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BOOK REVIEW

‘Deliver Me From Nowhere’ is an intimate look at Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ album and its place in a stratospheric career

There were about 50 people in a little rock club in Greensboro, N.C., on a cold night in January 1985, when Bruce Springsteen slipped into the dressing room. On a night off during a massive tour behind his blockbuster 1984 album, “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen pulled up to the barroom to catch a scruffy young band from Boston called the Del Fuegos.

By the time Springsteen stepped off the stage, having joined the little-known headliners on a couple of sloppy cover versions of oldies, the place was jammed way beyond capacity. Warren Zanes, who had recently joined his big brother Dan’s band, was still a teenager. He was awestruck.

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“That’s the guy who made ‘Nebraska,’” he thought.

By this point in his career, Springsteen was a larger-than-life superstar, an iron-pumping, arena-commanding, MTV-wallpapering cultural phenomenon. Nearly a decade before “Born in the U.S.A.,” which produced seven Top Ten singles, Springsteen had laid the foundation for his rock ‘n’ roll empire with another landmark album, “Born to Run.”

But none of that impressed the Zanes brothers, and countless other blue-collar musicians, as much as the stark, frankly disturbing acoustic album Springsteen released two years before “Born in the U.S.A.” “Nebraska,” Zanes writes in his deep new dive, “Deliver Me From Nowhere,” was a necessary reckoning before Springsteen could allow himself to accept the fact of his outsize fame, and how it was distancing him from the struggling ordinary Americans he’d chosen as his lifelong subject.

The Del Fuegos enjoyed a short sip of success before dissolving in the late 1980s. (“Bands could break your heart,” Zanes writes, revealing as much about himself as Springsteen’s period of self-imposed isolation.) Dan Zanes went on to craft a successful career making family-friendly folk music. Warren took the academic route, earning a PhD, serving as a vice president at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, most recently, teaching at New York University. He published a definitive biography of Tom Petty in 2015.

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When “Nebraska” came out in September 1982, the No. 1 song in America was “Jack and Diane,” a “little ditty” by a relative newcomer then known as John Cougar. It sounded, Zanes writes, like a “sugarcoated cousin” to Springsteen’s dark exploration of the elusive American dream: “One was a fun night at the high school dance, with a trace of melancholy, the other a trip to the morgue.”

“Nebraska” was not, to say the least, what Springsteen’s legion of fans was expecting. Recorded alone on a cheap commercial four-track cassette recorder in the shag-carpeted bedroom of a rented ranch house in Colts Neck, N.J., the album is “the sound of distance,” as Springsteen told Zanes during a long discussion about his career’s most enigmatic episode. “It’s the sound of the past, of history.”

Zanes traces the bleak, unadorned sound of “Nebraska” to a few recordings — “Jungle Rock,” a 1950s rockabilly obscurity by a nonstarter named Hank Mizell, and “Frankie Teardrop,” a sinister synthesizer-punk song by the violently anti-commercial New York City band Suicide. Intriguingly, he cites several more influences drawn from other art forms, including the Southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Connor, Robert Frank’s classic book of photographs, “The Americans” (Springsteen says he has “a half dozen copies of that book stashed around the house”), and the bizarre film noir “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), which starred Robert Mitchum as a serial killer posing as a preacher.

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The title track of “Nebraska” is a rumination on a real-life serial killer, Charlie Starkweather, and the girlfriend who accompanied him. “Atlantic City” pictures a man driven to organized crime by “debts no honest man could pay.” “State Trooper” is a portrait of yet another desperate man, out driving late at night (“license, registration, I ain’t got none”). If he gets pulled over, there’s no telling what he might do.

Zanes has evidently been thinking about “Nebraska” since he first encountered it. When it came out, some heard it as an act of defiance, he writes; “[t]o others, it seemed like a terrible career choice. … ‘Nebraska’ seemed to take up some of punk rock’s unfinished business, which was substantial.”

Near the end of the book, the author suggests to Springsteen that he hears connections to Homer’s “Odyssey” in the album. Odysseus can only regain his home by disguising himself “as a beggar, anonymous, stripped of his former glories.”

Springsteen is engrossed. “Go on,” he says.

It’s a brilliant reading. Zanes continues to unspool his analogy, explaining that “the only way to restore [Odysseus’s] place as man and hero was to first be nobody.”

With “Nebraska,” Springsteen agrees, “I was interested in making myself as invisible as possible. I just wanted to be another ghost.”

We might read a great novel once or twice, Zanes concludes. We’ll watch a favorite movie a few times. But recordings that speak to us — we return to them for hundreds, or even thousands, of listens. Even after decades of familiarity, a record “can suddenly open up onto a new vista or back alley. The medium is dense.”

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Reading good writing about songs can go a long way toward enhancing the listening experience. For fans of American music, “Deliver Me From Nowhere” makes a great ghost story.

DELIVER ME FROM NOWHERE: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’

By Warren Zanes

Crown, 320 pages, $28

Warren Zanes appears at 8:45 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at Academic Arts Center, 240 Central St., Lowell, to discuss “Deliver Me From Nowhere” alongside fellow musician and author Bill Janovitz as part of the Town and the City Festival. Tickets $22-$26. www.thetownandthecityfestival.com

James Sullivan is the author of five books on popular culture and the performing arts. E-mail him at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.