When I turned 14 in the summer of 1979, three galvanizing influences hit me—reading Richard Price's urban masterpiece, "The Wanderers," seeing Martin Scorsese's "Mean Streets" and hearing Bruce Springsteen's "Jungleland"from his 1975 album "Born to Run."
I grew up in Dorchester, a working-class section of Boston that shared much in common with New York. Hull, Mass., to the south on the coast, was our Asbury Park, so "Jungleland" made perfect sense. It's a grand epic about very small, desperate lives, and as a writer, I felt an urge to go operatic about small things.
That summer of '79, I lived in the basement rec room of my parents' house—a rite of passage for all three of my bothers. I was the youngest, and for my birthday my brother, Tom, gave me a gift certificate to a Boston record store. I used it to buy "Born to Run," and the cinematic energy of "Jungleland" swept over me: "The Rangers had a homecoming / in Harlem late last night, / And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine over the Jersey state line." There also was "a barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge," which I can still visualize 35 years later.
The music opens sweetly with strings and builds steadily, capped by crashing instruments just as Bruce sings "down in Jungleland." An organ kicks in, the song takes on greater urgency and the feeling is mythical. Midway through the song, Clarence Clemons's sax solo slows things down, setting up the Magic Rat's demise in the "tunnels uptown." I started writing seriously at age 15, and "Jungleland"—a neon-washed love story between two doomed souls—was a big influence.
Over the years, I've met Bruce a couple of times backstage after concerts. The first time he was wearing a thick leather vest, with sweat pouring from the points at the bottom. When I write, I often think of those drops rolling off the leather vest's edges and their implied message: If work comes too easy, you did something wrong.