Considering their reputations as two of America's most beloved, outspoken, and liberal baby boomers, it's a bit surprising that Bruce Springsteen and Tom Hanks haven't collaborated more in the past. But as they pointed out Friday evening at a special Storytellers talk at Tribeca Film Festival, the two did cross paths in the early '90s thanks to recently-deceased director Jonathan Demme and his movie Philadelphia—for which both Hanks and Springsteen won Academy Awards (for Best Actor and Best Original Song, appropriately).
"He had Neil Young working first, so Neil came up with 'Philadelphia,' which ended the film, and he wanted a rock song for the beginning," Springsteen explained of the genesis for his award-winning tune, "Streets of Philadelphia." "So I said I'd give it a shot, I hopped in my little studio, and I tried for a day or so to come up with something and I hadn't come up with anything. I had some lyrics, and eventually I just came up with that tiny little beat and a track. I figured it wasn't what he wanted, but I sent it to him anyway. And he sent me that opening piece of film where the camera moves slowly through Philly. I sent it to him and said, 'What do you think?' and he said, 'Great,' and that was it. It took about two days."
That was just one charming anecdote of many that were shared during the hour-long conversation, in which Hanks probed Springsteen about how he got his start in the music industry, drew out stories behind his best records, and questioned his aversion toward paying taxes (more on that below). Much of what they discussed was well-trodden ground for anyone familiar with Springsteen's autobiography, Born To Run, but getting to see The Boss in person, and listen to his inimitable mumble-rasp of a voice, made the whole thing very fun. Adding to that: the talk was punctuated by Hanks saying the first half of a line from a classic Springsteen songs, with fans yelling the second part in response.
While Hanks certainly had his fair share of hilarious questions and one-liners ("Did Jersey make Springsteen, or did Springsteen make Jersey?"), Springsteen was the focus of the evening. Below, we picked out some of his best quotes from the conversation:
The importance of New Jersey to Springsteen: "All I remember was the first time, 1969-70, we [went] to San Francisco. [We played] in this little club for hot dogs and toll fare across the bridge, called The Matrix. I'm in the bathroom and I'm' next to this guy, and he says, 'You guys are pretty good, where you from?' and I said, 'New Jersey.' He said, 'What's that?' He didn't say, 'Where's that,' he said, 'What's that.' And that was it. After that, I knew. [When I made] my first record, they were trying to kinda tie me to New York, and I felt like I wasn't really a New York artist. I wandered down the boardwalk and picked out the postcard 'Greetings From Asbury Park,' and it was Jersey all the way after that."
The best $5 Springsteen ever made: "[Springsteen's first band, The Castiles] was a cover band, and the thing about the name was it kind of stood in the center of doo-wop. Castiles could've been a doo-wop group. And just sort of the rock and R & B thing that we were starting to play. So it was a pretty good all-purpose name for the time...The first night we played, we played at a spin club, and I made $5. And I remember coming home thinking, "Jesus Christ. Somebody paid me $5 [crosstalk 00:15:34]." And I wish I had that five man, because that was, that to me, that was the best money I ever made. Except for all the rest."
Why democracy is bad for a band: "Steel Mill was a democracy. But small unit democracy is very, very tough to make work. So after Steel Mill I decided I was gonna go and do my own name and play with my own band, and it was basically kind of a benevolent dictatorship. Because in rock bands, [when] you're in your Twenties, you're with all these misfits, right? And everybody is crazy, because that's the people who are drawn to the field. People are hitting one another, and fighting, and getting thrown in jail, and when you're trying to bail them out, then another guy's going to jail, you bail him out. [They're] leaving marijuana plants on the front seat of their car, the car gets towed away, they go to the cops and say, 'My car was stolen,' they get thrown right back in jail. I mean, there was a long list...These things are going on constantly and every day. So a gentle controlling hand is not such a bad thing."
Getting signed by the legendary producer John Hammond and why there's no guitar on Greetings From Ashbury Park: "Well I went in and I played, I had a guitar, I played 'It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City,' I played one song, and John Hammond said, 'You gotta be on Columbia Records.' He said, 'But you gotta play for [then-Columbia president] Clive Davis next week.' So I went in and I auditioned for him and they signed me. But there was no guitar, because initially they wanted me to be purely a folk singer, [which is what] I looked like when I came up to John Hammond's office. And John Hammond wanted it to be a completely solo album with just me and the guitar, but we wanted to make more of a rock record, and so we sort of settled in the middle with sort of a rhythm section with acoustic music. I like the way it came out."
On his inspiration for Asbury Park: "I had my heroes, I was kind of following Dylan, Van Morrison. They were big influences for me at the time. And I didn't think I had a story, but you know, I was kind of living one at the time 'cause I'm at Asbury Park, and I'm living in an abandoned beauty salon. I'm there with all these sordid street characters who were in Asbury at the time, and the record got mixed up with all of those people and that setting. Basically, a lot of the music was semi-autobiographical. The lyrics came out of carnival life and boardwalk life. So yeah, it comes to you. It just kind of came to me."
The story behind "Born To Run": "We'd done touring by it, we'd been around the States. And you know, we were road dogs, and did a lot of playing. I knew that I had a foot out the door, but we always came back to New Jersey because we felt safe there. But 'Born to Run' was just the next song I wrote. I mean, I didn't know if it was gonna be a hit, or not be a hit. I thought, when you listen to something and you think it's good, that people are gonna like it, but that hadn't been the case up to that point...It came from both life experience of being in Asbury on a Saturday night when we had the circuit, and all the hot rods going around and around every Friday and Saturday night. So that life was there in front of me. But it also came from every B hot rod picture I'd ever seen."
The process of recording "Born To Run": "The main problem we had was we didn't know what we were doing. We were really very clueless about making records. And Jimmy Iovine, who became the engineer, I'm not sure he engineered anything before our record. And none of us really knew. We just went in and made these noises until it sounded right coming out of the speaker.
So I remember, it was eight in the morning and we were trying to do something you call mixing...and there's no computer mixing. Everyone is looking at all of the faders manually so you have four guys lined up, putting their hands over the other guy, trying to get the sax solo, trying to get the drums up here, the guitar up there, trying to make sure the angle changes here. And when we were done it was done, and we were never able to do it again. It only happened once. They wanted us to go back in an put more voice on the record. Couldn't be done. We went back. We couldn't get anywhere near the sound that we caught that one time. But you only have to do it once."
Why he hadn't paid his taxes up to that point: "The answer was we were Willie Nelson in reverse. First of all, I never met anyone in New Jersey who paid any taxes. Certainly, no one under 25 was paying any taxes. So we never paid any taxes. But then when we got with [first manager] Mike Appel, he was handling all our business. And his thing was, 'We're not paying any fucking taxes.'
And so years went by, and 'Greetings,' 'The Wild, the Innocent,' 'Born to Run,' all of this time went by, nobody's paying any taxes. And I mean me, the band, no one I knew. So finally some guy at IRS must have got smart and said, 'Who is this guy on the cover of [Time] magazine? Let's see what he's doing.' And they came after us. And I had to work for a couple of years for somebody else every night.
Not only did I have to pay all my taxes that I hadn't paid, and then bills that I hadn't paid, 'cause we weren't paying any bills either... I'm paying for everybody, and then we had, had to pay the lawyers. So all of this went on, and then we made records that were expensive because we didn't know how to make records. And this went on 'til 1980. In 1980 I think I had about $20,000 to my name. Which would of sounded like a lot of money when I was 20. When you're 30 you know, and you've been doing it for awhile...I didn't pay the taxes for a long time. But uh, I paid."
Springsteen thinks artists need to be hungry to take risks: "Most people's early careers are a mess. And you know, mainly because when you get in the music business the cards are stacked in favor of the business, and they're stacked against the musicians. Because what do musicians know? They don't know anything, you know? They don't know about numbers, or they don't know about business side of things. I would've signed anybody's jockey shorts to get to make a record, you know? I mean I would've signed any—I did sign anything.
I don't regret it. Maybe things worked out, obviously, but at the time we could've gone a lot worse, but that's the only chance you have. Your chance comes along, and you dive in no matter what shit you're diving into because you know you came out of this tiny little town, and there's a million musicians... you know your chances are really, really, really, really, really small. And so you've got to have the insane hunger, ego, ambition, and desperation to take any chance. Anything that comes your way, and try to bust those doors down."
On the influence of manager Jon Landau and film noir on his work:
"[Darkness On The Edge Of Town] was the first record that was really influenced by movies... one of my great mentors was Jon Landau, who was a film critic, and he began to get me to watch films. I think the first thing I remember is John Ford's Grapes of Wrath. It was something that touched me deeply, deeply, deeply. I said, 'I want some of that in my music.' Then comes 'Promised Land,' 'Racing in the Street.' Then I got hooked into the noir writers, and that hooked me into The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and all of the great noir films."
The joy of pop music: "Basically you tell a story to save your life. That's really what your motivation is. At some point when I was very young, of course I felt like I was drowning. So I think the writer tells a story to save his life. To experience life at its fullest. Where do the good rock songs that are three minutes come from? Three minutes of bliss, and compressed living. That's why you can get so excited in such a short period of time. But also, your motivation is to keep yourself afloat. So it's that life or death hunger. That was what I wanted my characters to be about. I wanted them to be chasing. That's what I wanted to communicate to my audience, that life awaits you. But taking it is a rough and tumble business."
Springsteen is ambivalent about the song "No Surrender" to this day: "Stevie [Van Zandt] convinced me to keep that song. I remember at the time thinking it's too glib. It's too glib. I think I still think that. But at the same time, Stevie said, 'No, no, no, it's about the band, the brotherhood of the band, and the fans.' At that time I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I said, 'Okay. Let's put it on.' We play it a lot. We played it an awful lot ever since. But I was always a little frightened of it. And the whole record, I always have mixed feelings about."
The story behind "Brilliant Disguise": "That's the conversation. I was marking the conversation that everybody's having around 2:30 a.m. in the bar, right when everybody starts looking pretty good. That was my little last call."
And the most important lesson he learned over the course of a life in rock 'n' roll: "Particularly if your art and your music is something you clung to as a life preserver as something of a safe space, you think you can live there. All artists at some point I think believe they can live within their art. And what you learn either quickly, or painfully and slowly, is that you can't. At the end of the day, it's just your job. It's just your work. And life awaits you outside of those things. And so once you get outside of those things, you let the world happen to you.
In music, we make our own little worlds. We make 'em, and we sell 'em to you, and you can live in them for a while, and they can be important—get you through the day, get you through the night, change the way you think, change the way you look, the way you dress, the way your approach your own life. Or they can just thrill you with three minutes of bliss. But they can't give you a life.
At the end of the day, we're all stuck on Earth here trying to carve out a life for ourselves. And so that took me a long time to learn that lesson, thanks to Patti [Scialfa]."