Springsteen comfortable in his 'American Skin'

Associated Press, 2000-04-01, by: Larry McShane
It was last June when Bruce Springsteen walked into a rehearsal with his reunited E Street Band. Guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt was sitting with the newspapers. Springsteen was front-page news.

"American Skin," a new Springsteen song inspired by the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, had inspired insults from New York police officials and a call for cops to boycott the Boss' Madison Square Garden concerts.

"The commentary seemed ... well, it wasn't particularly thought out," Springsteen reflects now. "I was surprised at the push-button demagoguery which immediately pops up. You become the ride for a few days.

"I wasn't expecting it," he continues. "For me, it was a continuation of my work for the last 20- 25 years. I think race is the central issue facing this country in the new century, and I wanted to write about it."

Springsteen performed the song each night of the 10-night Garden stand -- most often to loud cheers from his loyal audience. He also met backstage with Diallo's parents -- "very, very gracious people," he says. "Very lovely."

Diallo died in a hail of 41 police bullets, a number that provides the song's haunting introduction.

The performance is one of the centerpieces of the New Jersey rocker's latest projects, the double CD "Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band: Live in New York City" and an accompanying HBO special. The record is in stores Tuesday; the special debuts Saturday.

The cable show, the first-ever Springsteen/E Street concert to hit television, was a bit of a happy accident. Springsteen says he had long intended to videotape his live performances, but never got around to it.

Finally, for the last two shows at the Garden, the tape started rolling. "It was done almost as kind of an afterthought, you know?" Springsteen says.

The resulting footage allowed him to finally witness what millions of fans worldwide had seen over the last 28 years -- the E Street Band in full roar, from Max Weinberg's pounding drums to Clarence Clemons' wailing sax.

"When you're in the band, you don't see the band," Springsteen explains. "Getting a chance to see it, like watching Max play, or seeing how the band was working as a unit 25 years down the road -- that's the thing that excited me the most.

"The band was playing at its best. To sit back and watch it, it was fun."

The live album's fun runs the gamut of Springsteen's acclaimed career, including "Lost in the Flood" from his 1973 debut album; "Youngstown" from his last studio album; and new material like "American Skin" and "Land of Hope and Dreams."

It's Springsteen's first live album with the E Streeters since 1986. The decision to air it on HBO, where bandmate Van Zandt portrays mobster Silvio Dante on "The Sopranos," was in part inspired by the network's commercial-free programming.

Springsteen has never included corporate sponsors on his tours, and has turned down lucrative offers to use his songs in commercials.

"It was never for me," he says of mingling music and commerce. "For me, it's not the way to go. It's also the relationship I had with my audience -- it's very direct. That just didn't seem to be part of it."

Springsteen had more good news for his audience: The tour marked a new beginning in his collaboration with the band. They have already enjoyed "a good weekend" in the studio working on new material, he says.

"I'm looking forward to more of that," he says. "It's an ongoing, creative unit."

Unlike Springsteen's previous forays into the studio, he's hoping this one doesn't take as long. His last studio album was 1995's "Ghost of Tom Joad"; his previous records, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," were simultaneously released three years earlier.

"I would like to get more music out -- I know, I say that every time," Springsteen says with a laugh. "It's not going to be our usual amount of time to make a record -- we don't have the time to waste anymore."

It's the only age reference made by the 51-year-old Springsteen, who showed few signs of aging on the reunion tour. He was just as spry and active on the reunion tour as when he and the band last played extensively in 1988.

"That was our concern when we began the tour, to come out and do justice and service to what we'd done previously -- and then some. And then some," he says, repeating himself for emphasis.

Over the course of a 30-minute talk, Springsteen also mentions using the Internet as a way "to release music in a more relaxed fashion." He mentioned some projects that are about "half- finished, sitting around" as likely candidates for such a release.

As for unreleased material from the Garden shows, Springsteen says it could turn up in a future DVD release. He cited an absolutely stunning version of "Blood Brothers," the band-as- brothers song that closed out the final Garden show.

Springsteen specifically wrote a new verse for the song on the afternoon of the show.

"Oooooh," he replies when asked about that performance. "Up there on the last night, the feeling was pretty strong. It was the last night -- what could I say?"