Warren Zanes Talks Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska

Inside the author’s new book Deliver Me From Nowhere

Warren Zanes’ Deliver Me From Nowhere (Image: Penguin Books)

Oh, for – are you kidding? Another friggin’ article about this book?

I know, I know. Humor me, though, okay? And hang in there, because the book’s author has a few things to say, too.

See, here’s the thing. I’ve been a Springsteen fan since my first show in 1978. I’ve always loved Nebraska; I reviewed it when it came out (for The Island Ear music paper on Long Island), and again when it celebrated its 40th birthday (for Rock and Roll Globe).

If I ever saw anywhere that proto-punk duo Suicide was mentioned as an influence on Nebraska, it never registered in my brain. Suicide consisted of vocalist Alan Vega and instrumentalist Martin Rev, who provided beats and minimalist electronica. Their sound was about the farthest thing imaginable from “Jungleland” and “Incident on 57th Street.”


AUDIO: Suicide “Frankie Teardrop”

Early in his book, Warren Zanes points readers to “Frankie Teardrop” from Suicide’s eponymous debut, a 1977 album that received blisteringly negative reviews from Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. Referring to the song in 1984, Springsteen told Rolling Stone it was “one of the most amazing records I ever heard.”

So before you read any further: Go listen to “State Trooper” off Nebraska, then go listen to “Frankie Teardrop”. No, seriously, go ahead. I’ll wait.

You’re still reading? Okay, consider this: “Frankie Teardrop” is the story of a poverty-stricken factory worker who goes insane, murders his wife and child, commits suicide and winds up in hell.

Okay, now go listen. 


Do you hear that?

That yell at the end of “State Trooper” echoes those yells in “Frankie Teardrop.” It makes one think a little differently about what might come next for that troubled guy on the New Jersey Turnpike.

And that’s the thing: Deliver Me from Nowhere is full of nuggets like that. Sure, the usual stories about what influenced the album are there (Terrence Malick’s Badlands, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor), but Zanes digs so much deeper. He explores the subtleties in those influences that might well have resonated with Springsteen at that particular point in time and moved him in this or that musical direction.

Warren Zanes (Image: Penguin Books)

The result is like a superb documentary film: one part Ken Burns, one part Law & Order procedural, all infused with love and admiration for Springsteen, who didn’t do interviews about Nebraska when it was released, but discussed the album with Zanes for this book. 

“I think Nebraska has been a thing of collective fascination for a long time, and a book-length exploration of its making had a ready audience,” Zanes told me when I asked about the unique success of this book. “I give the recording credit for the success of the book. Bruce released something that was unfinished, imperfect, a recording that couldn’t be cleaned up to meet commercial standards – but he felt in his gut it was exactly right for the songs. He made a decision based solely on the art, and we don’t see a lot of this, for good reason. But a lot of people found it inspiring, myself included. When shit goes down in my life, I reach for Nebraska. And I’m one of many. In writing the book, I kind of wanted to know why. And there are others who seem to feel the same way.”

Zanes brings some serious cred to his writing: A member of the Del Fuegos who has shared the stage with Springsteen, he’s served as a vice president at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, consulted on the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, wrote Petty: The Biography, and served as executive director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation … for starters. He’s not another fan speculating about what might have been happening at the time of Nebraska’s creation – he’s been there, done that, and knows what the hell he’s writing about.

“The truth is, I wrote this book twice,” Zanes said. “There’s a version two times the length of the one that was published. So there’s a lot that got set aside. But writing books is a little like making records: record thirty songs, release twelve. When you record only twelve songs and release all of them, you’re probably not putting out your best record. In this case, the longer version of the book wasn’t the one to publish.

“But, that said, I needed to write every word of that first manuscript,” Zanes continued, “even if so much of it will never have an audience. I was finding my way. Nebraska is lean, has economy and a gut punch, emotion and some bursts of violence. The music itself provided a kind of model for me, as is often the case with books about music.”

Bruce Springsteen Nebraska, Columbia Records 1982

And as is the case with the very best books about music, you may come away from Deliver Me from Nowhere having your understanding of the album (arguably the most consequential in the Springsteen canon) and of how Springsteen crafts the magic trick of his musical persona (pay attention to the Hank Mizell “Jungle Rock” references) significantly changed.

“I came to respect Nebraska and Bruce Springsteen to an even greater degree,” Zanes told me when I asked him how his views of the album were affected as the result of doing this book. “I went away wishing that every artist I love would make their Nebraskas. I want to get in the room, see them working, see the struggle, the self-doubt, the uncertainty.

“Final products often erase all of that,” Zanes added, “but we know the process of art is messy, wayward, even despairing at times. Nebraska exposes so much of that. I don’t think every recording should do that, but it’s moving to have this example. We make excuses for NOT making art. Nebraska leaves us less room for such excuses. It tells us to stop trying to make it perfect and get on with making it.”




Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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