Born to Run (2016)
“STREETS OF PHILADELPHIA”
In 1994, I received a phone call from Jonathan Demme asking if I’d consider writing a song for a film he was directing called Philadelphia. The film was about a gay man’s battle with AIDS and his fight to retain his position with a prestigious Philadelphia law firm. I had my studio set up at home in Rumson and for a few afternoons, I went in with some lyrics I had partially written dealing with the death of a close friend. Jonathan requested a rock song to open the film. I spent a day or so trying to accommodate, but the lyrics I had seemed to resist being put to rock music. I began to fiddle with the synthesizer, playing over a light hip-hop beat I programmed on the drum machine. As soon as I slowed the rhythm down over some basic minor chords, the lyrics fell into place and the voice I was looking for came forward. I finished the song in a few hours and sent the tape off to Jonathan, feeling like I hadn’t gotten it. He phoned me in a few days saying he loved it and placed it over the images of Philadelphia at the top of the film.
“Streets of Philadelphia” was a top ten hit because of the film and because it addressed something the country was attempting to come to grips with at that moment. How do we treat our sons and daughters confronting AIDS? Jonathan’s film came at an important moment and did its work. It was good to be a small part of it. Oh … and I won an Oscar. When I traveled north from LA to show it to my folks, it showed up on the airport x-ray and I had to drag it out of my bag. Upon reaching San Mateo, I walked into the kitchen, where my father was still sitting and smoking like a blue-collar Buddha, and plopped it down on the table in front of him. He looked at it, looked at me and said, “I’ll never tell anybody what to do ever again.”
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After “Streets of Philadelphia” I spent the better part of the year in Los Angeles trying to come up with an album in that vein. It was an album centering on men and women and it was dark. I’d just made three of those records, varying in tone, in a row. The last two had been met with not indifference, but something like it. I was feeling a faint disconnect with my audience.
One evening as Roy and I took a drive, he suggested that perhaps it was the lyrical content that was distancing some of our fans. You can get away with a one-off of anything—Tunnel of Love and Nebraska are excellent examples—but it has to be finely crafted and fully realized. I’d made my meat and potatoes writing about the broader lives of people, often working people particularly, and while at the time I told Roy he didn’t know what he was talking about, I think he actually was onto something. I don’t write strictly for my audience’s desires but we are, at this point, engaged in a lifelong dialogue, so I take into consideration their voices. You need to be adventurous, to listen to your heart and write what it’s telling you, but your creative instinct isn’t infallible. The need to look for direction, input and some guidance, outside of yourself, can be healthy and fruitful. This would’ve been my fourth record in a row about relationships. If I could’ve felt its fullness, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put it out. But a not-fully-realized record around the same topic felt like one too many. I had to come to terms with the fact that after my year of work writing, recording, mixing, it was going on the shelf. That’s where she sits.
I was again at loose ends. Where am I going? Who am I now? What do I have to give to my audience? If these questions were in my head, I knew they were in my audience’s as well, so, when in doubt … retreat! It was 1995, seven years since the E Street Band had played together. That’s a generation in rock ’n’ roll. We’d never made a greatest hits record and we decided it was time to remind people a little of what we’d done.
It’d been ten years since the band had stood side by side in a recording studio together but I picked up the phone, called the guys, explained what I wanted to do and that it was a one-shot. On January 12, 1995, we gathered in Studio A at the Hit Factory, scene of many of our USA sessions; exchanged hugs and warm greetings; then set to work. After a session or two, I received a phone call from Steve, who said he’d heard we were recording. I was a little gun-shy. It had been fifteen years but a few nights later Steve sat on a stool in the studio with the same Groucho Marx-like, big-eyed, soft grin I’d loved and missed, plucking the mandolin for “This Hard Land.”
Later we filmed a short promo set of the band playing live at Sony Studios. I showed the film to Jimmy Iovine in my LA den one night and as we slipped into “Thunder Road,” he said, “You should jump on this now. Time is funny and this just feels right.” I heard what he was saying but I wasn’t ready to go there. Greatest Hits did nicely, gave my midnineties drift a little focus and a kick, then we once again went our separate ways.
I had one song left over from the project. It was a rock song I’d been writing for the band but couldn’t complete. “Streets of Philadelphia” and Jonathan Demme had gotten me thinking about writing on social issues again. This was something I’d steered away from for the past decade. As my success increased, there was something about that “rich man in a poor man’s shirt” that left an uneasy taste in my mouth surrounding this type of writing. But drawing on my own young history and what I’d seen, I’d written about these things very well and over the years I’d refined a voice that was identifiably mine on these subjects. It was a story, a part of my story that I had to tell. You lay claim to your stories; you honor, with your hard work and the best of your talent, their inspirations, and you fight to tell them well from a sense of indebtedness and thankfulness. The ambiguities, the contradictions, the complexities of your choices are always with you in your writing as they are in your life. You learn to live with them. You trust your need to have a dialogue about what you deem important. After twenty-five years of writing, the song that helped me crystallize these issues and their currency for the second half of my work life was “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”