“God, this is ridiculous!” exclaimed a harried-looking woman outside the Beacon Theater on Friday, frustrated with the brouhaha on Manhattan’s typically staid Upper West Side. Long lines stretched in both directions from the theater’s entrance, wrapping around either side of the building. Unlucky but still hopeful fans took advantage of the slow-moving procession to politely request extra tickets, and one savvy businessman set up shop selling buttons that read, “I know we elected an asshole.” “They sell themselves,” the merchant proclaimed proudly, to no one in particular.
The cause of all the commotion? Bruce Springsteen, who was sitting for a Q&A session with Tom Hanks as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. Devotees of the musician turned out in droves, dressed somewhere on the spectrum between cut-work-early-on-Friday and E-Street-band-roadie, selling out the theater and filling it with long, deep chants of “Bruuuuuuce.” In between questions, Hanks whipped the audience into a frenzy by offering up the first half of a line from a classic Springsteen songs; fans responded by lustily yelling the second part.
Over the course of an hour, the actor took the crowd through Springsteen’s formative years and the canonical part of his discography; usually the actor would float a softball question, and the rocker, leaning back and to his right, shirt open, legs outstretched, would offer a raspy, pithy response. Hanks: “If I was to be bodacious, [Born to Run] is the moment when you transferred from the specific-ness of Jersey to the heart and soul of the United States of America.” Springsteen: “Well, we weren’t selling any records the other way.”
Here are nine things we learned from the conversation between Hanks and Springsteen.
1. A functioning rock band is frequently a form of dictatorship
“Steel Mill was a democracy,” Springsteen explained, speaking about an early band he played in. “But small unit democracy is very, very tough to make work. So after Steel Mill I decided I was going to go under my own name and play with my own band. It was basically a benevolent dictatorship.”
“In rock bands, you’re in your Twenties, you’re with all these misfits, and everyone is crazy – that’s the people who are drawn to the field. People are hitting one another, fighting, getting thrown in jail, and you’re trying to bail them out. Then you bail one guy out and another guy’s going to jail. [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,’ and they get thrown right back in jail. These things are going on constantly and every day. A gentle controlling hand is not such a bad thing.”
“Initially they wanted me to be purely a folk singer… We wanted to make a rock record.”
2. Springsteen’s first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, was the product of a compromise with his label
“Initially they wanted me to be purely a folk singer, which I looked like I was when I came up to John Hammond’s office,” Springsteen remembered. “John wanted it to be a completely solo album with just me and a guitar. We wanted to make a rock record. We settled in the middle with sort of a rhythm section with acoustic music. Dylan and Van Morrison were big influences for me at the time.”
3. Early on, Springsteen didn’t understand the studio process
“The main problem we had [making Born to Run] is we didn’t know what we were doing. We were clueless about making records. Jimmy Iovine, who became the engineer, I’m not sure if he engineered anything before that record. And none us really knew – we just went in and made noises until it sounded right coming out of the speaker.”
4. Young artists must be willing to take risks
“Chance comes along, you dive in no matter what shit you’re diving in,” Springsteen asserted. “You know you come out of this tiny little town and there’s a million musicians … your chances are really, really, really small. You’ve got to have the insane hunger, ego, ambition and desperation to take any chance, anything that comes your way to try to bust your doors down.”
In Springsteen’s case, one of the chances he took early on was not paying any taxes. “I never met anyone in New Jersey who paid taxes,” he recalled. “Certainly no one under 25 was paying any taxes. Years went by and no one was paying any taxes – me, the band, no one I knew.”
“You’ve got to have the insane hunger, ego, ambition and desperation to take any chance, anything that comes your way to try to bust your doors down”
The IRS eventually caught on, and after Springsteen paid his debts, he was a rock star with just $20,000 in the bank in 1980. “I don’t regret it,” he said. “That’s the only chance you have.”
5. Film had a big impact on the making of Darkness on the Edge of Town
“That 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. The first I remember is John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath. It 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.”
6. The River was written as an antidote to post-Watergate pessimism
“The whole country lived through, obviously the Vietnam War, but Watergate validated every crook’s philosophy on the street. All I remember thinking was, ‘I want to do something that was not that. I want to do something that felt in opposition to all that we experienced in a certain way.’ The River was my shot at it. It was about people trying to live straight up and move forward and work hard and support their families and try and find what the meaning of a good life might consist of.”
7. Springsteen is ambivalent about “No Surrender” – and Born in the U.S.A. more generally
“Stevie [Van Zandt, longtime guitarist in the E Street Band] 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 Stevie said, ‘No, no, no – it’s about the band, the brotherhood of the band, the fans.’ I gave him the benefit of the doubt. We’ve 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.”
8. Once you put music out, you can’t control the way listeners interpret it
“You have to deal with the [way] that people hear the music: the beat – what was the first thing people were frightened of in rock & roll? The beat – then they hear the chorus. And if they have the time or inclination,
9. Pop music can’t replace lived experience
“Particularly if your art and your music is something you clung to as a live preserver and a safe space, you think you can live there. All artists at some point believe they can live within their art. What you learn is that you can’t. At the end of the day, it’s just your job. It’s just your work. Life awaits you outside of those things.
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.”