How Bruce Springsteen inhabits a song

Jungleland wasn’t built in a day

Though in a sense every song that is released is complete, Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” fulfills the deepest meaning of the word. From January 1974 to July 1975 Springsteen gradually chiseled the true character of the track out of its possibilities. He revised lyrics, rearranged movements, cut and added instruments and refined the track’s evolving compositions in rehearsals, recordings and performances with the E Street Band. The reward was a complete song, a “Jungleland” in thematic harmony with its album and with itself.

To achieve this they had to compose music true to Springsteen’s lyrics and the story and world within them. He tells of the Magic Rat, an army ranger who returns from Vietnam to a “homecoming in Harlem,” heads to New Jersey and picks up a “barefoot girl” for a “stab at romance.” They journey through a rock and roll underworld, encountering kids who “flash guitars…like switchblades” and bands that “face off…in the street.” The couple’s night ends in a “bedroom locked,” and the Rat then returns to the hustle of the city, where he is shot and wounded by his “own dream.” In the last verse Springsteen deplores the story’s circumstances and aftermath, and the curtain falls. It is a dark tale, and to realize its potential Springsteen needed its musical complement.

In a July 1974 recording we hear the process of their search. A glittering keyboard guides the Rat into Jersey, and a four-on-the-floor drumbeat and springing saxophone mark the couple’s arrival in Jungleland. After four verses Springsteen cedes to a joyous jam-session of guitar, saxophone and organ, which retreats behind a screeching guitar solo and then returns as a swinging jazz movement. Before the song’s fifth verse this fades; the keyboard accompanies Springsteen for a short-lived moment of reflection that vanishes into a bright burst of saxophone. A few more verses skip atop an upbeat rock movement, and then amid sweet saxophone and the glittering keyboard the song dissipates. The last we hear from Springsteen is a whistle farewell.

Although this rendition slaps, it is tinged with dissonance and squanders the thematic potential of the lyrics. The guitar solo, which alone speaks to the Rat’s desperation, clashes with the rock and jazz movements on either side of it. And the verses that describe the Rat’s fate and Jungleland’s failings—the verses that should form the song’s climax—forfeit their potential magnitude: they have only a twinkling keyboard as accompaniment, Springsteen sings them without much intensity and, because they do not conclude the song, they deliver no resolution.

Overall the sound is reminiscent of Springsteen’s earlier work, notably “Rosalita” and “Spirit in the Night.” Both also tell of couples on midnight missions in unfriendly worlds but remain playful via shuffling drum rhythms, swinging saxophone harmonies and Springsteen’s voice, which at times borders on goofy. The “Jungleland” of July 1974 feels like a tentative step away from this style. Springsteen was experimenting, mixing new and darker themes with old sounds and struggling to achieve unity.

To get there he reworked almost the entirety of the track. For the final cut Suki Lahav contributes her violin to the previously keyboard-only intro, clarifying the song’s storybook identity: we hear, clearly now, Once upon a time in Jungleland. Soft background strings follow and lift the curtains on the Rat as he returns from war, rides to Jersey and meets the barefoot girl. Upon their arrival in the city a guitar strikes; power chords flash like faulty streetlights and expose the “opera out on the turnpike” and the “ballet being fought…in the alley.” The ensuing rock movement expresses a musical montage of scenes from Jungleland.

The Rat, absent from these scenes’ lyrics, blends into the nightlife. As in the 1974 rendition Springsteen then spotlights a guitar solo; instead of sorrow, however, it rings here of action, of cash swept off a backroom table, an ignited engine and a lovers’ hand-in-hand dash from one midnight thrill to another. The solo coheres with the musical and lyrical narrative and disappears organically into the next verses, in which the “lonely-hearted lovers” flee Jungleland’s clubs and streets. When Springsteen declares “they’re gone,” the rock movement vanishes with them.

Bright and sudden as a lighthouse Clarence Clemons takes over. His saxophone solo, supported by cymbals and a cycle of octaves on the keyboard, flies the Rat and the barefoot girl from the city to the shore. The mood momentarily swells with hope and freedom, but at the song’s halfway mark the Rat’s respite peaks; as if hooked by the return of a four-count drumbeat, the hitherto pure notes of Clemons’ solo intensify into cries of resistance against the hook of circumstance, which reels the Rat back to Jungleland. Clemons finishes his solo with renewed clarity, but it fades into a haunting organ, and keyboard chords struck in a stumbling rhythm evoke leaden drunken footsteps.

Listeners, until now regaled by the Rat’s odyssey and slash-and-dash world, must in Springsteen’s final verses confront the chasm between “flesh and…fantasy.” The Rat is gunned down not in pursuit of his dream; he is gunned down by his dream. “No one watches…the ambulance pull away,” and in response the poets of Jungleland silently “stand back and let it all be,” choosing instead in the “quick of the night” to “try to make an honest stand.” Ultimately, however, they lose their race for meaning or martyrdom: the Rat and those like him “wind up wounded / not even dead.”

In the end we are delivered musical and plot resolution but no salvation. The lyrics ride a wave of keyboard, organ and strings that crests and falls, and Springsteen succeeds his last line with a thunder of howls that fuse character to setting: the Rat’s story represents, is Jungleland; and Springsteen’s screams toll the bell for both of their hopes. Finally the racing piano outlasts his breath, and an organ chord like the lingering glint of lightning fades to black.

Inhabiting Jungleland

The track’s 19 month evolution demonstrates one of Springsteen’s musical maxims. To be a “believable and convincing” singer, he says, one must “inhabit [their] song.” For him this practice, more than a naturally powerful voice, leads to greatness. Singing is storytelling, and “if you can inhabit your song, you can communicate.”

The lack of harmony in the 1974 recording reveals the labors of this inhabitation process. In that July Springsteen had yet to recognize that the Rat’s story and world were grittier than his style afforded. A Jungleland of swing or jazz was untrue, and a Rat whose soundtrack ignored his fate was a phony, a cartoon. To intimate them truthfully within the confines of a single song, Springsteen still needed to chart their emotional topographies, to know them beyond what he would or could ever tell us in lyric.

He and the E Street Band used their year of editing for this purpose. They discarded false arrangements and summoned the courage to axe what they had spent months mastering in order to compose and tweak movements that better realized the “Jungleland” idea. Even in the last three days of recording Springsteen and Clemons held a sixteen hour studio session in which, according to Springsteen, they workshopped the saxophone solo “phrase by phrase.” (“‘All we could do was…smoke a lot of pot and try to stay calm,’ said Clemons.”) Sonic congruence between every note on every instrument and thematic cohesion between the soul and sound of the song—that was the endgame of their inhabitation, their definition of complete, and they struck it.

Record making

Without this inhabited “Jungleland,” Born to Run would be incomplete. It punctuates the album’s conversation. On “Thunder Road,” for example, Springsteen asks us to “show a little faith there’s magic in the night,” but in the “hallways in the night” the Rat is gunned down by his faith in a dream. And if on “Born to Run” dreams of escape from a “death trap…suicide wrap” hometown are fueled by a cheering glockenspiel and thrumming bass, the illusion of such a flight shatters with the screaming tail of Clemons’ saxophone solo, during which the Rat’s falls back to his city and his fate. As Born to Run’s last track and emotional exclamation point,“Jungleland” has the last word over the songs before it.

Is the hope burning throughout the record for nothing, then? No. Born to Run explores the yin and yang nature of hope and despair. For Springsteen each exists within and follows the other; i.e. we could say despair pushes one to skip town, and we could say hope is the beacon one follows out. The harmony “Jungleland” brings to Born to Run is then not in despair’s annihilation of hope, but in its encapsulation of their interconnectedness.

Springsteen’s final, self-proclaimed “knife-in-the-back wail” is the cradle of this paradox. It is the sound of a failed audition, a busted engine and a broken heart, and in that way it relieves Born to Run’s dreamers—and us—of a part of our pain. Our hopes may crumble under merciless circumstances, and in the ruins we may despair; but when we hear Springsteen’s howls we need not feel alone, because in them we can hear ourselves. In his emotion we might discover that apathy is the negation of hope, not despair; and from the solace of our feeling we might chance a look up.

Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels

Author: mjfleck7

Living and working in Heidelberg, Germany. Interests in shifting societal narratives, understanding, employing, and deploying art, reciprocity with the natural world, and Calvin and Hobbes. Running and folk music are good, too.

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