Stranded in the Jungle

"Stranded in the Jungle," in its original version(s) -- it was written and recorded by the Jay Hawks in 1956 and quickly remade into a hit by the Cadets -- is a novelty single, a piece of comedy, like "Run, Red, Run" or "Alley Oop." Half of it is told by a man who has been captured by cannibals and whose girlfriend is still at home. In the other half, which takes place "back in the States," the romantic rival of the castaway comes on to his girlfriend. Your man's finished, he tells her, so you might as well choose me. The two halves of the song are played in entirely different styles -- the States is slick doo-wop, while the jungle is native-sounding drums, animal noises, and scary booga-booga cannibals. (As many people have pointed out, it's not exactly a Civil Rights anthem, though there's more than a little Fanon: "The zone where the natives live is not complementary to the zone inhabited by the settlers," etc.) It's a song about opposites that can't be reconciled, but it's also a song about reconciling them. Last time I wrote about the Bee Gees's "Gotta Get a Message to You," one of the Scriptural songs about mis- or non-communication. "Stranded in the Jungle" is another one. The deeper and hotter the hot water gets, the more preposterous the idea of "getting a message back home" becomes. As long as the man is in the jungle, his girlfriend will hear nothing, and as long as she hears nothing, she's vulnerable to the advances of his rival. So he does what any man would do. He breaks loose from the cannibals, hitches a ride on a whale, makes it home, and reclaims his lover. It's a nice story. Who doesn't like a happy ending? It's also a solution to the whole "Gotta Get a Message to You" quandary. The only real message is the one you deliver yourself. If you want someone to talk to you (or love you, or trust you), talk to them. Simple. Imagine if the Bee Gees' song, which has a similarly dire circumstance (melodramatic, not comic, but still), ended this way, with the condemned man hightailing it away from Death Row. And then imagine that Death Row and the jungle are metaphors for romantic separation. As for the song, the Jay Hawks’ version is hard to find (it's available on an Ace UK import called "The Golden Age of American Rock & Roll, Vol. 5") and fairly tame. The Cadets insta-cover is more assured and funnier. As fine as it is, it's blown clear out of the water by the New York Dolls' version. It might not be David Johansen's best performance. There is, after all, "Frankenstein," and there's "Pills." Oh, and "Bad Detective." But it's up there: the jungle is deeper and darker than the Cadets' jungle, and the States are hellishly bright. And the animal noises sound less like nature and more like the terrifying hoots and howls of uncivilized punks. Which, of course, they are. I'm including as overgrowth Jonathan Richman's "Those Conga Drums" (which I've always thought of as a half-cover of "Stranded in the Jungle") and the Upsetters' "Jungle Lion" (which is an instrumental cover of Al Green's "Love and Happiness" and also has terrifying animal noises).