Every Monday for the next two months we’ll be posting an exclusive excerpt from my eBook Glory Days: Springsteen’s Greatest Albums, which analyzes eight of Springsteen’s most groundbreaking albums and then argues which one should be considered “the greatest.” This week, a selection from the chapter on Born to Run.
“Backstreets” at 6 1/2 minutes and “Jungleland” at 9 1/2 are impressive in length, certainly, but anybody can record a long song – just ask Iron Butterfly. In this case, it’s their scope that makes them such crucial centerpieces of Born To Run.
“Backstreets,” which again owes much to Bittan’s theatrical piano parts, is practically suffused with the sweat and promise of a “soft infested summer.” Its heroes (friends? more than friends?) are allies against an oppressive world, until they’re not – and all the pain, hatred and betrayal that youth can hold is captured in Springsteen’s howling groan and frantic guitar. It’s telling of Springsteen’s outlook at the time that the worst possible fate the narrator can imagine is to find out you’re “just like all the rest.”
And with “Jungleland,” Springsteen magnifies the sprawling nature of “Backstreets” even further, producing a cross between a tragic epic poem and a sad, astonishing aria. In doing so, he unleashes some of the most striking tableaus ever concocted by a rock artist: The image of a “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” a line that’s more literary than lyrical, is beautiful in its simplicity and succinctness – it’s practically an entire novel in 17 words.
“Jungleland” is full of those moments, with its poets who don’t write and doomed rats who can’t even manage to die, and all the while the song bucks and rolls among mournful violins, Springsteen’s rock-operatic guitar and Clemons’ meticulous, tender 2 1/2-minute sax solo. That Springsteen even attempted it all seems audacious, even today. That he succeeded is actually kind of miraculous.