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The Perfect Beat: Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”

“The Perfect Beat” is The Flyover’s ongoing series discussing our favorite moments in the history of recorded music.

The Album
“Born to Run,” the landmark album that launched Bruce Springsteen into music stardom, turns 45 years old this week.

Last month, we wrote about “Born to Run” and its title track:

“In May 1974, Bruce Springsteen entered 914 Studios in New York to begin recording songs for his pivotal third album. Despite gaining success as a regional hero, largely on the acclaim of his legendary live performances, Springsteen’s first two albums for Columbia Records were commercial flops…Springsteen knew, as he would soon sing in “Meeting Across the River,” that album number three was very likely his last chance.”

“Born to Run” delivered, reaching number 3 on the Billboard charts and landing him on the cover of “Time” and “Newsweek.” It would send him and the definitive lineup of his E Street Band to Europe for the first time, where they proved that, yes, London was finally ready for Bruce Springsteen. 

“Born to Run” captures Springsteen at the crossroads of the hyper-romanticism that defined his first two albums, and the reckoning-with-adulthood he would soon begin to explore on “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Like the characters in his songs, the music, while still highly orchestrated, was more refined. Still wild and free, from the inviting opening harmonica and piano notes of “Thunder Road,” to the last chance power drive of the title track, but with an undercurrent of the fading bliss of unencumbered youth. 

“‘Born To Run’ had the feeling of that one, endless summer night,” Springsteen would later recall in Thom Zimny’s “Wings for Wheels” documentary. “The whole record feels like it could all be taking place in the course of one evening, in all these different locations. Everything is filled with that tension of somebody struggling, trying to find some other place.” 

No one moment on “Born to Run” better illustrates this tension than the album’s final track: “Jungleland.”

The Song
“Jungleland” began its life a bit of a mess, caught between the wild artistic expression of Springsteen’s first two albums, and the more composed landscape he was now seeking. 

They tried several varying versions of the song, working tirelessly to whittle it down from its earlier incarnations to something that would capture the evocative emotion of the album’s final moment. [Ed. Note: Just watch Springsteen’s face as he listens to the guitar and sax solo of this alternate version – he goes from sheer delight to something close to horror]

The result, after several months of intense work in the studio, was nothing short of a masterpiece. If “Thunder Road” begins the album with a sense of hope and endless possibility, then “Jungleland” brings the listener back down to reality, where it’s worse to wind up wounded than dead.

“Jungleland” was the ultimate realization of the “Romeo and Juliet” meets “West Side Story” mini-opera he would first explore on “Incident on 57th Street” and “Rosalita,” with characters whose lives are literally on the line, their dreams are found and lost. With every shift in emotion and change in location, Springsteen and the band adapt, tossing in a knife-fight guitar solo here, playing with the time signature there.

The lyrics, while retaining some of the youthful playfulness of his earlier records (the Magic Rat, the Barefoot Girl, Flamingo Lane), spoke of a harsher reality. As Jon Landau, Springsteen’s longtime manager and producer, would later say about the song, Scooter and the Big Man are no longer busting the city in half, rather, they’re getting busted by the city.

The raw emotion in Springsteen’s composition, down to the final, impossible-to-duplicate primal screams he still somehow manages to belt out in concert, is what makes this song so unique and moving: in the end, he’s describing his very own do-or-die situation. Like the mini-concertos of his hero Roy Orbison, Springsteen creates an eight minute rock song in the style of Leonard Bernstein. It would soon be attempted by other artists (Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant;” Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which features both Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan; Bruce would even try to recreate the style in the less-than-stellar “Outlaw Pete”), but never topped.

But perhaps no moment in the Springsteen catalog carries more weight and emotion than the signature saxophone solo played by Clarence Clemons.

The Moment
The Midnight Gangs have already assembled out in the street. The audience has gathered, nervously watching this battle between the “hungry and the hunted.” The struggle continues as onlookers grow more and more desperate. The remaining enthusiasm from the explosive guitar solo finally gives way as the song begins to slow down. As Springsteen sings, almost narrating the action on the street, that with  “just one look, and a whisper, they’re gone,” Max Weinberg’s drums roll in and Clemons’ saxophone begins its elegant eulogy.

The saxophone solo in “Jungleland,” one of the most famous in music history, has been mythologized almost as much as the man who played it. From the very first time he joined Bruce Springsteen onstage at a little club in New Jersey in 1971, to the final, full concert he played with the band in Buffalo on November 22, 2009, the Big Man loomed large in the E Street ethos with his size, his spirit, and his playing.

Legend has it that Springsteen coached Clemons through the solo, laying out every single note over the course of a grueling 16-hour session in the studio. Clemons persevered, delivering a piece of music that could stand completely on its own.

Clemons’ saxophone evokes emotions that are difficult to fully describe; there’s a story being told to us without words. It doesn’t need them. With every section of the solo, every note, we feel the tragedy, the loss, and the reality. By the time it fades out nearly two-and-a-half minutes later, like the few remaining characters in the song, we don’t even know what to do with ourselves.

As Roy Bittan’s piano trickles back to the forefront, and Springsteen declares the Magic Rat shot down by his own dreams, the emotion and truth of Clemons’ saxophone still ring in our ears: 

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


Why It’s Perfect
“Jungleland” is a most auspicious ending to a perfect album, serving as the incredible final scene in Springsteen’s ambitious “opera out on the Turnpike.”  

The album invites us in for a ride on a beautiful summer’s day in “Thunder Road,” declares its swagger and confidence in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” and reveals hard truths and final stands in “Backstreets,” “Born to Run,” and “Meeting Across the River.” 

By the time we get to “Jungleland,” we know we’re never going to “get out while we’re young,” left only to wind up wounded, victims of our own dreams. 

Even more incredibly, it would perfectly set up Springsteen’s next album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” where he would begin to explore the distance between the American Dream and the American reality, something he continues to do better than anyone to this day.

But, it’s that saxophone solo that endures. Whenever Clemons would play it live, the entire audience stood transfixed, 70,000 people sharing a single emotion through the Big Man’s powerful notes and mighty spirit. Even when he was at his weakest onstage, whenever he was called upon, he would deliver a spellbinding version. 

Since 2012, it’s been his nephew, Jake Clemons, who channels his uncle’s spirit during the always emotional performance of the song. The notes pour out of his saxophone as if possessed by the Big Man himself until, visibly moved, Jake takes a pause, and points up at the sky towards his uncle. 

“Creating is like religion,” Clemons would say about the solo. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘That sax solo saved my life.’ So I did my job.” 

Indeed he did.

2 thoughts on “The Perfect Beat: Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland”

  1. Reply
    August 29, 2020 at 12:22 am

    It’s impossible to listen to this song and not get chills. There’s someone about the feeling of it, the connection to it, and that solo that hits you right in your bones.

    1. Reply
      August 29, 2020 at 4:22 pm

      Agree. I remember when it was played at the final show of the WB/HH tour at Mohegan Sun…I’ve never heard a room filled with that many people so emotionally silent.

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