Tales of Junglelands : Notes on Springsteen and Rousseau
Sept. 23 is the birthday of an American musician who mythologized highways while not being much of a driver himself. In this, Springsteen recalls French painter Henri Rousseau who shared with us marvelous landscapes that he created in his mind.
I’m a journalist and journalists doubt everything. We check facts and we check them again.. and again. Heck, we challenge what other people call facts, wondering if the sources we’re consulting are right.
But there are a few things I know in this world. There are a precious few facts that I have down cold and that I don’t have to check.
One of them is that “Jungeland” is not the first track on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” album.
On a recent trip from Washington, D.C., to the Jersey Shore, on the approach to the Delaware Memorial Bridge, I had a yen to hear that album. My husband was in the passenger seat, working on his laptop as I drove. I asked him to put the Springsteen album on. He did. But as soon as I heard the first notes of the first song to play, I hit the button on the dashboard to stop the music.
“No, that’s not the right order,” I said.
If you’re reading this Medium post on Springsteen, I’m guessing you know the first track on the “Born to Run” album. It’s “Thunder Road.” You also may be able to sing along to almost the entire album, as I did once my husband kindly got the album started at the beginning. (I confess to mumbling through some of the lines in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” But in my defense, so does Springsteen.)
I couldn’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve heard “Born to Run” in its entirety. The album was already a few years old when I bought my first copy sometime in the early 1980s, probably using money earned babysitting.
But because of the initial mixup with with tracks on this road trip, this was one of the rare times I truly listened to this album. I marveled at its structure as I drove up 295 and towards Route 70, on which we would cut through the Pine Barrens on the way down the Shore.
Listening to “Jungleland” first would be like starting a Catholic mass with Communion or a production of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy with Juliet holding the dagger in her hand.
Better to begin at the beginning.
“Born to Run” opens with songs that tell tales of summer and young romance. There’s a hint of mayhem in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” There’s the bittersweet recalling of a failed relationship in “Backstreets,” the last song on the first side of the record in the old days.
It occurred to me on my drive toward the Jersey Shore that flipping over a record provides a kind of short intermission. And “Backstreets” works as the kind of scene that might proceed an intermission in an opera or play. Then we come back strong with “Born to Run,” get a little more romance in “She’s The One,” before the mood grows dark with “Meeting Across the River” and finally you are ready for “Jungleland” in all its sad glory.
Much of this excellent album is about people out on the road, heading to that that place they really want to go, people just driving for fun.
But Springsteen didn’t get a driver’s license until his 20s. He writes of lost souls, of “broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” But Springsteen himself possesses a remarkable level of discipline and determination. That’s what has powered his long and productive career.
Springsteen’s not always telling us his story in songs. But on every track of “Born to Run,” he’s telling us a story.
In the forward to his new autobiography, also titled “Born to Run,” Springsteen writes:
“I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By 20, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth — artists, with a small ‘a.’ “
I wonder what French painter Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) would have made of Springsteen’s candor. Would Rousseau have embraced this view of “those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth — artists, with a small ‘a’ “?
Rousseau’s claims of having seen Mexico during his time as a young man in the French army have widely been deemed as false. Instead, the inspiration for Rousseau’s famous jungle paintings were books and paintings and visits to the museums and gardens of France. Below we see one of Rousseau’s inspirations, a painting by Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863, and then vivid visual story Rousseau created.
Rousseau constructed mythical junglelands that have enchanted viewers for decades. And as with Springsteen, we’re all the richer for Rousseau for having been brave enough to share with us the products of his hard work and imagination.
For more on the French painter, read “Escapism at Its Finest : Notes on Henri Rousseau.” It includes a description of one of Rousseau’s most charming works, “Tropical Landscape: American Indian Struggling with an Ape,” showing an impossible, or at least highly unlikely, encounter.