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Jungleland - Bruce Springsteen





When Bruce Springsteen's album "Born to Run" was released way back in 1975, there was so much hype surrounding it, the heavy marketing by the label CBS and the effuse accolades from the US music press, that many of us in the UK turned up our noses at it. We thought that rock that needed that much publicity had lost its honesty and didn't have the quality to establish its own reputation. The more's the pity as this musical snobbery meant we missed the early excitement of one of the finest records of all time.


In a modern world where there are endless lists, two, where albums are concerned, are significant with regard to what appears on one and not the other. These are the best selling albums of all time, and the reputed best albums of all time, ie those acclaimed by critics. By and large, having over the years bought records that appear on both these lists, my experience is that those discs that I have listened to the most are those that feature on the latter. Which suggests that critics, at least where I'm concerned, tend to be proven right over time and over the public, subject as the latter are to marketing, trends and peer pressure.


Meatloaf's "Bat Out of Hell" is generally, depending on whose list you are looking at, in the top 30 bestsellers ever, even in the top 10 in some. The record that is universally credited as being its main influence and inspiration was Springsteen's "Born to Run". It's even been said that Meatloaf and Steinman based their whole musical careers on Side Two of "Born to Run".


Certainly, Side Two is one of the very best second sides of any album ever, so who can blame them? It also has two of the greatest song opening lines in all rock music, the first in the title track:


"In the day we sweat it out in the streets of a runaway American dream,

at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines...."


The second though starts the LP's final track, "Jungleland" which begins so well you just don't believe Springsteen can sustain it:


"The Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night

and the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line...."


but he does:


"Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain

the Rat pulls into town, rolls up his pants,

together they take a stab at romance

and disappear down Flamingo Lane...."


This isn't the hippy world of "Easy Rider", this is the tail-end of Kerouac's "On the Road", urban apocalyptic beat sensibility, a twisted nostalgia for a romanticised world of tragic dead-ends. Springsteen plugs into the legacy of New Yorker Shadow Morton's work with the Shangri-las (see previous posts https://www.unclestylus.com/single-post/2017/12/21/girl-groups-weeks-no-5-the-shangri-las , https://www.unclestylus.com/single-post/2019/01/16/the-train-from-kansas-city-the-shangri-las ) in the form of rock mini-operas as well as the "wall of sound" production techniques of Phil Spector to produce an epic of Big Apple lowlife.


From the sedate nobility of Suki Lahav's violin intro, through the song's defining riff first iterated by Roy Bittan's

unmistakeable piano, there is a Homeric intensity and poetry to the action. Just as James Joyce deliberately evokes the Odyssey to describe an ordinary day in Dublin, so too does Springsteen consciously reference noble tragic precedents in the New York suburbs:


"man, there's an opera out on the Turnpike

there's a ballet being fought out in the alley...."


The song works itself to a frenzy paralleling the riotous gangland confrontations with the authorities and one another until the night falls apart to the heroic tones of what has been serially described as saxophonist Clarence Clemons' best solo ever, leaving us with the empty hopelessness of dingy realism:


"Beneath the city, two hearts beat, soul engines running through a night so tender in a bedroom locked in whispers of soft refusal and then surrender.

In the tunnels uptown, the Rat's own dream guns him down as shots echo down them hallways in the night; no one watches when the ambulance pulls away or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light...."


The end is pure beat, redolent with a doomed romanticism, where the debacle is so debilitating that "the poets down here don't write nothing at all", where


"outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz between what's flesh and what's fantasy and the poets down here don't write nothing at all they just stand back and let it all be and in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment and try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead tonight in Jungleland."


In Rolling Stone magazine's 2020 list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" "Born to Run" came in at number 21, "Bat Out of Hell" at number 343. After "Jungleland" Springsteen realised he couldn't do any better in that operatic musical style, so he moved on to the more laid back "Darkness on the Edge of Town"(1978) and more reflective "The River" (1980).


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