The Tribeca Film Festival conversation between Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen was planned long in advance but took on an unanticipated poignancy in the timing Friday afternoon, as an overflow crowd jammed the Beacon Theatre on New York’s Upper West Side. Welcoming the crowd, festival producer Paula Weinstein dedicated the event to Jonathan Demme, who died Wednesday at home in the city.
“I realized what we really want as a festival is to dedicate today’s talk to the brilliant, extraordinary, committed, fabulous filmmaker Jonathan Demme,” Weinstein said, before bringing on the guests to a raucous welcome from the crowd. Hanks immediately picked up the theme. “I think the strongest union of our two names is from the motion picture Philadelphia; that was Jonathan Demme, who we just lost.” Both Hanks and Springsteen won Oscars for their work on the 1993 AIDS-related drama.
“He had Neil Young working first,” on the film, Springsteen recalled. “Neil came up with ‘Philadelphia,’ which ended the film, and he wanted a rock song for the beginning.” After a few futile tries, Springsteen was sent a clip from the film, “where the camera moves slowly through the streets of Philadelphia,” which became the title of the song and “took about two days, and that was it.”
Hanks came prepared with a sheaf of notes and an obsessed fan’s enthusiasm, which he put on display from the top. Turning to the audience, he said, “I’ll quote the lyric, and you complete the lyric. Complete the sentence: ‘My machine she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud,’ “
“Out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey,” the audience roared back, quoting “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” as soulfully as any congregation and preacher in a call-and-response prayer service. “Those of us who grew up on the West Coast were stunned to find there were swamps in New Jersey,” Hanks said. “We call it the Meadowlands,” the Boss replied.
Hanks referred frequently to Springsteen’s best-selling autobiography Born To Run in drawing his subject out. “Did Jersey make Springsteen, or did Springsteen make Jersey?” he wondered, citing the Garden States diversity of cultures ranging from “greasers and bikers’ to “swamps and great beaches, rodeos and circuses in the summertime, migrant workers, greasers and bikers – and the greatest city in the world about an hour and a half and a couple of bucks away. You also write about New Jersey as a place you’ve got to get out of and a place you always must return to.”
Springsteen reminded Hanks that growing up, radio was the centerpiece of the home, television an afterthought, still a novelty. “When I was a very little kid I would sleep till 3 in the afternoon and stay up till 3 in the morning – because I could,” Springsteen said. “It’s no coincidence that I picked a career that lets me stay up till 3 in the morning.”
Hanks surprised everyone by having a photo projected of a very young Springsteen playing with his band The Castilles (named, he said, for shampoo). Hanks had searched for a photo that would, “in its entirety capture everything one needed to know about this man’s approach to what he does for a living. You will now see what Bruce Springsteen is, was and has always been.” The photo shows Springsteen rocking out with his guitar atop a lifeguard station during a beach gig. No one else is on the high chair. He’s wearing white wide-wale corduroy pants, red turtleneck and sandals. “And I think I am the coolest fucking thing in the world.”
The pay was five dollars, he said. “I remember coming home and thinking, Jesus Christ, somebody paid me five dollars. And I wish I had that five dollars now, because that was the best money I ever made,” and here Springsteen took a strategic pause before adding, “except for all the rest.” The loose talk proceeded through the creation of the E Street Band, their eventual signing by John Hammond and Clive Davis at Columbia, and, after the unheralded Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in 1973, the earthquake caused two years later by Born To Run.
The conversation grew more serious as Springsteen’s life itself did, under the mentorship of manager and producer Jon Landau, who introduced him to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Promised Land and Hollywood film noir. Springsteen would reveal with The River a more adult sensibility through stories, as Hanks pointed out, “about heroes yearning for something that they almost only could get who could only have an identity by almost being crooks…that you have to divest all that is unnecessary in your life in order to survive, and sometimes that’s decency. You think that record was about you? No, no it was about me and about all of us.”
“All artists at some point believe they can live within their art. And what you learn either quickly or painfully slowly is that you can’t. At the end of the day, it’s just your job.”
“The River was about people trying to live straight up, move forward, support their families,” Springsteen said, acknowledging that he had been a Vietnam War draft dodger as many friends went to fight and came home in body bags or damaged beyond recognition.
“You said that work is work and life is life, and life trumps art always,” Hanks said. “Is that a lesson you’ve sorta got to learn over time?”
“Yeah,” Springsteen replied. “Generally you beat yourself to death before you learn it. Particularly if your art and your music are something that you’ve clung to as a life preserver. All artists at some point believe they can live within their art. And what you learn either quickly or painfully slowly is that you can’t. At the end of the day, it’s just your job, and life awaits you outside of those things. Songs can get you through the day, get you through the night, they can change the way you think or the way you dress or they can just thrill you with three minutes of bliss, you know? But they can’t give you a life.”
Rattling his sheaf of notes, Hanks pointed out that they still had a lot of territory to cover, but their time was up. They’d come a considerable distance anyway – something none of us left doubting.