Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin"*

Acoma, 2000, by: Samuele F.S. Pardini
A KILLING AND A SILENCE
On the night of February 19, 1999, four New York Police Department Officers on duty fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo, a young, black, street vendor who had emigrated to the U.S. from Guinea. Diallo was unarmed, he was trying to reach his wallet, presumably to show the officers his ID, as any good citizen of any country would do if stopped by the cops. At their murder trial (for some strange jurisdictional reason moved from New York to Albany), the officers testified they thought he was pulling out a gun. They were acquitted of all charges. The reactions to the acquittal divided the city and the country. The protest against the jury and NYPD was strong especially in New York City, where people gathered in sit-ins. Black communities in New York and elsewhere denounced the case as one of clear racial profiling. Columnists displayed the best of their writing skills in newspapers editorials and television commentators debated the case. Politicians, congressmen, presidential candidates: they all did their part. President Clinton, the same president who in his 1998 State of the Union speech proposed putting 100,000 new officers in the streets of America, an idea that received the support and a long applause from both parties in Congress, declared that there's still a division between blacks and whites in America, that being black isn't the same than being white.

Then, a week after the tempest, the silence. The momentum, as they call it, was over, gone. The case disappeared from the news and the editorials as well as from political campaigns. Nobody talked about it anymore, the economy kept booming, unemployment kept going down as never before in American history, the presidential primaries were basically over the first week of March, students went on Spring break in Florida or Mexico, and Diallo kept lying horizontal in his grave. Silent, dead, 41 holes in his black skin, forgotten by almost everybody. Until June 4.

THE NIGHT THEY DROVE OLD DIXIE DOWN
Sunday, June 4 was the night Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed their second concert in Atlanta, Georgia, part of their reunion tour begun more than a year ago in Europe, the same tour that stopped in Buffalo the past November. It was the last concert before a final stand of ten shows at Madison Square Garden that would begin June 10.

Springsteen's concerts are never the same, and the set list, though it has a basic structure, changes each night, especially if he performs two or three times in the same city. Since the beginning of the tour, he has included more than 70 songs. But nobody was expecting two new songs in just one night.

The first was "Further On Up The Road," a classic Springsteen song, with which he opened the show. After the sixth song, "Point Blank," which had been preceded by a cover of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," he stopped for a moment and did what he rarely did throughout the entire tour. He spoke a few words in order to introduce another new song, calling it "American Skin" (though on the handwritten set list it was called "41 Shots"). Springsteen is a very meticulous musician and prepares his concerts maniacally. He does nothing, absolutely nothing at random. He sound-checks for hours if he feels it's necessary, he makes sure the sound is the best it can be everywhere in the arena, he exercises before the concert, he chooses his and the band's clothes, he refuses commercial sponsors. He wants the audience's attention on the stage and on his music. Buffalonians who attended the debut concert of the Darkness Tour at the Shea's in May 1978, will remember the rage on his face when the electric power went off during "She's The One." The band had rehearsed "Further On Up The Road" for months, but they hardly rehearsed "American Skin" at all. Reportedly, the song had been sound checked only twice before Atlanta--in Raleigh and in Salt Lake City.

Nonetheless, its rendition was very powerful and by the end of it the crowd was chanting along the intense and emotional refrain: "41 shots, 41 shots." I don't know what kind of reactions Springsteen expected, but certainly he knew he was going to have some. He had the biggest misunderstanding a rock song has ever generated with "Born In The U.S.A.," a song mistakenly interpreted as a patriotic anthem. Any time there's a political campaign in New Jersey, politicians try to associate their names with his. So did Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bob Dole in 1992, and most recently New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman (guess what: they're all Republicans). Though Springsteen's audience these days is mostly white, he knew he was performing in Atlanta, where the vast majority of the population is black, where the mayor is black, where the history of the Civil Rights Movement is more important than, say, in Hawaii.

The same night, on "Light of Day," a guitar-oriented song during which he gives his "Minister of Rock & Roll" speech telling the fans that he knows they have been "analyzed, stigmatized, pokemonized" but that the ministry of rock & roll will save and free them, he also told them: "I know you've been re-publicanized, but it's not too late to repent!" I am sure he was preaching to the Reagan Democrats, especially numerous in the South: blue-collar workers, usually conservative, often racially biased, who shifted from the Democratic to the Republican side of the political electorate at the end of the 1970s, voting for Ronald Reagan. First, they lost their jobs as their factories moved to Mexico or someplace where work is cheaper, then they ended up in a long line in front of some food bank to collect a bowl of soup. In any city the tour stops, Springsteen makes a donation to a local food bank, he dedicates a song, usually "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," to the people that work for that organization, and invites the audience to do the same "for the many many people the economy doesn't reach," as I heard him recently saying in Anaheim, California, and Las Vegas. He has worked with such organizations for more than fifteen years.

THE MEDIA CIRCLE
The day after the Atlanta show, rumors of the new songs began to circulate among fans across the world. Webpages dedicated to Springsteen highlighted American Skin and the lyrics appeared on different websites. Three days later, on June 8, the New York Post reported that Springsteen played a song inspired by the killing of Amadou Diallo. The same day Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association of the City of New York, released an official note about the song on the PBA website, accusing Springsteen of trying "to fatten his wallet by reopening the wounds of this tragic case at a time when police officers and community members are in a healing period." Lynch urged PBA's members to boycott Springsteen's concerts "as security or in any other kind of work" and "not to attend" them.

The same day, in Microsoft's web magazine Slate, Timothy Noah accused Springsteen of having written the song to help Hillary Clinton's New York senatorial race. Bob Lucente, the president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, denounced the song for anti-police messages and called Springsteen a "dirt bag." The song and reaction to it were featured on televisions prime time news and newspapers front pages in Europe.

The day following the first concert at Madison Square Garden, the New York Times published a review of it along with an article by John Tierney in its Region section, in which the journalist defines "American Skin" an "anthem against police brutality" and accuses the New Jersey resident of "crusading to preserve affirmative action programs, not exactly a popular case in his old neighborhoods." On June 17, the Times published an op-ed piece by George Mol?, a lieutenant in the New York Police Department, who said that he was no longer a Springsteen fan because the song showed "contempt for me and my fellow officers."

Springsteen refused to comment on the episode or on any of the other attacks. He performed the song in every one of the New York shows.

According to the New York Daily News (June 9), Amadou Diallo's mother called the song a "beautiful thought" and thanked Springsteen for keeping the memory of her son's case alive. Mr. Saikou Diallo, Amadou's father, said the same thing. The Diallos met with Springsteen before the first concert and attended the show, apparently enjoying it very much.

WHY ALL THIS FUSS?
Despite all the clamor generated by the case, none of the commentators and of the interpretations given of the songs really made an effort to answer the real questions that stand at the heart of all this fuss.

Did Springsteen write this song for money? The song has not been officially recorded yet, which means no royalty will fatten Springsteen's wallet. All the shows in New York were sold out since February and the tour generated more than $50 million without any sort of commercial sponsorship. Throughout his entire career, Springsteen has sold more than sixty million records and sold out hundreds of concerts. I don't know his annual income, but I would exchange mine with his, and I'm sure you would do the same.

Is American Skin a boost for Hillary Clinton? I have 20/20 vision and I can't see any sort of reference in the lyrics to the senatorial race. Moreover, on June 4, the day the song premiered in Atlanta, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani had already abandoned the race.

Finally, I doubt there is anyone unaware of the fact that Springsteen is from New Jersey, where he resides and is probably registered to vote. Has he suddenly turned political, explicitly political, as never before in his career? This is the main argument used to explain the noise "American Skin" has generated by many commentators, including many of those that stand on Springsteen's side and know his music very well. This same argument, though reversed, has been used against Springsteen by those who accused him from time to time either of being a populist or of not being politically engaged.

This is the artist who wrote "Factory," "The River," "Atlantic City," "My Hometown," "Murder Inc.," "Souls of the Departed," "Streets of Philadelphia," "Youngstown," "Balboa Park," "The Line" among others, the artist who covered the songs of Woody Guthrie and thanked militant singer Pete Seeger for having kept Woody's flame alive for forty years, who performed at concerts against nuclear energy after Three Mile Island, toured the world for Amnesty International to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, joined other musicians and Reverend Jesse Jackson to sing against Proposition 209 in California, and so forth. Those songs and those performances are precise and clear political acts. His music, and this tour in particular, are about the ideas of creating a community of people, about inclusion, and about the notion of work as something necessary to live a decent life, a right any individual has. Take a look at the set lists of this tour: no "Glory Days," no "I'm On Fire," no "Pink Cadillac" (unfortunately). These choices, for an artist, have a political value. Denying this fact is like denying that the earth turns around the sun.

Twice during this tour, both times last April, Springsteen dedicated "Dead Man Walking," a song about a man on death row he wrote for Tim Robbins' movie, to two organizations that work against the death penalty, an issue that is supported by 70% of the American people. But nobody accused him of being anti-death penalty. Finally, and more important, in "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the title song for his 1995 acoustic record, Springsteen borrows some lines from John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes Of Wrath: "Mom, wherever there's a cop beating a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there......" This same song has been performed in almost all "The Ghost of Tom Joad Tour" concert s in 1996 and 1997, and in 115 out of 130 concerts of the reunion tour--though not in the second show in Atlanta and the first three shows in New York, which should tell you something. Nobody said anything against it or Springsteen, no journalist, no police officer.

So why all this reaction for just one song? Wasn't Three Mile Island an important political issue? Isn't capital punishment an important political issue, especially now that one of the presidential candidates, George W. Bush, governor of the state that executes more prisoners than any other in the country, refuses to admit that the killing process is even worth a careful examination?

The reason why "American Skin" has become a "scandal" is exactly "American Skin" itself, what a few words tell about us and how these words are spoken to us.

WHAT IS "AMERICAN SKIN" ALL ABOUT, ANYWAY?
This is the version of "American Skin" performed in Atlanta, whose lyrics have been published on the web and in different newspapers:

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots and we'll take that ride

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots

Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise momma you'll keep your hands in sight

Cause is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
The secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
Across this bloody river to the other side
41 shots they cut through the night
You're kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life

Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
Ain't no secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your
American skin

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots

Lena gets her son ready for school
She says now on these streets Charles
You got to understand the rules
Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite
Never ever run away and promise momma you'll keep your hands in sight

Cause is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots

Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret

41 shots and we'll take that ride
Across this bloody river to the other side
41 shots my boots caked in mud
We're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood

It ain't no secret
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret
It ain't no secret
The secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in
You can get killed just for living in
You can get killed just for living in your American skin

41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots
41 shots

The song is made of only 89 different words repeated over and over for a total of 412 words. The line "41 shots" is repeated 28 times, the Lena verse twice, the chorus four times, the "across this bloody river" and "we'll take that ride" lines twice. Scholars of oral culture, which in America often equals black culture, call this technique "incrementalrepetition." It has two main functions: it helps the speaker to remember the words and to get the message across. Why do you think politicians spend millions of dollars in tv commercials that are shown again and again? Try to listen to a song you never heard before ten times in a row. You won't forget it for the rest of your life and you' ll be singing it every once in a while.

Here we have a mother who instructs her son on how to behave if stopped by police. Then, the speaker asks what is the cause of dying in an American skin, with a clear reference to the Diallo episode. Next, after the shooting, the people kneeling and praying in the verse "you're kneeling over his body in the vestibule/praying for his life" are the officers who realized Diallo was unarmed. After the chorus, the 41 shots and the Lena verses, come the verses " Across this bloody river to the other side . . . we're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood." These are the key verses of the song and this is what the song is all about. Rivers run through cities, they often cut cities in two parts, they divide cities: the division between blacks and whites that still kills Americans.

I read all the articles written about this song: nobody has remembered or noticed that Amadou Diallo was NOT an American citizen. He was a BLACK man and there's no doubt that Springsteen acknowledges that fact. That is the reason why in Atlanta he changed the title from "41 Shots" to "American Skin." This song is about the fact that if you are a black man or woman in this country, you are not as American as the other Americans. It is about any American city in which the poorest section, be it East Buffalo or South Central Los Angeles, is inhabited by black Americans and other minorities. It is about politicians like President Clinton and Governor Pataki who put more policemen on the streets of America, cut funding to education and educational programs for minorities and inmates and keep building new jails. It is about Senator Charles Schumer, who in his commencement speech at SUNY at Buffalo last month complained about the fact that middle class families struggle for sending their children to college, but didn't say one word for the poor families that can't even afford to send their children to college at all. It is about Governor Bush and all those like him who support the death penalty, that mostly kills black people, while they have the power to stop it. It is about the state of terror that the black skin produces in many Americans and in four honest policemen, that only because Diallo was black fired 41 shots at him and now they have to live with a nightmare for the rest of their lives.

This is not a song against the cops, it is a song about being American today. Lena could be anybody's mother, the policemen could be anybody's father, and, given the right circumstances, the right light, Amadou could be anybody at all. He could be me. He could be you. Los Angeles, CA, June 2000

* My thanks to Professor Bruce Jackson and Geoff Kelly

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