Book Club

Boston rocker Zanes’ personal ‘Nebraska’ led to his Springsteen passion project

The Del Fuegos guitarist-turned-writer went deep with Springsteen for his new book, "Deliver Me From Nowhere."

Warren Zanes, author of "Deliver Me From Nowhere." Courtesy Photo / Piero Zanes

I felt a buzzing, a hum reverberating through the pages of “Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.”


Some visceral lifelong tie between author Warren Zanes — former member of Boston-based band The Del Fuegos and Tom Petty biographer — and Springsteen’s 1982 album. 

While the Concord N.H. native never spells it out — the closest he comes may be writing, “a generation of young people played it on repeat while they searched for themselves in bedroom mirrors” — you feel it there, pulsing. 

Maybe you have an album like this: a lifeline. If you do,  you know that feeling. For Zanes, that album is “Nebraska.” You feel that, laying unsaid just under the surface of his new book. No actual fish, just hinted at in ripples. 


Just as Bruce Springsteen was poised to break big with the stadium-rocking hit album “Born in the USA,” he released instead “Nebraska.”  A songwriter’s album. Unpolished. Raw. “Taken down to the studs,” as Zanes writes. 

Tracks off the 1982 acoustic solo record read like short stories, and hit like “WPA photographs. Black and white,” as Rosanne Cash tells Zanes.

Springsteen, during that time, was going through his own personal hell, Zanes reports. He recorded “Nebraska” tracks with a home recorder, alone in a bedroom, a “matter of months from a breakdown.”

In his memoir “Born to Run,” Springsteen writes of that time: “My depression is spewing like an oil spill … Its black sludge is threatening to smother every last living part of me.”

Springsteen told Zanes: “There was ‘Nebraska’ then there was this breakdown. So, yeah, it makes sense that you’d connect the two.”

In his book, Zanes analyzes Springsteen’s “Nebraska” the way an English professor might analyze Joyce’s “Dubliners.” Impeccably researched, it’s a must-read for Springsteen fans and a should-read for all rock fans.


I called Zanes at his Montclair, New Jersey home to ask about his own “Nebraska.”

Some responses have been edited for length or clarity.

So what sparked this book for you? Why “Nebraska”?

A few things sparked it. One question I had was: Why in my late teens, did I connect with the desperate people in these songs in the way that I did? So there’s a personal layer. You can’t see that in the book, but that question is the fuel behind the writing.

Personally, how did the album speak to you?

In 1982, I was going into my senior year at Phillips Andover Academy. I bought “Nebraska” at Pitchfork Records in Concord, N.H. and brought it to boarding school with me. I felt a connection with these characters who lost, who were without hope, who were confused, who were out of control. 

Where was I in my life? At this great boarding school as a scholarship student — twice they asked me not to return. I kept coming back. I ended up graduating. But there’s a real imposter syndrome. I was surrounded by people who had very different backgrounds from me.  I didn’t feel like I fit in. 

Honestly, I felt kind of damaged. In writing the book, I kind of made contact with that — that part of me that, that teenage me. 


I’ll say this, I went into this project in another tough time in my life. My father, who I didn’t really know but who lived close to me — if he wanted to know me, he could have —  died. I’d lost a job of 10 years. My second marriage fell apart. All that happened in one year. 

Oh my God. 

Yeah. I was trying to be a dad, to find where I was going career-wise, to keep making mac-and-cheese hopefully with some vegetables on the side. I was in a pretty hard place.  I reached for “Nebraska” as my next project. I didn’t think with any kind of consciousness. But I look back and go, “I was clearly in my own Nebraska.”

That makes sense. What was the job?

Running a foundation. It was time for me to go. But if you come from what I come from, beginnings are euphoric; endings are hard.

What do you mean “where you come from”?

Where your father’s there, but he’s got no interest in you. If you’ve experienced abandonment, endings are really hard.

So where was I in my life? I was a character in “Nebraska.”

Wow. It seems like an album you’ve turned to over the years.

Absolutely. I’ve turned to it for emotional reasons; I’ve turned to it for creative reasons. On the creative side, “Nebraska” is this lasting symbol of art that’s not perfect, that’s without polish, and nonetheless, entirely successful. Sometimes we overwork what we create. And when we overwork it, we’re burying its strength. 

So you said you had a day with Bruce on this. He seemed open to talk. And he seemed interested in your Odysseus analysis.

If I were to pick moments in my career that are my favorites, that’s one.

I bet.

I had a theory that the narrative arc of “The Odyssey” fit the narrative arc of Springsteen’s life as he goes from “The River,” into “Nebraska” into “Born in the USA.” It’s one thing to put that theory into a book — it’s another to test it out on Springsteen and show the reader Springsteen responding to it. He really listened. He saw where I was going. And he signed off on it. [pause]


Talking about it, I get choked up. “The Odyssey” has lasted because so many of us have these moments in our lives. As we’re being challenged, we’re also being built — but we don’t know it when it’s going down. 

He’s a guy who went through a very hard time in his life. He created through it. We’ve all gone through those periods. And it’s only in hindsight that we look back and go: That was the making of me — and I thought it was my destruction.

In talking to him, did he seem to know he was suicidal at the time? I know he never used that word in your interview, but someone else did.

[Springsteen biographer] Dave Marsh used that word. Bruce used words to get you close, but not there. But he’s very clear that he was in trouble. He needed help, which he got. I think there’s something almost ethically crucial about [influential] people sharing experiences of needing help and getting it. It’s too rare. 

So how did you decide what artists to interview about their personal experience with the album? You’ve got Rosanne Cash, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle.


Some people, I just had a strong feeling they were connected to it. You know, I actually wrote this book twice. The first version was twice as long. It included more from those artists. But my agent and editor both said, “This isn’t the book you set out to write.” I look back now and go, man, I’m so glad [I rewrote it]. 

The first one, I went into this isolation. I wasn’t thinking: I’m going to do what Bruce did — “Nebraska” was a very isolated period for him. It was just a symmetry I identified after-the-fact. After my father died, and the end of my second marriage — I just didn’t want to share things with people. That first book was like somebody had written it at the back of a cave with no human contact. It was a real lesson.


Maybe I was just in my own struggle, in my own head, and doing what I needed to get to the other side. 

It sounds like this was cathartic for you.

Trust me, I talked about “Nebraska” a lot with my therapist. 

So did you get a response from Springsteen on the book?

I got an email from Bruce [after he read it] and it’s one of my favorite emails. At the end he said, “How can I help?” I said, “Well, I can’t find the Nebraska house” [where the tracks were recorded]. I was just asking for an address. 

A week later, he drove me to the house in his 1970 El Camino. We went in together. I’ll tell you, it was one of the most moving experiences of my working life. Here I was, walking into the room I’d been writing about for three, four years and I’m walking in with the guy who made the record I’m writing about. Just us. And the room has the same orange shag carpets. 

That’s powerful.

It’s deep stuff. I compare it to [college] when I was taking a medieval art class and wanted to see medieval cathedrals. I got a bicycle and followed the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain by myself. 

When you finish at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, there’s a marble column where pilgrims for over 1,000 years have rested their hand — so many that there’s a handprint an inch-deep in the marble.

Going into the “Nebraska” room with Springsteen, he gave me my pilgrimage. A way to close the book. To close my personal story. That layer underneath the book that nobody sees, but is there, vibrating.


Lauren Daley can be reached at [email protected]. She tweets @laurendaley1.


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