Counting Down Bruce Springsteen: #2, “Jungleland”


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The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, but it should be  reserved for those things that truly deserve it. “Jungleland,” the closing track on Born to Run, is, without question, an epic. It’s long, but that’s not the reason it deserves the appellation.

It’s epic because it creates an entire world in a relatively short time, and yet it still leaves enough open space to fire the imagination. It’s epic in musical scope, an endlessly inventive arrangement that showcases every one of the members of the E Street band while also stressing their whole-is-better-than-the-parts aesthetic. Most of all, it’s an epic for its fearlessness, the way that Springsteen attempts something on such a grand scale and knocks it out of the park. That’s why, for such a long song, you still have the urge to cue it up again when it comes to an end.

Suki Lahav’s violin is the first thing you hear, quickly joined by Roy Bittan in a stately dance tinged with melancholy. The violin soon leaves town, leaving just Bittan and his scurrying runs. It’s not long before Bruce introduces his two protagonists, the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl.

We meet both through their automobiles, the Rat driving his “sleek machine” to a gang assembly, the girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge. Soon, without even a word passing between them, they are riding off together into a night bursting with an enticing mixture of possibility and danger.

Danny Federici now subtly sneaks in as it’s revealed that the Rat has a posse after him. His organ ironically thunders into prominence on the line “From the churches to the jails tonight all is silent in the world.” Up until that point, the song is a pure ballad, but that changes when Bruce sings the lines “As we take our stand / Down in Jungleland.” The E Street Band gets fully engaged, and the brilliant rhythm section of Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg propel the action into overdrive.

Meanwhile, Bruce’s lyrics get more streetwise poetic as the music gets tougher. Every image is vivid and powerful, allowing listeners a front- row seat to this world of alley ballets, turnpike operas, and a cop car that “rips this holy night.”

As the song progresses, Springsteen begins to draw parallels between the heightened fantasy world he has created and the fantasy world of rock and roll that he lives every day: “The hungry and the hunted / Explode into rock-and-roll bands.” Perhaps he realized that without his talent he could have been one of the charismatic, doomed young characters populating his songs. As if to punctuate this point, he lets loose a furious guitar solo heading into the bridge and the most iconic saxophone solo in rock history.

Springsteen reportedly drove Clarence Clemons to the brink of exhaustion trying to get the perfect feel for the solo, but it was all worth it. Beginning with a sustained note that’s like a clarion call for all wounded souls to rally, Clarence somehow manages to play with both force and restraint at the same time. Since Clemons’s passing, this solo is even more of a misty-eyed moment than it already was.

When the dust clears, just some sad piano chords remain and Springsteen’s voice is a wrecked shell of the powerful instrument it was in the previous parts of the song. He quietly takes us into a random bedroom and its “whispers of soft refusal and then surrender.” Yet a tender ending is not in the cards for our hero and heroine. “In the tunnels uptown / The Rat’s own dream guns him down,” Springsteen sings. What’s even more tragic is that no one in Jungleland seems to care, rendering the Rat, for all his charismatic bravado, just another victim, indistinguishable from the rest.

Bittan begins to play with unstoppable power now, and Springsteen laments the indifference of the scene: “And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all / They just stand back and let it all be.” What becomes of these wayward dreamers? “They wind up wounded, not even dead /Tonight in Jungleland.”

The music flares up one more time with Bittan’s fast-fingered trills and Tallent’s ominous bass notes, while Springsteen lets forth some guttural cries that seem to emanate from the spirits of every character in his pre-“Jungleland” repertoire. Perhaps he sensed that those fantastical folks that rumbled through his first three albums would no longer be such an integral part of his work. Thus he needed to give them the proper send-off with this stunning song.

And so, in those cries, you can hear Go-Cart Mozart’s insane ramblings, the ragamuffin gunner’s jaded fatalism, Crazy Janey’s healing sweet nothings, Zero and Blind Terry’s ghostly laughter, Madame Marie’s foreboding warnings, and Spanish Johnny’s tragically romantic serenade to Puerto Rican Jane. They’re all denizens of “Jungleland” in a way,so this is their opportunity to come out to join the Rat and the barefoot girl for one final bow before the curtain closes on both the song and the street anthems from which Springsteen would soon graduate.

Is that epic enough for you?

Read more excerpts from Counting Down Bruce Springsteen

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