On Friday night at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the 16th annual Tribeca Film Festival hosted an intimate discussion between two living legends, Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen has done quite a few of these over the last few months in support of his autobiography, Born to Run, but this one felt a little different. That difference was Hanks, whose own fame led to more of a talk between equals than one where it’s Springsteen talking to someone whose a little more in awe of who he or she is sitting next to. Don’t misunderstand: On Friday, Mr. Hanks seemed very much “in awe” himself, but he was also in a position to let some jokes fly at Springsteen’s effect that, let’s say, someone of lesser stature may not even attempt.
What resulted was an entertaining retrospective on Springsteen’s career. And, of course, the two paid homage to Jonathan Demme, whose film, Philadelphia, earned both Hanks and Springsteen an Oscar.
Over the course of what lasted a little more than an hour, Hanks would throw out lyrics that the audience in attendance (which included many, many Springsteen die-hards, and Malia Obama) was expected to finish. A funny moment happened when Hanks simply called out, “ohhhhh ohhhhh,” which confused a lot of people, yet a few still finished with the chorus to Growing Up. Springsteen made a quip about the audience not quite getting that one, to which Hanks paused and replied, “You didn’t waste a lot of ink on those lyrics,” which got a big laugh.
Hanks took Springsteen through his career, starting with the early days with The Castiles (a band name that came from a bottle of shampoo) hitting every album all the way through 1987’s, Tunnel of Love. (Possibly realizing time was getting short, Hanks did skip over Nebraska).
Some of the more interesting discussions resulted around the period just after Born to Run in which Hanks asked Springsteen about the trouble he got into with the IRS. Springsteen admitted he didn’t pay taxes, but back then he didn’t know anyone in New Jersey who paid taxes. And at the time he and his band weren’t so good about paying bills either. Springsteen said it wasn’t until 1980 that he finally was out of debt to the government. At this point Hanks joked that with the new tax plan benefiting the wealthy, Springsteen might not have to pay taxes again very soon (this got a big laugh).
Surprisingly, some of the most interesting discussions surrounded Springsteen’s most successful album, Born on the U.S.A.. This is surprising, because this is an album Springsteen doesn’t discuss as often as, say, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, or The River. When Springsteen is interviewed by rock journalists, there’s almost a stigma surrounding that album – in that the true discussions about Springsteen’s music must concentrate on the material released between 1973 and 1980. But Hanks dove right in.
Springsteen admitted he has mixed feelings about this album. Which makes a lot of sense – it’s an album that has a life of its own, with memories of sold out stadiums and lots and lots of bandannas. But Springsteen also said the song Born in the U.S.A. was his best work, lyrically. And that’s why he’s rearranged that song so many times. (Everyone knows the stadium anthem that wound up on the record, but the original version that almost wound up on Nebraska would have left nobody confused about the meaning of what this song is actually trying to say.)
Hanks explored the undertones that the effects of the Vietnam War had on Born in the U.S.A. and Springsteen spoke about how he had many friends who went to Vietnam and either came back changed forever or didn’t come back at all. Calling himself a “stonecold draft dodger,” Springsteen admitted he felt guilty that he didn’t have to go, which led to a lot of what came out on that record.
Before the talk started, I was in the bathroom and I overheard a couple of Springsteen fans guessing how many songs Bruce would sing on this evening. One of these gentlemen was expecting as many as six songs, even though this was purely billed as a discussion. (Also, I’m not sure what Tom Hanks would have been doing onstage while Springsteen was performing.) Regardless, I suspect, even though Bruce did not perform any songs, those fans had to have left happy. It was still quite a performance by Springsteen, even though no music was played. Springsteen is the ultimate raconteur and this is a talk that could have lasted three more hours and everyone would still be on the edge of their seats.
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