Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
Houseless and clueless about where to turn next, I decided to lose myself in the marginally more controllable terrain of my musical life. With the spiderweb of my past gumming up my works, I turned to a world I’d walked through as a child, remained on familiar terms with and heard calling to me now.
Nebraska began as an unknowing meditation on my childhood and its mysteries. I had no conscious political agenda or social theme. I was after a feeling, a tone that felt like the world I’d known and still carried inside me. The remnants of that world were still only ten minutes and ten miles from where I was living. The ghosts of Nebraska were drawn from my many sojourns into the small-town streets I’d grown up on. My family, Dylan, Woody, Hank, the American gothic short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the noir novels of James M. Cain, the quiet violence of the films of Terrence Malick and the decayed fable of director Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter all guided my imagination. That and the flat, dead voice that drifted through my town on the nights I couldn’t sleep. The voice I heard when I’d wander in a three a.m. trance out onto the front porch of my home to feel the sticky heat and listen to streets silent but for the occasional grinding gears of tractor-trailers groaning like dinosaurs beneath the dust cloud, pulling up South Street to Route 33 and out of town. Then … quiet.
The songs of Nebraska were written quickly, all rising from the same ground. Each song took maybe three or four takes to record. I was only making “demos.” “Highway Patrolman” and “State Trooper” were recorded only once each. “Mansion on the Hill” was first, “My Father’s House” last, with the song “Nebraska” serving as the record’s heart. I tapped into white gospel, early Appalachian music and the blues. The writing was in the details; the twisting of a ring, the twirling of a baton, was where these songs found their character. As in The Night of the Hunter, I often wrote from a child’s point of view. “Mansion on the Hill,” “Used Cars” and “My Father’s House” were all stories that came out of my experience with my family.
I wanted black bedtime stories. I thought of the records of John Lee Hooker and Robert Johnson, music that sounded so good with the lights out. I wanted the listener to hear my characters think, to feel their thoughts, their choices. These songs were the opposite of the rock music I’d been writing. They were restrained, still on the surface, with a world of moral ambiguity and unease below. The tension running through the music’s core was the thin line between stability and that moment when the things that connect you to your world, your job, your family, your friends, the love and grace in your heart, fail you. I wanted the music to feel like a waking dream and to move like poetry. I wanted the blood in these songs to feel destined and fateful.
Frustrated at blowing all my money on studio time, I sent my guitar tech out to get a recorder, a little less lo-fi than the cassette recorder I usually used to lay down my new song ideas. I needed a better and less expensive way to tell if my new material was record-worthy. He came back with a four-track Japanese Tascam 144 cassette recorder. We set it up in my bedroom; I’d sing, play, and with the two tracks left, I could add a backing vocal, an extra guitar or a tambourine. On four tracks, that’s all you could do. I mixed it through a guitar Echoplex unit onto a beat box like the kind you’d take to the beach, total cost for the project: about a grand. After that, I went into the studio, brought in the band, re-recorded and remixed everything. On listening, I realized I’d succeeded in doing nothing but damaging what I’d created. We got it to sound cleaner, more hi-fi, but not nearly as atmospheric, as authentic.
All popular artists get caught between making records and making music. If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s the same thing. When you learn to craft your music into recordings, there’s always something gained and something lost. The ease of an unself-conscious voice gives way to the formality of presentation. On certain records, that trade-off may destroy the essential nature of what you’ve done. At the end of the day, satisfied I’d explored the music’s possibilities and every blind alley, I pulled out the original cassette I’d been carrying around in my jeans pocket and said, “This is it.”