Bruce Springsteen‘s solo–acoustic album, Nebraska, has become the most surprising and talked–about record of the year – even before its release. Its dark, chillingly concise vignettes of the common man under siege, as well as its exceedingly spare, folky melodies and instrumentation, have already stirred — and in some cases, peeved—listeners. “There’s almost nothing to compare it to,” said John Gorman, program director of Cleveland’s WMMS–FM, which gave the record a brief, illegal airing early in September. “It reminds me of when Dylan went electric.”
The album’s abortive debut on WMMS, a station whose listeners have long supported Springsteen, suggests exactly how varied reactions to this album’ may be. “I couldn’t believe how split down the middle opinions were: it was exactly fifty–fifty,” said Gorman. “The audience either loved it or hated it. There was no in between or compromise whatsoever.”
Springsteen wrote the ten songs on Nebraska early this year at his house in New Jersey. The tunes and lyrics were composed quickly, one after another, and were promptly sung and played into a four–track tape recorder to preserve them as demo tapes for the band to hear and use to work out arrangements.
Peter Philbin, Springsteen’s A & R representative at Columbia Records, found it significant that the songs on the demo tape were finished, completed efforts. Springsteen’s habit in the past had been to write songs only halfway, then complete them in the studio with the E Street Band.
“He seemed to be moving along a lot faster than usual,” said Philbin, who first heard the tapes on a plane flight he and Springsteen took from Los Angeles to New York. “And in speaking to him, I thought there would be an album this year. When I told the company that, there was some surprise, because Bruce traditionally has taken two years between albums.”
Springsteen went into the Power Station, a Manhattan studio, with the intention of recording the songs with his band, and, indeed, strong versions with the band were put on tape. But a subtle sense began to emerge at the sessions that the original, solo renditions of the songs were more powerful and provocative.
“He had written and recorded these songs,” said Philbin, “and when he tried to fit the band in, it didn’t work for him. It’s just my opinion, but these songs are about basic life in America – they’re not uplifting at all. They’re songs about people gone wrong, and I think to dress up the songs with arrangements would almost have taken away from what the lyrics were saying.”
The decision was then made to release the demo tapes as an album, and Springsteen and producer Chuck Plotkin flew to Los Angeles to try to improve the aural quality of the recordings. The final go–ahead from Springsteen for the LP came in early August, and barring any last–minute tinkering, the record should be available now.
Springsteen, who is currently working on a new LP with the E Street Band, would not talk about the motivations behind Nebraska. It is known, though, that he had read and been moved by Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: a Life, and while touring last year, he played a mournful solo of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”
Nebraska is a stark, almost unrelentingly sad lyric statement, set off by song structures that are unabashedly nonpop in nature. Only three of the tracks – “Johnny 99,” “Open All Night” and “State Trooper”—have a rock & roll flavor to them, and the melodies of the other tracks don’t aim to swoop or soar like acoustic folk or bluegrass. These are tunes as flat and unadorned as the country they evoke, with lyrics as hard and limited as the lives they describe.
No wonder radio is approaching this record guardedly. “I think it’s gonna do one of two things,”said Bill Hard, editor of the Friday Morning Quarterback Album Report, a respected radio tip sheet. “Either it’s gonna continue a trend toward softer, more personal music being accepted by radio, or it’s gonna be a complete bomb.”
Radio consultant Lee Abrams, who, like Hard, had not yet heard the LP, felt “with an artist of Springsteen’s prominence, you owe it to the audience to expose it and let them make up their minds. I can’t imagine a station’s not playing it. You’ve gotta give it a shot.”
WMMS’ Gorman, who had heard the record, was not so sanguine. “Given the state of AOR radio, I have the feeling that most stations won’t touch the album. Which is unfortunate. We had listeners call up on the air and express their feelings – which is really the only palatable way that you could present this kind of album on a radio station where the audience is used to rock & roll.
“There was a joke going around about the album. It didn’t take long for the record company to get a cease–and–desist order out to me in the form of a telegram. And when I was opening up the telegram, we joked that it was actually going to say, ‘Please keep playing the album. You’re our only hope!'”
Philbin, though, waxed more hopeful. “For an artist of Bruce’s financial stature, the normal thing is to get into the habit of making records for radio, of making another hit record. So here’s a guy that’s certainly a big AOR artist – and he’s made a record that in no way, shape or form is the norm in 1982. If it is played, it will certainly stand out. And if it’s not played on the radio, I think there’ll be enough word of mouth that people will want to own the record.
“What this record will sell, I don’t think the company knows, and I don’t think Bruce really cares. It’s just a statement he wants to make. We’ll see how it does.”
This story is from the October 14th, 1982 issue of Rolling Stone.