ and the realisation that re-recording the tracks with the E Street band didn’t work makes for fascinating reading. As does the coexistence and build up to the release of ‘Born in the USA’. “The albums were going to be two ways of answering the same question, a question that Springsteen had turned over in his mind many times: Should I really go after the big success? He answered no with Nebraska, and then he answered yes with Born in the USA.” An art house movie and Star Wars is how Jon Landau compared them.

It is easy to mythologise Springsteen. Near the end of his book Zanes can’t help himself, likening the man to Odysseus. He calls the invitation to view the house, “my pilgrimage”. When Springsteen picks Zanes up in a very clean blue 1970 El Camino (“Patti got it for me after Western Stars”) he’s not the same fella who wrote ‘Used Cars’. He can’t be. Viewing the house or walking on that orange shag carpet wouldn’t be on my bucket list. The closest thing to a relic I’d like to see from that time would be that original cassette tape. What happened to it? The one Springsteen sent to Jon Landau and then, by all accounts, was in and out of Springsteen’s pockets in the weeks to come. Imagine if he’d lost it?

If you are a fan of Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ this is a very satisfying read. If you’re a zealot you will probably own the book already. There’s no doubt Zanes has written a brilliant book that definitely enhances the enjoyment of revisiting this classic album.

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