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In his latest book, “Deliver Me From Where: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska'”. (published May 2 by Crown), New York Times bestselling author and Grammy-nominated documentary producer Warren Janes explores the origins of one of Springsteen’s most personal albums.
In this piece below, Janes writes about the joys and challenges of interviewing a rock legend.
Don’t miss Jim Axelrod’s interview with Janes and Springsteen on “CBS Sunday Morning” April 30!
“Deliver Me From Nowhere” by Warren Janes
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Photography has something to do with resurrection. – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
In the spring of 2021, Bruce Springsteen invited me to spend some time with him in Colts Neck, New Jersey, so we could talk about Nebraska. When I arrived, he went to my car to meet me. When it was all over, he took me out. Everything was hand delivered. I wish I had parked three miles away. I grew up listening to the man’s records. I had a lot of questions, all of which I shouldn’t bother him with.
Springsteen lives with the joys and burdens of people demanding his time. The intimacy of music brings out something in people. He has probably scraped off hundreds of us just to stay on schedule. But I was his guest that day, and he was as good a host as I could ask for. He gave me water to drink and then asked if I needed more. Later in the afternoon he thought it would be better to have coffee. I was in the family home and – I think we both understood – his responsibility. I have to clean up any mess I made.
I wanted to know where Nebraska came from, what it brought. It sat between two of Springsteen’s most famous recordings, in his own calm and turmoil. He described it to me as “an accidental ending” but also as an album that “might be (his) best yet.” The recording comes from a place and a time where Springsteen was facing problems in his life, problems that didn’t yet have a name. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous outpouring of strong feelings…recollected in tranquillity.” Quite differently, Nebraska came from the middle of that “stream,” not a thing “remembered in the Pacific.” It came from a heart of suffering and led to more, its harsh character a lasting reward.
Nebraska was unfinished, incomplete, delivered to a world teetering on the brink of the digital, when technology would allow recorded music to suspend itself in perfect time, to carry perfect pitch, but also risk losing its connection to the undefined and indefinite. Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, recalled for me several afternoons how he got to Nebraska, at his home in Westchester. Chuck Plotkin, one of Springsteen’s producers and a key player in the late stages of making Nebraska, will talk about the painstaking labor of bringing the album up to industry standards. But Springsteen knew the most by now, because it came from his bedroom.
While we were talking in Colts Neck that day, Patti Scialfa was recording next door. There were a few others around, but everyone left us alone. Patti was in the process of turning a song into a recording. For all the hours of talk, sweat, and diligence involved in making a record, it’s important to remember that the process is also one of the highest forms of joy, especially when you’re recording your own song or a song you love that you feel is meant to be… And it happens without complications. Any song can become a thousand different records, but sometimes the recording studio is a place of pure lightness as recording a song should be. That afternoon in Colts Neck, you realized everything was going well in the studio next door.
But I was in another room with Springsteen, doing something very different. On one level, I was probing, asking about a time in her life that wasn’t easy. Given the way Springsteen has given interviews throughout his career, it should come as no surprise that he holds nothing back. Where he didn’t have answers or questions of his own, he didn’t pretend to know it all. Some combination of investment in truth and what appeared to be genuine wonder made him a vulnerable ally.
I’ve been to Colts Neck House once before, on that occasion as a consulting producer for the documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom. The director, Morgan Neville, was conducting the interview that day and had a good few pages of questions. But I always remembered that Springsteen passed the first of those questions, which surprised me. As a question it was a good opener, appropriate, well delivered. But Springsteen’s “What else you got?”
Whether it was intended or not, that reaction drained the energy of the room. Honestly, I’ve never seen such an interview start. “What else did you get?” From that point forward the room belonged to Springsteen. In the second question, he took the filmmakers to a room that was slightly off-axis. He photographed singers on Phil Spector’s recordings, including his friend Darlene Love, helping us to hear and consider young people in their voices. He clearly thought deeply about backup singers, film subjects, and the emotional layer of adding those voices to so many great recordings. This was storytellers at work, not a question-and-answer session.
A story he told that day in Colts Neck revolved around his trip to the David Bowie sessions in Philadelphia at the Greyhound, where Bowie was cutting two Springsteen songs. Bruce Springsteen was a nobody back then, just a weird name suggesting something other than what was to come. Luther Vandross, a key figure in Twenty Feet since stardom, was at the same Bowie session, singing and providing backup on Bowie’s “Young Americans”. An early edit of the documentary already included some clips from that session, with Luther Vandross leading the small vocal combo that added so much to “Young American.” No one knew that Bruce Springsteen was lurking in the shadows, watching it go down. Pure coincidence. That is, no one knew Springsteen was there that day until he told the story at his Colts Neck home.
Twenty Feet From Stardom was given a new edit shortly after that interview. From there the film started with Springsteen. He was good at that. But I will tell you this, the experience made me consider at some length the first question I planned to ask during my Nebraska interview, my second visit to Colts Neck. I didn’t want to hear him say, “What else have you got?” I wasn’t sure I had the backbone to listen to it and still be prepared for the next question. So I devised a foolproof method to avoid such a moment: make it a yes-or-no question.
WZ: Are there any pictures of the room where you recorded Nebraska?
He answered my first question. But we quickly get to the second question. Fortunately, I had another one ready to go. But what is the first?
I wanted to see that room because something important had been built there, and I wanted to know if, by looking at a photograph of space, I could see traces of what had happened, the outline of Nebraska. And maybe those photographic traces can bring it back to me, a resurrection, a resurrection. Pictures of its predecessor, Holmdel Farmhouse, are easy to find online. Whether you see Springsteen in them or not, whether the amps and guitars are in the house or not, you look at them knowing who was once there and what was done at that time, much of Darkness on the Edge of Town and River. The houses begin to breathe.
Apparently, even Bob Dylan tried himself to visit one of Springsteen’s creative spaces, empty and good after the fact. It was a rainy night in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 2009, when police picked up Dylan from a neighborhood where Springsteen had not written the entirety of the Born to Run album. Some rapid if speculative reporting catches the phenomenon.
Police contacted Dylan when the future Nobel laureate had a house up for sale, apparently investigating the property. The proximity of Springsteen’s former rentals, along with some recent visits to the childhood homes of Neil Young and John Lennon with Dylan, gave interested journalists a base to work from. As The Guardian reported:
One of Dylan’s hobbies is researching the backgrounds of musicians who influenced the rock world in the 1960s and 1970s. Last November he showed up unannounced at a Winnipeg home where Canadian rock star Neil Young grew up. Kiernan and Patty Regan come home from shopping to find him waiting on their doorstep and invite him inside.
Then, in May, Dylan paid the £16 entrance fee and mingled anonymously with tourists at John Lennon’s childhood home in Woolton, Liverpool.
Finally, last month, homeowners in Long Branch, 30 miles south of New York, called authorities after they saw them wandering along a residential street and entering the yard of an up-for-sale home.
VJ VJ, Dylan, 68, gave his name to 24-year-old police officer Christy Buble and informed her that he was in town to headline a concert with country star Willie Nelson and rocker John Mellencamp. He was suspicious.
Excerpted from “Deliver Me From Nowhere” by Warren Janes. Copyright © 2023 by Warren Janes. Cited by permission of the Crown. All rights reserved. No part of this section may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.
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