Shortly after the birth of his sister Virginia in 1951, Springsteen’s family moved in with his paternal grandparents. They would stay there through 1956, but the years spent in that house would remain with Springsteen, a thing to untangle. It was a period of his childhood that, in his telling, would come to the fore in Nebraska.
“I know the house was very dilapidated,” Springsteen told me. “That was something that embarrassed me as a child. It was visibly ramshackle, my grandparents’ house. On the street you could see that it was deteriorating. I just remember being embarrassed about it as a child. That would have been my only sense that something wasn’t right with who we were and what we were doing. I can’t quite describe it. It was intense. The house was eventually condemned. Really, it fell apart around us. I lived there when there was only one functional room, the living room. Everything else was pretty much finished.”
In the living room was the portrait of his aunt Virginia, his father’s sister, an image Springsteen has described on a few occasions. Virginia, at age six and out riding her bicycle, was hit and killed by a truck as it pulled out of a gas station on Freehold’s McLean Street. In some misguided tribute to Virginia’s early and sudden death, Springsteen’s grandparents withheld discipline from their first grandchild, Bruce. It was a twisting of logic that likely seemed beneficent, if only to minds stuck in grief. His was a terrible freedom. When Bruce pushed, there was nothing there to push against.
WZ: I heard a term, “trans-generational haunting,” that suggests the trauma from one generation can pass not just to the next generation but even skip over to the generation after that.
Springsteen: Yeah, I believe that’s true.
WZ: The way your grandparents lived out the loss of their daughter, your aunt, it was like they froze time. Did this mean trouble for the next generations?
Springsteen: It was a lot of trouble for me. A lot of trouble for me was caused by that right there. Because I was the first child that came along after she died. So, I was my grandmother’s charge. My mother was for some reason not big about motherhood at the time. So she kind of ceded me to my grandparents for the first six years of my life. That was…that was that.
WZ: In your book you describe your childhood experience as something like “His Majesty, the Baby.”
Springsteen: Oh yeah, that was me. Which seems to a kid like a great thing, but it’s exactly what a kid doesn’t want. Very problematic, and it caused me a lot of trouble. To this day. It destroyed me and it made me. At the same time.
This was the childhood to which Springsteen had returned as the songs for Nebraska spilled forth. When I asked him about the portrait of his aunt Virginia, he moved forward in his chair. “I have that,” he said. “The one thing I have from that house is the picture of my aunt Virginia. It might be worth a look at. It was the center of the entire house. There in the middle of the living room wall. It was just always right over the top of the television. Her death was the essential event that defined the emotional life of that entire house. So that was a very… I’ll go get it.”
Until Nebraska, one got the sense that redemption was almost structural to the songs of Bruce Springsteen.
I didn’t wait long before he came back. He set the portrait on the chair between us. I was on the couch, Springsteen was across from me in a chair, and the third point in our triangle was the image of Virginia, which otherwise hangs in Springsteen’s writing room. When he was a boy, it had functioned as a shrine. It said, “We will not forget this loss.” And in some ways the portrait fulfilled that function.
Perhaps too well, because some part of Springsteen was, at the time of Nebraska’s writing, still back there, still captive to the theater of grief that gave his grandparents’ crumbling house its identity. Returning again, through the songs, was nothing if not an attempted rescue mission, a man trying to find and save some part of himself.
The child’s perspective is threaded throughout Nebraska and central in “Mansion on the Hill,” “Used Cars,” and “My Father’s House.” It’s a point of view stripped of sentimentality, raw, almost undecided in its emotion. If the exact historical moment of Nebraska is uncertain, or at least shifting—the mention of the Philadelphia mobster Philip Testa, the Chicken Man in “Atlantic City,” and the closing of the Mahwah auto plant in “Johnny 99” mark the period as the early 1980s, while “Open All Night” includes a Cobra Jet that could be from 1968 or a few years after—much of the record is, as Springsteen describes it, rooted in the time of his childhood, a black-and-white 1950s.
Like Starkweather, Springsteen experienced a period of living beyond consequences—however dramatically different the details. No one shaped his daily life through appropriate discipline. He could stay up as late as he wanted, watch television as the others slept. “There were no rules,” he told the biographer Peter Ames Carlin, “I was living life like I’ve never heard of another child living it, to be honest with you.” In Born to Run he describes his young self as a “tyrant,” eating what he wanted when he wanted, a boy who “felt the rules were for the rest of the world.”
The discipline would come too late, in another household, his parents’, after the family moved from Randolph Street in 1956 and when the struggles between father and son, as much as rock and roll, would begin to define the next period in his life. But when Springsteen says that the unchecked freedom in his grandparents’ home shaped him, therein lies the key to his identification with an outsider experience as extreme as Charles Starkweather’s:
Badlands was very influential. I saw something I felt I knew in there, in that film. The life that I write about in Nebraska is the life I was leading with my grandparents when we all lived in their house. It had a kerosene stove to heat the whole place, a coal stove to cook on in the kitchen, very old-school Irish. That was my grandparents, really old world. Even for our street, it was more backwards there. Our little house wasn’t the same as the others. But it’s their story in Nebraska. Much more the grandparents than my parents. I often go back to that house in my dreams, and it’s still a place that holds a lot of significance for me, a lot of emotion. I pass by it a lot, still. It’s a very mysterious place. I see it in a certain kind of light.
Springsteen’s ambivalence about the world he came into and came from is spread across the songs of Nebraska: in the tension between familial allegiance and the law that underpins “Highway Patrolman,” in the question of suffering’s purpose in “Reason to Believe,” in the paternal loss that can’t finally be processed in “My Father’s House.” The years he lived at his grandparents’ home had, as he says, destroyed him and had made him—so how does one, as an adult, reconcile those two extremes? The songs themselves are marked by the absence of easy answers, an absence of redemption, an absence of hope.
As the songwriting progressed, quickly and without the conscious shaping of themes and directions, there were a few songs that seemed not to belong to the bulk of material that was emerging, including “Pink Cadillac.” Another, “Born in the U.S.A.,” was written in that time but would later pull away from the pack, even if its original mood and feel gave it a place.
The songs arrived so fast and in such numbers that, in fact, there wasn’t a lot of time to sit and ask questions of them. “What are they and why are they here now? What is the thematic center?” Those would have been the right things to ask of the songs if Springsteen had thought he was making an album. But he didn’t think he was making an album, just writing and preparing to throw down some rough recordings as reference. So there was no moment of pause to ask those questions of any of the songs…and he was too busy with the next one anyway.
Lines were repeated in a few different songs, though not as an artistic strategy. Springsteen just hadn’t always finished the writing process. The singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet says he ultimately took that strange repetition of lines across songs as key information:
We get some of those lyrics spilling over from “State Trooper” into “Open All Night”—“wee wee hours,” “deliver me from nowhere”—like clues that these songs don’t have the usual borders that separate one song from another. It’s like this thing, Nebraska, just grew one night in a room in Colts Neck, New Jersey, the roots all tangled up, when this guy wrote these songs down instead of going to bed. It must’ve happened fast, so there was no laboring over even the morality of it all. In “Nebraska,” Bruce gives this killer the voice in the song, kind of gets us on the side of this unrepentant criminal. There’s more than a little moral ambiguity. I think that carries through a lot of Nebraska, that suspension of judgment. I believe Bruce cared about those people. It was almost like he was seeing how far his empathy, and ours, could extend. It would have been different, I imagine, if he’d labored over the songs rather than just letting them come fast.
“It was the people in the songs,” Scott Kempner says.
You never hate Johnny 99. You feel for him. They take his house away, he gets drunk, he kills somebody. You still don’t hate him. He’s all instinct. Nothing else in there but pure instinct. We all know a little about that, even if something finally keeps us in check. We see ourselves in there, and it really is seeing. All these songs on Nebraska are so cinematic. Really clear images, right from the first few songs, “Nebraska,” “Atlantic City,” “Mansion on the Hill,” then, later, “Highway Patrolman.” When you heard them, you saw them, and they didn’t let you go. For all the music being made by major artists at that time, there was just nothing like Nebraska. It got us close to something about ourselves that we were not accustomed to talking about.
Patty Griffin, who covered The River’s “Stolen Car” on her 1000 Kisses album, was struck by the violence that runs through the songs:
I think when I was in my thirties and digging into Nebraska, I was really just in awe of the storytelling. I wasn’t listening for a big picture. It hit me over the head more recently, though, pulling it out and really listening to it again. It’s just violence, violence, violence all through it. Different kinds of violences. About half of Nebraska’s songs are about people reacting to this thing that’s destroying them by trying to destroy something else. It’s a rare, rare thing to come across a record like that, any kind of work like that. And it’s so well done. He paints his masterpiece of America as a brand and what it does to people. To me, Nebraska is an album-length description of how America has struggled to find its soul, has never had much of an identity beyond the brand that’s been sold over and over again to people living here. But lives are lived behind the brand, and Springsteen is unearthing them, exposing them to the light.
The violence he portrayed, the refusal to judge his characters, the interest in rural scenes and outsiders: it was all a reflection of another key influence on Nebraska, the one that arguably matters almost as much as Malick’s Badlands, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.
Springsteen would eventually speak of the connection between Nebraska and O’Connor’s writing, describing himself as being “deep into O’Connor” just before writing the Nebraska material. He’d discovered her work when Barbara Downey, his manager Jon Landau’s wife, gave him a copy of O’Connor’s collected stories. “My wife and I had a summer place in the ’80s,” says Landau, “and Bruce came out to visit. My wife had been reading Flannery O’Connor, and she thought Bruce might like it. So she gave him a copy of the short stories, which he still references to this day. With Bruce, you don’t know what’s going to stick, where it’s going to come from, or what it’s going to influence, often because his eyes are going to focus on something other eyes are not.”
Though Springsteen didn’t work with what could be called grotesques, he did create characters caught in their own blocks of stone.
Writer Toby D’Anna describes Flannery O’Connor’s short stories as shining “lights in moments of incredible darkness.” O’Connor became known for coaxing something monumental from the stillness of American life. Remarking on her own living situation in Georgia, she said, “Lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” Nonetheless, that’s where she went to work as a writer. A devout Catholic, she found in the stillness a violence and a stupidness, a “meanness,” to borrow a word that resonated for Springsteen, that O’Connor’s critics would have to reconcile, often clumsily, with her Catholic faith.
How could a believer such as O’Connor see the world as she portrayed it in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”? “To the hard of hearing you shout,” O’Connor explained, “and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Grotesques, really. “The characters are not ‘likeable,’” Joseph O’Neil writes in The Atlantic, “but my God they are alive.” The very same thing could be said of characters one finds in Nebraska.
In a 1998 conversation with Will Percy, nephew of the novelist Walker Percy, Springsteen spoke further of Flannery O’Connor:
The really important reading that I did began in my late twenties, with authors like Flannery O’Connor. There was something in those stories of hers that I felt captured a certain part of the American character that I was interested in writing about. They were a big, big revelation. She got to the heart of some part of meanness that she never spelled out, because if she spelled it out you wouldn’t be getting it. It was always at the core of every one of her stories—the way that she’d left that hole there, that hole that’s inside of everybody. There was some dark thing—a component of spirituality—that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own.
O’Connor’s stories didn’t hinge on redemption. Among her most lasting images is that of the traveling salesman’s Bible in the story “Good Country People,” a book hollowed out and containing a bottle of booze, some condoms, and a deck of cards with naked women on them. Just when you think it’s one thing, the Good Book, it becomes another. The grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” comes into her moment of grace, a word O’Connor liked, only as the killer on the loose, the Misfit, holds a gun in her face. In that instant, late in the story, she sees his humanity as it’s bound up with her own… and then she’s dead. “‘She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.’” In Flannery O’Connor’s words, she was after those moments when she could reveal “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
Until Nebraska, one got the sense that redemption was almost structural to the songs of Bruce Springsteen. “Thunder Road,” “The River,” “Racing in the Street.” The redemption didn’t always come easy, was sometimes only implied, but it came often, as some measure of hope, something to live for, an outline of possibility, sometimes delivered not just through words but through the music itself. But with Nebraska it’s gone.
Flannery O’Connor trusted that her readers could see in her grotesques something more. Her fiction, and her Catholicism, hinged on that. Though Springsteen didn’t work with what could be called grotesques, he did create characters caught in their own blocks of stone. Nebraska closes on “Reason to Believe,” which might be summarized thus: there isn’t one. “It’s a common misinterpretation of ‘Reason to Believe,’ that it’s a hopeful song,” Springsteen told me. “It’s hard to find a basis for that misinterpretation. I suppose the title does it. But it was one of the darkest songs on the record and it was the way I decided to finish that album. In that density.” It might have been O’Connor who let Springsteen know that he could end right there and his listeners would, hopefully, know what to do with it.
When Springsteen’s pile of songs accumulated, his mind went not to understanding the material he’d gathered but to capturing it on tape. Understanding could come later—for those who would discover the songs, and for Springsteen himself. With pages of lyrics gathered in a notebook, lines crossed out and rewritten, sometimes incomplete, Springsteen then did something he’d never done, setting up that makeshift studio at home so that he could record demos of the songs. It didn’t matter that he was moving too fast to get to know them. Songs, unlike people, have remarkable patience as they wait for someone to hear what they’re saying.
Excerpted from Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska by Warren Zanes. Copyright © 2023. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.