Jungleland is the eighth and final track on Bruce Springsteen‘s legendary album Born To Run (1975). Without prejudice to everyone’s personal musical tastes, Jungleland is probably, in technical-musical terms, the most valuable song of the entire Springsteen‘s discography. This masterpiece of music and literature, which also stands out for being one of the Bruce‘s longest songs, is technically a suite, i.e. a song that includes different parts with different changes of rhythm and different musical themes. The long saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons in particular made music history. Jungleland carries lyrics that resemble a movie, even if the plot takes place in just one night, with the story of a new unfortunate loser of the alleys, Magic Rat, within an epic night on the streets of New Jersey.
NEW SPRINGSTEEN HEROES
Jungleland tells a slum desperate love story that ends in an asphalt jungle. The song is therefore the completion of a group of four songs, all characterized by a considerable length, which sing of the anguished and romantic love of almost mythological figures who emerge from the smoking manholes of the alleys. To the events of Catlong and Kitty in Kitty’s Back, of Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane in Incident On 57th Street and of Billy and Diamond Jackie in New York City Serenade is now added the desperate story of Magic Rat and an unnamed barefoot girl. However, while the first three stories are set in the backstreets of New York, the story of Jungleland, although starting from Harlem, then moves to New Jersey, more precisely between Asbury Park and the New Jersey Turnpike.
THE ASPHALT JUNGLE
In the first part of the song, the narrator, not only an observer but also an active subject in the nocturnal babel (“as we take our stand down in the jungleland”), presents the scene. While Magic Rat and the barefoot girl hide to cradle their dream of love, chased by the police, several other characters give life to the great nocturnal opera, in which everybody is ready to pay his debts with fate and justice. Springsteen shows us the scene, as only a great storyteller can do. The town, with its boulevards and secondary streets, looks like a swarm of kids looking for their place in the night. In the dark alleys, the boys seal forbidden contacts that remain out of reach of the police, who roams the jungle with blaring sirens in an attempt to stop battles between gangs and illicit trafficking.
MUSIC IS AT THE CENTER
In this background it is really interesting how Springsteen inserts the music, as if to give it a universal value that opposes or even replaces violence. There is a lot of music in Jungleland. Not only because in the alleys of the town (which is Asbury Park: it can be understood from the reference to the giant Exxon sign) the girls dance wildly to the music played by DJs, but above all because the streets resonate with rock’n’roll. Springsteen turns gangs into bands, while the kids flash guitars just like switchblades, hustling for the record machine. The battle is therefore not fought (or at least not only) with knives and blood, but with guitar solos and in the race to grab the amplifiers (i.e. a role on stage). Rock’n’roll is played by the hungry (the broke Springsteen himself at the time) and the haunted (as, for example, Danny Federici often was at the time).
MAGIC RAT PAYS THE HIGHEST PRICE
In a night populated by crazy fashionable visionaries and desperate lovers, at some point Magic Rat gets the worst of it. In the sweet and sad part that follows the long saxophone solo we find the protagonist and the barefoot girl (“beneath the city two hearts beat”). His advances are first rejected by the girl, but she finally gives in. But then shots are heard that echo in the night, there is an ambulance that takes the boy away, while the girl turns off the bedroom lights. Still an accomplished writer and director, Springsteen doesn’t tell us who killed the Magic Rat. It could have been the police, as well as an adverse gang. It may have been, although it is unlikely, the same girl. Bruce only tells us that it was Rat’s own dream that guns him down, giving fertile ground to our imagination for a plausible interpretation.
SPRINGSTEEN IS ALSO ON SCENE
In this night of music and blood (“between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy”), while the drama of Magic Rat unfolds, the town is set on fire in a death waltz, sings Springsteen. The protagonists pay for the pursuit of their dreams with blood, while others remain helpless spectators. Springsteen tells us about poets who write nothing and let everything happen, except that they too are injured while trying to play their part. In this way Bruce opens up another dilemma for us: who are these poets? My personal reading is that they are those who in various forms will sing or write about these epic events. Among them could be Springsteen himself, who takes part in the night in the jungleland and, in singing of the tragic deeds of Magic Rat and other nocturnal heroes, is wounded, at least in his soul.
On the musical side Jungleland is divided into at least five parts that accompany the meaning and narrative timing of the story with great correspondence. The first part is a musical intro of piano (Roy Bittan) and violin (Suki Lahav), which is as deceptive as the calm before the storm. The second part carries out the main theme: at first it’s all based on Bittan‘s fast fingers, then, from the third verse, the whole E Street Band takes over. This long central part concludes with the section after the guitar solo, which abandons the main musical theme. Then, as unexpected as it is wonderful, comes the long saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons. Despite being only a instrumental part, it is so beautiful and ecstatic that it renders speechless that ardent but unhappy romanticism that grips the two protagonists in their love battle. Then comes a fourth part which, while maintaining the harmony of the solo, returns to being based on piano and organ and sadly describes the epilogue of the story (and life) of Magic Rat. The fifth and final part is represented by the grand finale: while everyone comes to terms with the consequences of their actions, the E Street Band performs a sort of musical miracle. A dramatic and crescendo exit in which the band, first of all the incredible performance of Roy Bittan on the piano, accompanies Springsteen‘s heartbreaking screams that close the song.
IT DESERVED MUCH MORE
Despite it being one of the high points of his career, Springsteen gave Jungleland far less space than it deserved. The song disappeared from concert setlists for a long time, starting in 1984, and was excluded from the track list of 40 songs that made up the Live 1975/’85 box set. The disappointment that this choice generated among fans and critics was followed years later by what many expressed (including Clarence Clemons) for the exclusion of Jungleland from the Greatest Hits album (1995). Luckily the song found space from the Reunion Tour onwards and was released in a memorable version on the Live In New York City (2001) album, recorded at the Madison Square Garden. This solemn version, slower than the original, further enhances the performance of the band, in particular of Roy Bittan on piano, Clarence Clemons on saxophone and Springsteen himself on vocals.
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