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

The philosophy of an earring

Fashionable motivations: a dialogue set in ancient Greece

Lysistrata and Hippolytus sit at a small, wooden table outside a narrow café in Athens and chat while they wait for their friend, Philo.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical.

Hippolytus: You think it would look bad.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical because I want to know why.

Hippolytus: Why get an earring? Because I want one.

Lysistrata: If that were enough your ears would be sparkling already. Why the delay?

Hippolytus: No delay, I simply—

Lys: I call your bluff, Hippolytus.

Hipp: By Zeus, fine! I can’t find the Why and it’s killing me. Now, woman, what do you want from me?

Lys: Only to help you find your reason. We should have enough time to do that before Philo arrives.

Hipp (hesitantly): On the condition you don’t push your usual answer.

Lys: I promise to at least investigate the idea first. (Hippolytus frowns, then nods.) So: Is attention the reason?

Hipp: You think higher of me than that, don’t you?

Lys: Tell me honestly, then, that you have not pictured this scene: You enter a room, you feel yourself a new person, you smile at a colleague. He sees you, sees the earring and says, ‘Have I fallen from Olympus or is that Hippolytus? You look positively Spartan! Well done!’

Hipp: Perhaps the thought has breezed through.

Lys: And there is no shame in it. But, and please help me here, why is that reason insufficient? What will happen when all of Piraeus has seen you with your earring?

Hipp: They’d stop mentioning it.

Lys: Or if the majority of feedback you receive is negative—If even 51 of your 100 mates on the docks thought you better off without?

Hipp: It’s my decision, Lysistrata. For all I care, they can—

Lys: I aim merely to follow the logic. If positive attention or approval is your motivation, then a collective Nay from the good Athenian people should be reason enough to remove the earring. If you grant them the power to judge for you, you grant them the power to decide for you as well.

Hipp: And if I just want to see what they think of me? With a surprise you jar some honesty out of people. What do the good Athenian people think of their plain, safe, dependable Hippolytus? Sporting a new look, I could learn that from them…and I could learn something about myself, too.

Lys: That seems an abundance of work. Instead you might ask your friends for their opinions.

Hipp: Don’t be so pious and naïve, Lysistrata. For the sport of it we might play serious when given another’s decision to weigh as our own, but we never consider it with the sincerity of the decider himself. No, the best way to capture their honest opinion is by ambush.

Lys: I think you would find in your ambushes what you expect from them, what you project onto them beforehand. And when, later, you reach for the memories of their reactions, you will only have the feeling; you will lose their words, tone and expression; you will have made the memory beforehand because, initially, you were searching for something.

Hipp: What something?

Lys: You tell me—acceptance, attention, approval? I do wonder, though: why is the earring the trick? Why not a new dye in your robe, or a trim of the beard?

Hipp: Because I want the earring.

Lys: Then—

Hipp: Stop! You said you wouldn’t give your usual advice.

Lys: I am not there, not yet. We have work still to do. So, do you believe your argument so far? Is attention the reason?

Hipp (sighs): No, I don’t think it is. For better or for worse I’m not so shallow as that. Perhaps I laid the reason on the outside world because the inner world is more frightening. After all, why would I want an earring? I’m healthy, young, educated, employed; I understand intellectually that an earring’s meaning, apart from its pure aesthetic value, comes from culture. So why does the idea burn for long hours in my mind? Is it an evolutionary sense of beauty calling for fulfillment, or an attraction between my psyche and the cultural connotation of an earring? Are the mind and body the Gods have given me insufficient without being stuck with a metal thorn?

Lys (thinking, runs a hand through her hair): Remind me what you do down on the docks?

Hipp: I take the accounts for our olive exports to the Isles, you know that. What’s that to do with my dilemma?

Lys: Do you still play the lute?

Hipp: No, I don’t play nearly enough. Thank you for the reminder. Again, what’s this to do with—

Lys: I wonder if this earring idea is not a mistranslated message from the Muses. Perhaps your creative energy is looking for a way out.

Hipp: Are you implying that my creativity is like a boil that needs draining?

Lys: I would never offend the Muses with such a comparison. But maybe you might tighten and tune your strings, or spend a few afternoons with the potters…

Their third, Philo, rounds the corner at the head of the street and saunters toward their table outside the café. Lysistrata and Hippolytus rise and wave, Philo embraces them one by one and sits himself in the remaining wicker chair. Lysistrata and Hippolytus do the same.

Philo: So sorry I’m late, terribly sorry, deep in discussion and then lost in thought. All in a rush. Makes one takes a false turn in this city, you know.

Hipp: Worry not, Philo. We’re glad you found us.

Philo: Then by the Gods, my friends, what did I interrupt? Let us get back to it!

Lys (points to Hippolytus): This one wants an earring but knows not why.

Hipp (points to Lysistrata): This one is trying to talk me out of it!

Lys: I merely suggested that relearning some of the old hymns on his lute might be more productive than an earring and achieve the same results.

Philo: That result being?

Hipp: She thinks I’ve so denied the Muses’ call to action that they’ve resorted to demanding I materially alter my person in order to release my clogged-up creativity. But a few plucked strings and I’ll be back to normal—empty once again! And the idea of an earring will simply fade away.

Lys: It was one theory. What do you say, Philo?

Phil: I’m reminded of a jolly rich aunt of mine.

Hipp: Everything all right with her?

Phil: Stubbornly healthy. A singer, this aunt, and the owner of some of the finest robes I’ve ever seen. Magenta, the blue of Poseidon’s deep, Apollo’s sunny gold—take your pick, my friends. An astonishing collection of robes, astonishing. And what a voice! I cannot remember this aunt without hearing that surprising, stirring baritone, and I also cannot remember her without seeing a dazzling robe wrapped around her enduring figure. I wonder, friends: Are the lute-playing and the earring halves of an either-or?

Lys: We never said they were.

Phil: I mean, my friends, that the luxury of fashion might indeed be a mode of expression, but certainly it doesn’t consume all the air of the creative flame. How could it? A color, an earring—these are passive choices! One actively wears an earring—

Hipp: But one’s earring-wearing is no activity.

Phil: Yes! When my aunt sings, her whole being, her soul engages the task. The Muses flutter invisibly around her neck and shoulders and their together-made music booms jubilantly into the world. Of such expression a dyed robe or an earring is incapable, my friends. I claim the energies are of different class entirely; neither the robe nor the singing discounts the validity of the other.

Lys (to Hippolytus): You ought to just choose one way or the other; either get the earring, or do not. Only regret will come from too long a reflection before the decision. It is only an earring. What I would respect you for, Hippolytus—regardless of how you looked—would be the conviction with which you wore it. With that you convince the good people of Athens, myself included.

Hipp: Finally, out it comes! By Zeus, Lysistrata, always you call on your conviction and decision as though they can be summoned on a whim.

Phil: I agree, Lysistrata. If it were only an earring our Hippolytus wouldn’t spill so much wine over the matter. Clearly it is something more.

Lys: Perhaps I am impatient, but it is a decision, like everything else. What more is there? Reasons always pale to conviction in the moment one decides. Attention, aesthetics, expression—all motivations fade and blend into the lived experience of the decision. We can never truly remember the original Why; we retain only biased and frayed trimmings of that thread. (To Hippolytus) If you chose for the earring, wore it into the next harvest season, then decided it was not for you, should your new decision be made with last season’s information? Not at all! Your new decision should be made anew with new conviction.

Phil: By the Gods, Lysistrata, you may’ve struck the sequence of events, but I fear you miss too much in the process. (To Hippolytus) Would you like an earring?

Hipp: I believe so.

Phil: Can you be indifferent to the idea, my friend? Can you drop it from your thoughts as the overripe olive falls from the tree?

Lys: But no one is indifferent to the idea, Philo. I have opinions on earrings; that’s why I have them.

Phil: Ah, dear Lysistrata! Your indifference is disguised as the ease with which you made your decision. To easy choices we are all indifferent. Our Hippolytus’s difficulty lies in his uncertainty.

Hipp: The wavering has lasted quite a while.

Phil: For me, my friend, the word Wavering doesn’t quite fit. Let’s name it Negotiating. (Hippolytus and Lysistrata wrinkle their brows.) Yes, yes. Earlier we said fashion was a mode of expression; it is however a peculiar mode because, my friends, fashion’s highest goal is to express one’s identity. And while in music, poetry and drama, identity is ever present and inexorably expressed, it is rarely an artwork’s ultimate goal. Even as the teller of an epic describes his hero, the time and technique required to supply a description and realize an identity preclude the immediacy that fashion achieves. To wear an earring, dear friends, is to express one’s identity in real time to the world, under all the pressure of our conventions, culture and the human laws of attraction. So I find our Hippolytus’s hesitance an understandable inner negotiation over the answer to a crucial question: Does an earring bring him closer to or farther from his destination?

Hipp: And where would that be?

Phil: Yourself, of course! In this inner discussion you’ve vaguely recognized the spiritual pairing between what one wears and what one is.

Lys: But Philo, I thought you were anti-material! To claim the spirit can develop out of fashion is lazy, even vulgar. Not ten nights ago we were in agreement: she who has become herself can have everything taken from her and still have everything.

Phil: Surely! But let’s ask—why do they clothe the prisoners all in gray? (To Hippolytus) I support you in your negotiations with this decision. Either way, old friend, it is a stepping stone. And Lysistrata is right: when you make the decision, make it with the greatest conviction you can muster! And try to live detached from your reflection. If you discover that your earring edifies you, that you feel freer and truer without needing to say a word, then you’ll have progressed in your journey toward yourself, and all the anger, doubt and annoyance spurred by the initial glances and commentary will pale to the feeling flowing clean and bright inside of you as you walk through your day. And if not, perhaps the earring was a mirage, and you can leave it behind. But if it edifies you, if it edifies you!

Hipp: But how can I be sure?

Lys: Choose!

Featured photo by Ashithosh U from Pexels

The creation of J.M.W. Turner

Brush strokes, personal growth

Creation, self-actualization—for the Englishman and Romantic-era painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), these two tasks were one. Turner practiced a mode of expression true to his inner nature and purified by choice, and through his practice refined a style capable of realizing his singular perspective. More than the technical mastery of his medium, it is this commitment to himself and to his vision that makes Turner the ideal artist and a timeless model of self-development.

He recognized that between ourselves and honest living and expression stands a field of obstacles; art, as it is for many, served as compass and consolation while he navigated through. With each work in which he committed to himself, Turner practiced his honesty, rid himself of a fear, lie, envy, or nagging criticism, and enriched his knowledge of the forms and flows of his internal and the external world.

The result was a gradual purification. His field of obstacles thinned, and those that remained he embraced, either because he chose them, or because they were inherent to his craft. Always he needed to lay the right brush stroke, to mix pigments on a palette, to sketch despite a biting wind; but these challenges he loved, and he met them as one meets the few friends kept close at the end of a life long with noise. He opened himself to them, enjoyed their influence on him, stayed true to them, and thereby became and stayed true to himself. Turner’s development is this commitment, the repeated choice to pursue his own perspective and choose his own challenges.

Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Fishermen at Sea (1796, above) exemplifies Turner at an early stage along this journey. Already he has chiseled his talent into skill, identified the elements of English national myth, and equipped himself with the technical and storytelling lessons of his predecessors. In Fishermen he deploys this education with precision: the sea swells into white ridges lucid and crisp, the moon’s focused radiance casts the sailors as protagonists, and save for the sharply framed, orange lantern glowing aboard the central ship, Turner grounds his palette in the solemn emerald of midnight brine. Looking over the scene we shiver in the fishermen’s cold, dread the darkness into which the rightward boat fades, pray their flickering civilization lasts the night. Into this sympathy Turner delivers his simple yet stirring narrative: although home calls, duty remains; port, warmth, and safety must wait.

Fishermen’s emotional accessibility and technical grace earned Turner more than high praise. Three years later at age 24 he was admitted to Britain’s leading cultural institution, the Royal Academy of the Arts. With membership’s accompanying connections and funding, Turner traveled extensively and brought himself into conversation with a diversity of landscapes, cultures, and ideas. But despite the privileges he now had, he avoided the elitist air that often intoxicated his contemporaries and influenced their creative output. As a result, he could keep what he liked in Fishermen and move—stylistically and inwardly—further on.

Sunset in the Rockies exhibited c.1866 Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902

To demonstrate, let’s compare Turner’s Sun Setting Over a Lake (1840, below) with Albert Bierstadt’s Sunset in the Rockies (1866, above). Bierstadt, also a painter of landscape influenced by Romanticism, delivers a style reminiscent of Turner’s in Fishermen. He replicates the natural relationship between light’s source and its reflectors, his brushwork appears deliberate, and the scene glimmers with detail. Bierstadt may dramatize the warm glow of the canyon, but we can still step into it, skip an rock across the sunlit river, pick from a bush or tree a single leaf. With this realism Bierstadt, like Turner, mythologizes: Sunset in the Rockies preaches the glory of the American West in an accessible visual language, one which serves to ingrain or reinforce in its viewers the notion of America as beautiful, the Beautiful. It’s a language we naturally understand, whose precision we can admire, a language that perhaps convinces us to donate to the Sierra Club or rent a cabin in Colorado.

Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

Sun Setting over a Lake, however, urges a more intuitive interpretation. Turner has seen the embers behind the cold science of sight, and he reaches around the images born to our cameras and corneas to rip the smolder of fading daylight to the fore. Rather than inspecting Sun Setting or accepting the blurb from a tour guide, Turner asks us to stand before his fire until thought dims and feeling ignites, until the passing of time becomes visceral.

This revelation realism struggles to deliver. Conscious of its limitations, Turner chooses a less accurate, more honest mode. He balances his knowledge with his senses, wades through the noise of thought, brings that which was truest in him to the truth always latent in nature, and then deploys his medium to articulate it. The process is relational, an exchange: the scene flows from the external, meets Turner’s spirit in sincere conversation, and flows back out as an molten alloy of movement and light. The visual language realized, however imprecise, feels rawer, reaches deeper, and enables him to express his purest feelings in dialogue with the universe.

Painting this way Turner achieved originality, the reason his work broadened and enlightened Life. Perhaps we receive light less intensely than he did, miss the misty energies of the atmosphere; but because he painted, we can. Turner’s art enables us to see his insights, to wander in his worlds; it provides a space for our creativities to mingle with his and together imagine and build new roads in our minds. This is why we say great figures in history “pave the way.” Their achievements make possible the settling of a yet further stretch of experience, invent language for the indescribable, hang the lantern higher on our cave wall.

And when we name these figures leaders or heroes, we touch a strand of truth. Turner and every such individual, in their commitments to personal perspective and the discipline of their crafts, essentially win a victory for freedom: they articulate new ways of thinking and living, and new ways of thinking and living must be articulated before they can be thought or led. As if squeezing a key between B and C on the piano their original creations add notes to the manifold of existence, thereby creating greater freedom for us all.

Maybe, though, you feel indifferent to Turner’s perspective, unempowered by his originality, and unmoved by his art. That’s fine: there are other Turners. Instead of him, find your own, someone whose story of singularity reaches you, reveals better for you the meaning of development.

Or perhaps, correctly, you point to Mr. Turner’s privileges, to the lack of friction between his potential and its actualization, and say this lack renders him irrelevant to those who face injustices he never had to consider, who are persecuted for being, let alone becoming themselves. His superlative example of development nevertheless stands. It is in harmony with the task of removing these injustices, and it illuminates its ultimate goal: the undertaking of the challenges that remain after the unjust challenges are gone.

Because at its easiest becoming oneself still requires the responsibility of choice—in theory, in action, and in habit. Turner accepted this responsibility and tailored it to his talents and curiosities. He practiced the discipline to master his craft, engaged sincerely with all he sincerely wanted to engage in, and dropped (as much as he could) all the rest. He chose honesty over praise and singularity over conformity. At his core, he chose to choose.