Born to Run, or at Least to Be Redeemed
The New York Times, 2000-06-13, by: Jon Pareles
...or a songwriter who tries to be as concise and clear as possible, Bruce Springsteen can be strangely misunderstood. The mere fact that he had written a song prompted by the shooting of Amadou Diallo set off a hair-trigger response from police supporters.
In a case that divided the city, the four police officers who fired 41 shots at Mr. Diallo, an unarmed street vendor from Guinea, testified that they thought he was reaching for a gun when he was apparently reaching for a wallet.
They were acquitted of murder charges.
Reacting to the title of the song, "American Skin," and its refrain of "41 shots," Bob Lucente, the president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, denounced both the song, for supposed anti-police messages, and Mr. Springsteen, calling him a "dirt bag."
"American Skin" itself, which Mr. Springsteen performed on Monday night in his first of 10 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, is no anti-cop diatribe. With piano chords tolling behind Mr. Springsteen's care-worn voice, it's a resonant elegy and a reflection on how fear can become deadly.
The song begins with Mr. Springsteen intoning "41 shots" again and again. In the first verse, a policeman kneels after the shooting over the "body in the vestibule, praying for his life"; in the second, a mother instructs her son to be polite to policemen, never run away and "keep your hands in sight."
The third and last verse declares, "We're baptized in these waters and in each others' blood." In between, the chorus asks questions that may have run through the officers' minds -- "Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life" -- and concludes, "You can get killed just for living in your American skin," a line that could apply to both Diallo and the policemen. The song is determinedly evenhanded as it ponders exactly what led to those 41 shots.
Mr. Springsteen has made no statement beyond the song itself. But on Monday night, he opened his three-hour set with a new rocker, "Code of Silence," that he wrote with Joe Grushecky, a kindred songwriter. It could be about a couple that has stopped speaking -- he calls someone "darling" and "baby" -- or about a broken public trust. He also placed "American Skin" between "Point Blank" and "The Promised Land."
"American Skin" is not the first Springsteen song to be misread. "Born in the U.S.A.," released in 1984, is the bitter testimony of a down-and-out Vietnam veteran wondering what became of his birthright. But President Ronald Reagan, in his re-election campaign, tried to enlist it as a patriotic anthem. On Monday, Mr. Springsteen sang the version of "Born in the U.S.A." he introduced in the 1990's: a solo, with keening slide guitar lines steeped in the blues, that makes the song's desperation unmistakable.
"American Skin" and "Born in the U.S.A." represent one side of Mr. Springsteen's songwriting: tales of ordinary people crushed by forces they cannot control. That's the side that has emerged as Mr. Springsteen, who is 50, has grown older. When he emerged in the 1970's, he was already writing about outsiders and castoffs, but they held on to some hope that in classic American style they could zoom down the road to better times.
Those were the songs he recorded in the 1970's and 80's with the E Street Band; he and the band members went separate ways until the late 90's. Mr. Springsteen has been touring with them for a year, and they have reached a new peak as an ensemble: gleaming with the keyboards of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, surging with the bass lines of Garry W. Tallent and the drumming of Max Weinberg, honking with rhythm-and-blues from Clarence Clemons's saxophone and unleashing three lead guitarists -- Mr. Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. Mr. Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, strums acoustic guitar and sings backup. The band vamps like a soul revue, then hits like a stainless-steel fist.
And while Mr. Springsteen performed some of his no-way-out songs -- including a version of "Youngstown" that howled with desolation -- the concert was not about compassion or fatalism. It was about camaraderie and redemption. Twice, Mr. Springsteen let songs stretch out and turned himself into a preacher, promising to spread "the ministry of rock 'n' roll."
He dropped to his knees, stretched out his arms and worked the crowd like a gospel singer. The house lights stayed on through much of the show; Mr. Springsteen wanted the audience
to join in, and wouldn't rest until it did (although he met no resistance). He was also bonded with the band, sharing a microphone with all the musicians whose instruments were portable, even trading vocals on a love song, "If I Should Fall Behind."
Reuniting with the band and singing anthems like "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road" have rejuvenated Mr. Springsteen. There were also unreleased songs in the set, and they were substantial and tinged with optimism.
"Further on Up the Road" vowed, "Let's take the good times as they come" and "Land of Hope and Dreams" predicted, "Tomorrow there will be sunshine, and all this darkness pass." The way the band sounded, it was easy to believe.