“When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band. . . .” The rest was history, wasn’t it?
I am, of course, quoting from “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the second song from Bruce Springsteen’s masterpiece, Born to Run (1975). It seems appropriate to send a shout-out to E Street Band member Clarence Clemons (a.k.a. the Big Man) on the occasion of his 69th birthday, and celebrate what I consider his finest moment—and one of the finer moments in rock and roll history. We’re talking about “Jungleland”, needless to say. It is a perfect song, closing an album that also begins with a perfect song (“Thunder Road”).
First, a bit of backstory may be useful, since it would seem that little more needs to be said regarding Born To Run: it certainly does not need anyone to make the case it clearly and indelibly makes for itself as one of the ultimate rock albums, no further questions or comments necessary. That it came as the result of a fanatical and obsessive quest on the young Springsteen’s part (he was 25 when it was released) is well-documented. What is less understood and, for younger fans who came to the party during (or after!) the ubiquity of Born in the U.S.A., is that after two critically-praised but commercially-D.O.A. albums, there was a very real chance that millions of frenzied fans would never get an opportunity to scream “Bruuuuuuce!” at concerts for the next several decades. The desperation, ambition, and yearning wrapped within each song was very real, and more than slightly mirrored the state of mind of this scruffy underdog who (not unlike Rush before it made 2112) had the balls to stay true to his vision and figure he would either hit a grand slam or go down swinging.
And the rest is history, isn’t it?
Every element comes together (the lyrics, the energy, the playing, the production) in the creation of rock’s response, mid-decade and post-Watergate (and Vietnam, the ‘60s, etc.), to the American Dream. Unlike his first two albums, where the narrators and heroes are kids in the midst of chasing shadows or making mistakes (or trying to escape their environment), on Born To Run many of the protagonists have already seen and done enough to know that, for them, drastic action is required. There is an air of regret mixed with a not-yet extinguished defiance: the dream, whatever it may entail, is not quite dead. Hence the hopeful dude in “Thunder Road” declaring “It’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win” or the defiance of the title track (“We can live with the sadness I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul”) and the affirmations of guys and/or bandleaders knowing they got what they wanted in “She’s the One” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.
Of course there are also the ones unlikely to get away or win; the ones against whom the deck is already stacked and they are either unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Despite the driving (pun intended) pulse of “Night” where the everyman (brilliantly identified in the second person since what he is experiencing is so typical and inevitable) escapes the daily boil of his dead-end job—and harrowing commute—to simply feel alive by driving off to nowhere, at night, with the yellow lines racing by beneath him. And while the restrained bordering on elegiac musical backdrop (just piano, bass, and a killer trumpet cameo by Randy Brecker) on “Meeting Across the River” strains in its solemn way to make a hero out of this nobody, the subtle genius of this song is that while he stands to score two grand (his excitement at this modest sum all that is necessary to delineate his lot in life) there is just as good a chance that he is about to get whacked. It’s neither ironic nor patronizing: the action (the song’s working title was “The Heist”) is relayed from this guy’s point of view (“Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said”), and as he concedes, “We got ourselves out on that line”. We don’t get to find out what happens, yet whether the setting is 1975, 1875, or 2025, we don’t really need to.
And there it is: after a couple of tentative years as an apprentice, this is when Bruce became the Boss, and regardless of how you feel about everything that followed, the work here sufficiently secures his status for all time.
Which brings us back to the Big Man. His contributions (as a presence on stage as much as a player on the songs) going forward were always well-received, but it’s debatable whether he ever blew again like he does on Born to Run. And on the album’s centerpiece, possibly Springsteen’s finest—and most important—moment, Clemons contributes his finest work. “Jungleland” employs the epic, almost operatic (“Man there’s an opera out on the Turnpike”) strategy Springsteen developed on the first two albums (think “Lost In The Flood”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Incident on 57th Street”, and “New York City Serenade”), but this is at a whole other level. From the languid, strings and piano introduction to the gradual build-up (“As secret debts are paid / Contacts made, they vanish unseen), to the guitar solo (3.00 - 3.27), the tension, at once joyous and foreboding, builds and then, instead of crashing, it crests. Enter Clemons at 3.54: the solo. It is extended, totally in charge and almost indescribably affecting. He wails, establishes a groove and then (right around the 5.43 mark) goes to that other place. Finally, just as the strings and piano take over, that last gasp, like a light going out or a life being saved. It is his moment, and in addition to being the best thing he ever did, it ranks as one of the best things anyone has done in a rock song.
All of this sets up the denouement: while the lyrics (some of Springsteen’s very best) and the majestic piano cascades (courtesy of Roy Bittan), finish what they started, it’s up to the singer to sell this cautionary tale (“In the tunnels uptown / The Rat’s own dream guns him down”) turned climactic cry of endurance. And sell it he does. The song could end after the final lines (including the immortal couplet “Man the poets down here don’t write nothing at all / They just stand back and let it all be”), and it would be a tour de force. But as the piano and strings begin to dance in what seems an obvious outro, Springsteen becomes a rock deity. Thirty-seven seconds (8.45 - 9.22)—a wordless cycle of soulful screams—articulate everything Springsteen had spent three complete albums building up to; in that final cry we hear anguish, anger and above all, resolve. There is no fear, not anymore. He has arrived and after this song, there is no chance he could be ignored and even less chance anyone could ever take away his crown.