Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska is 30 years old this month. It has been described by Rosanne Cash as "one of the great documents of American life".
Even Springsteen devotees are split over their estimation of his bleak, solo acoustic album but for many fans, including singer Steve Earle, it remains the towering masterpiece of the Boss's career.
Burke, a music writer, pieces together the story of the album but fleshes out his tale with a more general appreciation of 62-year-old Springsteen's long career.
The real strength of the book is the detail of how Nebraska came to be made. Springsteen, once feted as the 'future of rock and roll', had already achieved mass market success with Born To Run. But he wanted to stretch his songwriting and did so via a bold and incessantly dark country-folk album recorded on a four-track recorder.
On his 1980 album The River, Springsteen had recorded a track called Stolen Car, a brooding, mournful song that would sit easily on Nebraska. Springsteen described Stolen Car as: "The predecessor for a good deal of the music I'd be writing in the future . . . inner-directed, psychological."
Nebraska opens with a song about teenage mass murderer Charles Starkweather (whose killing spree in the 1950s inspired the film Badlands) and the whole album is infused with a sense of displacement and struggle. Springsteen had just finished reading Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie and Nebraska was written at a time when 'Reaganomics' were impacting on many Americans. Springsteen believed that the recession was causing a loss of community and said: "When that occurs, you just get shot off somewhere where nothing seems to matter."
Burke laments the fact that Toby Scott, the engineer on the album, cancelled an interview citing lack of permission from John Landau management but the author does his best to piece together the technical story of how Springsteen made the record on a shop-bought Tascam Portastudio 144. Nebraska was originally intended as demos of songs to be recorded with the E Street Band. The engineers did not fully know how to use the varispeed on the cassette-tape Portastudio, which had the wrong setting, and there were dirty tape heads, yet the imperfections are somehow part of the record's ultimate charm. As Springsteen admits: "You can hear the chair creaking on Highway Patrolman."
Springsteen played the demos (including songs that never appeared on the final album) to the E Street Band but when they rehearsed they could not get the full-band versions to sound the way he wanted despite numerous sessions at the Power Station recording studio. Tapes of these sessions remain a collector's 'Holy Grail' for Springsteen fans, especially since drummer Max Weinberg praised the souped-up versions as "killing . . . very hard-edged."
Burke explains how the sleeve cover of Nebraska evolved. The photograph is a two-lane blacktop in the Midwest, taken by David Michael Kennedy through the windshield of a car some time in the 1970s. The bleak picture fitted the name and the mood of an album for which the title Open All Night had been considered and rejected. "Nebraska is built on the premise that everybody knows what it's like to be condemned," said Springsteen.
Blake is good on Springsteen's background - and his fractious relationship with his father - and indulges himself with lots of opinions about Springsteen's later work. The book ends strongly, with a series of musicians - including Rosanne Cash and Laura Cantrell - talking about Nebraska. It's also interesting to hear the verdict of Peter Case - a fine folk musician Springsteen himself admires but who has not achieved the popularity his talent deserves. Case is the most critical about Nebraska, saying "it lacked rhythm and I didn't like the fact he burrowed titles".
Heart Of Darkness is clearly for Springsteen fans but the book will prompt you to listen afresh to what is a monumentally good record. The 10 songs - including My Father's House and Mansion On The Hill - are enduring classics but my own favourite, for what it's worth, is Used Cars. It's Springsteen's plaintive song about a family buying a second-hand car and it captures so much in one couplet:
"Now my ma she fingers her wedding band,
And watches the salesman stare at my old man's hands."
Steve Van Zandt said that when Springsteen played him the home-made demos of Nebraska he told his old friend to release the album in its original state, saying: "The fact that you didn't intend to release it makes it the most intimate record you'll ever do. This is an absolutely legitimate piece of art."