Sometimes it feels like a million years ago. Sometimes it feels like yesterday.
Between the two of them, Beck was always a minute ahead of the next joke and Jack a minute ahead of paying the tab. And somewhere during that time, some other Jersey kid named Bruce Springsteen wrote a song titled, "Jungleland." It wasn't on Joe Zuppe's jukebox, but all three of us had a cassette tape of it, so when we got in our cars at the end of the night, we would fast-forward to make sure we heard "Jungleland" before hitting our home driveways. It was the last song on Springsteen's Born to Run album, but we didn't need digital technology to cue it up.
|The Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night.
And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine
over the Jersey state line.
Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge,
drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants;
together they take a stab at romance
and disappear down Flamingo Lane.
Americans are big on lists. "Top Ten Ethiopian RestaurantsSouth-by-Southwest of Wilkes-Barre, Pa." might actually be in a book somewhere. But I'm no different. A Top-Ten of Rock Anthems sounds like a discussion I'd start at a bar and there's no doubt "Jungleland" would be high on my list -- easily Top Five, maybe Top Three.
When I first heard the song, it was hard enough trying to understand what Springsteen was saying, let alone interpret it. The strained mumbling in Bruce's early work was no easier for fellow Jerseyans to understand than anyone else, but with the help of liner notes and 30 years of life, I might be able to take a stab at it.
To me -- and this may be slightly colored by my past -- this opening verse sounds like "Intro to a Drug Deal." I had never used drugs at the time, but me and my Joe Zuppe's crew didn't have to be stoners to know that anyone from Jersey driving to Harlem was looking to get high.
I mean, what the hell else would a man named "The Magic Rat" be doing in Harlem? Hoping to play "The Goat" in a little one-on-one on the corner of 125th and Lenox? So he sees a girl as desperate as him and maybe a dime bag will be enough for a one-nighter.
Back at Joe Zuppe's, the three of us were anticipating a big night, waiting for Bobby O'Malley to come in. Bobby was another neighborhood kid and an appearance on this particular night would mark his 68th night in a row - a Joe Zuppe's record. There was no real passing of the torch, seeing how Bobby was breaking a record held by himself, which was cut short by an out-of-town wedding a couple of months before. Adding his two streaks together, this was going to be Bobby's 135th Joe Zuppe's appearance in the past 136 days. And it was as good an excuse as any, to get bartender Tony "Too-Tall" Tomasso, to buy us a round.
Too-Tall was only about 6'3", but lanky and taller than the rest of us. He wasn't the brightest guy in the world, but he did have a knack for keeping track of when each person ordered his fourth multiple of beer. Those fourth, eighth -- and sometimes, 12th or 16th -- beers were on the house, in return for leaving decent tips. We'd always reach for our stack of cash on the bar, but do so slowly, to give Too-Tall enough time to realize it was his turn.
The only downside to Bobby setting the record was that he'd be a shoe-in for "Derelict of the Night" and the additional free beer that came with it. Just before the 2 a.m. closing time every night our crowd was there, Too-Tall would wield a flashlight and carefully scan the bar before turning it on and spotlighting the winner.
Too-Tall rarely picked me, which I guess was some kind of compliment, but I'd rather have been as frequent a winner as my friends. Being considered too well-mannered for "Derelict of the Night" was a kind of microcosm of my social dilemma growing up: I wanted to be just one of the crowd, but couldn't help how I wound up either on the fringe or on a pedestal.
And in 1975, it was the pedestal.
|"Well the Maximum Lawmen run down Flamingo,
chasing the Rat and the barefoot girl.
And the kids round there live just like shadows,
always quiet, holding hands.
From the churches to the jails,
tonight all is silence in the world,
as we take our stand,
down in Jungleland.
I might have liked my beers (still do; not every addict uses the 12 steps), but I didn't have the Rat's problem when Jungleland first entered my consciousness. I was never chased by lawmen at 19, but if I was, I could only hope it was in a place where others would play dumb as to my whereabouts. If I had that going for me, I might be able to make a stand - in whatever-land.
As for cops themselves, I have mixed feelings. On the top rung are how New York City officers reacted on 9/11; at the bottom are how their brethren in New Orleans reacted after Katrina. Somewhere in the middle is the common wonderment of why we don't use that manpower -- and the public funds it takes to sustain it -- for more protection from violent crime instead of charging me $100 for driving 40 m.p.h. in a 25-m.p.h. zone.
My worst impression of police, though, came at my 10-year high school reunion, when I realized that nearly every delinquent I knew as a kid had become a cop. This of course, went hand-in-hand with discovering that kids who had copied off my papers in math class, had become doctors.
Back in my real world of 1975, there weren't a lot of 19-year-old newspapermen - even more true these days, with corporate ownership of newspapers and the ass wipes that go with it. Being a reporter used to be a calling; something that grew inside you, something that demanded you spend your life chasing elusive truths and telling the stories of your trip to get there (and at some point realizing you never actually reach absolute truth, but that the journey was one helluva ride).
But now? Geez. Now your basic newspaper reporter has more alcohol in their facial astringent than they do in their veins (where it belongs). Newspapers today like their reporters fresh from the classroom, malleable and of the type who became reporters because they were in their junior year of college and didn't have a major. This profile is more likely to assure a good relationship with the local chamber of commerce and that's a sad priority for many newspapers today.
A calling? The calling of reporters today is an attraction to the new-found concept of "celebrity-journalists" - reporters with faces made for radio, who get on television to see if they can scream their opinion, resume and list of industry awards before their 30-second "discussion" on how to achieve world peace ends with some blow-dried ditz telling viewers to stay tuned for the big sweeps-week story about how to lose weight with a steady diet of kiwi wrapped in prosciutto.
|"The midnight's gang assembled
and picked a rendezvous for the night.
They'll meet Oneath 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,
rip this holy night.
The street's alive
as secret debts are paid,
contacts made, they vanish 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.
Whoa, here - check that first impression. Maybe this wasn't a drug deal; maybe it was a band competition. A part of me wishes I could be involved in such a competition, but I went the athlete route in high school instead.
I played the clarinet in fourth grade, though, when nearly every kid chose one instrument or another. Although this flirtation with making music only lasted until baseball season, it helped forge a life-long relationship with another kid who later became one of the Joe Zuppe's gang, Bill Cook. "Cooksie" also picked the clarinet and we practiced together, sometimes in the basement of my father's modest paint store.
Of course we never made it to Jungleland, where this lyrical interpretation exposed my pre-disposition to read drugs into everything nefarious. If kids indeed flashed guitars, I was way off.
|Well before high school and several years before Joe Zuppe's, there was never a doubt about what I wanted to be. I figured even though I was only 19, I had ten years experience when you count the years on school papers and the fantasy newsletters and magazine articles I wrote when I became old enough to realize I wasn't going to be the next Willie Mays.
And four years of college? That was for kids who needed three years to figure out what the hell they were going to do with their lives. One year of working on the student newspaper at Penn State was all the journalistic schooling I needed. Oh sure, it doesn't hurt to study biology - unless of course, you have a calling that needs to be answered and delaying pursuit of your dream seems both trivial and annoying.
I'm not saying I knew everything. I had no frickin' idea what Procol Harem was talking about with that vestal virgin shit and I certainly didn't know how to trip a light fandango. But last I looked, being schooled in fandango wasn't necessary for writing a good lead, so when I finally had the chance to focus on my dream, I did so by my own rules.
|"In the parking lot the visionaries
dress in the latest rage.
Inside the backstreet girls are dancing
to the records that the DJ plays.
Lonely hearted lovers
struggle in dark corners,
desperate as the night moves on.
Just one look
and a whisper, and they're gone.
Now confirmed: teaches me for jumping to conclusions -- and that's exactly hat a reporter shouldn't do. But this copy hasn't been turned into the editor yet, so I have time to get it right.
If only those in power learned to do the same. Bad intentions might be real, but that doesn't give those in power the right to act prematurely upon them. That's how war memorials get built.
|"Beneath the city two hearts beat.
Soul engines running through a night so tender,
in a bedroom locked,
in whispers of soft refusal
and then surrender.
In the tunnels uptown,
the Rat's own dream guns him down.
As shots echo down the hallways in the night,
no one watches when the ambulance pulls away
or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light.
Bruce turns the tables again? Well, I guess it wouldn't be a Rock Anthem if it didn't have plot twists to match the shift in musical pace and give Clarence Clemons a chance to wail on his sax.
This latest verse returns our story to tragedy. There are real people with real problems stemming from unintentional circumstances. When I first fell for the song, I was too wrapped up in my own accomplishments -- which were pretty damn meaningless in what I now know is the world order -- to pay attention to what was really happening in Jungleland.
With 30 years of hindsight, though, I may finally get this story straight. It may have spun me more than Bill Clinton's advance men, but getting it right late in the game is still better than never getting it right at all. And it also shows how advanced an artistic mind Bruce had at such a young age. To write with such lyrical depth, with music so mesmerizing, is truly beyond my comprehension -- and I make a decent living with the written word myself.
But it's an argument in the song's favor to realize you don't need to get the story straight to enjoy it - and enjoy it to the point of not being completely sold on a piece of stereo gear until you hear how it does on this one song. If I'm thinking of Joe Zuppe's during Jungleland, then the gear is doing its job.
|"Outside the street's on fire
in a real death waltz
between what's fresh and what's fantasy.
And the poets down here
don't write nothing at all.
They just stand back and let it all be.
And 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.
Tonight in Jungleland."
It's pretty easy to get wrapped up in your own shit. I'd like to think that later in life I would've written the truth about Jungleland. Hell, I may still do that. But I was young then and sincerely didn't know it was anything more than a song.
In later years, the pedestal I was put on during my time as King Shit made for some tough psychological crap. It took me about 15 years to put it in perspective and I nearly killed myself in a pile of cocaine while trying to figure it out. But after another 15 years to fine-tune my psyche, I can look back upon that year as one of the best of my life.