Least to Most: Bruce – Nebraska

“I saw her standing on her front lawn just twirlin’ her baton.
Me and her went for a ride sir and ten innocent people died.”

bruce_springsteen_-_nebraskaIt opens like countless Springsteen songs before (and since) with a guy and his girl going for a ride but with that opening verse’s change in direction to the dark, it’s clear that Nebraska is is a very different entry in the Springsteen catalogue.

It was the precursor to the lo-fi, bedroom recording fad would inform countless imitations in years to come as every singer/songwriter who fancied their salts as a ‘serious artiste’ grabbed an acoustic and holed themselves up with a four-track recorder in an effort to make their own Nebraska. But, in doing so, they’re overlooking the one key factor about this album which means that they fail in that element – Bruce never set out to record an album of such intimacy; the songs on Nebraska were meant as demos which he then went on to play to his band and try and capture full E Street versions.

After the mammoth sessions for previous albums like The River and Darkness On The Edge of Town, Springsteen realised that a huge amount of time was being spent in the studio working on song ideas. He’d go in with songs half-written or ready, record, take a break, write some more…  So he asked his engineer to find him some way of recording at home, so he could get down his demos ahead of the studio and reduce (expensive) session time.

As was the way with Bruce at the time, he was in a writing storm and cut a lot of demos – more than would make it to Nebraska. His manager was the first to hear them all, he got a cassette containing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, ‘Starkweather’ (which would become the title cut), ‘Atlantic City’, ‘Mansion on the Hill’, ‘Born in the USA’, ‘Johnny 99’, ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Losin’ Kind’, ‘State Trooper’, ‘Used Cars’, ‘Wanda (Open All Night)’, ‘Child Bride’ (which would go on to become ‘Working On The Highway’), ‘Pink Cadillac’, ‘Highway Patrolman’ and ‘Reason To Believe’. Songs that he said “were so dark they concerned me on a friendship level”.

While his manager wasn’t so sure, Springsteen was convinced he had the basics of his next album. But – as always – there was some time to spent before they’d be released. First he and Steven Van Zandt produced a second album for Gary U.S Bonds (for which Bruce wrote another seven songs) before trying to capture the songs with the E Street Band*. Legend has it that he walked around for weeks with the 4-track recordings on cassette in his back pocket as he tried, and failed, to capture versions of those songs that he was happy with. According to Steven Van Zandt it was he who intervened:

“I said to him, ‘Listen, I know this is a bit strange but I honestly think this is an album unto itself and I think you should release it.’ And he was like ‘What do you mean? It’s just demos for the band.’ And I’m like ‘I know you didn’t intended for this to be recorded but I just know greatness when I hear it, okay? It’s my thing, it’s why I’m a record producer and that’s why I’m your friend and I’m just telling you I think your fans will just love this and I think it’s actually an important piece of work. Because it captures this amazingly strange, weirdly cinematic kind of dreamlike mood. I don’t know what it is. All I know is I know greatness when I hear it and this is it, okay? And this deserves to be heard I think people will love it and I think it’s a unique opportunity to actually release something absurdly intimate.'”

Thinking about it, the folks at Columbia must have had some inkling as to what was to come after this one to have taken that bet – after the success of The River and ‘Hungry Heart’ to get them to agree to put out such a non-commercial album, even without any fanfare, as-is must have meant Jon Landau’s negotiating skills were at the forefront, promising the next one would be a hit maker.

From Nebraska, though, only two songs would be released as singles – ‘Atlantic City’ and  ‘Open All Night’ and those would only be released in the UK and Europe.

My introduction to this album outside of ‘Atlantic City’ on Greatest Hits (I always loved the line “Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but maybe everything that dies someday comes back”) came via the closing credits on an episode of The Sopranos in 1999 as ‘State Trooper’ pulsated hypnotically over the credits. I found it hard to connect the sound I was hearing to the man behind ‘Born In The USA’. I went and bought Nebraska (bundled in a ‘Nice Price’ double with Darkness On The Edge of Town that still barely leaves my car) the next day and it served as my first Springsteen album (compilations excluded) and a real introduction to brilliance of his craft.

I think Nebraska‘s beauty certainly lies in its recording, the rawness and immediacy make for a great listen and their relative brevity (by Serious Springsteen standards) mean that listening to the album in one sitting makes for an absorbing 40 minutes that isn’t as austere of heavy as, perhaps, the cover might suggest with songs like ‘Johnny 99’ and ‘Open All Night’ adding some upbeat, urgency to proceedings.

Nebraska saw those characters that Springsteen had, with Born To Run, put into cars on a journey to the promised land confront the hard, bitter truth that not everybody arrives and some have to deal with the fact that “there’s just a meanness in this world” that his narrative had, thus far, only skirted. It was the full album realisation of the writing paths he began walking with some of The River‘s more serious songs and would continue to return to (less successfully) later in his career when he felt the need to explore beyond the confines of a full-band sound. This was Springsteen bringing new, literary influences into his songwriting and not blinking in the face of harsh realisations. It’s a slab of brilliance that, three and a half decades later, still sounds vital and compelling especially as, despite it all, at the end of every hard earned day people find some reason to believe.


*The Electric Nebraska sessions have become something of a Holy Grail amongst Springsteen devotees. At times it varied between just how many songs were tackled but, in 2010, Max Weinberg confirmed the band had tackled every one of them, he also said the album was “killing”. In his own book Springsteen, too, confirmed the existence of Electric Nebraska but has, previously, also said that the fan-given title for the sessions in misleading. In his book, Songs, he pointed out that they weren’t all “rock” arrangements – Max would play a light percussion on some or Roy Bittan a synth pad.

Many critics have argued, as Landau stated “the right version of Nebraska was released” – drawing their argument from the live versions of those songs like ‘Atlantic City’ or ‘Johnny 99’ that would feature full band versions. BUT… I’ll argue that to analyse it in that way is a mistake. The band are playing fleshed out versions of the arrangement that was released. A song wouldn’t necessarily have taken the same arrangement in a full-band casting. Take ‘Born In The USA’ and its evolution from demo to stadium thumper, or pretty much any Springsteen song’s evolution. Even ‘Blood Brothers’ has numerous arrangements. The shape and arrangement these tracks may have evolved into with further Electric Nebraska session (there’s arguments that poor recording experience on the side of the engineer for these sessions was also to blame for their curtailing) will likely never be revealed though.

25 thoughts on “Least to Most: Bruce – Nebraska

  1. Our Bruce Top 5s are only one album different – I have Wild + Innocent in my top five instead of The River. I hadn’t read that about Electric Nebraska – I guess most of my expectations were based on the live versions of Atlantic City, and the way ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ evolved from an acoustic song on Tracks to the studio version.

    • It was a very close call between River and Wild… at this point it’s pretty fluid but The River has Point Blank.
      It’s also worth considering that Downbound Train came from the same demo tape and the version that made USA is one of his best tracks

  2. Fantastic post! The Van Zandt quote is one I’ve been looking for for ages. I’d been sure I’d heard it was him that suggested releasing the demo but couldn’t find it anywhere. The Boss skips over that part in his book.

    • Thanks. I’ve got a feeling Nebraska is the most-written about Springsteen album there is due primarily to its frontier style narrative and the questions / realities it confronts.
      The Van Zandt quote comes up in a few places, I think that one was from Rolling Stone but it’s also in David Burke’s book ‘Heart of Darkness: Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska’ though with perhaps a little less of self aggrandisement but it wouldn’t be SVZ without a bit of that 🙂
      I read somewhere that during this time – especially the recording sessions for The River / USA- that he was trying to convince Bruce to go in with him and buy The Power Station and set up a label so they could bring attention to all their influences and forgotten acts as they had with Gary U.S Bonds. Steve’s still championing such acts.

      • Interesting, thanks. I guess Steve found another way to do it. His radio show’s not bad at all.
        Nebraska deserves to be written about. It was such an unlikely and yet sublime turn of events.

  3. A fine album for sure. And while yes, over time this has come to be highly regarded and is in the US, a Platinum album, on release there was very little indication this would occur. I quote here from a guy on AllMusic who, I think, speaks for a lot of fans of that era:

    “This 1982 work is one that seems to keep getting better. As a young man and large-scale boss-fanatic, I was shocked by this album when it issued. I’d seen Bruce twice during the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour, couldn’t afford to see him during The River tour, nor the double album price tag. Then Nebraska hit and I couldn’t understand it nor the critic’s raves. Now, 33 years later, I am enthralled with these haunting tunes and tales, and at the ability of the artist to sit in a chair (presumably) and just deliver such poignant emotive experiences, that differ yet hang together.”

    So I could have pretty much written that. We wanted Bruce to ROCK OUT and not go into this Dylan thing. (In fact, he is, in a sense, Dylan in reverse when Bob went electric.) So while I didn’t exactly shun it, neither did I embrace it. And I found myself drifting further away.

    But now, like that guy says, we are able to appreciate it. (Actually, I’ve appreciated it for a while but definitely not at first). All that said, I find with this album I have to be in the mood. However, I’m always in the mood for the chicken man, a well-known Philly mob boss.

    And how come ‘Electric Nebraska’ isn’t circulating bootleg-wise?

    • It’s an odd one given how many of the tracks from previous sessions – including The River and Darkness – did circulate. I think that around this period Bruce did clamp down on the leaks in the vault, they were pretty much sealed as tight as Prince’s after Tunnel of Love, many of the cuts that made Tracks from beyond that era were completely unheard of. I think there were hopes for a USA / Nebraska revisit in the likes of Darkness and River and they’d emerge as part of that but I don’t reckon it. They’ll be in the vault for a long time to come

      • I”m kinda hoping another ‘Tracks’ comes out someday. It’s been what, 20 years? We know there’s some good stuff. And would it kill them to release just one song from the electric set?

      • Well.. I think while punting his book he did say that there was enough material for a Tracks 2… though from The Rising on his studio sessions were considerably shorter and what ‘leftover’ tracks there were ended up on High Hopes.
        That being said I think that at any given time there’s a good half dozen ‘projects’ in the cross-hairs; Seeger Sessions 2, the new ‘solo’ album, another album-archival… I think the flurry of output in the last decade has slowed though

  4. CB will eventually get to this record on his takes. You did a good job on it. I remember the anticipation for this one (like all his other early albums). I have never been a fan of mainstream critics. Back in the day I remember this record getting panned by lots of folks. I wish I could remember some of the quotes. All I can tell you is i absolutely love(d) this music. It struck a nerve like a lot of his work does. It was so against the grain. CB being a film guy loved the filmic side of it. The whole connection to the Badlands movie and all that dark shit I like (In Cold Blood, Hud etc). The video thing was getting really old at the time and he does the stark ‘Atlantic City’. It was a great choice by Bruce and he made a fantastic piece of work. This is one of the records I’ve listened to the most. It’s all in the listening.

  5. Tony, you’re probably up on Bruce’s history more than I am. Here’s something you might or might not be familiar with. I use to dig a band called The Beat Farmers. They did a really good version of ‘Reason to Believe’. It was the first cover off Nebraska that I ever heard. Maybe the first I don’t know. They also do a killer version of Neil Young’s ‘Powderfinger’. (Good band but I think they partied themselves to death).

    • Not one I’ve heard of but thanks for the heads up – I’ll check it out. There’s a very strong tribute album “Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska” which has every track covered and a few others like Johnny Cash doing I’m On Fire

      • Yes familiar with it. Thanks. JC did ‘Johnny 99’ on an album I have. One of the first songs I heard of his by another artist was Robert Gordon doing ‘Fire’. My favorite version. Before he became the “Boss” he use to give all sorts of songs to people. He probably still does it. I have an old compilation album called ‘Cover Me’ . You might dig it.

  6. Pingback: Albums of my Years – 1982 | Mumbling About…

  7. Excellent post, Tony. Glad you pointed at it via your 82 post. I love this one unconditionally and I actually didn’t know it was Van Zandt that convinced him to release it as is.

    Also, Nebraska and Darkness On The Edge of Town is a helluva twofer!

    • Thanks man. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Born in the USA for an upcoming piece and it’s really grown on me – I think he hit a streak from The Wild, The Innocent… through to and including Tunnel of Love. Can’t think of another artist to knock out seven albums of gold back to back

      • The production has always been my issue with Born in the USA and I have to admit that I’ve never been that enthusiastic about revisiting Tunnel of Love. But I’ve been on a bit of a Springsteen kick the last few days, so maybe I’ll fit some more albums in.

      • That’s a fair comment… especially with it being the 80s. High Hopes doesn’t have many redeeming qualities. That felt very much like Springsteen trying to find relevance.

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