“I lived in this house exactly half a lifetime ago,” said Bruce Springsteen. It might not look like much, but this small bedroom in Colts Neck, New Jersey, which still sports the original orange shag rug, is where Springsteen created what he considered his masterpiece: his 1982 album “Nebraska,” ten songs. Dark and sad. “This is the room where it happened,” he said.
I saw him standing on his front lawn just twirling his baton
Me and him went riding, sir, and ten innocent people died
From the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, .410 with a saw in my lap
In the badlands of Wyoming I killed everything in my path
“If I had to pick an album and say, ‘This will represent you 50 years from now,’ I’d pick ‘Nebraska,'” he said.
It was written 41 years ago at a time of great turmoil in Springsteen’s inner life: “I hit some personal wall that I didn’t know was there,” he said. “That was my first real major depression where I realized, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something about this.'”
“And you can’t succeed your way out of pain,” Axelrod said.
“No, you can’t. That’s a very good way to do it; you can’t get out of that pain.”
Coming off a highly successful tour for the album “The River”, he had his first top 10 hit, “Hungry Heart”. He is 32 years old, a true rock star surrounded by success and learning its limits.
“Your rock ‘n’ roll meds, singing in front of 40,000 people, that’s anesthesia,” Axelrod said.
“Yeah, and it worked for me,” Springsteen said. “I think in your 20s, a lot of things work for you. In your 30s you start to become an adult. Suddenly I look around and say, ‘Where’s everything? Where’s my house? Where’s my partner? Where? Son. Not the girl that I thought would be someday?’ And I realized that none of these things were there.
“So, I said, ‘Well, the first thing I have to do as soon as I get home is remind myself of who I am and where I come from.’
At the certain farmhouse he rents, he tries to understand why his success has left him so isolated. “This is all inside me,” he said. “You can either take it and turn it into something positive, or it can destroy you.”
Author Warren Janes says, “There are records, films, books that don’t just come in the front door. They come in the back door, they come up through a trap door and stay with you for life.”
Janes’ new book, “Deliver Me From Nowhere,” offers an in-depth and moving examination of the making of “Nebraska.”
Springsteen’s pain was rooted in a lonely childhood. “Here’s Bruce Springsteen making a record kind of from the bottom up in his own life,” Janes said. “They were very poor. And then he became Bruce Springsteen. He felt that his past was complicating his present. And he wanted to get rid of it.”
For Springsteen, redemption has always come through writing. While he filled notebook after notebook (“It’s funny, because I don’t remember all this work!” he thought through his writing), the album didn’t come together until late at night when he was channel surfing and stumbled across “Badlands,” Charles. Terrence Malick’s film about Starkweather, whose murders were released in 1957 and ’58, mainly in Nebraska. He said, “I actually called the reporter who reported that story in Nebraska. And amazingly enough, she was still at the newspaper. And she’s a lovely lady, and we talked for half an hour or so. And it was just sorted. It made me focus on the feeling of what I wanted to write about.”
In A Serial Killer, Springsteen Found a Museum:
I can’t say I’m sorry for what we did
At least for a while, sir, me and her, we had some fun…
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there is only one inhumanity in this world
“‘There is an inhumanity in this world.’ That explains everything about Starkweather,” Axelrod said.
“Yeah, I tried to find out where their humanity was, as much as I could,” Springsteen said.
In a burst of creativity, he wrote 15 songs in a few weeks and had time to record them on a 4-track cassette machine one January night in 1982. One of rock’s biggest stars sat alone in this bedroom and sang, finding just the sound he was looking for.
And acoustics? “Not bad,” Springsteen said. “The orange shag carpet really kills it. Not only did it look good, it came in handy!”
Some songs explore lingering confusion from childhood, such as “My Father’s House”:
I went up the stairs and stood on the balcony
A woman I didn’t recognize came and spoke to me
Through the chained door
I told him my story and who I came for
He said, “I’m sorry, son, but there’s no one by that name
Springsteen said, “‘Mansion on the Hill,’ ‘My Father’s House,’ ‘Used Cars,’ they’re all written from the point of view of children, children trying to understand the world they’re born into.”
Others left profiles of adults, or left behind. Springsteen maintained, the music had a “very harsh, dark, lonely sound. Very harsh, very bare bones.”
On a broken-down boom box, Springsteen mixed songs to a cassette tape he carried in his back pocket for weeks. “I wish you had a plastic case on it, at least,” Axelrod said.
“I don’t think I had a case,” he replied. “I’m lucky I didn’t lose it!”
Springsteen’s band would record what he had on cassette, but the big and bold wasn’t what he was looking for: “It was a happy accident,” he said. “I planned to write some good songs, teach the band, go into the studio and record them. But every time I tried to improve on that tape I made in that little room? It’s the old story: If it gets better, it’s going to get worse. ”
Bruce Springsteen was working not E Street, but a whole other street. According to Janes, “‘Nebraska’ was muddy. It was unfinished. It wasn’t finished. All the things you shouldn’t put out, he took out.”
Everything dies, baby, that’s the truth
But everything that dies may come back
Put on your makeup, fix your hair nicely
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City
“Was any part of you worried, ‘Oh my goodness, what am I putting in there?'” Axelrod asked.
“I knew what the ‘Nebraska’ record was,” Springsteen said. “It was also a signal that I was sending that said, ‘I’ve had some success, but I do what I want to do. I make the records I want to make. I’m trying to tell a bigger story, and this is what I do for you. trying to.'”
A few more songs that didn’t make the cut? You’ve probably heard them later, including “Born in the USA,” “Pink Cadillac,” and “Downbound Train”—songs written by a man in a leather jacket who wrote about a chrome-wheeled fuel-injected suicide machine kept in a binder. Snoopy on the cover.
In that small bedroom, Springsteen the Rocker made an album that revealed Springsteen as a poet. Imagine for a moment if he wasn’t there. Axelrod thought, “And then people might look back on the career and say, ‘Oh, that was great, man, 70,000 people in the stadium singing “Rosalita.”‘ But considering what you’ve done, it might be close to where it ended up.”
“Yeah. I was interested in more than just that,” Springsteen said. “I loved doing it. I still love doing it today. But I wanted more than that.”
“If they want to enjoy your work, try something; if they want to understand your work, try ‘Nebraska’?” asked Axelrod.
“Yes, I would agree with that,” he replied. “I would certainly agree with that.”
Read an excerpt: “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska'”.
You can stream Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” by clicking the embed below (free Spotify registration required to listen to tracks in full):
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The story was produced by Jason Saka. Editor: Ed Givenish.
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