Best Song Ever: Jungleland
Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run turned 43 years old last week. I was in high school when I first listened to Born to Run in its entirety. The album completely changed my world, and the ending track, "Jungleland" solidified my new perspective.
This is a little essay I wrote when I was seventeen, and it still rings true. At the time when I wrote it, I was just certain that "Jungleland" was the best song ever. Looking back on it, I wasn't aware how the song taught me not only appreciate a work of art but what it feels like to be truly immersed in it.
I don't want to talk too much, so let's go back in time now...
Songs about small, desperate lives and life on the streets of New Jersey are key ingredients for a satisfying Springsteen song. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's most enduring album is filled with these themes. So what makes the album’s ending track, “Jungleland” so special?
Despite being almost ten minutes long and on top of fans playlists, here are some components of “Jungleland” and how it not only defines rock ‘n’ roll but is arguably the best song Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have ever conceived:
THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ORCHESTRA
The song begins with Suki Lahav’s searching violin, immediately followed by Roy Bittan’s piano that brings what you’re looking for. This sets the tone for the rock ‘n’ roll orchestra that’s about to arrive. “Jungleland” brilliantly showcases every member of the E Street Band while fearlessly maintaining a common sound.
After the violin exits, Bittan’s piano plays a lasting introduction, leaving you thinking “I know where I’ll be for the next nine minutes and thirty-three seconds; another dimension, planet, someplace where time stops and you can experience a million emotions at once,” which is absolutely no exaggeration.
The cinematic imagery in “Jungleland” is one that bends time. The moment you fall in love is the moment your heart begins to break, but then a light shines through the pieces, as Springsteen introduces his two protagonists, the Magic Rat, and the barefoot girl. Springsteen’s piercing voice is a powerful instrument as well.
IT CREATES AN ENTIRE WORLD IN A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME
The tale of outlaw love gone wrong begins the moment the Magic Rat drives his “sleek machine” to a gang assembly. Meanwhile, the barefoot girl sits on the hood of a Dodge as a portrait of carefreeness, but need. Without a word spoken, the two are riding off into the night with a mixture of possibility and danger in the air. Springsteen describes a world of romance and action using a series of abstract images that are more than inviting.
“Jungleland” is filled with impossible dares, and that’s why it seems so realistic. We know the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl are doomed the moment they “disappeared down Flamingo Lane,” but their hope is so real it's contagious. Springsteen speaks of a faith that can never truly be attained but might momentarily feel real if you wildly pursued it.
THE RELIGIOUS CALL
Danny Federici sneaks in with his thundering organ as Springsteen declares “from the churches to the jails, tonight all is silent in the world.” What started out as a pure ballad turns into a spiritual awakening that could be replicated out of a hymn. If you’ve never been baptized, this is what it feels like. “Jungleland” carries the kind of magnificence you’ve only felt once in your life, and luckily you’ll get to experience it again as if it were the first time.
The transcendence truly begins as the rest of the E Street Band gets engaged. This proves the instrumental components of “Jungleland” are just as effective as Springsteen’s storytelling. Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg’s rhythm section places your soul back into your body.
Let the sermon begin.
Probably a major factor on why Springsteen is so relatable. He’s inclusive. He wants you to witness this adventure, in fact; he wants you to be a part of it. Springsteen draws you in and denies you to an anonymous existence. “As we take our stand,” there’s no escape now; you’re in this too. “Down in Jungleland” marks the battle-cry, the prologue, the perfect declaration of forced audience participation. Springsteen’s saying “you’re not alone, let’s face this world together” without really saying it. You might be a night clerk somewhere in North Dakota or some housewife to a mechanic, but right now, you’re sweating it out on the streets of New Jersey.
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL SAXOPHONE
No one has defined it better than the late Clarence “Big Man” Clemons. Even if you don’t particularly prefer the sound of the saxophone, you have to admit “Jungleland” includes one of the most audacious sax solos ever.
Like a clear call for all wounded souls to rally, Clemons’ solo is the turning point of “Jungleland.” Breaking all the walls down and cautiously rebuilding them, Clemons plays with force and restraint simultaneously. The solo spans for two minutes and is vital to the song’s story. Clemons coaxes gracefulness and poetry from one of the most powerful instruments known to man, a talent that should not be overlooked.
As for on the stage, “Jungleland” has become an even more misty-eyed song for the E Street Band since Clemons’ passing in 2011. Springsteen didn’t play the song live for over a year, and when “Jungleland” was finally unearthed again, Clemons' nephew and replacement in the E Street Band, Jake Clemons played the famous saxophone solo. “That song was his,” says Jake, “If you said ‘Clarence Clemons’ to most people, they'd think of Jungleland.”
Although the “Big Man” is gone, he will not be forgotten. His pivotal contribution in rock ‘n’ roll history as one of the most distinguished saxophone players was so grand, that like rock 'n' roll itself, will never die.
THE DEFINITION OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
At the song's finale, just as the sun sets on the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl, the music flares up one last time, giving the sense the bad guys in “Jungleland” won, until Springsteen lets out his final guttural cry. The scream embodies the exhaustion and pain of living in this world and is inseparably a defiant declare there’s still hope over the horizon. Although the spoken words in “Jungleland” are over, Springsteen’s lamenting bellow closes the curtain on the street anthem and gives his characters their proper send-off.
With the rock ‘n’ roll orchestra, cinematic imagery and poetry ahead of its time, “Jungleland” still manages to leave enough space to fuel the imagination. If the world unfolded in ten minutes and appeared before your very eyes (well, in this case, ears) “Jungleland” would be it.
Passion, love, unity, hope, despair, rejuvenation and desolation: If these themes don’t reflect rock ‘n’ roll, you may need to rethink your definition of it. “Jungleland” captures the essence of those themes in their entirety.
If you’re still unconvinced, you at least have to admit that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band attempted something on such a grand scale, and devoted their whole selves to create a world that seems so vivid and real.