How Nebraska Was Born… (Godfatherecords G.R. 86/87)
Disc 1: Demos #1 – March-May, 1981: Fist Full Of Dollars #1. Fist Full Of Dollars #2, Bye Bye Johnny, Riding Horse, Party Lights, Summer Nights, My Heart Is An Open Book, Robert Ford And Jesse James, Danger Zone, Daniel In The Lion’s Den, Open All Night (early version); Demos #2 – June- December, 1981: Vietnam, Johnny 99 #1, Johnny 99 #2, The Answer (Losin’ Kind Acoustic Demo), Love Is A Dangerous Thing, Downbound Train (1,11″), Red River Rock, Used Car #1, Used Cars #2, Born In The U.S.A. #1, Born In The U.S.A. #2, Born In The U.S.A. #3, Born In The U.S.A. #4, Born In The U.S.A. #5, Club Soul City, Atlantic City, Fade To Black #1
Disc 2: Colts Neck, NJ, USA – 3 January, 1982 outtakes: Nebraska #1, Nebraska #2, Born In The U.S.A., Losin’ Kind (Patrolman), Downbound Train (2.22″), Deputy (Highway Patrolman), Child Bride, Dream Baby, Precious Memories, Pink Cadillac
Bonus Tracks: Home demo, Holmdel, NJ, USA – circa 1981 or 1982: James Lincoln Dear; Home demos, Holmdel, NJ, USA – 8 July, 1981: All I Need, Fade To Black #2; My Father’s House (Japanese Version)
Godfather has recently reissued this 2-CD set, which originally appeared, if I remember correctly, in 2004. It consists of two discs of acoustic home demos, one from various dates in 1981 and the other, which formed the basis of the Nebraska album, from early January 1982. This is not their first release. The double CD Fistful Of Dollars (E Street Records), contains all of the 1981 demos on Godfather’s first disc, whereas the Nebraska tape constituted the first volume in Labour Of Love’s nineteen disc series, The Lost Masters, under the unwieldy title The Lost Masters I: Alone In Colt’s Neck (The Complete Nebraska Session).
The tracks on the first disc, recorded at Springsteen’s home, are described by the Brucebase website as, “solo acoustic practice recordings span[ning] about a 12-month period, from spring 1981 to spring 1982, although the majority of the material is from the last 3 months of 1981…These are not professionally made recordings. They were never intended to be. It appears Springsteen only used a common, run-of-the-mill cassette recorder. None of these songs exhibit a finished songwriting product. These are song fragments, both musically and lyrically. There is much stopping and starting heard, as Springsteen records bits and pieces, manually stops the recorder then returns sometime later to add more ideas…and so on and so forth.”
The first eleven tracks are dated by Godfather as from March to May 1981. Brucebase, however, contends that the timespan was a little more limited, and that they were recorded between late March and Early April, during a break in the River Tour. The remaining fourteen tracks are dated June-December 1981 by Godfather. Brucebase is a little more specific: Fade To Black is stated as having been recorded in late June, during a further short break in the tour; the remainder are dated mid-September to December. Godfather does not give a location for the two recording sessions on disc one, but (probably following the date in The Lost Masters series), ascribes two of the bonus tracks on disc two to Springsteen’s home in Holmdel on 8 July 1981. This would mean all of the first set of demos and possibly some of the second were recorded in Holmdel. Brucebase, however, clearly states that all of the 1981 demos were recorded in Colt’s Neck, to where Springsteen located when his lease on the Holmdel property ran out. I am unsure of the exact date of Springsteen’s removal. Dave Marsh in Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen In The 1980s, has him “returning to a house he’d rarely slept in” at Colt’s Neck at the end of the River Tour (September 1981), a phrase which imples that he had lived there for some time.
Significantly, it appears that that there are numerous other 1981 home demos which Godfather have not included here. Brucebase notes the existence of a further sixteen songs recorded (like Godfather’s Demos #2) between September 1981 and May 1982. Fourteen of these appeared (some in multiple versions) on volume ten of the The Lost Masters series, which claimed that they were recorded at Springsteen’s Los Angeles residence in 1983. Of the other two, Glory Days, has only appeared on a private CD-R; James Lincoln Dear was included on the second volume of The Lost Masters Essential Collection and features on the Godfather release as a bonus track. Some of the songs are very fragmentary; for example, version 2 of True Love Is Hard To Come By is merely fifteen seconds long and version 2 of Wages Of Sin only twenty. I am unaware of when the misattribution was discovered; it would be logical to assume that they did not appear when How Nebraska Was Born… was first issued because they were still, at that time, thought to date from 1983.
The opening song of disc one, the first version of Fist Full Of Dollars, begins with the familiar line, “Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night,” and the Lebanese Tribute To Bruce Springsteen website states that, “this Nebraska acoustic home demo would later evolve in ATLANTIC CITY, passing through an intermediate version.” There are also lyrics that would later emerge on Johnny Bye Bye. According to Godfather’s booklet notes, “the rhythm that the guitar gives to the song, recalls a few unreleased tracks from 1978 (Going Back, Preacher’s Daughter) influenced by Bo Diddley and Buddy Holly style.” This opening track sets the tone for much of which follows. We hear Springsteen singing and playing acoustic guitar as he attempts to mould a song from his initial ideas. He tries variants of some lines, which interrupts the flow of the song, and at one point he stops altogether and we hear pages turning. The second version of Fist Full Of Dollars is shorter and less structured, with a different melody as well as different lyrics, and the booklet states that, “Bruce is working to give more focus to the story.” The sound quality is also inferior.
Next up is Johnny Bye Bye (sometimes referred to, as here, as Bye Bye Johnny, the title of the Chuck Berry song from which it is developed). It was performed during the River Tour and a later version, recorded during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions was officially released as the b-side of I’m On Fire and later on Tracks. At the end of two verses the song recycles the line, “Come on, come on, let’s go tonight,” from the proto-version of Factory, and, also echoing Factory, it contains the line, “They walk down the street with death in their eyes.”
Riding Horse is a strange song about a man with an exceptionally tall girlfriend (“I got a girl so tall and fair/I need a stepladder to run my fingers through her hair/I’m gonna kill the next guy who asks ‘how’s the weather up there?'”) At one point Springsteen stops and switches off the casette recorder before starting the song again. Next comes Party Lights, a brief up-tempo number reminiscent of Buddy Holly, which, like version 2 of Fist Full Of Dollars is is slightly inferior sound quality.
Musically, the next two songs, Summer Night (called Summer Nights here) and My Heart Is An Open Book are identical, with a pleasing melody, though the lyrics are different. Then comes Robert Ford And Jesse James, which Brucebase calls, “just a snippet, with mostly unintelligible lyrics.” It would later evolve into two songs, Robert Ford, an obscure song the lyrics of which are unkown and which Lebanese Tribute refers to as an “uncirculating country style number that may date from the Nebraska period,” and Jesse James, recorded during a later home recording session between September 1981 and May 1982.
Danger Zone is insubstantial, lasting for less than a minute-and-a-half, dominated by the line, “Let the girl go home,” which is sometimes take to be the title. Daniel In The Lion’s Den (called Daniel’s In The Lion’s Den by Lebanese Tribute and, more simply Lion’s Den by Brucebase) is barely a song. Lasting less than a minute, it consists, lyrically, merely of the line “Daniel in the lion’s den” repeated several times. Lebanese tribute claims that it “probably evolved in LION’S DEN,” the Nebraska/Born In The U.S.A. outtake which was played live on the Reunion Tour and appeared on Tracks. The booklet, however, contends that it has nothing but the title in common with the later song. In fact, comparative listening does reveal the musical germ of the Tracks version in this home demo.
The final song from the first set of demos is a brief early version of Open All Night, which in fact bears little resemblance to the familiar song of that name. Lebanese Tribute lists it for convenience under “Open All Night/This Hard Land,” and states it to be an “un-named song which contains part of OPEN ALL NIGHT as well as THIS HARD LAND.” Godfather’s booket remarks that lyrics from this “slow folk fingerpicking” turned up in “at least, five different songs.”
As the booklet states, Vietnam, the first of the second set of demos, is of “huge historical interest,” containing as it does “the basics later developed into ‘Shut Out The Light’ and the idea from which ‘Born In The USA’ took shape.” The booklet states that the song was written after meeting Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born On the Fourth Of July. At this time, Springsteen also made contact, through manager Jon Landau, with Bobby Muller and the Vietnam Veterans Of America. Muller spoke at the show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on 20 August 1981 and Springsteen donated the proceeds of the show to the VVA and Los Angeles-based veterans’ centres. This up-tempo number is virtually fully formed, though Springsteen stumbles over the lyrics on a couple of occasions. Springsteen begins the song again, seemingly after stopping and starting the cassette recorder, and Brucebase argues that this constitutes two distinct versions. The song concerns the responses a veteran meets upon his return from Vietnam. The only slight lyrical resemblance it bears to the finished version of Born In The U.S.A. comes with the lines: “Went for my job back at the factory, down at the factory/The only thing I heard from the man at the desk/Is, ‘Son, understand if it was up to me.'” The veteran is also told on several occasions: “You died in Vietnam, you died in Vietnam/Now don’t you understand, you died in Vietnam.”
Musically, the two versions of Johnny 99 are effectively the same as the official version, though the have lyrics that differ both from each other and the Nebraska recording. For instance, version 1 has the verse “It’s only $200 it was all I was asking for/Judge, just $200 I’d bin on my way out the door/He reached ‘neath the counter I saw something shiny in his hand/Yes…they started…he spewed blood like a fountain and I dropped my gun and I ran.” In version 2, when the fight breaks out in the courtroom, it is Johnny’s dad, not his girl, who has to be dragged away. Here too there are occasional hesitations over the lyrics.
Godfather presents the early version of Losin’ Kind under the title The Answer, which was the song’s work-in-progress title. As with Vietnam, the tape stops and starts again and we get a total of over five minutes of music. This slow and poignant song features, in the words of the booklet, “melodies that we’ll find again in ‘Highway Patrolman.'” Lebanese Tribute points out the song’s similarity with Highway 29 from The Ghost Of Tom Joad: “A man meets a woman, pulls a holdup, kills a man then crashes the car, yet all the time he knows he is paving his own path to self-destruction. When the moment of realization comes, it is far too late to save him.”
Love Is A Dangerous Thing is another strange song, in which the protagonist repeatedly tells a woman, “don’t trust strangers.” Judging by the song’s opening lines, however, it would seem that he is precisely the sort of man she should apply that advice to: “Followed you home baby late last night/Seen you walking in the dark/Sat outside baby, outside your house/Sat outside in my car/Baby, lookin’ through the window.” There is also a reference to Eve tempting Adam with an apple, which resurfaced in Pink Cadillac. Musically, the booklet points out a similarity to the Bartholemew/King composition I hear You Knocking originally recorded by Smiley Lewis and later a hit for Dave Edmunds; to my ears however, it more closely resembles the Little Richard hit single Keep A-Knockin (But You Can’t Come In).
Downbound Train lasts for little more than a minute. It is faster than the version which eventually appeared on Born On The U.S.A., with a somewhat different tune. Anticipating Working On The Highway, the song’s protagonist ends up “swing[ing] a sledge hammer on a railroad gang.” This is followed by Red River Rock, a 1959 hit for Johnny And The Hurricanes which is based on a traditional song with many names including Red River Valley. Here we have Springsteen whistling the very familiar tune and strumming along for just under a minute.
Godfather lists two versions of Used Cars, but, as Brucebase points out, there are in fact three, for, at the end of the second version, Springsteen is heard shuffling papers before commencing the song for a third time. He plays a short but arresting snippet of guitar before the harmonica kicks in at the start of the first version which is absent from the other versions. The performances here are very similar both lyrically and musically, and all of them, though especially the second, have a poignant quality that the official version does not quite achieve.
After three versions of Used Cars, we get six (rather than the listed five) of Born InThe U.S.A. The booklet states that Springsteen “takes what was filed as ‘Vietnam,’ change[s] part of the lyrics and in five takes gives shape to one of the most popular songs in rock history.” The first version reproduces the music of Vietnam, though the lyrics are modified, most notably with “born in the U.S.A.” replacing “Vietnam.” The rest of the lyrics, however, are still completely different from the familiar song. Having come up with the phrase “born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen effectively ditches the original song and develops a new musical direction, heard in an embryonic version lasting a little over twenty seconds. Here Springsteen sings the first version of some familiar lyrics: “Got in a little home town jam/So the law put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to kill the yellow man.” There is also the twice-sung line, “I believe in the American way,” which did not survive. Through the next four readings, Springsteen develops the song, modifying the lyrics but maintaining the music, which is familar from the Nebraska tape version from its appearance on Tracks. Some of the lyrics, had they survived, might have made the song less open to misinterpretation. For example, there are references to bombing of Cambodia and the contention that, “They wouldn’t bomb the white man that way.” Listening to these different versions gives us a fascinating insight into the development of this classic song.
Club Soul City, which the booklet calls, “a soul exercise condensed in less than a minute,” was later recorded by Gary US Bonds for his album On The Line. Springsteen himself never performed the song live but did include it in two known soundchecks on 21 June 1992 at the Forum Assago, Milan, Italy and on 25 July 1992 at Meadowlands Arena, East Rutherford, NJ, USA. An uncirculating band version was recorded at The Power Station in January or February 1982 during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions. Brucebase surmises that it is the same core recording as the Bonds version but with Springsteen’s vocals.
What we get of Atlantic City is very similar to the official version, but we do not get very much; Springsteen begins the song five times but does not get very far and the whole montage lasts for less than a minute-and-three-quarters. Disc one then closes with the sombre Fade To Black, which concerns the deterioration of a relationship and uses a cinematic metaphor. We hear the song twice and Lebanese Tribute states that the two versions are, “different remixes but same take.”
The value of these demos is summed up by Brucebase as follows: “These recordings can provide an interesting, though often monotonous, glimpse into how Bruce goes about his creative writing process. But very little of this material is listener-friendly and is probably not worth obtaining unless you’re a die-hard completist. Springsteen definitely progressed some of these song fragments and ideas to completion – we have the studio end product to attest to that. However many of these titles are likely to have gone little further than what one hears on these tapes.”
The Nebraska sessions heard on the second disc were not initially intended to result in a commercially released album. Springsteen aimed to produce excellent-sounding solo demos to play to the members of The E Street Band at sessions for the follow-up to The River album due to start in New York City in February 1982, thus facilitating the recording process. “To achieve his goal,” as Brucebase informs us, “in December 1981 Springsteen asked his guitar technician, Mike Batlan, to set up a no frills ‘porta-studio’ in a spare room of Bruce’s Colts Neck, NJ home. Some modification work was done to the room to make it more receptive to achieving a decent sound. Batlan purchased a Teac Tascam (Series 144) 4-track cassette recorder, 2 x Shure SM57 mics and 2 x mic stands. The sound was mixed through an old Gibson Echoplex and an old Panasonic boom box acted as the mix-down deck.”
Springsteen’s own account confirms the nature and purpose of the recordings: “I got a little Teac four-track cassette machine, and I said, ‘I’m gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin’ ’em, then I’ll teach ’em to the band.’ I could sing snd play the guitar, and then I had two tracks to do somethin’ else, like overdub a guitar or add a harmony. It was just gonna be a demo. Then I had an old beat-up Echoplex that I mixed through, and that was it. It was real old, which is why the sound was kinda deep.”
Springsteen recorded fifteen songs at the beginning of January 1982, with the majority of them laid down in a single session on 3 January. As Brucebase states, “some of them were recorded 2 or 3 times in slightly different arrangements.” Two or three months later, Springsteen recorded two additional songs, My Father’s House and The Big Payback. Twelve songs from these sessions have appeared on official releases. Ten, of course, constitute the Nebraska album; also released have been The Big Payback (as a single b-side and on The Essential Bruce Springsteen bonus disc) and Born In The U.S.A. (on Tracks). The remaining five are Losin’ Kind, Child Bride, Downbound Train, Pink Cadillac and Johnny Bye Bye, the last of which is uncirculating.
According to Springsteen himself, the original tape was not treated with any special care or reverence: “I put the tape in my pocket, carried it around a couple of weeks, ’cause I was gonna teach the songs to the band. After a coupe of days, I looked at the thing and said, ‘Uh-oh, I’d better stop carrying this around like this. Can somebody make a copy of this?” Christopher Sandford, in Springsteen: Point Blank, points out one obvious peril of such a casual approach, claiming that the tape, “narrowly avoided being washed with [Springsteen’s] jeans.”
At some point in March or early April 1982, during the recording sessions with The E Street Band, Springsteen concluded that the songs were not terribly well suited to full-band arrangements, stating in Songs that, “I went into the studio, brought in the band, recorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.” Toby Scott recalls that in April Springsteen gave him the solo demo tape, stating, “there’s something about the atmosphere on this tape – can’t we just master off this tape?” Scott thought that they could and by late May the decision had been taken to issue Nebraska.
Lynn Elder, commenting on the first volume of The Lost Masters series in the third edition of You Better Not Touch, writes: “It claims to contain the legendary original Nebraska tape Bruce recorded at home and carried around in his pocket…one would assume that the songs are the ones that actually comprised Nebraska, but that’s not the case; in fact, this disc is revelatory in that it explodes the ‘myth’ of Nebraska, of Springsteen simply whipping through what would be the album’s ten tracks in one day. Judging by this set the creative process for Nebraska was much more typical of his working on previous records. Bruce recorded multiple demo takes of the songs that made the album – even the version of ‘Nebraska’ here is different – as well as numerous song that didn’t.”
I find it difficult to agree with Elder’s comments. Firstly, I fail to see how the Lost Masters CD itself “explodes the ‘myth’ of Nebraska.” The CD contains only one version of each song, and, where they are songs which made the album, they are the same versions in every case – as Brucebase points out, Lost Masters and Nebraska merely contain different mixes of the same recordings. Indeed, in every case where there is an alternative take it is uncirculating. Consequently, the two “versions” of the song Nebraska are not really different at all.
Secondly, Elder implies that the “creative process” was longer drawn out than claimed, due to the “multiple demo takes” of the songs. However, of the fourteen circulating songs, eight were recorded only once. Of the others, four (Johnny 99, Used Cars, Open All Night and Reason To Believe) were recorded twice and only two (Losin’ Kind and Atlantic City) were recorded three times. It is still entirely conceivable that Springsteen could record everything in a day or so – after all, recording Atlantic City three times instead of once would have taken approximately twelve minutes rather than four. Springsteen himself claims that all of the original fifteen songs, including the alternative versions, were indeed recorded in a brief space of time. “I just kinda sat there,” he stated, “I recorded them in a couple of days. Some songs I only did once, like ‘Highway Patrolman.’ The other songs I did maybe two times, three times at the most.”
Unlike Labour Of Love, Godfather omits the songs which actually ended up on Nebraska. Presumably, this is because, as stated above, they are merely different mixes of the versions which ended up on the album. The two partial versions of Nebraska which open disc two, might seem to be an exception, but they were actually recorded between September and December 1981, and therefore should belong in the Demos #2 section of disc one.
Only one recording of Born In The U.S.A. was made, so the version here is merely a different mix from the now-familiar one featured on Tracks. Losin’ Kind is, according to Brucebase, “stunning.” As stated above, the earlier version appears on disc one under the title The Answer. Lebanese Tribute states: “The two versions are very similar except for some few lyrical differences. Version #1 is a lot less complete and more fragmented than version #2.” The ensuing version of Downbound Train lasts for twice as long as the recording on disc one. As Lebanese Tribute has it, “on this version, Bruce tries a fast rockabilly style arrangement, maintaining the acoustic form, probably the last chance the song had to be on Nebraska before being put apart [sic] for future glory.” The inclusion of Highway Patrolman here is puzzling as all the other songs which appear on Nebraska are omitted. Godfather includes it under its original title of Deputy, which also the title used by Labour Of Love on the first volume of The Lost Masters, and I suspect that the different title was a factor in the song’s inclusion here.
According to Brucebase, “‘Child Bride’ is often incorrectly noted as being an alternate title for ‘Working On The Highway.’ They are in fact separate songs, as they bear no common melody and merely share a few similar lines of lyric.” In fact there is a great deal of lyrical similarity, though the music, which is slow and rather beautiful, is indeed completely different. Brucebase rates the song, along with Losin’ Kind, “among the most compelling of all the Nebraska session songs.”
Written by Cindy Walker, Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream) was originally released by Roy Orbison in 1962. The version here lasts for little more than a minute and was actually recorded between September and December 1981, which should have placed it among the Demos #2. Precious Memories is a traditional song which was recorded by Bob Dylan. It was also recorded between September and December 1981. The misattribution of these two songs (together with the incomplete versions of Nebraska) might possibly be a result of the fact that they originally appeared, along with the Nebraska tape, on volume 1 of The Lost Masters. The final song from the Nebraska tape, Pink Cadillac, is similar to the band version, though it is slower and very atmospheric. It is also very similar lyrically to the official recording.
The first of the bonus tracks is James Lincoln Dear (or Deere according to Lebanese Tribute), which previously appeared on The Lost Masters Essential collection II. The song’s protagonist ends up in Richfield prison after committing a murder and the song evolved into the Born In The U.S.A. outtake Richfield Whistle. A couple of the lines (“Man said, ‘These jobs are goin’ boys/And they ain’t comin’ back.'”) later appeared in a slightly modified form in My Hometown.
Lebanese Tribute states that All I Need, “was played briefly in the rehearsals of one of the July 1981 Meadowlands Bruce shows (a The River tour show) in which Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds appeared as guest…Bruce later worked on it and wrote it for Gary ‘U.S.’ Bonds’ album On the Line, 1982.” Brucebase dates the home recording heard here to late June 1981, rather than Godfather’s 8 July. The lyrics shown on Lebanese Tribute for the two versions would seem to indicate that Brucebase is correct. It is a slow song which come across as rather mournful, despite the nature of the lyrics (“You’re all I need now my baby/You’re all I need to be happy”). As with Club Soul City a band version was reorded during the Born In The U.S.A. sessions. The sombre mood remains with a second version of Fade To Black, which Godfather also attributes to 8 July 1981.
The final bonus track is My Father’s House (Japanese Version). Brucebase states: “V2b includes an additional 28 seconds of synthesizer at the end that was cut from the official release. The master tape for this longer version was accidentally sent to Japan in 1985 and released on the first-ever CD print run of the album, as well as a 2nd pressing of the Japanese CD in 1986-87. The long version was also utilized on original 1986-7 export editions of the Japanese CD sent to Europe and the USA. The mistake was eventually corrected on all versions. The long version has not been officially available anywhere since 1988.”
The sound quality of the songs from the Nebraska tape is excellent. The sound on the 1981 home demos is a notch down due to the less technologically advanced casseete recorder used; nonetheless, with the machine only required to capture voice and guitar, the results are still eminently listenable, with only a couple of songs, as noted above, being a little inferior in sound. The sound of the bonus tracks (with the obvious exception of the Japanese version of My Father’s House) is less good. The sound on James Lincoln Dear is clear and quite listenable, though there is some audible hiss and also a momentary drop out. The sound on All I Need and Fade To Black is a little rougher and also affected by hiss.
This release comes in Godfather’s usual tri-fold packaging, in a black and red design reflecting the style of the official Nebraska album. The sleeve features posed photographs of Springsteen (all save one in black-and-white), an atmospheric shot of cars at the New Jersey Turnpike, and notes by Mark Clemenza. There are two foldover, four-panel booklets, one dedicated to each disc, which comment on the individual songs. Finally, there is a mini-poster with a moody, black-clad Springsteen on one side a promotional statement from Columbia Records on the other. Overall, the effect is very pleasing.
Those who must have everything will still need to seek out the first and tenth volumes of The Lost Masters series, if they do not already possess them, in order to acquire the complete Nebraska tape and the remainder of the home demos now known to be from 1981 rather than 1983. However, as stated above, the Nebraska songs on the first volume of The Lost Masters are essentially the same as on the official release. Moreover, the home demos on the tenth volume are less impressive than the ones included here and sometimes fragmentary (so that Elder calls them “hard to listen to”) and they are also in inferior sound quality. Consequently, for those who are not completists, this release will serve admirably as an informative and enjoyable supplement to the official Nebraska album.