The Poets Down Here

I wept yesterday morning through Clarence Clemons’ sax solo in “Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen’s epic finale of 1975′s Born to Run.

God, what a searing song. And yes, I address the deity in so saying.

I have had a long and very odd relationship with Springsteen. I first became aware of the Asbury Park, NJ phenom in 1978 when the Columbia Record and Tape club sent me Darkness on the Edge of Town as their featured monthly release. I had not yet graduated to album-oriented FM-radio broadcasts, which were still in their infancy in Seattle, and I was only 15 at the time–so, sheltered in my Starland Vocal Band / Styx / Queen / Abba pop-music ignorance, I looked askance at the greaser on the album cover and dismissed the disc out of hand. Bruce Springsteen did not look like a rock star. He looked like Bob Dylan’s out-of-work cousin.

That was sort of the point, I guess, but such points were meaningless to me the summer before my senior year in high school. I was just learning to drive, had spent the summer on a road trip across the country plus three consecutive weeks at summer camp, and was having trouble getting my weight back down for football season.

Moreover, I wasn’t depressed at the time. I was no longer bullied incessantly at school, and was even becoming pretty well tolerated, if not well-liked (after a fashion). Some of my better friends were popular, anyway, and that counted for a great deal. A girl even asked me to Tolo.

So I breezed blithely into 1979 with my first regular job, the ability to drive to school (finally!), and a study hall lodged right up against lunch hour. That made for an extremely entertaining final trimester of daily outings with Jim Moore and Brian Tittle; and our class’s Homecoming Queen and Valedictorian, Claire Foster, agreed to go to Prom with me. My life looked nothing like a darkness on the edge of town. And I still managed to never hear a Springsteen song, as far as I knew.

That changed dramatically in the fall of 1979. At the University of Washington, just about every other student was wildly into music–wildly varied and terribly serious music. In such circles, in 1979, Springsteen was ubiquitous. One Bruce fanatic, Matt Conway, became my roommate my sophomore year.

I gradually developed an appreciation for Springsteen’s music, naturally, the more I was exposed to it. What struck me particularly was first, the horn arrangements, and second, the linear nature of Springsteen’s songs. These weren’t hook-laden verse-chorus ditties, they were musical stories being told in narrative fashion. In a way, listening to one side of a Springsteen album was like listening to a symphony, a carefully-crafted multi-movement electric orchestration.

But the fanatic appeal still mystified me. My best friend during that era, Shari Campbell, said that she felt as if Bruce were writing songs specifically for her. I found the idea preposterous, and told her as much–because, of course, I knew everything. First, Springsteen was writing from characters’ points of view, so the songs couldn’t exactly be what you would call personal. And second, the experiences of these characters were entirely beyond the ken of a 19-year-old ex-gymnast from Issaquah. Weren’t they? I certainly understood the critical hype surrounding Springsteen, but all these college kids swooning over the melodrama had to be impressionable pretenders. The Emperor certainly had clothes, but not ones my associates could recognize, much less identify with. Concert-going, in a way, was like a child’s costume party. One dressed to fit the part one thought one ought to play, given the album title and coiffure of the lead singer.

My most perplexing encounter with Born to Run happened at one of the many daiquiri-infused music parties I attended with Matt and his fellow Springsteen-devotees Michelle, Carol, and Vivian. Michelle and Carol were a little crazy even when they were sober, but Viv was a little sober even when she was drunk. That would change completely, however, if you put Springsteen on the turntable.

One Saturday night over on 5th South McCarty, where the gals lived, the whole point of rum flowing freely was to howl in unison through the entirety of Born to Run. Before we had even gotten through Side A, Viv was already teary. The title track opening side B had her bawling, and by the time “Jungleland” came around she was inconsolably slumped on the floor in a pool of tears. She cried for another two hours, until she started sobering up a little.

I couldn’t understand it. Viv was kind of your typical Asian-American overachiever from Bellevue. A “town full of losers”? Uh, nope. “Tramps like us”? Sorry, Charlize. What on Earth did Viv see in Mary, Eddie, Wendy, and the Rat? Did she identify with the title pronoun of “She’s the One”? Hard to fathom.

I eventually drifted out of Matt’s life and the dorms, and missed the camaraderie of the Asbury Park West gang. As I became more and more depressed, experienced for the first time what I assumed to be heartbreak, and started drinking too much, I did feel like I understood a little bit more about darkness on the edge, and about the idea of satisfaction in hearing the screen door slam one last time behind me.

In 1986, while downing bottles of hard cider, I listened repeatedly to Roger Taylor’s album Strange Frontier, which included covers of Darkness‘s “Racing in the Streets” and Dylan’s “Masters of War,” and decided my life needed a serious overhaul. So ultimately, I have to count Springsteen’s personal influence as seminal.

Over the years, I’ve listened to Darkness and Born to Run countless times. Once I married Jenn, and quite blissfully so, in 1999, however, Springsteen’s music started feeling like a distant relic. Not quaint, but certainly not relevant.

The distance, I think, is what allowed “Jungleland” to hit me like a ton of bricks yesterday. That and life experience. Maturity, and loss. Seven of the eight tracks on the album exude a strange optimism in the face of adversity, a sort of stubborn determination that, yeah, life may stink–but as long as there’s a car, a road, and some chance of romance there’s light on the horizon.

But the album only begins on Mary’s porch, and with that slamming screen door. It ends in the dark of Jungleland, and there’s no hint of dawn. “In a tunnel uptown, the Rat’s own dream guns him down… ┬áNo one watches as the ambulance pulls away… They just stand back and let it all be.”

And you see, I know that’s the end of the story even as Clarence Clemons hits the opening note of his signature tenor sax solo. He hits it and holds it, like it’s the last pure thing he’ll ever play or hear. There’s no rush to end it. No bravado, no flash, no trill. No virtuostic flair. Only the barest hint of vibrato as the interminable bars of the note wind down and he moves reluctantly on to whatever’s next. It’s a simple acknowledgement that there’s no escape, that there is no future for the Rat, nor for the Barefoot Girl. There is only today, tonight, and that is all there will ever be. “In the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment / And try to make an honest stand / But they wind up wounded, not even dead.” So I weep, and wonder again at what Viv felt that endless Saturday night long ago. Clarence, and my heart, still hold that note. The dawn never comes. Just darkness.

Darkness on the edge of town.

About Greg Wright

I have worn many hats as a writer and editor over the years. These blog entries will be more akin to the newsletter columns I wrote for Normandy Christian Church and Puget Sound Christian College in the "old days" than my more recent journalistic work at Hollywood Jesus, Past the Popcorn, or SeaTac Blog. They will also be of a more overtly spiritual nature than most of my recent work.
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