Warren Zanes: Rockstar Biographer

December 1, 2023 | 1:11:53

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Warren Zanes is a “rockstar biographer” in more ways than one: he has experienced life as a rockstar, a biographer, and a biographer of rockstars. When Mack first met Warren in New Orleans sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, Zanes was then emerging from the wreckage of meteoric success. He’d been the teenage guitarist in critically acclaimed band The Del Fuegos, who briefly broke into the national popular consciousness—and then just plain broke up. But in the years since, Zanes remade himself into one of our most erudite and entertaining public scholars of popular music. Among other things, he’s been Vice President of Education and Public Programs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a consulting producer on the Oscar-winning film Twenty Feet from Stardom, a producer on the Grammy-nominated PBS/Soundbreaking series, and he conducted interviews for Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary. All while keeping up a solo recording career with collaborators such as the Dust Brothers.

Warren’s books include the first volume in the celebrated 33 1/3 Series, Dusty in Memphis; Petty: The Biography and Revolutions in Sound: Warner Bros. Records. His latest book is called Deliver Me from Nowhere. On its face, it’s a book about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s classic lo-fi album Nebraska. But it’s also about sound technology, musicianship teetering in a moment between the analog and digital eras, what it means to be in a band, and the relationship between the four-track cassette recorder and social alienation in Reagan era.

In this interview, Warren talks about his journey, the recent book, his craft as a writer, and—as part of our mini-theme this season on audiobooks—the process of narrating his own audiobooks and why he does so. 

And for our Patrons we’ll have Warren’s What’s Good segment, with something good to read, listen to, and do. You can join us at patreon.com/phantompower

Today’s show was edited by Nisso Sacha and Mack Hagood. Transcript and web content by Katelyn Phan.


[Robotic music] 

This is Phantom Power

Mack Hagood: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, where I have conversations with brilliant people on the topic of sound. I’m Mack Hagood. I’m a professor and author who teaches and writes about sound. And today’s brilliant guest is Warren Zanes. 

I think the most succinct descriptor one could use for Warren would be “rockstar biographer.” In fact, Warren Zanes is a rockstar biographer in more ways than one. He has experienced life as a rockstar, a biographer, and a biographer of rock stars. I first met Warren in New Orleans sometime in the late 80s or early 90s, it was either a jam session that turned into a party or a party that turned into a jam session, the line between the two in that scene being a distinction without much of a difference. Warren was then emerging from the wreckage of meteoric success. He’d been the teenage guitarist in a critically acclaimed band that briefly broke into the national popular consciousness—and then just plain broke up. 

I didn’t know Warren very well, but I think it’s safe to say that “scholar” would not have been on anyone’s top ten list back then for what either of us would wind up as. But life takes its twists and turns and here we are. It’s been really amazing to watch from afar as Warren has become one of our most erudite and entertaining public scholars of popular music. Among other things, he’s been Vice President of Education and Public Programs at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a consulting producer on the Oscar-winning film Twenty Feet from Stardom, a producer on the Grammy-nominated PBS/Soundbreaking series, and he conducted interviews for Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary. All while keeping up a solo recording career with collaborators such as the Dust Brothers.

But I most admire Warren as a writer. Not to get too deep in the literary jargon, but technically, I would call his writing “really fucking good.” He knows his craft from the sentence level to the paragraph level, up through narrative construction. He’s a great raconteur with an eye for detail, an ear for dialogue, and a way of weaving cultural theory seamlessly into a deceptively entertaining story. His books include  the first volume in the celebrated 33 1/3 Series, Dusty in MemphisPetty: The Biography; and Revolutions in Sound: Warner Bros. Records. His latest book is called Deliver Me from Nowhere. On its face, it’s a book about the making of Bruce Springsteen’s classic lo-fi album Nebraska. But it’s also about sound technology, musicianship teetering in a moment between the analog and digital eras, what it means to be in a band, and the relationship between the four-track cassette recorder and social alienation in the Reagan era. It’s a thing of beauty—and I don’t even like Springsteen that much. Or at least I didn’t before I read Warren’s book. 

In this interview, Warren talks about his journey, the new book, his craft as a writer, and—as part of our mini-them this season on audiobooks—I asked him to talk about the process of narrating his own audiobooks and why he does so. And for our Patrons we’ll have Warren’s What’s Good segment, with something good to read, listen to, and do. You can join us at patreon.com/phantompower.

Mack Hagood: All right, Warren, welcome to the show.

Warren Zanes: Thank you for having me. Nice to see you again.

Mack Hagood: It’s great to see you and before I forget, I actually should have done this before we started talking, but can you remind me of that barbecue place it was like in the Raleigh Durham Research Triangle for this National Humanities Center thing. It’s the last time I saw you, and you took me to some barbecue place that was amazing and I cannot remember.

Warren Zanes: Was it Gates Barbecue?

Mack Hagood: Gates?

Warren Zanes: I can’t remember. That’s my favorite regional barbecue, but I can’t remember specifically, so I’m probably getting it wrong.

Mack Hagood: Okay, I’m gonna at least put that on my list because I have been unable to remember and it was pretty amazing. 

Warren Zanes: I could be thinking of a different place, but for me, if Brunswick stew is on the menu, you’re probably headed in the right direction, barbecue wise, more generally. But we had friends down in that area when we were on tour who would steer us in the right direction, and then we also went on tour. We had the book Road Food is Good Food by Jane and Michael Stern, which I know gets continually updated, but it was all about regional specialties.

So, when you’re out there in a rock and roll band on the road, you’re clinging onto anything that keeps you in life and in good spirits. And regional food is right up there with sexual intercourse.

Mack Hagood: Well, I’m glad you brought up being on the road with a band because I’m thinking for listeners to this podcast, probably a lot of people know you as this of acclaimed rock author, and public scholar but maybe they’re not as familiar with your early days in the Del Fuegos, which was this  Boston area rock band.

Can you talk a little bit about those days?

Warren Zanes: Yeah. So, my brother started a band, the Del Fuegos, when he was at Oberlin. So it was three Oberlin students and then they erased that part of the history because rock and roll is supposed to come from either the soil or the gutter, but not the campus. So they erased that history and moved to Boston.

They recorded one single, printed 2,000 copies of it and then, when I was 17, I joined that band. But, that single was really interesting. You know, it was recorded at an eight track studio. Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin picked up a copy when he was in Boston, talked about it in an interview in Rolling Stone and Sam Phillips, who recorded Elvis Presley at Sun Records, also got a copy and talked about it in Rolling Stone magazine. And it’s only in retrospect that I look back and go, “That’s, you know, this is pre-Internet”. Two thousand copies of a 45 RPM record. And one gets to Robert Plant and one gets to Sam Phillips. The magnitude of that didn’t strike me, but I think this was a band that, you know, had a lot of good fortune. 

And then we were really the ones who ran that ship aground. You know, we were young. Three of the four people are over 30 years sober. So that tells you that there was some rough activity going on back then. There’s a lot of good music. There’s a lot of good connections, but there was also more trouble than good.

Mack Hagood: I mean, it reminds me a lot of the Replacements with you in the Tommy Stinson role. 

Warren Zanes: Well, let me say our first van tour went as far as Minneapolis. You know, once in Minneapolis, we didn’t have money for hotels at that point, so you stayed on people’s floors. I slept on the living room floor at the Stinson’s house.

Mack Hagood: No kidding. 

Warren Zanes: You know, Bob and Tommy were still living at their parents house and the drummer, Woody Geeseman and I slept in their living room.

And when they came to Boston, they slept at our manager’s house. So there was a lot of crossover at a certain point. The first issue of Spin Magazine had Madonna on the cover. And then there was a big article about the Del Fuegos and the Replacements, and it really boiled down to this thesis: The Del Fuegos are going to try not to drink as much, so that they can be successful. And the Replacements are going to try and drink more. But the truth of it was, everybody was drinking more.

Mack Hagood: Speaking of drinking. Another thing I remember from that era was that you guys had this, and I don’t know if you even want to talk about this, but there was such a big thing about when y’all did a commercial for Miller Beer. 

Warren Zanes: Oh yeah!

Mack Hagood: And it was sort of like trading on your authenticity, you know. It was kind of like, gritty about rock and roll actually. I thought it was a really good commercial, but the kind of outcry from the rock diehards around that commercial! It just seems kind of quaint now, but it was really a sort of controversy for you guys. Could you maybe talk about what that was like and then what your thoughts are compared to today?

Warren Zanes: Yeah, I mean, it, it, it absolutely needs to be contextualized because that was a pre-streaming environment. Which is to say people were selling records. They were selling records. That was the primary kind of territory of money-making in the music business. Selling recordings, cassettes, vinyl, you know, CDs started to come in, but for us it was mostly cassettes and vinyl. People can make a living by selling products. And so the rock authenticity was established on the grounds of what you could and couldn’t do. And since money was being made selling products, not doing commercials was one of the things you didn’t do to establish your authenticity.

But Elvis Costello came to our defense at that time and he said, “Here’s what people don’t understand. Young bands start in debt to record companies. That’s where the story begins. You are in debt. It’s almost like the company store on some level” So he came to our defense, did the world care? No. They wanted to slam us for doing a commercial.

Years pass, we’re into streaming, and people can’t sell products in the same way. You see much more in the way of artists doing commercials, backing products, because you need some kind of revenue

Mack Hagood:  Well, even before streaming, you know, Moby’s Play–I’m pretty sure every single song on that album was licensed to an advertiser.

Warren Zanes: The terms changed. It was a historical shift. But to be fair with the detractors this was a Miller Beer commercial, which coincidentally I’m not in it. They did a cut of the commercial. And, J. Walter Thompson, a major ad agency, did this. It was a big deal. I can say more about that. But then when the Liquor Commission looked at the final cut they said, “Who is the 12 year old drinking Miller beer in this commercial?” They said, “That would be Warren”. And nobody had thought, “He’s underage–what are we even thinking?” Which is amazing to me. So they did a recut and I’m not in it, and so I would later say when the backlash started I said, “Oh no, I did it on ethical grounds” And the rest of the band would look at me like,  “You rat”.

But here’s part of the problem. The debut of that was Live Aid. So it was on Letterman, SNL, all these nighttime things, but Live Aid was the debut. Everybody else was raising money for famine in Africa, and the Del Fuegos were selling beer.

Mack Hagood: Oh my god.

Warren Zanes: Yeah. So if you think of it in those terms, like okay, that kind of justifies a backlash.

Mack Hagood: I have a feeling and I don’t remember exactly, but I think I was like sort of in the 8th grade or 9th grade, something like that, when I learned about you guys. And I’m pretty sure it was through that commercial.

Warren Zanes: When you think about SNL, Letterman, or Live Aid our name was just pumped out the main line. And the thing that you experienced is that we were doing well at that point and that gave us this surge. But it gave us a surge among people who had just heard about us. So it was more of a short term audience. And to build a long career, those people, if anything, will do more harm than good because they’ll be there one minute and not the next. And the band then has to deal with the evacuation.

Mack Hagood: And was it after that commercial that your song “I Still Want You” came out because I kind of remember that as sort of your standout tune that got popular.

Warren Zanes: I can’t promise you that I’ve got the chronology right, but I think “I Still Want You” is before that. 

Mack Hagood: Okay.

Warren Zanes: But that record Boston Mass was truly an album. So “I Still Want You” didn’t get to the top 40, but it got close. But the album stayed in the top 200 album chart for like a year. Which is really something.

Mack Hagood: You know, in preparation for this, I went back and I listened again. I was just listening to that song and it’s got this beautiful sparseness to it and it’s kind of gritty, but it’s also kind of slinky with the Rhodes piano. And something dawned on me that I wouldn’t have been sophisticated enough to connect back to when I was in eighth or ninth grade.

But it was this sound. A lot like Damn the Torpedoes era, Tom Petty. And of course you went on to be Tom Petty’s biographer. Was that an influence back at the time?

Warren Zanes: Oh, we were Petty and Springsteen. But let me say this, let me backup a little and say my mother had a good record collection. So she had Stones, Beatles, Dylan, of course. But then she had Aretha Franklin. She had Pete Seeger. Ian and Sylvia, Josh White, The Band. There was a good record collection.

And then my uncle lived above us. We were on one floor of a rental home. He was upstairs. And he listened to what was even at that time called “Oldies Radio” So, from him we were getting Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly. And my mother was giving us these more 60s staples.

So, we were listening to all the stuff that people like Petty and Springsteen listened to. So, when Petty and Springsteen came along, we saw traces of something we already loved. But these guys were for us.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: They both matter deeply and I’ve seen pictures of my brother from right when the band started. And we were associated with punk, but there he is in his Tom Petty t-shirt.

And he covered it. In my book, about Nebraska I talk about my brother covering his high school textbooks with the covers of Time and Newsweek that Bruce Springsteen was on. Nobody knew Springsteen in New Hampshire at that time. We were into these guys. So if our albums reflected that, absolutely.

By the time of our third record, Petty came and sang a harmony on a song. And then we went and did a three month tour with him. Years later, when I became his biographer, he knew me as a teenager. Which is wild as an experience. I do feel really lucky.

Mack Hagood: Well, so maybe we can talk about your transition from being a musician into what you’ve become. I heard a few months ago on the Marc Maron podcast, and you were talking about these lost years in New Orleans. And I was like, “That’s when I knew Warren” and then I thought about it. I was like, those years are kind of lost to me too.

To be honest, there is a lot of drinking and stuff going on, but if I remember correctly, that is also when you started going to college. I think you went to Tulane. Am I remembering that right?

Warren Zanes: No, Loyola,

Mack Hagood: Oh, it’s Loyola. That’s right. 

Warren Zanes: Yeah. 

Mack Hagood: Yeah, totally forgot.

Warren Zanes: I didn’t even know Tulane was 15 feet away from Loyola until my second year at Loyola. ,

Mack Hagood: How could I have made that mistake?

Warren Zanes: Yeah, I didn’t go down there to go to school. I went down there because I had passed through on a road trip from California and at dinner, there was a young woman at that dinner and I went, “She’s for me”.

And so I went up to New Hampshire and I turned right back around and so I went there for what I called love, and I had already made some solo recordings. And, T Bone Wolk, who has since passed, but was in the SNL band. He was in Hall and Oates band and produced for Hall and Oates, and was a staff producer at CBS. He had taken me to Donnie Ienner, who was running CBS at that time and was kind of setting me up for getting into music as a solo artist. I was young and stupid and I thought when he reached out saying, “Man, I love this stuff. I want to help you. I want to work with you”. I thought, “Well, great. You do all the work”

Mack Hagood: Uh huh

Warren Zanes: I think that the Del Fuego’s did this a little bit too. It’s like, great. We signed a record deal. Now we can just wait for our ship to come in and the people who actually have careers, they never stopped working.

So when I started taking classes at Loyola, I didn’t know what I was up to. But I have wanted to keep being in music. And, the moment that I really see is when I was working at Bicycle Michaels outside the French Quarter as a mechanic and we had been out on tour with Tom Petty for those three months. Then I heard the first single, “I Won’t Back Down” off of Full Moon Fever and I’m like, “My hands are covered in grease and I’m fixing a Schwinn”

And I’m hearing him sound like, “Whoa, he just found his next chapter” Like, you can hear it in those tracks. This isn’t the Heartbreakers, but that is Tom Petty. He’s reinvented himself. And I’m looking at this grease on my hands going, “You better reinvent yourself, fucker”. 

Mack Hagood: And so is that why you ended up going to Loyola? My alma mater as well, by the way.  Because I remember seeing in a book of yours, some thanks to John Biguenet, a professor who I’m guessing we both had

Warren Zanes: Yeah. Yeah. No, I’m still, I’m still in touch with him.

Mack Hagood: He was the first guest on Phantom Power, the very first guest.

Warren Zanes: Seriously?

Mack Hagood: Yeah! 

Warren Zanes: Oh, because of his book on silence?

Mack Hagood: Exactly

Warren Zanes: Yeah. He gave me a copy of that. You know, John Biguenet, I can’t overstate how important he was to me. There I was, exiting music. And, entering this creative writing program. And, every time he had office hours I got there before he did.

I was just sitting outside his office. And he never said, “Could you not come here as often?” He never discouraged me. But at the same time, he didn’t coddle me. He let me be what I was, and gave me direction, and he was the right guy for me. And, but then I got to the end of that creative writing program and I felt, this was self imposed, if you haven’t published in the New Yorker by now, you are not in the game and you are a failure and you better find another way.

And I went more into critical theory for two masters, a PhD, and then came out the other side into music. Like I signed a solo deal with the Dust brothers as I’m writing my PhD dissertation. And from that point forward, I was a hybrid,

Mack Hagood: And the PhD, you did at the University of Rochester?

Warren Zanes: Yeah, in the program of visual and cultural studies.

Mack Hagood: Okay

Warren Zanes: So it really puts the theory first, and it was up to you, the student, to figure what you would apply it to. So, you could be working in television, you could be working in contemporary art, you could be working in literature but that wasn’t the determining element that situated you in that department.

It was more that moment in critical theory, and this program was interesting because art history is a notoriously slow moving discipline. And what this program was doing was pumping out teachers who could go into art history programs and revitalize them. Be the representative of this other approach to art. Which we were calling visual studies, visual culture.

And so everybody, when I was there, was at a hundred percent, in terms of landing people in jobs. Which is astounding.

Mack Hagood: That’s incredible.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, I don’t think that could be sustained. But it was just this perfect moment of art history that needed this. It needed reinvention from the inside. And this program was creating it. 

But I went and got a record deal and I did one university interview for University of Georgia in Athens. And,  I was in process there when I got the call from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, I took a job there as a vice president and taught at Case Western as a visiting professor. And when I say, from that point forward, I was a hybrid, that job really supports it.

Mack Hagood: And from that point, I believe you contributed the very first 33 ⅓ volume on Dusty in Memphis.

Warren Zanes: Well, they were nice and they gave me number one. So I can’t remember there were either six or eight, in the first series. But, Joe Pernice who wrote the book The Smiths’ Meat is Murder, we were set up by our respective managers on a kind of blind date with singer-songwriters. And Joe became my son, Lucian’s godfather.

And he said in the middle of his coffee, “You should do a book in this new series.” I had a contract the next day. And I got to turn the ideas in my dissertation into this other thing. It was like, my former brother in law said, It’s a remix of your dissertation. And I was like, that’s exactly right.

Mack Hagood: What was the dissertation on? 

Warren Zanes: The title is Globalization and a New Regionalism. And I was really talking about how one aspect of globalization is this increased intercultural mixing. And with increased intercultural mixing comes a heightened anxiety about the other. And in this heightened anxiety about the other, there are these various narratives that emerge about how good it used to be.

When they weren’t there, and it could be Lake Wobegon, which has a real anxiety about people passing through. And I looked at the Disney planned community in Florida, which hadn’t even been built yet. The Celebration Chronicles by Andrew Ross. He ended up writing a book about it. I remember being in a conference talking about it.

Andrew Ross came up and was asking me some questions about it. And I was a giddy graduate student. Next thing you know, he’s got a book contract on the topic. It’s like, “So this is how it works” All’s fair in love and war.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, for sure.

Warren Zanes: You know, it’s not like it was, it’s not like it was mine and mine alone. But, I think it was the right idea. Looking at a stranger as something, might be the biggest challenge we’re facing right now.

Mack Hagood: And how did this theme come through in the Dusty book?

Warren Zanes: When I looked at a new regionalism, and the narratives that were being generated in the face of anxiety, the South is the region in the United States most associated with pastness.

Mack Hagood: Mm hmm.

Warren Zanes: So the South had this special place, even when Disney created Celebration, I went through their book that defined the community.

Disney had a 51 percent share, so they were going to tell people how they would live, but there was this extreme emphasis on the front porch. And architecturally, it was a very southern look. But people emphasize the front porch, and their front fences. If they have white picket fences let’s say, if they went up to a certain height after that height, it would have to be plexiglass.

So there’s this idea of like, “We don’t just get to know the neighbor, we get to see the neighbor”. So, a very Foucauldian sense of  how a community controls itself through vision. But there was a southern element to it. And growing up on rock and roll, growing up on, “Look at the band.

A bunch of Canadians with one guy from Arkansas, singing about the South” Well, I connected with those Canadians because I grew up in New Hampshire and it’s like I had this idea of the South in my head from early on. And so that became part of it. And “Dusty in Memphis” as a recording, is Dusty Springfield going to be a part of that Southern story.

Jerry Wexler from New York City is doing it and has been doing it for some time himself and he makes that record with her. And so there’s lots of notions of the fantasy of the South and how it was mobilized to generate a vision of pastness that kind of calms the anxiety of “the future is coming and we’re not going to recognize its face”

Mack Hagood: So it’s both the product of global capitalism and kind of a reaction against global capitalism at the same time.

Warren Zanes: Yeah but when people were looking at globalization, it wasn’t as often through the culture lens. And so that’s what I was up to.

Mack Hagood: That’s great. Well, maybe we can switch gears and talk about your most recent book, the Bruce Springsteen book Deliver Me From Nowhere:The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. I think maybe I should start with the confession that I’m not the biggest Bruce fan. I don’t know what it is. I feel like all the sort of white dudes from the northeast that I know have that deep connection with Bruce and like the southern white guys don’t necessarily have that connection.

I don’t know. That’s like my pet theory. I appreciate his lyrical genius. I mean, absolutely. But it’s like on a musical level, I don’t always connect. Although a song like “Hungry Heart”. Total jam. But I’m only saying that, in order to say I was really surprised by how much I loved your book. You made me care about Bruce as a character.

It drops into this really fascinating interstice between success and success, where this strange, quiet record comes out. And then you kind of build out this argument that actually this strange, quiet record was necessary for him to achieve this next level of success. And I’m kind of torn about wanting to talk about the ideas in the book, but also talk to you about how you did it, but maybe let’s talk about the story first. Like what compelled you to write a book about a single album in this way?

Warren Zanes: Yeah, I’m with you on everything you were saying there. You know, one thing that compelled me was in my own life. I had identified with the desperation of the characters in the songs, whether consciously or not, I felt like I belonged among them. And so when I had trouble in my own life whether with a parent, a loss, a sibling, or divorce I knew that I would reach for Nebraska.

You know, there are certain albums you reach for when trouble is afoot, and that was definitely one of them. So I felt a personal connection, but I still thought it was one of the most profound, if not the most profound left turn in popular music. So this is not to say he’s the only person making muddy, unfinished, imperfect recordings and putting them out, but he’s the only person I know of who’s following up their first number one record, that had their first top 10 single.

Following that up was a muddy, unfinished, imperfect recording. It was going to be difficult that you knew couldn’t be played on the radio. When people got to where he got at the end of The River Tour. Very few get to the platform that he was standing on, which I’ve described as where you can go from stardom to superstardom.

He had the full support of a very developed fan base. He had the full support of a major record company. Full support, priority artists. He’s got a band that has a sound hard to achieve. All of the elements are there, and where you should go is to another number one album, that stays in number one longer, and you go from one single to three. Even me, like in New Hampshire, as a kid, a teenager, you intuitively know this because in some way it, I don’t want to bring it down by saying this, but it’s like capitalism is in our blood. And in so many ways, growth is what you do with an artistic career.

You grow it. And so here’s this artist who chooses to make a record that will make growth impossible. Impossible. It will confound that audience that he’s built. Many of them will say, It’s not for me. And he’s ready to take that gamble. It will confound the record company. His band isn’t involved. So, I was looking at this going like, “I know I’d never do that”

Why did he? And I read his memoir, and “Nebraska” goes by quite quickly in the memoir. And then he has this major depressive episode and starts getting help. And I just felt that there’s gotta be a connection. And, I believed in that enough. I also think it’s a story about going from the analog to the digital. Honestly.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: So there are a few different stories.

Mack Hagood: Which is why it fits in this show. Yeah, because there is like this real thesis about this album being at this pivot point between the analog era  dimension?

Warren Zanes: Yeah, Born in the USA is, if it’s not the first, one of the earliest CDs.

Mack Hagood: Yeah.

Warren Zanes: When he’s recording…so the Teac 144 is a four track, multi-track recording to a cassette. The next thing that he records on at home actually is a digital machine. There are going to be stages of the advent of digital culture to get us to the point where people are looking at music as waveforms. The big move. What happens once we’re in the age where recording studios are on laptops, like the ones we’re on, allows artists to take their recording home. You know, Pro Tools, Logic, people can make great sounding records in their bedrooms. You couldn’t do that with a Teac 144, but you could take it to your bedroom.

So the general move that he makes, foretells a very digital future. Even if that’s an analog recording. That move of “I’m doing it in my bedroom” is a revolutionary move. You know, I equate what Bruce did with this four track, and making a record in his bedroom with the power of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 64.

You know, the next day after the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, you got all these young people going, I can form a band. And, you know, suddenly amps and guitars and drum kits are selling like hotcakes and kids are asking their parents not to park in the garage because they need that space and the garage band era is underway.

With Bruce making this “major artist going into his bedroom to make his next record after a number one”, I think a lot of young musicians went, “Whoa, they just cut out the middleman” 

Mack Hagood: Yeah, 

Warren Zanes: Like, “I could do this”. It was incredibly empowering. I think “What was he doing?”.  He was just trying to save some money because he had spent so much out of his own pocket in the previous years.

When record companies, not record companies, singular–he was always with Columbia. Would say, “Hey Bruce, you’ve been in the studio for four months and we’re not giving you any more money”. He’d go out of pocket. He was an obsessive record maker, and he kept spending his own money.

And there he was in his early thirties, having made five records. And he was like, “Something’s gotta change”. And Teac 144 was his answer. He was not intending to make a record. He just wanted to go do something a little bit more than just put songs down on tape. He wanted to start to produce them a little bit at home so that he could take it as a reference into a commercial studio.

Mack Hagood: And so he’s in this bedroom, in New Jersey, with an orange shag carpet and he’s got his guitar harmonica. He’s running everything through a… I forget, was it a space echo or something? It was like a-

Warren Zanes: It’s an Echoplex. Which simulates the short tape delay that you hear like on early Elvis recordings. A lot of rockabilly has it. It’s a great sound , but the crazy thing is, he admits it is crazy, but he believes in mixing everything down through this single.

Mack Hagood: Everything is going through the  Echoplex. 

Warren Zanes: Yeah, it doesn’t matter what it was. Everything he puts down, anything percussive, anything melodic, any voice, any instrument, all through one effect. And when I said to him, “That’s definitely not how you’re supposed to do it”. And he went, “Right”. I said, “But it sounds good”. And he said, “Right, When you put the basic elements in front of me, I know what to do” 

Mack Hagood: So he’s got this tape, this cassette tape. That’s got these songs on it, some of which wind up on Born in the U.S.A 

Warren Zanes: Yeah, 

Mack Hagood: He goes to the studio with the band now and tries to recreate these tunes. And then what happens? 

Warren Zanes: So here’s the important thing. He makes these four track recordings in his bedroom. He’s not thinking that this is an album. They’re just demos, just references for the studio. So if something isn’t perfect, it doesn’t matter. If the lyrics aren’t finished, it doesn’t matter at that point.

Then he goes into the studio, into the power station, doing what he thought he was going to do. Start re-recording them. So at that moment, in one of the first recordings that they did, they already had the song “Cover Me”. “Cover Me” he wrote for Donna Summer. Quincy Jones is producing and then they listened to it and John Landau’s like, “Please don’t”. That’s his manager and then producer. “Please don’t give this one away like you did with Patti Smith. Can we not do that again?” 

Bruce says, “Okay, so they got “Cover Me””. 

Mack Hagood: And the Patti Smith was “Because the Night” 

Warren Zanes: Yeah. But this is just to say before they’re even thinking about releasing this Nebraska stuff, they already got the first song for Born in the U.S.A. Then they went into the studio and one of those bedroom songs was the song “Born in the U.S.A.” And they cut it at the power station. It’s the single version that we know. They get it and it’s like, “Whoa, everybody’s knocked.” 

Mack Hagood: With that big gated snare, that digital-sounding snare that would become like the sound of the eighties, the Phil Collins thing. It’s right there. The templates right there. 

Warren Zanes: Huge gated snare, the anthemic synth pads, those basic chords that he’s playing. You know, this isn’t a thing where it’s like, one, two, three, four, you know, and the whole band’s in. This is like synth pads, drums, and vocals. It builds to a rock band. It’s a different sound. Different from The River. But they’ve got that.

And, you know, they’re hearing that something special is going on. And they end up having seven songs that go on Born in the U.S.A done. And Bruce puts them all on the shelf. Because he’s looking at these other songs like “Nebraska”, “State Trooper”, “Highway Patrolman”, “Mansion on the Hill”, and asking “Why aren’t these working with the band?”

And he keeps going back to this shitty cassette, going “This is still better. This is better than what I’m doing in a commercial studio. It’s better than what I’m doing with the band.” They tried to record him solo. And at the power station, he’s like “This cassette is still better” And the way he describes the problem is, “Every time I try to make it better, I lose my characters.”

Meaning, and this is key, it’s the characters in the songs. So here’s an artist we associate with rock and roll, with a band, an amazing writer, an amazing performer, but he is thinking in very literary terms. “If I lose my characters, I lose the whole thing”. And what’s the whole thing? The whole thing is the story.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: He’s so focused on that. And his vocals, which he’s got, he’s got a lot of range on a record like “Darkness on the Edge of Town”, not on Nebraska. It’s much closer to a kind of talking layer. He’s singing, but it’s like he’s not using that range to express. He’s got the whole scene quiet.

And he’s focused on just letting those characters emerge so that we can see and hear their conflicts. 

Mack Hagood: Yeah, that’s beautifully put. I want to make sure that we save time to get into how you do what you do. So maybe I want to pull back now from the subject matter of the book itself and just talk a little bit about crafting a book like this. 

There’s a healthy portion of our listeners who are academics. What are some key differences between writing an academic book and a work of narrative nonfiction that you’re going to sell as a trade press book like this one?

Warren Zanes: Yeah.Well, I don’t mean to make academics envious, but it is really fucking liberating not to have to think about footnotes so much. I should probably think about it a little bit more but I hand in the book and they’re like “What about…” and I’m like, “Can we just not do that?” And it’s more out of sloth than anything else.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, you’re making me envious.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, that Dusty in Memphis book was really crucial for me because I got to turn this corner where I went from what people will call academic writing to what people will call popular writing. And I realized how much was the same for me.

You know, I came out of this interdisciplinary PhD program and I loved it. And I still believe today I brought all of me who did that, over to this “popular” territory.

I don’t think I lost anything. I think, if anything, I gained something because I could more justifiably reference the personal.

I think at the same time, you’re seeing people like Zizak. He’s got some freedom. I found my freedom by going into the popular, but I learned a lot of my lessons in the academic. So, the process is very different, I feel a higher level of freedom, but let me say this. There is the equivalent of the committee, my agent and my editor.

And I wrote this book twice. There’s a version of this book that’s twice as long, and I handed it in to them, and they both said, “We don’t think this is the book you meant to write”. And I had a new page 1. I started over and I wrote the one that you read. And so, that’s not to say that I have this freedom and it’s all good from that point forward.

For the first time ever, I didn’t share pages with anybody. I just wrote as I wanted to write. And I won’t do that again, and that was one of the things that led me to a point where I’ve got these crucial figures in my creative life saying, we don’t think you meant to write this book.

And so they got me to where I really created a much sturdier narrative spine for the thing. And I think it became a more readable book, but for a minute there, I was thinking, “I want to have as much fun as Greil Marcus seems to be having in the world of ideas” And so I did my version of that.

And I think it was a harder read. And I didn’t step from the academic to the more popular to make reading a difficult experience for people. I want it to be smart. I want it to allow them to think about things they might not have otherwise, but I want it to be readable.

Mack Hagood: To me, I’d love to hear your opinion on this. What makes it so readable, is that this book is so compellingly readable that it’s really stories nested within stories. And then the ideas are nested within those stories. So, like just to give you an example, the title track of “Nebraska”, right?

Springsteen gets inspired by the Terrence Malick film Badlands, which itself was inspired by the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend. Carol Ann Fugate. And you give us the stories of the making of Badlands. You give us the stories of the first reporter to interview Carol Ann Fugate.

There are all of these stories. And then sometimes I’m kind of like, “Where are we going with all of this?” But then actually nested within all of that, is a theory of the case here about alienation in the United States and how this record is expressing this kind of alienation.

But you did it all through narrative and that’s almost like I can see your creative writing and your theoretical work coming together here. But the theory is just such a light touch. It doesn’t make it any less profound. It’s just a distinctly different way from the way an academic would approach. 

Warren Zanes: That makes me very satisfied to hear. Because I hope that’s happening. But, when I get into one of these nested stories as you describe it. I’m mostly trusting that the reader can see that. For instance, there’s Charles Starkweather. And it’s the first televisual serial murderer, and they’re trying to figure out how to tell stories through using these cameras, and they don’t actually know how. 

And then Charles Starkweather, he goes out as an image. And there’s Bruce Springsteen struggling with the life of being an image. And so there’s some identifications between Springsteen and Starkweather that are like, “Whoa” And I trust that some of this stuff the reader can process without me putting my finger right on it.

But all the things happened. You know, Springsteen’s a great subject. Because he’s thinking deeply. He’s not just sitting and watching a movie. He’s like watching a movie, seeing himself in it, writing a song. He’s calling the Omaha television station that first reported it. He’s like, “You can’t ask for a better subject”.

Mack Hagood: Well, let’s talk about that because I teach my students about interviewing, particularly ethnographic research, and doing interviews. Typically, they’re nervous and I’m always telling them, “Look, people really appreciate the opportunity to be listened to”.  It’s actually quite rare that anyone gets listened to and in this case, that is the type of people that you’re talking about. 

It’s like the difference between Studs Terkel interviewing this every man about his day job and, and you interviewing the archetypal every man, Bruce Springsteen. That’s a totally different power dynamic. So like, how do you get access? How do you get in? I’m just interested in that.

Warren Zanes: Well, a couple of things. So yeah, people who have done a lot of interviews, if you ask, if you start talking to Bruce Springsteen about Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A, many have been there before you. So, when you get off the beaten track, that’s always going to help. You still have to ask about those other things.

So, that makes a difference. But when I was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I learned that. I started doing live interviews with people that would end when they had success. So talk about everything leading up to that, because most interviews started with success and went forward. And it engaged them, you know, at a higher level.  

Mack Hagood: That reminds me of Joe Jackson, the English pop musician. His autobiography, and that’s exactly how he wrote it. He wrote it right up until right before he had his first hit and it was over. He wasn’t interested in talking about the rest.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, and it’s very effective. If you already love Joe Jackson. It’s like “Here’s what got me there”. And, he’s obviously more engaged. So you can do some of that, but with Bruce he’s been asked everything about everything. 

And, you know, if I have a favorite moment in the Nebraska book, it’s, and I thought it was very bold what I was doing, but I believed that the story of Odysseus mapped onto his story. And I couldn’t let this theory go and it’s a moment in an interview where I’m actually talking more than he is. 

Because I have to put my theory out by telling the story of the Odyssey that fits into what I’m talking about. And it just fit into Nebraska into Born in the U.S.A To me it was about being invisible, and being anonymous, and being a stranger in your own home then to being a powerful leader of people, leader of a home, going one to the other. 

And I saw Nebraska into Born in the U.S.A as that. So we sat, and I’m telling him this. It’s not that he didn’t know the story of Odysseus. It’s that he was listening to me present a theory about his career with that narrative mapped onto it.

So I was basically testing out an idea, oh man, it just paid off such dividends, and that’s why I needed it in the book, and at the end, he said something to the effect of, “I just wanted to be invisible”. Like, he basically came out and said, “I was Odysseus returning home to Ithaca disguised as a beggar”

And, in that case it worked. I was talking to him the other day and I had another pet theory. And it was about, Queen. They’re a very important group. You know, a recording like Bohemian Rhapsody. As a song, as a recording. It’s got a lot of the hip hop mindset into it.

We can create this pastiche of elements and make it cohesive as a pop song. And I think a lot of people were looking at Queen. And I just believed that Springsteen takes in so much. He’s got such a high capacity to absorb. Surely he was absorbing Queen. And I put this theory out and he was like, “I don’t know their stuff that well, and I wasn’t listening to it then”

It just felt completely flat. And I said “Well when I was talking to Jimmy Iveen about Queen” He said, “No not Queen, we were listening to ABBA” I said that and then Bruce said, “Maybe Jimmy was.” You know both of them. You gotta put your neck out there a little bit and be prepared to fail in your line of question.

So they don’t all go down like, it was a magic moment for me when I did the Odysseus thing, but it doesn’t always go that way. 

Mack Hagood: I want to talk about you narrating your own audio book. I’ve been doing kind of like a little mini series right now on audiobooks, and I really enjoyed your Audiobook version of the Nebraska book. I thought it was fantastic. Can you talk about why you wanted to narrate your own work and what goes into that?

Warren Zanes: Great question, and I definitely have thought about it because Dusty in Memphis became an audiobook and they just sent me one. And I put it on and I could listen to about a paragraph and that was it. I’m like, “This is not the book I wrote. It’s just not, I didn’t write this book. It was the same words. But I wouldn’t have read them like that. I felt like the person they hired, like… Did you meet him at a joke shop or something? Like, who is this guy? Why didn’t you ask me?”

 And so then when it was time for my Tom Petty biography to do the audiobook, my agent said, “They’re not going to pay you much for this and it’s terrible work, I recommend farming it out”.  And I said, “No way am I letting somebody else read it?” Because for it to be the book I wrote, it has to be me reading it. It’s so different when you don’t. 

And so I went in not knowing that process. And it was rigorous. It was draining. It was intense. It was very emotional. And it was crucial that I do it, one of the upsides is that right when you’re getting ready to promote a book, to take it to the world, to go public with it, you get that deep reading right beforehand. And the timing could not be better. So, like with Petty I was like, “Whoa! I felt it all. I felt every word go through me” I had a really good producer there, guiding me, figuring it out. And so when I came into doing this book, I was like, “This is going to be hard”. But I was so psyched. I was psyched for the emotion. I was psyched for the performance. I believed in myself as a reader of my own work. I knew I read Warren Zanes well. I thought about it and when I was working on the Scorsese, George Harrison documentary doing interviews, the producer and editor would get together with me and we’d get our questions together. And the editor said, “It’s all about emotion”

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: I was worrying about facts. Like, I don’t think this year is right. And he was kind of like, nobody goes to see a film to see if you got the year right, they go to cry, and it was a real turning point for me. Like, so in reading my own book, it was just like, there’s emotion in these books. I’m going to make sure that it gets delivered. 

Mack Hagood: I really think the emotion comes through in the way you read this book. Can you talk a little bit about the roles? Like who’s in the room? I know that their audio books have a director. Can you talk about that?

Warren Zanes: And I should have their names right in front of me, but a great engineer and a great producer. And you need them. Like, I could not do this  sitting on my own. And I feel bad that I don’t have their names in front of me.

Mack Hagood: Did you, did you go into the studio?

Warren Zanes: Oh yeah. A studio here. I think it’s Sound on Sound. It’s in Montclair. The hallways are lined with gold and platinum records. Let’s just put it that way. 

So it was the real deal. And they set me up in the recording room, and they’re in the control room. And, you know, we got sound baffles around me. It’s like my little house for a couple days.

I’ve got a sight line to them, so that when I’m in headphones, I’m looking through the glass. I need to be seeing the words and seeing them kind of simultaneously.

And, you know, we work pretty fast. Like, I got to the point where I wasn’t making a lot of mistakes. And it’s just like when you come out of the studio after doing full days of this, I’m dizzy.

Mack Hagood: Wow. 

Warren Zanes: You’re a little bit cross eyed. And you’re drained, and it’s a good time to go walk your dog and eat some ice cream.

Mack Hagood: And so, do you get notes on line readings? I assume since you’re the author, it’s a little bit different. But does the director say, “Hey, can you slow that down? Or can you change the emphasis? I’m not getting the meaning from the way…”

Warren Zanes: Totally. So they’ll either catch it in the moment, but more often say, “Okay, let’s go back and hit these”. And they’re also like looking up some words, or names that I’ve written that I’m not pronouncing properly. So everybody’s kind of working the whole time. 

Sometimes it’s just like a sound issue, maybe I’m popping a P or something too much. So they’re catching all that. Everybody’s in just, it’s like hypervigilance. I think that’s where the fatigue comes in.

Mack Hagood: Well, I think the work paid off. You are Grammy nominated for your reading of your book. No?

Warren Zanes: No. Submitted. You know, it looks like that. You know, the publisher gives this thing for you to put on social media that makes it look  like you got a Grammy nomination.  

Mack Hagood: It’s been submitted. 

Warren Zanes: Yeah, you know what, I think I could submit my neighbor for, you know, what he did with his leaf blower. Like, being honest, I hate to say it. 

Mack Hagood: Well, I mean, I listen to a lot of audiobooks and I think it’s deserving of a nomination. I really do. I thought you did a great reading.

Warren Zanes: Thank you. I’m, you know, I honestly am proud of that.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. Do you have any advice for people who want to do public scholarship, particularly around sound or music.

Warren Zanes: Well, I think about sound, music, fashion, food. These are things that are so a part of everyday life. That we tend to neglect thinking of them at a high intellectual level. And first of all, I think there’s room for a high intellectual discourse at an everyday life level. It shouldn’t be reserved for the academy.

But I think oftentimes it’s funny with students. I’ll really try. You chose the clothing that you wore today, you are making a statement about who you are. Like, and it’s almost hard to get them to do that because of the way in which we do these. The way in which sound organizes our everyday life, the way in which we use music, use clothing.

Use food, highly ritualistic people and we are, there’s a kind of language to all of this, that we’re speaking. But we don’t often step back to think about the nature of that language, the syntax of it. So I just think, take a day and isolate one of those things, and it could be sound, you know, like how sound is, you know, a part of the organization of this mundane life that I’m leading. And I think particularly as technology becomes more and more a part of our lives, like there are a lot of moments in the day where sound is a primary issue. You just have to have this kind of analytical consciousness as you go in and look at it and then suddenly be your own anthropologist.

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: Like, distance yourself from the life you’re living so that you can have that external viewpoint that allows for a little analysis.

But put on the pith helmet and be your own anthropologist is what I say.

Mack Hagood: That’s great, I don’t know if you had time to do this but, we end the patron version of the show with the what’s good segment, which is something good to read, something good to listen to, and something good to do. I feel like you kind of just said something good to do.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, something good to listen to. If you feel like Taylor Swift is too omnipresent, get over it, go listen to folklore. And once you’ve realized how good folklore is back into the Lover record. We’re lucky to have Taylor Swift, I think. She’s a really great writer and record maker.

So that’s something to listen to. What was the other category?

Mack Hagood: Read 

Warren Zanes: Oh, to read. Okay. God, I read so much self help because I need it.  It’s hard. You know, one of our classmates at Loyola is one of the greatest living writers, Claire Keegan. 

She went to Loyola. Yeah, she’s Irish. She was, she was on campus with us.

I think she was in my American Lit, you know, like, 19th, early 20th century class. K E E G A N. Everybody knows about her, man. And I felt like I came late to the party, and I’m looking at her picture going, I was on tour in Ireland. I’m in a band put together by the poet Paul Muldoon.

We were on tour in Ireland, and, and the woman who runs Poetry Ireland was saying, I think Clare Keegan might be the most important voice in fiction writing. And I’m like, who? And I look at the picture, and I’m like, I swear to God I went to school with her. And I went and looked at Phillips Andover, because I thought that would be the place, and it’s like, no. She went to Loyola. Her latest book is dedicated to Mary McCarthy, who’s in the English department?

Mack Hagood: Oh, wow. 

Warren Zanes: Isn’t that wild? But these are great books. 

Mack Hagood: I know the name. I did not make any connection to Loyola. Amazing. 

Warren Zanes: Yeah, it’s totally amazing. Anyway, it’s nice to be able to recommend fiction writing with, with no reservation. And, and to be able to say, it doesn’t matter, go pick any of her stuff. 

Mack Hagood: Yeah. 

Warren Zanes: She makes gorgeous imagery, but a stunning economy.

Mack Hagood: Hmm. 

Warren Zanes: She’s just getting so much done in a paragraph, it inspires envy.

Mack Hagood: Okay, I’m on it. That’s on my list now.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, Yeah. Great to see you.

Mack Hagood: Yeah, Warren, thanks so much for doing this. I really enjoy talking to you.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, that was fun. That was fun. , and I’m sorry that I gotta eat and run, man. I’m actually talking to Roy Bitton from The E Street

Mack Hagood: No kidding.

Warren Zanes: Yeah. 

Mack Hagood: Oh, so you’re still on that beat

Warren Zanes: Still on that beat. Yeah. Yeah. I’ll tell you more soon. 

Mack Hagood: All right. Look forward to it.

Warren Zanes: Yeah, yeah. Good to see you 

Mack Hagood: All right. Good to see you. Take care. 

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Huge thanks to Warren Zanes for being on the show. Today’s show was edited by Nisso Sacha and yours truly. Transcript and web content by Katelyn Phan. Please join us in a couple of weeks when my guest will be noise theorist, Marie Thompson. Take care and I’ll talk to you then.