John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life – Kenneth Womack (2020)

On the 40th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, noted Beatles’ historian and author, Kenneth Womack, accomplished again what he does best: provide us with every detail, nook, cranny, and movement of a Beatles-related story, making it come alive and matter as much as it did then.

I have admired Kenneth’s writing for years, reviewed his books in this space, and recently struck up a friendship through my work on the aforementioned Take a Sad Song. (He was kind enough to lend a blurb to its back cover.) Therefore, I was not surprised when I picked up a copy of his John Lennon 1980: The Last Days in the Life at the Chicago Fest for Beatles Fans – where we both spoke last summer – and could not put it down.

Womack covers the entire last year of Lennon’s life, expertly weaving a story that begins with a peaceful, hermit-like existence of a nearly 40-year-old Lennon doting on his new son, Sean, and traveling to family haunts with his wife, Yoko Ono. Soon, Lennon, as is his wont, becomes restless, takes up sailing, wherein he is plunged into a harrowing life-changing experience on the way to Bermuda and contemplates what he believes will be the rest of a long life ahead. It is this revelation along with being inspired once again by the new music of his old teenaged chum and fellow songwriting genius, Paul McCartney, that fuels Lennon’s to embark on what would be his final album, Double Fantasy.

What struck me the most about the book was the ultimately tragic but heartwarming plans Lennon had to visit his Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him, for the first time since he and Yoko settled in the United States in the early 1970s, and how he had readied the musicians who worked on his album for a planned world tour. This, as we know, never happened.

Womack gets everyone on the record here: limo drivers, assistants, nannies, producers, studio cats, all of whom usher us through Lennon’s every move, even that fateful week and the terrible day of his murder on December 8, 1980.

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You’re with Stupid – kranky, Chicago, and the Reinvention of Indie Music – Bruce Adams (2022)

In the early 1990s, during the final years of rock and roll’s dominance on the cutting edge of music after over four decades of growth, expansion, breakdowns, and reinventions, the Indie music scene sprang up in small towns and big cities all around the USA. It was a time of DIY garage rock, electronic experimentation, ambient machinations, pseudo poetry, and a final, genuine return to roots. In the midst of this underground movement that would produce pop acts and perennials, the quick has-been to the never-was, there was kranky records. An independent label from Chicago, birthplace of genre breakthroughs, Smashing Pumpkins and its godmother, Liz Phair, it would join the fray to become part of a template that would reverberate down generations for those who wish to make it without corporate interference picking the pockets of talented dreamers.

The label’s co-founder, Bruce Adams (with fellow music geek Joel Leoschke), has a story to tell from the bleeding fringe of failure and triumph. You’re with Stupid is filled with weird and wonderful tales of a time when how to record, produce, market, and tour music had dramatically shifted away from giant arenas and bloated studios. It was a romantic period of youthful exuberance and carefree passion that Smith captures beautifully. Writing with wit and wisdom, the author brings us into the sights and sounds of promise – something that makes rock and roll still matter.

You’re with Stupid is a primer on how to and how not to go for the brass ring with one thing in mind – find and make music you love and that you wish to share with the world.

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Chuck Berry: An American Life – RJ Smith (2022)

Author RJ Smith has done a great service to the history of rock and roll by penning the most comprehensive and unflinching biography of its most celebrated founder, Charles Edward Anderson Berry. Capturing his import and influence, his experimental brilliance and relentless pursuit of bridging America’s generational and racial divides in his incredible canon, tells only half of Berry’s story. Smith uncovers the origins of the man, his upbringing in the racial and cultural hotbed of St. Louis, replete with mythical musical charms. We come to know the boy who became the man that made the music, built the social walls, and delved into the darkness of his obsessions of money, power-politics, and sexual deviance.

Aptly titled, Chuck Berry: An American Life is a study in American pop culture, it’s heroes and villains, zeitgeist, and fallout. Berry moves through its pages as he did through history as an avatar to our most ardent dreams and horrid nightmares. A deeply flawed and emotionally damaged man emerges from his triumphs and tragedies as a true victim and victor of our country’s agonizing duality. For it is in Berry’s songs, his amiable wit and twinkled eye mixed with his rough and sometimes predatory exterior that we find our national identity. As an artist in the spotlight of a movement, the book argues there may have been no one better or more ill-suited at the same time than Chuck Berry.

After finishing this book, I went and read my eulogy for Berry for this paper back in 2017. I was curious, after learning so much more than I ever did about him – some of it disturbing, some revelatory – if it shifted my final image of him. While it is hard to ignore his crimes, misogyny, or the truths laid bare by his behavior and defiance, it is also rewarding to continue to delve into the genius of Berry’s music, which has outlasted so much of his times and his flaws.

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Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen – Fred Goodman (2022)

Curated by Turner Classic Movies, Rock on Film: The Movies that Rocked the Big Screen is a comprehensive overview of the entire music/film catalog from documentary to biopic to teen exploitation, concert film, and some of the more outstanding celluloid pieces of ephemera from the rock and roll era. Although handsomely compiled with tons of great photos, movie posters and behind-the-scenes shots, it is so much more. Adorned with essays from music writer Fred Goodman, Rock on Film provides unique perspectives to the most famous and the not-so well-known films featuring the most celebrated artists of the period.

An excellent perk of the book is Goodman’s “Make It a Double Feature” segment for each film, allowing similar titles to consider and provides further analyses of the styles and subjects that can be enjoyed by audiences. The key to Rock on Film is its function as a guide to digest the films while also offering fair but strong critiques of the work. Moreover, the chapter breakdowns of certain genres allow readers to discover their most striking attributes.

Also included are candid discussions with filmmakers, Cameron Crow, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, and Taylor Hackford – and a fine foreword by my friend, the inimitable director, Michael Lindsay-Hogg.

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This is What it Sounds Like: What The Music You Love Says About You – Sudan Rogers and Ogi Ogas (2022)

This is What it Sounds Like: What the Music You Love Says About You is one of the most important books written for the layman on the intellectual and emotional effects of music. In a fun and digestible read, the research and experimentation of two learned minds bring us closer to the way we process rhythm, melody, timbre, and lyrics and what those processes say about our personalities, our history, and our humanity.

Author Dr. Susan Rogers, who owns a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and is currently a professor at the Berklee College of Music, and most famously, Prince’s longtime engineer during his most prolific period of the 1980s, and co-author Dr. Ogi Oga, writer and PhD in computational neuroscience, pool their experiences and resources to help us understand the most ethereal of art forms. Broken into different chapters using music from all genres and wonderfully crafted anecdotes and charts, This is What it Sounds Like, makes the work lively and accessible. Cleverly titled from Prince’s 1984 mega-hit, “When Doves Cry,” it never reads too heady or bogged down with professorial jargon.

For this reviewer, I discovered new aspects of my personality in the music that speaks to me the loudest. Rogers, who is mostly the narrator here, also adds crucial insight into how she as both listener and professional producer/engineer breaks music down and provides trades secrets on how our most admired musical artists use tried-and-true elements to create songs that get under our skin to last forever.

Having just had a book published on the effects of one song on society at large, as well as on personal levels, Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of ‘Hey Jude’, I found This is What it Sounds Like a true revelation that reached beyond my research and is a riveting companion piece if you enjoy this exceptional level of analysis.

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Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History – Bill Janovitz (2023)

The tale of Leon Russell is an epic one. It is as exhaustive as it is an impassioned telling in Bill Janovitz’s Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History.

Beginning as a youngster in clubs backing local Oklahoma talent before becoming a master studio cat by playing piano with the famed Wrecking Crew, Russell developed his rollicking soulful style in the employ of Jerry Lee Lewis and Phil Spector. Eventually he became an inspired songwriter through working with 1960s pop sensation, Gary Lewis & the Playboys. He transitioned seamlessly into a kinetic solo performer and then into one of the most idiosyncratic and brilliant bandleaders and technology innovators of the golden age of rock.

Having reviewed Janovitz’s book on the Stones in this space a few years back, I was excited to read his take on this oft noted but barely remembered pioneer of popular music, and his work delivers a frankly overdue synopsis of an artist that spanned the early history of rock and roll and conquered so much of its original genres, like R&B, gospel, and country. It delves deeply into Russell’s psychological and physiological challenges since childhood, his penchant for sometimes life-altering communal living/working environments, and his dogged pursuit of perfection in live performance.

Janovitz goes beyond Russell’s halcyon days of leading Joe Cocker’s infamous Mad Dogs and Englishman Tour, his work with George Harrison on the Concert for Bangladesh, and his unusually close relationship with Bob Dylan to reveal family turmoil, broken marriages, and complicated professional partnerships that paint the most detailed picture of the man and his music.

Russell played, met, or befriended a bevy of influencers as he himself influenced such luminaries as Elton John, who swooped in at the end of this mercurial life to rescue Russell from obscurity and provide his productive life in music the proper landing it deserved before his death in 2016. A fitting end to a complicated but extraordinary career and life.

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion

Get used to this.

The former president of the United States and remarkably the leading Republican candidate for the job again is racking up quite a dark resume and it shows no signs of slowing down. A lifelong criminal with dozens of civil settlements for millions of dollars and convictions on dubious to outright felonious real estate scams, Donald Trump has now become the first ex-president to be officially indicted by the U.S. government. He is facing seven counts of federal crimes including obstruction of justice (his favorite) and running afoul of the Espionage Act. Details on the other counts have yet to be confirmed, but likely will by the time he turns himself in this coming Tuesday. This is the cherry (for now) on top of a shit parfait that has rendered him arguably the greatest enemy of the state since Osama bin laden.

And that is quite an achievement for a one-term presidential failure. We usually forget these people – Jimmy Carter’s malaise and George H. W. Bush’s cluelessness. Despite it being hardly shocking, considering his deeply checkered past, this is still a walking disaster worthy of top-shelf infamy, even for Trump, who I assured his supporters within minutes of his unlikely 2016 victory that it merely began the countdown to impeachment and arrest. Correct and correct. I’m good. Or I pay attention. There was little chance Trump wouldn’t have ended up two steps from jail the second he descended that escalator at Trump Tower.

I am still not sure why a man whose entire professional life has been continuous fraud backed up by a panoply of lies would open himself up to the rule of law and media scrutiny laid at the feet of presidents. He was so comfy in New York ripping off construction firms, bribing officials, assaulting women, evading taxes, and impersonating people defending him on talk radio. There was always a chance he might get fined, or his accountants and lawyers would go to prison (all of it has happened), but he wouldn’t be where he finds himself today – in the crosshairs of the United States.

But the man can’t help himself. And there is certainly no one around him who can step in. He is fat Elvis working his way to face-down on the toilet carpet, General Custer riding into Little Bighorn, Mike Tyson hitting the canvas in Japan against someone named Buster Douglas. Hubris doom. A ticking timebomb of stupid. A willing victim of his own vanity.

In entertainment there is the EGOT – winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. Trump has that beat. He has committed treason, domestic terrorism, racketeering, all manner of fraud, and is now accused of essentially being a spy. Pretty soon Georgia will weigh in on his fake electors and trying to bully its officials and governor to “find me eleven-thousand votes” for his failed 2020 campaign, and the Department of Justice will come calling again for his inviting insurrectionists to the Capitol and openly inciting them to attempt to corrupt the electoral process, murder the speaker of the house and vice president, and kill police.

Donald Trump is becoming the Babe Ruth of political crime. He is the Meryl Streep of malfeasance. Call him the Mozart of scandal or the Jimi Hendrix of indignity.

But maybe he’s more like Michael Myers of Halloween, an unnatural demon that cannot be felled. Especially among the fascist Republican Party, many of whom are stinking up our congress and leapt to his defense yesterday. These include among many others current Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and all-time Trump butt-sniffer, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, as Trump predictably turned the home cameras on for his Truth Social to cry foul and whip off his greatest hits; “rigged” and “witch hunt.” These people are in for the long haul, which means Trump will be the Republican nominee (currently leading 53% to 21% over his closest rival) whether he is convicted or not.

Every one of these people coming to his aid knows he could have avoided this so easily. He is correct that both his former vice president Mike Pence (also now running for president) and Joe Biden (our current commander-in-chief), took classified documents out of the White House and escaped prosecution. That’s because they are not insane. Normally in these cases the benefit of doubt is applied if the suspect cooperates, which both men did. Trump instead decided to first deny he had documents of any kind. Then he ignored subpoenas to give over said documents, and when a Florida judge granted a warrant and dozens of these docs were uncovered by FBI agents, he claimed (and still claims) that he had a right to them. He does not. Hence seven counts.

He is the Meryl Streep of malfeasance.

This is what we call in the parlance of reality (unfamiliar territory to Trump and his cabal), self-inflicted wounds. All of it could have been avoided, if Trump wasn’t raised as a rich, spoiled brat who has been told his whole life and rubber-stamped by gullible and desperate voters six years ago that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. He turned America into Trump Enterprises for four miserable years, and he is still wrecking shit, but this time it is Republican shit and his own shit, and he is going down for it.

Now, if I were to defend Trump politically, he has some runway. This is Biden’s justice department. Trump is likely going to run against him next year. Trump is still selling the “deep state” robbery of the 2020 election. He can say, and is already saying, this is a weaponized DOJ trying to oust him from his 2024 candidacy this time around. The current Attorney General Merrick Garland has this job because he was denied his vote to become a supreme court justice by hack Republicans, an appointment which would likely have saved women’s sovereign from the current politically damaged SCOTA, but now is using his backup gig to fuck Trump. He can say it is a personal anti-Republican agenda. Vengeance. Trump’s personal playbook. He can also say the trial is taking place in Florida. Who runs Florida? The next guy up if Trump goes bye-bye, Governor Ron DeSantis. You see, once Trump declared his candidacy, he slid into the guise of a candidate making everything political. That is a measly but justifiable defense in the vox populi but holds zero H2O in court.

Many on the right are buying much of the above and are currently being bilked for money as a fundraising ploy, another addiction Trump cannot break. But none of that matters once a jury convenes in Florida and he is on trial and must leave his fancy propaganda and political machinations behind. Soon he becomes one man versus the U.S.

The United States versus Donald J. Trump has been going on for six years now. It is officially going to play out in a court of law and not OAN.


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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion
In a Time of Deep Divide, Congress and the White House Shock Us All

Now, I am not a big fan of the current president, but he does represent the only party left not trying to lead us into fascism, so I guess I support him. It’s not unlike supporting the kid with his finger in the dam – don’t really know him, don’t care what kind of shoes he wears or his taste in music – just keep your finger in there, buddy, or we’re drowning. But I must give the guy his due. Like Rudy Giuliani thirty years ago when he ran for NYC mayor and promised to clean up the streets, I guffawed heartily at Biden when he kept saying on the 2020 campaign trial that he would work “across the aisle” to get things done, dissimilar to his previous two predecessors, who seemed to go their own way on things. That autumn, the nation Biden hoped to lead was as politically divided as it has been in my lifetime, and it appeared it was merely the usual falderal to get him to the top spot where there would be more hemming and hawing, name calling, and expected gridlock.

Well, after this miraculous fair and equitable political détente that kept the country from economic crisis this week with the conjuring and passing of an agreement (an agreement!) between disparate political parties to extend the debt ceiling for another two years (after the 2024 election), Biden appears to be a seer. However, this was not an isolated event. Nope. This highly unlikely coming together of unlike minds added to the president’s many (again, when considering Obama and Trump) bipartisan accomplishments. It is fair to say Joe Biden was and is not fucking around on this “working across the aisle” thing.

Since being sworn in, and for two years with a Democratic Congress and Senate at his disposal, Biden managed to corrall Republicans to support and vote for legislation on several crucial bills that will alter the nation for the good. First was the much-needed measure that no president (despite all the promising) has been able to pull-off in four decades, a one-trillion-dollar infrastructure bill in November of 2021. One month later came the bipartisan federal codification of gay marriage that was needed after the radical right-wing Supreme Court, a puppet of religious zealotry, struck down Roe v Wade and was throwing threats to kill marriage equality. This was followed by last April’s $52 billion chips deal, a huge and quite frankly overdue measure to not rely on foreign companies to hijack our entire digital eco-system and have American companies make the key ingredient in nearly everything we rely on today. Finally, and perhaps most incredibly, a wildly popular (even among Republicans) gun law that at least tries to address the almost daily carnage of the past fifteen years – the first meaningful piece of gun-related legislation in three decades – last June.

And now comes the extension of the debt ceiling, which should never have been an issue, but the moment Republicans squeaked out the House last November, you knew it would be. Never mind that most of the money on that docket was engineered by the Trump Administration and gleefully passed onto the debt by the same Republicans who were suddenly up in arms over spending once a Democrat became president. But this is par for the proverbial course in Washington. What wasn’t rote was Biden’s apparent negotiating skills, which he touted as a member of the Senate for thirty-five years. Once things got vocal and snipey, he demanded just he and the Speaker of the House meet in private without all the noise. He allowed the opposition to continue to berate him and demand to cut everything in sight and kept his eye on the prize.

Hence, the deal.

Now, of course, to be fair, this could not have been accomplished or even fathomed without the assistance and heady work of Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who had incoming fire from all ends and the fate of the U.S. economy on his watch. An economy, mind you, which has been firing on all cylinders – unemployment has dipped under 3.5% for the first time since 1969 (I was six, I am currently sixty) with a decrease in inflation from eight percent when Biden was sworn in to under five percent. The aphorism “it takes two to tango” applies here. And dance these two men did.

This level of deal-making did not look good a few months back. After a record fifteen rounds of voting that it took to secure McCarthy the speakership, political junkies were convinced he was a hostage of the crazies that made him sweat it out. McCarthy too was not fucking around when he kept repeating that if not him, we were looking at the lunatic fringe running the asylum. But it definitely looked less likely he could control this wacky contingent of fascists and religious zealots to get anything close to a coalition once he gave them the ability to oust him with a single voice. The shit he had to eat to get the gig from his own party was scary, embarrassing, and sad. Since the day McCarthy became speaker there has been an albatross on the man’s neck. And yet, somehow, someway he worked tirelessly with the president to extend the debt ceiling and rescue the nation’s economy.

I piss on most things in this space, but this was a fine job. Professional. Political. Critical.

Now, I wouldn’t say this is any sign that when the coming national budget arguments explode, we can use this as a reference on how events will unfold. This was kind of like voting to not let a bomb go off in the rotunda. But at least Biden and McCarthy proved that this can be done. The two parties have enough in the center to move the needle. They, if not their constituents or the press can point to this deal – in which no one is happy and no one “won” but was the correct, adult, prudent and responsible thing to do – as a marker.

For now, this is a victory for bipartisanship and shows the country that allowing Trump back in the henhouse or whatever that fascist pig from Florida is pitching like eradicating Democrats from the national scene, is a non-starter. Voters claim they want the federal government to stop grandstanding get shit done. The president and the speaker got something done.

Take the W.

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Two Men. A Room. Reliving the Making of ‘Nebraska’

Warren Zanes has written the best book about Bruce Springsteen. His art. His fears. His redemption. Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’  takes the reader from inspiration to execution during a seminal period for one of rock’s icons, while also stripping all the ‘icon’ bullshit out of it. Instead, Zanes concentrates on a man and his guitar in a rented New Jersey ranch chasing a vision of America.

A former member of the early eighties indie rock band the Del Fuegos, an honored professor, and an author of a fine biography on Tom Petty, Zanes once even played with Springsteen as the Boss hopped on stage with his band at some small joint. Interestingly, seeing Springsteen do the same thing in 1981 when he was working on Nebraska, I remember him telling a bunch of us kids in the back of The Stone Pony in Asbury Park that he was cutting songs by himself with a home recorder. What the hell is that? Turns out Springsteen knew as much as we did. He was still learning, experimenting, and making demos, never considering a record, or for anyone beyond management or the E Street Band to even hear it. Zanes reminds us that this is the key to unlocking the raw expression of Nebraska, what I (and Springsteen, too) believe is his finest work.

No one was ever supposed to hear it. That raw honesty is its secret ingredient.

Deliver Me from Nowhere is as uncompromising and introspective as the album it covers, recounting the author’s visit to Springsteen’s current Colt’s Neck, New Jersey residence to comb through the corridors of his psyche, his memory, and method. The two men also visit the humble ranch-style house where it all went down, as Springsteen shares with Zanes the acoustic guitar he used and the infamous painting of his deceased aunt that haunted his childhood and is reflected in the album’s themes.

An engaging conversationalist and true fan of his subjects, it is easy to see why first the late, great Tom Petty and now Bruce Springsteen put their trust in Zanes to tell their stories in such an intimate and revealing way. I had the pleasure to sit down with Warren late last month to discuss Deliver Me from Nowhere, as well as his passion and excitement for the album (and its creator) that still resonates.


Photo by Piero Zanes

Why Nebraska for you? Why did you feel you needed to write about this record, sit down with Bruce, and get this story out?

I felt some connection, attraction, deep interest in Nebraska, but I wasn’t entirely sure why I felt all of that. I came into this project with a long-term relationship already in place, but I didn’t know what my psychological attachment was to it, and I felt like a book process was going to help me understand that. For one, I didn’t have a complete answer for “Why would an artist at the top of their game, who was poised to go big, go this strange?” You know, The River was Bruce’s first number one record, he had his first top ten single, “Hungry Heart,” and then he makes Nebraska. I just looked at the landscape of artists operating at the level he was operating at and I didn’t see another artist making decisions like that.

The biggest clues came with his memoir, and though Nebraska passes quickly in Born to Run, that road trip that he takes West doesn’t pass quickly. That was where I went, “Wait a second, this happened right after he finished Nebraska?” And it made me think: “Things happen to people… and they make records.” Sometimes they’re lighter experiences, sometimes they’re heavier experiences, but I was sure that Nebraska, on the spectrum of light to heavy, was all the way at theheavy end – and that he described having this breakdown after the fact. I didn’t want to make it a direct causal relationship, but it was hard not to do that. That’s why I wanted to sit in a room with him, and as I expose in the book, I felt likehe got as close as possible to say, “I think that’s true.”

The biggest revelation for me was your positing that he never goes back to his former “self” after this – the whole early Springsteen from the first record all the way up to The River has this arc of a character growing up, escaping his parents, his eventual adult disappointments, divorce, lost loves, and then – Bam! – Nebraska is where Springsteen finds this Midwestern, every-man voice that he uses for the rest of his career to explore stories about hidden demons and economic woe. It’s all there, and you point out in the book a very difficult journey to get there. Nebraska is a story of the ways in which an artist moves. I thought you depicted that beautifully in the book.

I don’t want to overstate the value of my background as a writer and record maker in relation to these projects, but I know it’s in there. And I certainly know that I love the psychological ups-and-downs of record makers and songwriters; it’s such an uncomfortable, euphoric, insightful, lost process. It’s all these things. The more obsessive the artist, the more interesting the psychological journey of making records. I think this is where Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are part of the same fabric; they really go after records and go after songs. I think they’re two very different men, but I was drawn to the obsessive nature in which they work. The stakes are high for these guys, whether it’s Damn the Torpedoes or Wildflowers or Born to Run or Nebraska

The secret sauce of this project is you and Springsteen just talking. It’s mesmerizing stuff. Not only were you able to sit with him and have him bring out the guitar that he played on the recordings and discuss the painting of his late aunt that affected him as a boy, but to walk into the room where he recorded Nebraska with him for the first time in four decades. 

Yeah, it all started with John Landau (Springsteen’s longtime manager and confidant), who was my first interview. John has his own amazing background, going from working at Rolling Stone to turning the corner into production, which is a pretty rare thing, and then to go from production into managing one of the biggest acts in the history of popular music. When we were done talking, he just said, “Look, I think you might have a book here, so I’m gonna tell Bruce that you’re writing it, and I’m gonna say I had a good time with you, and I think he might also have a good time.” I think that’s exactly what John did. You know, he’s not working with an artist that he can go to and say, “You have to talk to this guy.” That’s just not the relationship, obviously, and then I heard back from John saying, “Bruce is in.” 

The cool thing I have to say about John Landau is when he was calling me to say Bruce is in, I felt like he was as excited as I was. He’s got no reason to be excited for Warren Zanes’ book. He’s got a much bigger fish to fry. Those little injections of energy from another person really matter. And for Bruce, he’s an artist who, if he makes the decision to do the interview, believes, “I’m only going to do it if I can be present.” So, when I asked a question, if he had an answer, he gave it to me. If my question led to a question on his part, he pursued it with me. I think you can feel this in the text. I really tried to get it in there.

I liked how you stopped the narrative for a moment and concentrated on your conversations with Bruce – when he brings the guitar out and begins to reminisce. It’s an authentic connection with the artist wherein you begin to understand the guy who made Nebraska.

Yeah, I wanted to have those moments where the reader is me. They can see the picture of his Aunt Virginia, as you mentioned. They see the guitar come out. I wanted them to feel some of what I’m feeling because it’s true, it was mesmerizing to see those objects. They are the story embodied, but they also tell us something about who I’m interviewing. Bruce wanted me to have the tactile experience. He wants the history we’re talking about to vibrate for me as much as he can. Not everybody operates at that level. This book wouldn’t be near the book it is without his involvement.

Now, take me to when you go to the house where he recorded Nebraska. I think I have it right, this was the first time that he was in there since those recordings?

The way it happened was I write the book, I send it to John Landau, John and I talked for 90 minutes, and then he said at the end, “I’m going to send the book to Bruce, but I’m not going to tell him anything about my feelings. I want a cold response out of him, and let’s see if he feels like I did, and I think he will.”

Ok, so you receive approbation from Landau, and he digs it enough to send to Bruce cold. Now, you’re sitting there waiting…

Yeah, the thing that people don’t know about these guys, when I sent the book to John Landau, he called me the next day. He did not take weeks. When he sent it to Bruce, it was a day.

Photo by David Michael Kennedy via Penguin Random House

Springsteen got back to you, like, two days later?

When there’s a task at hand, if they choose to do it, it’s fast. It’s really impressive. So, yeah, he got back me and, again, it was really affirming, really validating. Bruce just said, “How can I help you?” And without thinking, I said, “I want to see that house. I can’t find it.” The next day I get a call, and it’s, you know, an unknown number, whatever you see on your phone, and it’s Bruce. He says, “Warren, for the first time in 40 years, I’m standing in the room where I made Nebraska. I spoke with the owner, and he said, I can bring you out here.” 

A week later, I go to his house and he takes me out. My first time going into the room was with him. And you know, at the end of the day, I’m a music fan and I know he’s a music fan. I just don’t think you have a career like that without staying close to that part of your identity. That holds for Elton John, Stevie Wonder – I think these people have nurtured the fan within. In that moment, I feel like he’s this hybrid – he’s the artist and he’s a fan in a strange way. I’m 100% fan, of course. I’m walking into this room with the guy who made Nebraska in that room. We’re on the orange shag carpet and it feels like… I think I use the word “pilgrimage” because there’s something spiritual, something mystical about it. I remember visiting High Records in Memphis and knowing that this is where they cut those Al Green records. And it’s like, they weren’t cutting Al Green records when I was there, but it happened there, and that something-happened-there effect is awesome.

I’ve had similar feelings visiting the Hemingway house in Key West or the Mark Twain house in Hartford, and where Dickens wrote and Hunter Thompson wrote, but I didn’t walk in the room with those guys. And it’s not even visiting The Stone Pony, where Springsteen made his bones. This is a room that only Springsteen had been in with an engineer and a four-track recorder to create this masterpiece.

Yeah, I couldn’t even find the house. I couldn’t find an address! You can find most of the houses that Springsteen lived in, rented, and I hope the book doesn’t ruin it for the person renting it now. But, yeah, you’re right. I’d been spending a couple of years writing about something that happened in that room and then I walk into it with the guy who made something happen in that room. Then, after a minute, he handed me his phone and said, “Take my picture.” That was wild.

This was clearly a big deal for him to go back to that place, because, as you discuss in the book, he was not in the best emotional state when he wrote and recorded those songs.

I felt like I was walking into that room with a guy that hadn’t been in it since he was having a very hard time in his life. And he came through that very hard time. I feel like sometimes, for all of us, when we return to the scene where we struggled in life, and we return having done some kind of healing, having experienced some kind of growth, we get to measure then-to-now, and it’s really moving. And being in the room with him was stirring

Then we get back in his El Camino and go back to his studio where we did the interviews and I could feel Bruce has gone through something with emotional density. I know I felt it at a bodily level. We were both kind of tired. We had tea and talked for an hour, and it was really beautiful closure for me. 

I don’t think he would have shown up in the way that he showed up for this book if he didn’t love Nebraska. I think the whole experience of making that record was really special to him.

Does he feel that perhaps the album has been misinterpreted or that it should have had a bigger audience? 

I don’t think he’s responding because he feels it’s neglected; I think he’s responding because he feels proud of the record. And he also sees it as a major turning point in his career. Like he said, from that point forward, he was writing songs with almost the mindset of a short story writer, and I think that really mattered with Nebraska. This is why it was important to unpack the influences that he speaks so explicitly about, you know, the Terrence Malick movie (Badlands), Flannery O’Connor, even Robert Frank’s photographs – you need that stuff to understand Nebraska. Most of what he talks about is not musical, and that told me this was like a growth spurt for him. I think for Springsteen, as an artist thinking of himself in relation to fine art, photography, or in relation to film or literature, it expanded his possibilities as a songwriter and performer.

And you have a unique perspective to offer in this book as a songwriter.

As a songwriter, what I get from Bruce is he that he is extremely good at telling stories where each verse can be almost like a contained story with a thematic binding to it. So, he can get a lot done with remarkable economy. That is striking to me. I’m stuck in relationship songs. You know, it’s all ‘me-and-her,’ and the ‘her’ shifts categories. There’s no romance in Nebraska. It’s not love songs, it’s life songs… and it’s not the good life songs, it’s the pain. It is a complete emotional experience without hope, without romance. That’s an interesting achievement to me. But to be fair, the truth is a song like “Highway Patrolman” that goes deep about sibling connection, and we don’t have songs about that, you know?

Two men. Two brothers. 

I think part of it is the ridiculousness of how the heterosexual norm is policed. I think homophobia is so prevalent in our culture that even something like the subject of a bond between brothers, you don’t see too much of that, and Bruce does it in such a way that is remarkable. It’s so funny to recall that note he wrote when he sent the demo of the songs to John Landau and how dismissive he is of “Highway Patrolman.”  I’m like, “Man, give me one ‘Highway Patrolman’ and I would retire.” It’s so good. So, there’s something about the scope of narrative, and the way in which he compresses it, without it feeling compressed. It reminds me of how much you can do in three minutes. Like how much he delivers in “My Father’s House” about a relationship between a father and a son without the father entering as a character. That’s amazing. There’s a high level of craft that I know he felt once he finished that record and he admitted, “This is my best collection of songs.”

Was there any shift in the author or songwriter in you that started in one place, and then ended up in another with Nebraska?

I think, yes. I mean, I haven’t really been involved in a long-term creative project that hasn’t changed me. And I hope that’s not just because I’ve been lucky with the quality of the projects I’ve been involved with. I hope it’s also because I have an openness and I let the stuff get in deep enough that it can change me. What moved me, to the greatest degree, was that thing about Springsteen and invisibility, the thing we talked about in relation to Homer’s Odyssey, and this idea that sometimes in life you need to be completely anonymous. You can’t have the trappings of ego and success. You go through periods in life where you’re nobody. Let them happen, because it’s almost like the whole of life is the in-breath and the out-breath. It expands. It goes up. It goes down. It builds. It breaks down. Springsteen’s Nebraska, as we’ve talked about, is this period of artistic growth. But he also hit a kind of bottom, and then he reemerges from it. In watching him the way he went through that, and the way he emerged from it, mattered to me. This is a record without any hope in the songs. To me, there’s a lot of hope in the act. He went to a really dark place, he had a breakdown, and with a kind of consciousness, he rebuilt. 

Now me, personally, I can’t get too many of those stories. I don’t know why that is, but I really need them, like when I brought Homer’s Odyssey to him and talked about it with him, I was bringing something that mattered deeply to me. I remember finding a book on tape for young adults and playing it for my sons because I think there’s a tremendous amount of human truth in the Odyssey and there are remarkable lessons to learn from it. I feel the same way about what Springsteen did with Nebraska; he hit this kind of bottom, where all the accolades and all the success weren’t fixing him, and he made a record in the middle of that, which is incredible. He didn’t look to career success to make the fix, he went inward, he got some help. He started a rebuilding process before Born in the USA is released, and seeing someone who could easily distract themselves with success choose not to go into the hard part of growing up, that’s powerful to me.

You know, I’m a guy whose father died a couple of years ago and didn’t know him. He lived close to me a few times, but he didn’t reach out. I finally got an address for him and brought my two sons to meet him. They met him once and we never heard from him again. Then he died. And so, in the absence of that kind of parental figure teaching me lessons, the people who have come into my life like Tom Petty did – and I’m doing an extended project with Garth Brooks – but Bruce, the Bruce of Nebraska, I learned something from him in terms of how do you really grow up? It’s not pretty and it’s not a party, and to see these guys do it, and to have a pretty good seat to watch it, or to hear about it after the fact, matters deeply to me.

Maybe I’m open when I go into a project because I’ve got more things to learn, and what I learned most from the book is that even a guy with that kind of success has to get down to the gritty work of finding out what’s wrong inside so that he can do a little work on it and become a better band leader, become a better husband, become a better dad. I think all those stories of hopelessness on Nebraska, he had to go through all those, he had to walk through each of those forests. He ultimately got himself to a place where some internal rebuilding had been done – a higher level of self-understanding had been achieved. And then he comes out with Born in the USA and it’s this massive worldwide hit, and it’s not like his troubles are over, but he’s gone through this human passage that is really deep. 

The great thing about your book is you learn that what Springsteen did with Nebraska was not like Roger Waters working through his father’s death in WWII or his growing paranoia about fame on Pink Floyd’s The Wall. As you say, with these short stories, these character-driven vignettes, his sharing of pain is not a blatant single artistic statement, but it’s there. One of my favorite passages in Deliver Me to Nowhere is when Landau gets the demo tape and it’s a revelation, “Holy shit, there’s something deeply wrong with this guy right now.” It’s all there on the vinyl, but it’s not obvious. Someone close to him, like John, can see it. Where an introspective album like John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band is a public acknowledgement of pain, this one is insular, personal, uniquely courageous in its own unique way.

Totally. I think that’s another thing that has made Nebraska last. A couple of messages are, one, you don’t need the commercial recording studio. You don’t need to spend six figures. You don’t need a band. It doesn’t have to sound perfect. It doesn’t have to have perfect tempo, all this stuff. Also, you don’t need to explain it to your listeners… if you trust them. Springsteen had cultivated a deep relationship with his listeners and he trusted them, so he didn’t do interviews. He didn’t write songs that wrapped it all up. He gave us a tremendous amount of work to do and that feels good on our end.

Yes, he goes from spending a year on Born to Run, doing 55 takes of a song, driving Steven Van Zandt to drink, this manic drive for perfection, to Nebraska. The charm of the whole project is that he never meant for it to be heard. He is completely unselfconscious – and you hear that on the vinyl.

Yeah, that’s the crucial point in the book: This is the only official release he made not knowing he was recording an official release. Nebraska is a secret he shared with himself and us.

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Aquarian Weekly
Reality Check

James Campion

Our steady decline of anti-intellectualism in this god-forsaken country has reached new and despicable lows. Seemingly every day in the fascist sinkhole that is Florida its brainless dipshit governor, Ron DeSantis robs children of information in schools. SCHOOLS! Banning books. Cancelling curriculum. Learning now is up to the fucking governor? One guy. Fantastic. The already bent bastion of meat-grinding mediocrity that is school, wherein we learn that Christopher Columbus discovered something he never discovered and that we pledge allegiance to some bizarre concept of freedom that our government is taking away, is in enough trouble. I have news for this moron and the “disgruntled” parents who rile idiots like DeSantis up, so he can consolidate power and prove to his daddy that he’s worth a shit – our kids are fine. Trust them to learn. Protecting them from truth and information is dangerous. Aren’t we stupid enough? You want more slack-jawed dupes to believe elections are stolen, so they arm themselves and storm a federal building, then spend years in prison wondering what the fuck just happened? Then keep this up.

And that’s what they want – keep you stupid, so they can sell you cheap beer and bad movies and no agenda to help you besides robbing you of your rights and lecturing you on patriotism. 

Your kids, and by kids, I mean tweens and teenagers, but I would also argue even grammar school aged, are far more comfortable with their sexuality than you, and they’re willing to accept the differences – gender, race, religion – in their classmates. You don’t have to ban books that introduce “difficult” subjects or jail teachers who speak to gender identity. This is the same nonsense as the Scopes Trial and the banning of the teaching of science over religion. Religion is a failed intellectual concept, and our kids need to know this. If they want to worship whatever idol they choose or an interpretation of that idol, then fine, but don’t fuck with my kid’s pursuit of truth and knowledge. 

You want to talk morality? I believe it is immoral to deny children the right to learn. Okay, if some kids are intimidated and/or disturbed by information, then sure, if their parents insist, pull them out of class. But why should the majority of children suffer because people are afraid of their kids learning more than they did when they were twelve or becoming better, more evolved and intellectually stimulated humans than them?

Let’s face it: This is a parent’s issue, not a school or kids or teachers’ issue. Why does every fucked up, half-assed insecure bigot get a voice in this country and those of us trying to be free thinkers are relegated to writing expletive-laced falderal like this. How long, oh, lord, can this go on?

And what about our Black students? Why should they be denied their history – however horrifying and insane it is? Do we wipe out the entire backstory of this country so middle-class parents and their sheltered children aren’t offended or upset? No one hates white people because we learn about the systemic pogrom heaped upon a people for decades. Get over yourself. Such self-important, privileged whiners. If you feel guilty, that’s on you. Go to therapy, read a book. Leave the rest of us alone to understand our failures to become better humans.

We are passing down this damage to every generation that does not face-up to the sins of their forefathers. Period. Not just the American experiment, which is five minutes old compared to the madness of civilization, but the whole of humanity. Education is not just numbers, dates, grammar and whatever the fuck gym is, it is expanding horizons, not shutting down the view, it is titillating our neurons to think for ourselves, not placating the ramblings of an ancient superstition or whatever the latest Right Wing TV guy thinks. Pretty soon there will be no one left who remembers how close the world came to fascism, while fascism dominates one of the two political parties in this country right now! Kids need to know this. See the signs of evil, know what the person next to them might be capable of – for good or ill. They for sure DO NOT need to be protected by the likes of you. And they sure as hell don’t need some uptight vote-sniffing grotesque politician making that call. Get off your high horse, lend hand or get the fuck out of the way. 

Why should the majority of children suffer because people are afraid of their kids learning more than they did when they were twelve?

I cannot believe there are people who were born when I was, experienced the same enlightenment and savagery, and choose to go back to a time that never existed. There was no peace in the valley, bub, and there never will be. Sheltering our kids is not a way to prepare them for a real world. I have news for these parents, your kids are not staying in Florida. They grow up and get the fuck out of there to where the action is, the real, vibrant, open and productive places, the places that keep this broke nation afloat, like NYC, and they will be swallowed up, because mommy and daddy and the nanny state kept them in the dark.

This is why people panic when CNN puts Donald Trump on the air. “He’s going to destroy democracy! CNN is criminal for allowing people to listen to his bullshit!” Yeah, well, fuck you! Give me the bullshit. Give me the good and the bad and the ugly. There is more ugly coming and we need to grow the fuck up and face it. More Trump. Let’s see the warts and pus and inhuman disgust he brings. We’re big boys and girls capable of fact-checking his lunacy if we care, and if we don’t care, that is our prerogative. Hell, people still think he’s president or that he won an election he lost by millions of votes. Good. Perhaps if they weren’t so coddled, they would be more aware of what is ACTUALLY going on. Forfend! How dare we?

The history of this country is riddled with stories of five morally outraged dinks making a fuss and causing a shift in our construct. These are the same people damaging our kids today. The schools are already having a tough time keeping your pathetic offspring from mainlining smack, molesting their friends, or being shot by a Nazi. Let them teach.

The kids are alright, man.

Parents are fucked. 

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