Tom Hanks, Jimmy Fallon, and more reflect on Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run on its 45th anniversary

By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 25, 2020 at 09:30 AM EDT

Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…

It’s been 45 years since the words of that anthem to a runaway American dream first hit the airwaves. Born to Run the album, which shares a name with its hit debut single, is now widely considered to be one of the greatest in rock history. For Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band, it was a last chance power drive to make their mark.

On the outs with the record label after his first two albums, Springsteen had no idea that this record would be the one to get him to that place where he really wanted to go. But its storied production history — from tortured recording sessions to impossible stakes to Springsteen’s own perfectionism that ended with him throwing the mastered version in the pool after first hearing it — have all been well-documented. Rolling Stone interviews, Grammy-winning documentaries, and Springsteen himself (via memoir) have thoroughly plumbed the making of Born to Run.

So instead of riding out and casing that promised land again in celebration of this milestone, we called up some of Springsteen’s biggest fans in the entertainment industry to hear their memories of the first time they heard Born to Run, what it has meant to them in their lives and careers, and why the siren call of getting out while we’re young is still so powerful 45 years later.

Tom Hanks (Oscar-winning actor)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run":

Tom Hanks first heard “Born to Run” at a pizza place in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1978, while waiting with a group of actors to watch a news segment about the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. “To blow time ‘til both the news and our pizza, I found the jukebox had ‘Born to Run’ — a song I had never heard, by Bruce Springsteen, the ‘Future of Rock and Roll'  who had been on Time and Newsweek covers in the same week a few years prior,” Hanks recounts via email.

He doesn’t recall that first listen being Earth-shaking given the marginal fidelity of the jukebox, but a year later, he had moved to New York City and encountered Springsteen and the album again while reading Stephen King’s The Stand, which uses “Jungleland” lyrics as an epigraph. He immediately wanted to know more. “Someone had given me their old Panasonic cassette player, I could scrounge enough coins out of the cushions, so I went to Tower Records on Broadway and bought the latest Springsteen release: Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Hanks remembers. “THAT was a transportive listen — as I took those songs as reflections of where I  had been and why I had left.  A few weeks later, bitten by the Bard of Jersey, I finally had a cassette of Born to Run and heard Bruce tell me about where I now was — New York City, as in ‘Meeting Across the River,’ and ‘Jungleland,’ the place I had come to because I had to get out of that town full of losers, pulling out of there to win.”

On what it means to him as an artist:

“I’m not sure I had a culture of my own that I could define, beyond my imagination and my interests and my instincts.  I was without a vocabulary,” Hanks says.  “I wanted to be an artist but was unsure if I knew anything beyond self-defense mechanisms.  Asking Wendy to climb in, with your graduation gown in rags at your feet — well, THAT was a shared moment!  Bruce described the past and the ethos I didn’t think was worthy: barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain — well, I didn’t drink beer, I was clueless about girls, I drove a VW, but that image was THE image of my previous 22 years.”

On its impact 45 years later:

“Eight songs. A full opera, from Wendy’s porch to 'Night' to 'Tenth Avenue' to 'Jungleland' — it was alive!  The cinematic vision had me seeing the songs as well as hearing them,” Hanks says. “From the first play through — the first play and flip of the cassette — you had finished a book, seen a motion picture, heard a story that celebrated where you were, how you’d gotten there.”

Favorite Born to Run song:

“Jungleland” gave Hanks a window into his new home of New York City. “I was on the other side of the nation from my comforts,” he says. “I was an outsider, another interloper just off the bus or the turnpike.  ‘Jungleland’ gave me a familiarity, a sense of glamour, a feeling of belonging in the City, at last.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

Hanks names the 1980-81 River tour at the Los Angeles Sports Arena (fondly dubbed by Bruce and his fans “The Dump That Jumps”) as his favorite. The River tour was only the second-ever rock gig Hanks attended, and it ran for four hours. “I came out of that show seeing what an artist can do, seeing what it takes to be an artist in the first place, more than hitting the marks and telling the truth,” he says. “An artist has to ‘go there’ and take the audience with them.  Bruce did, and I’ve never seen anyone else do the same thing in the same way.”

Favorite lyric:

"I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost for wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town." Says Hanks, "[That lyric] lightning-bolted into the head of a 22-year old, unemployed actor with a kid, a wife, and a few hundred bucks in the bank. The darkness was palpable — at 50/50, a boundary that would either trap you forever or, if broken, would lead you to the light.”

Time Magazine

John Gallagher Jr. (Tony winner for Spring Awakening, star of The Newsroom)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run”:

 “I grew up in Wilmington, Del., and there was a classic rock station growing up when I was a kid in the '90s. They would play ‘Born to Run’ every Friday [at 5 p.m.] and that was the kickoff to the weekend,” Gallagher remembers. “I just remember hearing it on the radio, driving around in the passenger seat of my mom or dad’s van around rush hour on the weekend. But my real love of the record Born to Run didn't really come around until my early 20s when I moved to New York and I got a computer and I got cable TV.” Gallagher says what really made him a fanatic was watching the recording of Springsteen’s legendary 1975 Hammersmith Odeon London Concert: “I didn't understand why they called him The Boss until I saw a 24-year-old guy playing with the E Street Band in 1975 and hearing the Born to Run songs live as they were played in the '70s."

On what it means to him as an artist:

"It’s that feeling of an artist who catches lightning in a bottle," he says. "It’s the idea of a young artist really hitting his stride and taking off into warp speed.” Gallagher Jr. is also a singer-songwriter (he released his debut album Six Day Hurricane in 2016), and he regularly covers Springsteen songs at his gigs. “He's written these songs that are these gifts for people,” he says. “I cover so many of them, not just because I love the songs so passionately, but because they come out so easily. I feel let in on the secret just by singing these words. I feel like I'm part of the secret. Bruce [can] cram a lifetime into three minutes and three chords."

On its enduring impact 45 years later:

“It has this timelessness to it and this staying power,” he marvels. “It could have been written a million years ago. It could have been written yesterday. It could be written tomorrow. The work is so prolific and so immediate and so personal. Music like the songs on Born To Run don't go out of style. They don't go out of fashion because they just exist.”

Favorite Born to Run song:

“He could have written ‘Thunder Road' and quit and I think we'd still be talking about [the record] in the same way,” he says. Though he also spreads some love for “Backstreets,” noting, “The first time I heard it I was certain I'd heard it before, even though I knew I hadn't.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

Gallagher cites seeing Springsteen on the encore North American leg of the 2016 The River tour in New Jersey as his personal highlight. “I cried 1000 times. Going to see him on Jersey soil on a perfect, beautiful, summer night in August,” he remembers. “I just felt like oh my God, we're standing on Jersey soil and the sun's going down. It's a summer night. I'm drinking a beer and there's Bruce. Just unreal.”

Favorite lyric:

"There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away/They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets" from, "Thunder Road." “It’s two lines and you could make a 700-page novel out of that lyric,” says Gallagher.

Sony Legacy

Gurinder Chadha (director of Blinded by the Light, Bend It Like Beckham)

On the first time she heard “Born to Run”:

Gurinder Chadha heard the song sometime in the late 1970s. “What drew me to the album was the cover. Because the cover had a white dude with a black dude together being very pal-y and I hadn't seen that before,” she says. “When I heard ‘Born to Run,' it was an anthem for anybody and everybody, including me, an Indian girl living in Britain. But it was really when I saw Bruce live that the power of it really hit me. The first time I saw Bruce was in the early ‘80s in Wembley Arena. In many ways, it was a religious experience — thousands of people all screaming the lyrics. It was that sense of camaraderie and wanting to get out while you're young and wanting to make good of your life.”

On what the record means to her as an artist:

“I love the fact that he sat down at age 25 to write the perfect song. And he did. It stood the test of time,” she says. “Decades later, when I came to make Blinded by the Light, that was one of the songs I was most nervous about [picturing] because it held such an important place in my heart. I was like, ‘How can I ever do visuals that live up to the meaning/feeling of that song?’ Not only because of what it means to me, but what it means to so many people around the world. I had to sort of let the fear go. I just went with the sheer exuberance and joy and rebelliousness of the song. When I finally did show the film to Bruce, I asked him what his favorite bit was and he said the way I shot that was just magic.”

On its enduring impact 45 years later:

“I think it put Bruce on the map and he hasn't left,” Chadha says. “It put him right up there as one of the greatest songwriters in the world. You can always rely on Bruce.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

When Chadha went to see Springsteen on Broadway, she was in the process of writing the script for Blinded by the Light, which is about a Springsteen-obsessed teenager. She went backstage after the show to talk to him about a request she had for tinkering with his music for dramatic effect in a scene. “I said, ‘I really, really want to use ‘Jungleland’ in my film, and I want to use the saxophone solo of Clarence [Clemons] over the march of the fascists because it's so jubilant, and it cut so very well against the faces of hate. Then I would like to use the piano solo and the last verse,’” she recounts. “'Because the song is such a huge opera, I can't use all of this, but these are the three sections I'd like to use and how I want to use them. It means I have to cut the song together.' He looked at me and he said, ‘You know what, I think Clarence would love that. Do it for Clarence.’ That was quite thrilling, but also completely debilitating.”

Favorite lyric:

“Talk about a dream, try to make it real” from “Badlands,” which coincidentally is the opening epigraph to Blinded by the Light.

Fin Costello/Redferns

David Chase (creator of The Sopranos)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run:”

Chase first heard the album when his friend (and frequent Sopranos director) John Patterson played it at his Topanga, Calif., home shortly after its release. “I hadn’t heard anything like that, except it brought me right back to New Jersey,” Chase recalls. “Not the lyrics, but just the music.”

On what it means to him as an artist:

Chase says the song and album have shifted in impact for him over the years. “It means I’ve gotten really old,” he says.  “I don’t feel like I was born to run anymore. I understood that feeling of born to run — about getting out of town and going to the place where we all want to go. Because I had done that. I had left New Jersey, and in my case, gone to Hollywood. I was really into that."

Favorite Born to Run song:

“Thunder Road” is Chase’s pick. “It has these lyrics: 'So Mary climb in, it’s a town full of losers, [and I'm] pulling out of here to win.' I came from a little town in New Jersey called Caldwell, and while I wouldn’t say it’s a town full of losers, I guess I probably felt that way at the age when I needed to break free,” Chase explains. “I married a girl from my hometown, from my high school, [though] her name wasn’t Mary. I just saw a picture of myself opening the door and her dress waving, which is what we did. She gets in the car and we head out.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

Chase recalls a time in the early 1980s when he was writing a TV movie called Off the Minnesota Strip. “It ended with this very young couple going west in a car to California, and it ended on Sunset Boulevard. While that was happening, I heard ‘Racing in the Street' and that just did it,” he says. However, Chase says the actual favorite thing to come out of his appreciation for The Boss is his friendship and professional partnership with E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt, who Chase wrote the role of Silvio Dante on The Sopranos for. “My favorite experience was just getting to know Steven and working with him and becoming his friend,” he says. “That’s all we ever talk about, the two of us, is music from the ‘60s.” Chase did use one Springsteen song on The Sopranos: “State Trooper” off of Nebraska.

Favorite lyric:

"The girls comb their hair in the rearview mirrors and the boys try to look so hard" in “Born to Run.” “I was in my late 20s by the time [I heard that for the first time], but that’s a picture of a corner in Caldwell, N.J,. to me,” he says.

Josh Lucas (actor in films like Ford v. Ferrari, Sweet Home Alabama)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run”:

It was at a 1984 concert on the “Born in the U.S.A.” tour. Lucas' dad was an emergency room doctor in Tacoma, Wash. at the time and got a call for a VIP patient. “He goes to this guy's hotel room and there was Bruce Springsteen,” Lucas recounts. “It was three in the afternoon, and he had a temperature of 104 or even 105. A very, very high temperature, he was very sick. Springsteen said to my dad, ‘I have a concert tonight at the Tacoma Dome and I can't not do it.’ My dad was like ‘Well, I'm sorry, you have to stay home, stay in that room, take care of yourself and rest.’” Of course, Springsteen didn’t follow medical advice and went on that evening, following the doctor’s orders to dunk his head in a bucket of ice water to keep his fever down. Not only that, but he sent Lucas’ family tickets. “I was a 13-year-old boy. So I got home from school and my dad was like ‘We're going to the Tacoma Dome to see Bruce Springsteen,’” Lucas remembers. “He played for almost four hours until 12:40 in the morning. He wasn't playing songs; they were these epic stories that were done musically. And I, as a boy, was one of the few people in the stadium who knew that man was super sick up there. From that moment on, I was the most massive Bruce Springsteen fan. I bought Springsteen t-shirts that night and I wore them to school almost every day.”

On what it means to him as an artist:

That first brush with Bruce has dictated Lucas’ work ethic his entire professional life. “Once I was opening Glass Menagerie on Broadway with Jessica Lange and I was very, very sick,” he says. “I had a temperature of 103. I didn't miss that performance. I was like ‘Bruce would do it.’”

On its enduring impact 45 years later:

“He's one of the most important literary forces in American history,” gushes Lucas. “It's so mind-blowingly hard to be relevant year-to-year, much less decade to decade and we look back on artists and there are only the handful in history that managed to do it. My sense is that Springsteen is somebody whose work will matter [when] an alien ship lands 400 years from now. It will be in the pantheon of Earth.”

Favorite lyric:

"A freight train running through the middle of your head" from “I’m on Fire” off Born in the U.S.A.  

Fin Costello/Redferns

Ben Mankiewicz (TCM host and journalist)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run”:

Mankiewicz was introduced to the Boss' music at the age of 8. “I didn't know who he was. I was not a hip kid,” he says, but “I got it and I loved ‘Born to Run,' the song. That's what stuck with me. It would've been the first song on the B side. That was the song that was playing on the radio so I just flipped it over, and I played that one and I didn't play anything else. It was the second album I owned and it stuck and it's why later Springsteen albums penetrated. Darkness on the Edge of Town got through because of 'Born to Run.'”

With the release of The River, in 1980, Mankiewicz became a Springsteen devotee, leading him to explore the other Born to Run tracks in depth. “That's when I realized how great ‘Backstreets’ was, and I loved ‘Night.’ And you argue with people when you're 13 years old about whether ‘Meeting Across the River’ is good, and if you were on the wrong side of that argument, the grown-up version of you now feels great shame.”

On what the record means to him:

“It reflects the beginning of what has been one of the most emotional, satisfying, and rewarding artistic relationships of my life,” Mankiewicz says. “I have no relationship with him but the relationship with that music means everything to me. It represents the times that I'm most emotional and the times I am most reflective, [the times] I feel the greatest love for the people who are important to me, the times that I am most thoughtful about the moments where I give in to my worst angels, to use the language that Bruce would use. It began the most important relationship with an artist that I've ever had and that I ever will have. It's still happening 45 years later and it's still the music that matters most to me. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel sad and joyful and thoughtful and connected. And all of that sometimes happens in the same song.”

On its enduring impact 45 years later:

“Rock and roll never dies,” he says. “It's satisfying to me on an artistic level because it was a guy who for the proceeding three to five years had been recognized as this major significant emerging and important talent. Then it's a guy who did it, who fulfilled that promise and he fulfilled the promise with diligence and hard work and competence."

Favorite Born to Run song:

It’s a tie between “Thunder Road” and “Backstreets.” “'Backstreets’ is my favorite song ever by anyone ever," Mankiewicz says. "It's the finest song ever constructed. But I sing to my daughter most nights, and I sing easily 90 percent Bruce. The song I sing the most by far is ‘Thunder Road.’ It’s the big winner.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

Mankiewicz was lucky enough to interview Springsteen for a special programming segment on Turner Classic Movies in 2019, but he still names the Wrecking Ball Tour of 2012 as his favorite experience. He was at the opening night of the tour in Atlanta with his wife for her first ever Springsteen show. “It was the first show without Clarence,” he remembers. “Just, the magic of that night and apprehension of what that was going to be without Clarence and the fact that I was with my wife for her first show. The experience with her, how it delivered for her. We saw that tour 10 times.”

“Interviewing him was great, but I was so nervous,” he adds. “We could become friends, but it still wouldn’t beat his show. When the Bulls won the NBA championship in 1978, I was 11 and I can’t imagine ever being happier. The only thing that eclipses it is a Springsteen show. It lasts. It's the day before and it's the day after. It's this feeling of emotional connection to the people around you and to yourself that I haven't found a way to replicate. It's the sense that we're in this together. If it weren't impossible right now, I'd be like, you know what would make people feel better? 50,000 of us packed into a Springsteen show.”

Newsweek

Peter Bogdanovich (director of Mask, The Last Picture Show)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run”:

Bogdanovich was at the lowest point in his life when he discovered Springsteen. His girlfriend and star of his next film They All Laughed Dorothy Stratton had been murdered by her husband in one of the most brutal and horrific crimes of the era. Bogdanovich says he was nothing short of despondent at the time, but his friends were desperate to get him out of his house. Actress Colleen Camp insisted he come with them to a Springsteen show. “I told her ‘I’m not going to go a rock concert.’ I'd never been to one,” he says. “She wouldn't stop pestering me, so I went. And I loved it. It was just great. It really picked me up. It made me cry, it made me laugh, it was wonderful. It was just what I needed. I got to meet him. One of the women in my picture, Joyce Hyzer, was going with Bruce at the time. So we went back and saw him. And we got along because it turns out Bruce was very influenced by [director] John Ford.”

On what the record means to him as an artist:

Bogdanovich was such a lover of Springsteen’s music, he wanted to use four of his songs in his 1985 film Mask about a real guy named Rocky who was himself a big fan of the Boss. Springsteen gave Bogdanovich permission to use anything he wanted except “Born to Run,” and he selected four songs including “Badlands” and “Thunder Road.” But in a story he also recounts on TCM podcast The Plot Thickens, while Bogdanovich was away on Christmas vacation, the studio replaced all of Springsteen’s songs with Bob Seger tracks. This led Bogdanovich to sue the studio, which damaged his career for a period of time. The story has a happy ending though: Bogdanovich remained friendly with Springsteen, so when he made a 2004 director’s cut of the movie, he was able to restore the original soundtrack.

Favorite Bruce Memory:

“The first time I went and saw him in the Meadowlands in New Jersey, I was blown away,” he says. “Then I saw him again out here in L.A. We’ve been friends over the years. We drift apart as everybody's playing around and things get crazy, but we talk occasionally.”

Favorite song:

“The Promised Land” off Darkness on the Edge of Town

Jimmy Fallon (host of The Tonight Show)

On the first time he heard “Born to Run”:

When Jimmy Fallon was growing up in upstate New York, his aunt would visit from Brooklyn every other weekend, bringing with her news of whatever was cool and happening. “Where I lived it was basically Little House on the Prairie. There’s not much going on,” he says. “I remember she had the album with her and that album cover is so cool: how it's just black and white, and he looked kind of scraggly. He had a guitar and he's leaning on Clarence and I go, ‘Who is Bruce Springsteen? What is that?’ She was like, ‘You must know who he is. I'm his biggest fan. Trust me, he is the tops. You have to know every word to ‘Thunder Road.’ I remember she would play it and she would just close her eyes and get into it.”

On its enduring impact 45 years later:

“Some artists don't need to have the hit song to have great songs. A lot of these weren't hits according to the Billboard charts, but if you go to a Bruce Springsteen concert, everyone will sing most of this album word for word if it comes on and know exactly what notes to hit,” Fallon says. “Like you get an emotional reaction when you hear the beginning of the song. It's just one of the greatest concert experiences ever. Obviously, I'm not the first person to say this, but I will keep spreading the good news. You leave feeling like a million bucks and you go what was that?! It's still the best performance you'll ever see.”

Favorite Born to Run song:

Fallon chooses “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” “It's just such a good groove and you got the horn section and it's just fun and you feel like you're at a block party.” He’s such a fan of the song that when Springsteen and the E Street Band came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon for the first time, he asked them to play it as part of their set. Springsteen assented, but his one request was that the audience come down from their seats to dance. “I look at my security guy and go, ‘Can we can we have everyone down?’ My security guy goes, ‘No, it's a fire hazard.’ So I go, ‘Can you forget that I ever asked you the question?’” Fallon recalls. “So when we did the show, Bruce goes,  ‘Come on down, come on down,’ and everyone illegally went, and we had a full-on dance party. It will never happen again because we got in trouble for it, but it was so fun. It was exactly what I thought it would be. I called this when I first heard [the song] at 10.”

Favorite Bruce memory:

For Fallon, his best memories are the two times Springsteen joined him on television to do comedic sketches. The first was a spoof on Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” where Fallon dressed as 1970s Neil Young and Springsteen dressed as the Born to Run-era version of himself.

Springsteen’s longtime manager John Landau surprised Fallon when he told him he thought Bruce would be up for a bit. Fallon devised this sketch riffing on a Neil Young impression he’d already been doing on the show. He recorded himself doing both Young and Springsteen’s parts on his phone and sent it off and Bruce was in. Springsteen even volunteered to bring his original sunglasses from the 1975 tour.

The magic came when they were prepping in the dressing room. “Bruce is dressed up as [1970s] him and he's just so iconic and he looks fantastic. He looks like he's the same age,” recalls Fallon. “We taped the beard on him and I can see the tape coming through the beard. Everything was pretty janky. He got the glasses on. I put the floppy hat on him. We’re sitting there laughing at the reflection in the mirror.”

Fallon then offered to help Springsteen put on a wig, and he resisted at first, but ultimately gave it a shot. “I'm not kidding, I'm dressed as Neil Young, putting a wig on Bruce Springsteen. [Giggles] It's the most surreal thing,” he says. “We get the floppy hat over the wig and he's got the glasses. And I'm telling you, it is Born to Run Bruce. It is the exact spitting image, like holy crap.”

They then went across the hall to show John Landau the end result, and it led to a moment that still gives Fallon goosebumps. “They just stared at each other like he was a space traveler from the past or something. They didn't say anything, and John kind of teared up a little bit. He goes, ‘It's just weird, Jimmy. It's just odd to see someone the way they were when you met them. I never ever thought I would see that again.’”

Fallon and Springsteen created another indelible memory when they reunited on The Tonight Show, to do a parody of “Born to Run” about Chris Christie and the notorious New Jersey #bridgegate. Fallon invited him back with an idea in mind, featuring both of them dressing as 1980s Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen. But when Springsteen showed up, he had brought his notebook with the new lyrics written out. “He basically wrote the parody,” Fallon says. “We gave a couple lines, but he wrote that. I'm not gonna give him notes, he’s Bruce Springsteen.”

Right before going on, Fallon tried to amp himself up to match Springsteen’s well-defined arms. “I'm in my dressing room about to go on and I was doing push-ups like crazy just to get my arms to look remotely muscular,” he recalls. “He was walking by and he's like, ‘Hey, no fair, you're cheating.’ So he came down and he did 20 push-ups next to me to gear up so that we both had some type of definition. He had it; I needed it.”

Favorite lyric:

"'Cause a record company Rosie/just gave me a big advance!" from “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” off The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. “You're like, 'Oh my God, he's gonna be Bruce Springsteen! This is a great story. He loved her and she believed in him no matter what.’ It's something that everyone screams at the top of their lungs. It's too much fun. I need a nap after this.”

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