First, he sat on a rocking chair in his New Jersey bedroom, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing into a tape recorder. Then he stuck the cassette (sans case) in his back pocket and carried it around for a couple of weeks. Next, he tried to teach the songs to the E Street Band. Finally, several soul-searching months later, Bruce Springsteen decided that his next album was going to be the cassette tape he'd kept in his pocket.
That tape would become Nebraska, an album full of dark, desperate tales from a rock & roll star who'd decided that some stories are best told simply, by a man and his guitar. Commercially, it was a daring move. In 1982, Springsteen was at the point where a strong rock album would have cemented the breakthrough he'd made with The River, released in 1980, which yielded his first Top Ten hit, "Hungry Heart." But he was growing increasingly disturbed by the currents in Ronald Reagan's America and was unable to retain his youthful belief that rock & roll could make everything right. "There was a particular moment when I said, 'Oh, my ideas that have sustained me have sort of failed,'" he said later. "I had a particular time when I felt pretty empty and very isolated, and I suppose that's where some of that record came from."
He listened to Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and more obscure folk and country singers. He saw movies like John Huston's Wise Blood and Terence Malick's Badlands, which sparked his interest in the 1958 murder spree of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Fugate. Back home in New Jersey, he wrote more than a dozen shattering, plain-spoken songs about murder, despair and isolation. On January 3rd, 1982, he sang them, one after another, into a four-track tape recorder.
He planned to teach them to the E Street Band, but somehow the songs that were so haunting in their rough, unaccompanied versions didn't sound right with fuller arrangements. "It became obvious fairly soon that what Bruce wanted on the record was what he already had on the demo," says drummer Max Weinberg. "The band, though we played the hell out of them, tended to obscure the starkness and the vibe he was going for."
Eventually, Springsteen returned to the acoustic demos, deciding to release them as is. Nebraska was a grim record for a grim time. It was both a courageous album and an influential one, presaging the frank, narrative songwriting and spare presentation of such late-Eighties folk stylists as Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. Its ghostly aura even pervaded the work of U2 and John Cougar Mellencamp. But it was, above all, a profoundly personal statement from an artist who was unsettled by all he saw around him — and decided he couldn't look away.