Updated: Aug 23
August 8, 2023
EDITOR'S NOTE: The recent publication of Warren Zanes' Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making Of Bruce Springsteen's NEBRASKA has spurred renewed interest in and discussion of one of Springsteen's greatest albums. This is, of course, a good thing. But it seems that no major reviews of Zanes' book have challenged even some of his more questionable and central claims about the album. To wit... No, it's not true that, as Zanes writes, "Nebraska is the recording that matters the most in Bruce Springsteen's career..." That's still not true if Warren Zanes or even Bruce Springsteen himself believes it. (What's that old saying about artists not being the best judges of their work?) Part of what makes Springsteen such a great artist is that he has made many equally important and great albums in his career, not just one or even just a handful. In fact, some songs as dark and existentially foreboding as most of the material on Nebraska can be found on some of the great Springsteen albums that preceded it. "Meeting Across The River," "Adam Raised A Cain," "Factory," "Racing in the Street," "The River," "Point Blank," "Stolen Car" (especially the originally released version over the outtake version,) or, say, "Wreck On The Highway" for starters, anyone?
Furthermore, while Zanes included in his book the part of his Springsteen interview where he said, "I don't know if there would have been a Born In The U.S.A. in the form it was in without Nebraska being released in front of it," he left out of his book the equally important part of that same interview where Bruce implicitly noted the importance of the popular Springsteen albums and songs preceding Nebraska in making the large-scale release and reception of such an offbeat, unique, and personal album even possible: "[W]e were popular at that time, so there were Bruce Springsteen fans who were going to go out and see what it was about. I guess I had some confidence in that fact that, yeah, people were going to be interested in my obsessions. As fucked up and crazy, as far out as they might be. I've got an audience for this stuff, I felt I did." (This portion of Zanes' interview with Springsteen was published only in a recent issue of MOJO Magazine.) And as great as Nebraska remains, it's never lived up to the claim that Zanes makes (twice) in his book about it serving "in its own way... a little like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, a message saying, 'You can do this.'" Seriously? Can anybody, let alone Warren Zanes, cite a truly significant and historical flood or even trickle of "post-Nebraska" artists and recordings with signature sounds mimicking those found on Nebraska? The mere act of anyone ever setting out to "make" a record the way that Nebraska was created is a contradictory and futile task anyway, since not even Springsteen consciously "made" such a record. Every single track on Nebraska was recorded with absolutely no intention of what was considered at first to be just a demo track ever getting released to the public, so it's impossible for anyone to consciously re-create such a complete "happy-accident" kind of recording process.
Okay, that's enough about those parts of Zanes' book. (... but hey, somebody finally had to write it!) Now, however, it's time to grab our popcorn and head straight to the movies... Overall Zanes' book certainly did a pretty good job of at least touching upon some of the films that greatly influenced Nebraska, but it still missed some important flicks along the way. Therefore, we are honored to have film-scholar, writer, and noted Springsteen fan Caroline Madden, author of Springsteen as Soundtrack: The Sound of the Boss in Film and Television, take a much deeper dive and help fill in the gaps for all of us Nebraska fans, present company included. And...ACTION!
It’s been over forty years since its release, but Nebraska remains one of Bruce Springsteen’s most haunting albums. He strips his sound to the bone, recording entirely on a four-track cassette with the backing of a soft guitar. The whining harmonica mourns for the individuals in his stories grappling with economic hardships, social dislocation, and personal despair. These melancholy songs paint a very specific picture of the American Dream, one that is often dark and unforgiving, giving little reason to believe besides small glimmers of hope. They rattle with a vicious unease unlike most of Springsteen’s work.
The album was written during Springsteen’s burgeoning relationship with his friend and manager Jon Landau. Landau helped to expose Springsteen to more thought-provoking books and movies than he had ever experienced before. “I mean, I hadn't read. I hadn't watched anything. It was all top 40 records, it was all—we were all creatures of the radio, and blues and soul,” Springsteen told NPR. Springsteen’s new appreciation of films opened him up to an artistic world beyond the Jersey Shore. Films from the New Hollywood era, what he describes as “dark, bloody pictures that dealt with the inner, with the flip side of the American experience,” inspired his construction of Nebraska.
Badlands (1973) directed by Terrence Malick
The film most widely associated with Nebraska is Terrence Malick’s Badlands, a poetic reinterpretation of 19-year-old Charles Starkweather and 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate’s killing spree across the Midwest during the 1950s. Springsteen was fascinated by these real-life criminals and used them to write the chilling “Nebraska.” Springsteen’s flat vocals and sparse instrumentation evoke Malick’s detached filming style, the distant shots that linger on the vast prairie—the dull backdrop of the teenagers’ savage crimes. These types of monotonous landscapes—from the fields of Nebraska to the badlands of Wyoming—are where Springsteen sets the stage for his somber album. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s aloof performances combined with Malick’s steady camera not only capture the couples’ sadistic misanthropy but also influence Springsteen's characters. They have the same icy indifference, unbothered by the inexorable meanness in this world that drives them to commit violence or embrace the inevitability of death.
Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska states that a late night viewing of Badlands empowered Springsteen to change his storytelling technique. He would build and expand upon his ability to use lyrics to create movie-like images in listeners’ minds. In an interview with Chet Flippo, Springsteen talked about wanting the songs he wrote for what would become Nebraska to “kind of just pan out and be very cinematic... where you get in there and you get the feel of life. Just some of the grit and some of the beauty.” His songwriting combined his precise musicality with visual expression to evoke visceral feelings in his listeners. We experience this countless times in the little details of Nebraska, the way Wanda thumbs a Texaco roadmap while eating fried chicken on the singer’s lap in “Open All Night,” Franky and Joe taking turns dancing with Maria in “Highway Patrolman,” and driving down the Jersey turnpike with only the glow of the refinery lights in “State Trooper.” In the plainly-sung “Nebraska,” Springsteen’s initial description of the innocent Caril twirling her baton on the front lawn is taken directly from Malick’s dreamy slow-motion opening. The last lines illustrate Starkweather’s macabre fate when he asks with a quiet, expressionless voice to let his baby sit on his lap “when the man pulls that switch, sir, and snaps my poor head back.” (In a footnote to the late, great critic Paul Nelson's review of Nebraska re-published in Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, writer/editor Kevin Avery pointed out that in Fritz Lang's 1937 film You Only Live Once, Henry Fonda's convicted-criminal character is about to face electric-chair execution and tells a prison guard, "You can sit on my lap when they throw the switch." Springsteen, however, has never confirmed publicly whether You Only Live Once influenced his writing of "Nebraska.")
Wise Blood (1979) directed by John Huston
John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood has a similar nihilism as Badlands and was another strong influence on Nebraska. Another recommendation from Jon Landau, it’s a strange, dark film that depicts the hypocrisy of religious organizations. Springsteen references the film in a 1981 interview with Rolling Stone: “One of my favorite parts was the end, where he’s doin’ all these terrible things to himself, and the woman comes in and says, ‘There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it.’ And he says, ‘They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.’” Springsteen relates this quote to his vow to provide his audiences with a life-affirming rock show each night. The main character of Wise Blood, Hazel Motes—a cynical World War II veteran turned faux preacher—takes the idea of dedication to a disturbing level, attempting to purge his sins and find redemption by strapping barbed wire around his chest, walking on rocks, and blinding himself. Springsteen can relate to Motes’ religious trauma, especially the disorienting flashbacks of authoritarian church leaders who use physical punishment, shame, and fear in order to affirm Motes’ beliefs. The unsettling sequences bring to mind the nun who stuffed Springsteen into a garbage can and said that’s where he belonged or the priest who dragged him face down on the altar.
For his melancholic song “Reason to Believe.” Springsteen draws from Motes’ desperate desire to find meaning and purpose in a world he perceives as devoid of authentic spirituality. In Wise Blood, Motes establishes his own religion, the Church Without Christ, in an attempt to form a genuine dogma that does not attract greedy, cruel liars—the type of exploitative people that are often leaders of religious institutions. Throughout the film, Motes questions some of the cruel, hypocritical tenets of Christianity. Why does God condemn out-of-wedlock children as wicked if they can’t control how they were born? If Jesus once healed the blind, why do people still have disabilities? Would a true, just God allow pain and suffering to happen?
Similarly, Springsteen’s Nebraska characters find little reason to believe when life continually beats them down. Against light guitar strumming, the “Reason to Believe'' lyrics touch on the same existential themes of faith, doubt, and search for meaning that Wise Blood explores. When facing the death of loved ones or the end of a relationship, Springsteen’s characters attempt to find hope in the same way that Motes searches for honesty in a corrupt world. Both Wise Blood and Nebraska also challenge the traditional notions of good and evil. They acknowledge the inherent complexity of human nature that religious societies often ignore. There are contradictions within us all—even the worst of wrongdoers.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) directed by Charles Laughton
There are several songs on Nebraska that allude to Springsteen’s formative years and draw inspiration from two distinct films with a child’s-eye view. The first of these films is The Night of the Hunter, an eerie tale about a sinister preacher who marries a widow with the intention of killing her family and stealing her money. Robert Mitchum’s villainous character, whom Springsteen also references in “Cautious Man” from Tunnel of Love, has the words love and hate tattooed on his knuckles. Much like Springsteen’s Nebraska album, Reverend Harry Powell exposes the dark underbelly of small-town America, particularly those who use religion to disguise their depravity. The film looks like how Nebraska sounds—especially the songs “Mansion on the Hill'' or “Used Cars.” We can imagine them brought to life with the same atmospheric black-and-white cinematography, exaggerated shadows, and skewed angles from a child’s vantage point. These Gothic formal qualities match the wistful sounds of Springsteen’s youthful memories. He specifically took from the expressionistic scene of the children escaping through the woods, fleeing Powell’s wrath after he brutally kills their mother. Laughton frames the sequence with an artificial countryside background—a stark, spooky painting that seems lifted out of a Grimm fairy tale. It recalls the “My Father’s House” lyrics where the young boy runs through the fields with the devil snapping at his heels and surrounded by ghostly voices, as well as the children racing through the tall cornfields and gazing at the mammoth steel gates that surround the titular “Mansion on the Hill.” As in The Night of the Hunter, these young characters are surrounded by a hyperrealized environment that overwhelms and overpowers them.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) directed by Robert Mulligan
The 1984 interview with Chet Flippo also confirmed that Springsteen was influenced strongly by Robert Mulligan’s 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird while writing the songs that became Nebraska, especially its childhood perspective and Southern Gothic writing style. "The Nebraska record had that cinematic quality," said Springsteen. "I was thinking in a way of To Kill A Mockingbird, because in that movie there was a child's-eye view." The Southern Gothic genre explores the violent secrets that lie beneath peaceful American communities and characters who confront their dark past. Southern Gothic is frequently attributed to another Nebraska influence, author Flannery O’Connor. However, while To Kill a Mockingbird explores the harsh truths of racial inequality, there’s a warmth in the characters’ genuine desire to enact social change.
Springsteen emulates Scout’s loss of innocence in his songs “Mansion on the Hill” and “Used Cars.” Just as Scout becomes aware of Maycomb’s cruel racial prejudice, the children in his songs begin to feel the weight of economic disparity, yearning for the unattainable comfort of the mansion on the hill or flinching with humiliation as their father rattles their used car down the street. Springsteen tells Warren Zanes that he experienced these same uncomfortable feelings about his own upbringing: “I know the house was very dilapidated. 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 . . . 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.” If these songs were projected on screen, they would have the same hazy, black-and-white cinematography that imitates the fading aura of memories, just as Scout narrates To Kill a Mockingbird as a nostalgic recollection.
To Kill a Mockingbird also relates to Nebraska as a work with unflinching empathy for those on the fringes of society. Through his gritty acoustic melodies, Springsteen gives death row inmates, desperate small-time criminals, and blue-collar workers facing financial constraints a voice in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird has compassion for the outcast Boo Radley and falsely accused Tom Robinson. Through Nebraska, Springsteen carries out Atticus Finch’s legendary maxim: “You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Springsteen uses similar language when discussing how the goal of his music is to illuminate other perspectives, writing in his memoir Born to Run, “I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on.” Watching these films expanded Springsteen’s songwriting style and vision to create a raw, introspective musical journey that invites listeners to reflect on the tribulations of American life.