White Rabbit Records - Blog

2023/4 Albums Thing 332 - Bruce Springsteen “Nebraska”

Posted on


Well Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band in Cardiff on Sunday was everything we wanted and needed it to be. A couple of surprises on the setlist and all the classics you could want. If you get the chance to see him on this tour you should. There was nothing played from this album so let’s get to it…

"If I had to pick one album out and say, “This is going to represent you 50 years from now” I'd pick “Nebraska” ” - Bruce Springsteen April 2023

After releasing a double album, after having hit singles, after performing an 11 month long, globe spanning Arena tour and being hailed as one of the biggest emerging stars in the world, whaddya do ? Well if you’re Bruce Springsteen you release your 4 track cassette demos recorded in the bedroom of your rented house in a small town in central New Jersey and featuring just you and minimal instrumentation as your next album. “Nebraska” is still regarded as an absolute triumph and one of Springsteen’s very best records.

Think back to 1982 and the albums that major artists were releasing (and make no mistake, after the success of “The River”, Springsteen was now a major artist), the biggest sellers; Michael Jackson “Thriller”, Prince “1999”, Toto IV, Fleetwood Mac “Mirage”, Dire Straits “Love Over Gold”, Phil Collins “Hello, I Must Be Going”, multi-million selling, records with multi-million dollar budgets and huge productions…nobody was making, or even considering making anything that sounded like “Nebraska”. To be honest neither was Springsteen. As he started writing he thought he was simply preparing demo’s for his next album. Songs were coming to him fast and he decided he needed some way to get them recorded as he wrote. 

One of his crew, guitar tech Mike Batlan, set him up with the newly available Tascam Series 144 4 track cassette Portastudio, a couple of microphones and and an old echo unit so his boss could get his new songs down on tape ready to present to the  E Street Band. Springsteen proceeded to write some of his most personal and hard hitting songs. Influenced by his past, his family, ordinary Americans and classic American Gothic literature and films, he wrote a set of songs unlike anything he’d previously bought into being.

Tucked away in Colts Neck, NJ Springsteen initially wrote and demoed 15 songs that he shared with Jon Landau, sometimes he recorded more than one take of a song (3 takes of “Atlantic City” and 2 of “Reason To Believe” for instance) with different arrangements or lyrics. All the songs that made it onto “Nebraska” were recorded (“My Fathers House” was recorded at Colts Neck but wasn’t one of the initial 15 sent to Landau). The remaining six songs demoed were “Bye Bye Johnny”, “Losin’ Kind”, “The Child Bride”, “Born In The USA”, “Down Bound Train” and “Pink Cadillac”. Three of those were never pursued further, two made it to his next album and the last one ended up with Natalie Cole.

There was just one copy of the tape and Springsteen had this delivered by “a guy from Jersey” to his manager, Jon Landau, with a covering note so he could hear what his charge had been doing. He listened made some notes and sent the tape back to Springsteen (whether or not via the same “guy from Jersey” we don’t know), it was the only copy and he needed it. Some weeks later the E Street Band convened in a New York studio to work on these new songs. Springsteen bought the cassette with him, in his pocket, not even in a case, and this is what will become the master for his next album !

As he and the band tried to flesh out arrangements for the songs it started to become clear that the best arrangements were those he’d already recorded and that his next album should be what was on that cassette. The tale of getting those recordings from the cassette to professional tape is a whole other thing. Portastudios were never designed to do that so whole new processes had to be invented by studio engineers. The songs couldn’t really be mixed due to the way Springsteen had recorded them (echo effects had been recorded directly to the cassette for example) so what you hear on the record is pretty much what was on that cassette.

“Nebraska” feels like hearing black and white depression era America. Songs like “Johnny 99” and the title song are every bit as cinematic in scope as “Jungleland” but this time it’s simply one man and his guitar. In “Johnny 99” Ralph’s job has gone (the Ford company really did “close down the autoplant in Mawah” in summer 1980 putting 4,000 people out of work), couldn’t find another, couldn’t pay his bills and ended up cracking and murdering a shop worker after getting drunk. The record is incredibly personal throughout. “Used Cars” is a childhood memory of Dad always buying 2nd hand cars with a problem and an aspiration that “…the day my number comes in I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again” (it’s kinda ironic that he now has a collection of classic, or used, cars).

Springsteen has said in interviews that some of these songs were so personal that he didn’t think he could ever have played them to or with the E Street Band. “My Fathers House” is a quite remarkable song. It revolves a round a dream, trying to escape the woods and whatever is chasing the narrator. The thing that saves him is arriving at his fathers house and falling into his arms. The dream continues as our storyteller drives over to his fathers house to find that someone else is there and that “no one by that name lives here anymore”, a stark reminder that, no matter the difficulties, your parents won’t be with you forever and those difficulties can be overcome. Given Springsteen’s relationship with his father this one must have been tough to write, maybe the reason that it (plus “Mansion On The Hill” and “Used Cars”) are written from the viewpoint of a child ?

“Nebraska” is one man and his guitar delivering incredibly raw and personal moments into song. It still stands as an incredibly brave move by an artist who was on the brink of mega stardom to rein everything back and release this record. But release it he did and it really is one of Springsteen’s very best.

Johnny 99 - https://youtu.be/OQUcqK1Op6Y?si=3d92jiXPUrWqI7MF

Add a comment:

Leave a comment:


Add a comment