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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Springsteen's Jungleland: A Lyrical Interpretation

By Matt Anderson

DreamChaser Digest

Spring of Springsteen: A 2012 DreamChaser Special Edition



Bruce Springsteen, Lyrics, Jungleland,” Born To Run, Song Meaning; Analysis:

The rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night
And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line
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

Well the Maximum Lawman run down Flamingo chasing the Rat and the barefoot girl

And the kids round here look just like shadows always quiet, holding hands
From the churches to the jails tonight all is silence in the world
As we take our stand down in Jungleland

These two verses introduce the ballad section of the ballad/portrait hybrid Springsteen delivers in "Jungleland." Here, Bruce mentions the rangers, the Magic Rat, the barefoot girl and the Maximum Lawman. As for the first of these, I'm inclined to believe Springsteen did not randomly choose the word rangers. Not his style. I think he wanted us to known that by rangers he meant warriors, and by any dictionary definition of the word, rangers are most often considered soldiers trained in the guerrilla stylethe most vicious, cunning, deceptive and personal (hand-to-hand) method of warfarealmost always conducted in jungle terrain.

You may think jungle terrain too obvious or literal for "Jungleland," but Springsteen didn't ostensibly write, warriors in the jungle returned home. He told us instead, the rangers had a homecoming in Harlem, and some of the most gruesome guerrilla warfare ever executed by mankind was still transpiring in the Vietnam War. The war raged on while Springsteen wrote and played "Jungleland" live between 1973 and 1975, and it would end on April 30th, 1975, incidentally only four months before Bruce and The E Street Band finished production on Born To Run. Battle-tested soldiers returned home daily, throughout the final year of Vietnam. 

To think that the war Springsteen avoided decisively, as he intimated to Rolling Stone in an early 1984 interview, wasn't on his mind during his composition and recording of Born To Run is as inconceivable as it is foolish. While riding in a bus on the way to his induction physical, Bruce recalled for Rolling Stone, I thought one thing: I ain't goin. 

By pretending to be insane, because of a concussion, or on account of an ankle injurychoose your unconfirmed taleSpringsteen exited his physical knowing he would not be drafted for war. Springsteen doesn't address Vietnam directly, but the idea that it made some conscious or subconscious entry into Born To Run's text, considering that Springsteen wrote the entire album during the hell-on-Earth War's final stages, is no illogical leap.

The rangers line, in my mind, could be interpreted two ways. The first is the one I'm inclined to believe. This considers that the Magic Rat and several of his friends, all returning home from war, were meeting in New York City to celebrate their homecoming. Then, at some point in the evening, the Rat left the get-together after making a short appearance because he wanted to celebrate with the Jersey girl he left behind years before, the day he left for boot camp. The Magic Rat's love is a Barefoot girl,” likely because she's been walking around on Jersey Shore sand all day the summer sun, and thus, she's Drinking warm beer. 

Like "Thunder Road's" Mary, "Jungleland's" barefoot girl refers universally to any female everywhere. Bruce tells us she's sitting on the hood of a Dodge, a classically American-made car. This is an indication that what he intends to convey is an American ballad/portrait, but the universality of this situation, the development of which is a rich example of Bruce's keenest lyrical sensibility, makes this song; its themes and its situations applicable to the planet.

The other interpretive possibility is that the Magic Rat and his friends either already returned from Vietnam or never went and were all playing together in a band or bands at a gig that night in Harlem. This idea stems from the grander concept that this track is about a talented singer-songwriter-musician (Magic) from small-town Jersey (Rat,” in the romantic sense) who's struggling with the transition to stardom and dream-pursuit in the big city, away from everyone and everything he left behind at home. 

Even though Harlem isn't far from coastal New Jersey, only about 66 miles, or a Mapquest-estimated, hour and a half via Jersey's Garden State Parkway, the decision to leave all his comforts, obligations and relationships to make a career in the music industry, considering the songwriter, definitely involved some exhaustive soul searching. This 2nd possible interpretation posits that on "Jungleland's" fateful night the Magic Rat is having homesick second thoughts about stardom and thinking, if he can't have both, that his Jersey-girl love may mean more to him than making it in music.

Either way, the Magic Rat attended the homecoming or gig but left and drive over the Jersey state line, to meet his girl. In context of the balance of this track, meeting the barefoot girl must've been extremely important to justify leaving a Harlem homecoming with the rangers, which leads to the conclusion that the Rat hadn't seen his girl for years. The idea that the Rat was meeting barefoot girl in coastal Jersey is not only confirmed by the lyric, over the Jersey state line, but also the mention of Flamingo Lane, which is much more likely to be located on the Jersey Shore than on the streets of New York City. Concordantly, the idea that the Rat, roll[ed] up his pants when he reached town suggests he was preparing to walk on the beach or on sandy, seaside boardwalks and paths.

The Maximum Lawman most likely refers to the force of time or distance or fate, or to some combination. This character is the closest to God that we see in Born To Run, and the idea that the Rat and his girl are doing something illegal, a popular interpretation, is forclosed by the idea that the Lawman is running down the street after them. A policeman would likely be in a vehicle or on a bike. A gang-member, for those who would see the Rat as a rival gang member heading across town to steal another gang member's girl, would not have received such a grandiose handle as Maximum Lawman, and neither would a local policeman for that matter, not from a poet of Bruce Springsteen's expansive vision. 

The sense in these first two verses is that the two lovers, Rat and his girl, are giving love another shot, tak[ing] a stab at romance, running off together to make love in a bedroom locked/ In whispers of soft refusal and then surrender. My feeling is that time has run out for these two and that either time or fate is chasing after the Rat while he's with his girl, letting him know that this relationship is over or that his life is leading him in directions away from the hometown Jersey of faded dreams, and into the lights and fury of  NYC, where grand dreams have a chance to come true.

Bruce Springsteen, Running Dream Highway, Circa, 1978; Image Courtesy: The Bruce Springsteen Archives

Springsteen gives us the sense that everything else in the world has stopped, while the Rat and his girl negotiate their romantic encounter, figuring out if they still have enough love or time to make it work. We learn later that they don't, when the figurative ambulance whisks the Rat away from his barefoot girl. But for a while, From the churches to the jails tonight all is silence in the world. The Rat and his girl have enough timethere is even a sense that time is standing still, silent for one momentous meetingso that they can take one more shot at real love and true romance, one more stand together, down in Jungleland.

This is the Jersey Shore Jungleland, one direction of the crossroads in Rat's life, which is easily a metaphor for everyone's lifereach for the dream or let it fade because of obligations, limitations, weaknesses, fears or an infinite list of other barriers. The lyric, And the kids round here look just like shadows always quiet, holding hands, suggests the youth of this place, at a time in their lives when they must make the crucial decision to fight for their dream or simply to rest quietly, overwhelmed by their obstacles, holding hands in comfort. For a wide variety of reasons, over some of which they may have no control, these young men and women of promise simply allow their dreams to fade, in the wake of choosing a popular path, one whose fair passage they perceive is more realistically attainable.

Springsteen, like many soulful artists, posits that everyone has a dream. The place where every man and woman faces down the barriers to achieving the dreamthese demonsis their own personal "Jungleland." Again, we need to realize that Springsteen writes for the whole of man, not a single faction, locale or group. "Jungleland," like all of Born To Run, is universally applicable and, likewise, universally appealing. 

To suggest that this relatability is not part of Springsteen's artistic vision, either subconsciously, or more likely, consciously, is to foolishly underestimate his gifts; his talent; his vast awareness and, at only 24, his enlightened, insightful-beyond-his-years conception of the world and what inspires it.

The midnight gang's assembled and picked a rendezvous for the night
They'll meet 'neath that giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light
Man there's an opera out on the Turnpike
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley
Until the local cops, Cherry Tops, rips this holy night
The street's alive as secret debts are paid
Contacts made, they vanished unseen
Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades hustling for the record machine
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock'n'roll bands
That face off against each other out in the street down in Jungleland

In the parking lot the visionaries dress in the latest rage
Inside the backstreet girls are dancing to the records that the D.J. plays
Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners
Desperate as the night moves on, just a look and a whisper, and they're gone

These verses compose the first glimpses of the portrait section of "Jungleland." Here, Springsteen gives us a wide-ranging view of the city landscape in all directions. He is also telling us that, in Bruce's vision, potential for art lives in every corner of his realist-fantasy, city world. This is another "Jungleland," different from the Jersey Shore "Jungleland" of the Rat and his girl, and, likely, different from the "Jungleland" of the rangers in Harlem. 

Springsteen's image is the city, probably not NYC because of Bruce's lyric, there's an opera out on the Turnpike, which most likely refers to the Jersey Turnpike. The line, The midnight gang's assembled and picked a rendezvous for the night, applies not to a single street gang, but to everyone who's alive, awake and looking for romantic passage at midnight on a soft, sweet, weekend, summer night.

There is art, romance, possibility and action everywhere in this city. The Turnpike opera suggests that vehicles rushing in all directions are composing, playing and singing the night music to their own dramatic designs all over the city. The ballet being fought in the alley may be the most definitive image of an actual downtown gang's inclusion in the song, or it may just suggest the possibility of alley-borne club and bar fights all over the city. These are confrontations whose rhythms take the form of a dance, with the onlookers posing as audience members of an artistic exhibition. The idea that this midnight gang meets beneath the giant Exxon sign suggests that everyone's filling their carsan important Springsteen symbol and thematic characterand preparing for an evening somewhere on the town, with an agenda of infinite possibility.

Springsteen's vision of youthful city life is not unrestrained. He tells us the local cops are all around, responding to situations like the alley ballets. Conversely, Bruce explains there's plenty of illicit activity happening as wellafter all, this is a realistic romantic view of city life in the context of Springsteen's larger-than-life fantasy-drama. Secret debts are paid, and Contacts made, they vanished unseen, likely refer to prostitution and drug-peddling, or at least something not exactly Kosher. Why else would the debts be secret, and why else would people who meet each other in the night disappear, trying not to be seen, immediately after they rendezvous.

Along with Springsteen's macro vision of nighttime city life, we also receive a concentrated, microcosmic view, focused on some of the people Bruce cares for most intimately, namely the musicians trying to find greater success, while making music to entertain the sundown masses. The line Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades hustling for the record machine, refers to all the bands out there working the crowds with their own private agenda. Bruce is comparing them to combatants in a knife fight because they're playing at the crowds looking to get something out of thema connection and a reaction, appreciation, notice, fame. Comparing guitars to knives suggests that guitarists in bands all over the city are looking to cut into their listeners, right to their hearts, and move them to acknowledge, appreciate, love, even revere them. 

The sense is that music is critical in this towneven of life-and-death import. It's not just about entertainment. Here, The hungry and the hunted explode into rock 'n' roll bands. Both musicians who desire something important to themThe hungry and musicians who are already sought after by the audience or making a name for themselves to the degree that rival musicians want their shot to blow them off the stagethe huntedturn from ordinary mortals into superheroes of the night, when they burn on the city's metamorphic Rock stages.

In this city music is a battle, a struggle, and bands are squaring off against their audiences and each other out in the street, fighting it out in this next-level "Jungleland," the forum where they'll either become successful, even famous, or simply be overwhelmed by the hungry, their dreams left to fade with the kids who look just like shadows. Like these unfortunates, they will remain for a lifetime, imprisoned in the first vision of "Jungleland," the Shore version, whose young dreamers are too constrained and affected by challenges to consummate their dreams.

The parking lot Springsteen refers to places frequented by visionaries, a euphemism for the creative typesthe artists, perhaps members of The hungry, who dress in high fashion to make a statement, evoke an attitude and a style, or stand out from the pack, styling themselves in the latest rage. The sense here is that bars and clubs in the city aren't just lively, late-night refuges for members of the midnight gang. They're also the places to see and be seen, the venues where reputations are forged in steel moments.

A second possibility is that these visionaries are actually the members of the rock'n'roll bands who are outside in the parking lot either on break during, or assembling outside before or after the gig, talking about the performances, carousing with like-minded musicians and plotting their reemergence in the club to mix with the backstreet girls.” These are the ladies of this disparate vision of "Jungleland" night, dancing to the hottest music played by the D.J. The mention of the D.J. and not of the bands we're told are exploding all over town suggests that the bands have already played, haven't played yet or simply aren't welcome to perform at this location. It's as common now as it was then for clubs to employ both a band or bands and a D.J., one to spell another before and after a set. Bruce's subtle implication is that the visionaries are the hungry and the hunted of the area's Rock bands.

Springsteen also tells us there is another contingent of youths at the club who are simply there to enjoy the music, flirt, dance and conduct the early stages of their evening's foreplay. Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners, suggests that couples and singles have materialized in this place, crowded in tight, dancing or making out or both, growing more and more desperate as the night moves on to satisfy the desires they've been feeling all night. According to Springsteen, it doesn't take much for the couples to take their lusty ambitions elsewherejust a look and a whisper, and they're gone. 

These lovers present a different group of Springsteen dreamers, those who aren't focused on their future plans but simply living in the moment, acting on immediate impulse. The fact that Springsteen describes them as Lonely-hearted and Desperate suggests that these lovers, too, will end up trapped in the corner of "Jungleland" reserved for lost and faded dreams.

Bruce Springsteen, Raising His Destiny's Key To The Heavens, Beating Back Every Inch of "Jungleland's" Darkness; Circa, 1985; Original Image Courtesy: The Bruce Springsteen Archives

Side Two, Track Five of Ten

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

Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz

Between 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 the night they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland

By Bruce Springsteen. Lyrics © Bruce Springsteen. A Columbia Records Release. All lyrics are property of their rights holders and appear for educational purposes.

Just after Springsteen tells us his desperate lovers have moved on to their evenings' carnal designs, we leave the post-midnight city portrait and return to the ballad of Magic Rat and barefoot girl. Beneath the city refers to a place under the action, lights and sounds of downtown where things are simpler. This is a place where only two hearts beat. The lyric, Soul engines running through a night so tender in a bedroom locked, suggests the Rat and his girl are living the moment only with their souls, negotiating their chance at romance on a tender summer night away from all the world, and hidden in the private solace of barefoot girl's bedroom.

They're debating whether they're going to do exactly what they intended when they locked the bedroom door. The whispers of soft refusal could be emanating from both partners, but because the Rat has been the pursuer since the beginning of the piece, it's likely that he's the more willing actor on this night. Springsteen doesn't orchestrate an aggressive situation, however, or any degree of licentiousness or violence. As Bruce clearly explains, the refusal comes in soft whispers and, likewise, so does the surrender. The cleverness of this lyric is that we don't know whether it's the Rat or the barefoot girl or both who actually surrender. This image is deftly left to our imagination. 

In the line's context, it appears the surrender occurs not in the bedroom but in the tunnels uptown, which suggests the Rat has surrendered to his girl, quieting his attempts to seduce her, giving up on his dream of love and leaving this seaside town through the tunnels toward the city, perhaps even his rangers' Harlem. The line, The Rat's own dream guns him down as shots echo down them hallways in the night, proposes that it's the Rat's insistence on consummating his relationship with his barefoot girl, or his own dream, that wounds him, meaning barefoot has thrown Rat out of her house, screaming at him that their relationship is dead. 

As he's leaving, these are the shots [that] echo down them hallways in the night. Springsteen's lyric feels like barefoot is screaming at the Rat through the halls of a seaside condo, incensed that he's pushed her to do something she doesn't want, because of which she finally closes their window to real love, hence the figurative killing shots.

The other possibility here is that both Rat and barefoot are surrender[ing], meaning that barefoot has finally relented softly, whispering that she wants exactly what her lover wants. In this interpretation the tunnels uptown still signify that the Rat has left, abandoning his desire to capture the potential love he sees with the girl, but we are left to wonder if the lovers actually made their love. It's possible they did, and then shortly afterward the Rat left barefoot's house, returning to the city and realizing through their physical intimacy that the relationship doesn't involve true love. In this scenario, the barefoot girl would be screaming at the Rat her bitterness and disbelief that he would leave her again, as he did to go to war or ignite his music career. 

This mutual surrender could also mean the Rat abandoned his attempts to make love to barefoot, even though she finally relented to him, because he didn't sense they both shared the pure connection he'd hoped they could still achieve. In this scenario the Rat's own dream signifies it's his broken vision of their potential love which figuratively wounds him. 

The last possibility for this section's interpretation is that the Rat chose another version of his dream, which would suggest he's decided he should instead be with his friends, brothers, bandmates, or all of the above, in Harlem. Essentially, under this conception, feelings the Rat thought he had for the barefoot girl, the ones that drove him to reunite with her, weren't actually there after all. This might well be the definitive truth about love that will allow him to consummate his plan for a future in music, beyond small-town Jersey.

Either way, when the Rat leaves the barefoot girl he is shattered, wounded, shot down and in intense pain. He's hurt, broken, broken-hearted or broken open to such a profound degree that he cannot drive himself from the scene. He must, instead, resort to Springsteen's figurative ambulance. This may be the vehicle in which the Rat pulls away from barefoot's place, no one watching because there's no physical ambulance. 

This night is so quiet, according to Bruce earlier in the song, that if an actual ambulance were calledin the unlikely event that barefoot girl fired real bullets at the Ratsomeone would've been alerted by the siren and flashing lights. Someone, thus, would have seen the ambulance depart. The ambulance, in the likely case that both it and the shots fired by barefoot or by the Maximum Lawmantime, fate, distance,love, God, or all of these,—are just Springsteen's metaphorical bullets. 

The pain, however, in either case, is real, and perhaps the most fitting implication is that the ambulance refers to the Rat's own self-soothing, as he walks back to where he left his sleek machine, presumably near the beach at the mouth of Flamingo Lane. Given this interpretation, Bruce's ambulance is the healing process which occurs when Rat finally sets his mind to pursuing his dream of creative success, finally accepting that he's made the right decision to chase his dream. Here, even after such a special night with the barefoot girl, he knows clearly that his artistic dream means more to him than his domestic one. 

In essence, making what he loves his careerhis lifeis illuminated by the night as the path truly deserving of his total commitment. The clarity of the decision is expressed by the fact that Rat doesn't even look back to barefoot's bedroom. No oneincluding the Ratwatches as the girl shuts out the bedroom light. This, of course, assumes that the girl's bedroom is visible from Flamingo Lane. The reality is that if barefoot's home is a seaside condo, it's likely at least one window would be visible enough to notice the transition from light to darkness, but only Bruce knows the physical perspective of the Rat's last look.

The final verse is at once the perfect symbolic summary and metaphorical conclusion of "Jungleland." The lyric, Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz/ Between flesh and what's fantasy, cuts to the heart of "Jungleland's" major theme: everyone, everywhere is embroiled in the life-making decision of whether or not to chase their dream. This is conceptual reiteration of the first vision of "Jungleland," the rural Jersey Shore bastille where dreams die if left to blind chance, without pursuit beyond the prison walls. 

This is the place where all creative impulses and visions waste away because they are left unfulfilled, unconsummated. The poets down here/ Don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be. Springsteen's lyric cues the first death waltz movement, the flesh half, which exists in the town's limiting, cold reality. 

Death is certain in both the "Jungleland" of flesh and the "Jungleland" of fantasy, but only one offers the possibility of achieving a lifetime dream. The track's conclusion focuses on men and women who reach for their moment/ And try to make an honest stand, left behind in this flesh "Jungleland," where their true dreams will fade and where substitute visions, like the one Rat tried to consummate with barefoot girl, lead only to loss and pain. 

Springsteen tells us these pitiable, misguided, miserable souls will wind up wounded, not even dead, forced to live the rest of their lives in pieces, without the rich fullness of life that dream fulfillment presents. They will lead a creativity-crushing existence within the confining concrete walls and barbed-wire fences of their "Jungleland's" total artistic limitation.

Bruce Springsteen, Between The Poles of "Jungleland," 1975; Original Image By: Eric Meola; Original Image Courtesy: Eric Meola; Columbia Records; The Bruce Springsteen Archives

Bruce explains to us that it's not even possible to make an honest stand in this twisted, hopeless place. It's a land of inherent inequality, dishonesty and deceit. Reality in this prison of the flesh, presented by the broken souls who try hardest to keep us locked up there, is as fraudulent as the impossibly hollow promises they make. 

The defeating choice to remain in this "Jungleland" and ignore our dreams, or succumb to an endless parade of impediments to dream fulfillment, signifies a self-imposed life sentence to live as a fractional, fragmented version of ourselves, without even the rest and solace of an honorable death. Instead, these misanthropes walk the earth as shells, like ghosts forever imprisoned, blindly waltzing toward their meaningless deaths in the bent reality for which they've settled, where their fantasiestheir dreamsare already dead.

Excerpted From: DreamChaser's Highway Alive, Side 2B 

DreamChase Entertainment
DreamChaser Pictures

 © 2012 Matthew D. Anderson. All Rights Reserved.

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