Wednesday, January 27, 2016
Musical Explanation 1/27/16: Thunder Road and Jungleland by Bruce Springsteen
Baltimore doesn't have a Springsteen. The closest, I suppose, is David Simon, but The Wire's clinical eye cannot possibly give us the encyclopedia of what it means to be from Baltimore which Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town give to New Jerseyites. We're poorer for it, and God knows we need something like it here...
So much of rock is, at least to me, an empty experience. So much of it is more theater than it is music or poetry. No amount of loudness can cover up the fact that the vast majority of it glamorizes and sanitizes love, death, nature, sex, society, outlawdom... Classical music has all these problems too, but at least there's a much longer history from which you can draw the golden nuggets.
But there is no such sanitation at work in Springsteen. People from the same background as Springsteen seem to idolize him, but they do it in spite of the fact that his songs constantly shit on their state. Just about every song from Born to Run is about how Jersey is a hellhole from which everybody wants to get the fuck out. A friend (or was it a cousin) once described New Jersey to me as a Black Hole which sucks you in, and once you're in, there's no escape. Yet nearly every track on Born to Run is in one way or another about the longing to leave. I don't doubt anybody in Jersey experiences the longing to leave Jersey any more than a Baltimorean experiences the longing to leave Baltimore. But no matter where you are in every-rust-town, America, we all sometimes feel that longing to escape, but feeling utterly trapped by America has been part of the zeitgeist since America's industrial sector began to decline, which, perhaps not coincidentally, began right around that period when Springsteen broke out onto the national scene.
There's something in Thunder Road to which every 30-something has to relate. After 30, the first act is definitively over. The sense we once had, perhaps not that long ago, that our lives had infinite potential is gone. There's no sense in denying that our biographies are already being written. However secure we think we are, we're all putty in the hands of anyone who can conjure for us the idea that the life we dreamed of is possible. Anyone who'd convince us it's not too late to rewrite what's already been written could cut through our sturdiest defenses. And if we can't rewrite our lives, perhaps we can at least remember what it meant to feel that that our lives needed no rewriting. Most rock music is about youth, and yet here is a song about the impossibility of recovering lost youth for more than a few hours at a time. So much rock music is about ideal visions of the people we'll never be having the kind of sex that only ideal people have, and yet here's a vision of sex as something tawdry, pathetic, sad, between losers who will never be their ideal selves and further entangling themselves in their lives' small tragedies by becoming involved with one another, and yet the experience is more meaningful because it's cheap.
"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 flash unseen
Kids flash guitars just like switchblades
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"
I never really cared much for the title track of Born to Run - it's a little too on-the-nose in what it's talking about, and seems to cover ground no different than Thunder Road. But Jungleland, on the other hand, offers the answer to the problems which Born to Run and Thunder Road pose. Even within these trapped, small lives, there can still be enjoyment, purpose, meaning. Clarence Clemens's sax solo, so earnest and technically unimpressive that it's almost impossible not to make fun of, is still absolutely perfect for what it expresses. It's as though through music, we get to imagine the Opera on the Turnpike, the Ballet fought out in the Alley.
Most music, most art of any genre, lies to us, and lets us imagine what it's like to be something completely different, and usually better - smarter, more powerful, better looking, more important than our seemingly meaningless selves. But in Jungleland, not only are we assured that our miserable little lives have some meaning and dignity, but also that we can claim some happiness within it as our right.
Also, I want to run with my friend's idea to start an ice cream store called 'Tenth Avenue Freezeout.'