Bruce Springsteen: 41 Shots
Revolutionary Worker #1060, June 25, 2000
The world is an unpredictable place. On June 4, at an Atlanta arena, Bruce Springsteen premiered a never-before-recorded song called "American Skin." Within days the track was national news as the internet and wire services quoted lyrics from this hauntingly beautiful ballad:
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
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin
No one could miss the reference to the police killing of Amadou Diallo, or the fact that Springsteen had once again put his feet down on the side of the oppressed through the creation of a stunning work of art.
A single performance of "American Skin" was enough to launch a new chapter in the culture wars. Before even hearing the song, the nation’s battalion of armed art critics sprang into action. The head of the NYC Police Benevolent Association called on the city’s 27,000 cops to boycott the concerts by refusing to moonlight as security guards. NYC Police Commissioner Howard Safir supported the boycott and added his own insightful critique, "I personally don’t particularly care for Bruce Springsteen’s music or his song." And New York Mayor Giuliani whined: "There are still people trying to create the impression that the police officers are guilty."
All were outdone by the president of the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Bob Lucente, who was forced to resign after his ugly outburst: "[Springsteen’s] turned into some type of fucking dirtbag. He goes on the boycott list. He has all these good songs and everything, American-flag songs and all that stuff, and now he’s a floating fag, and you can quote me on that."
The FOP, as RW readers know, are seasoned political campaigners for official death and mayhem, having specialized recently in trying to terrorize artists who oppose the execution of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
As this latest drama unfolded, the strangeness of our polarized society hit me. Two of the most popular bands in the country, Rage Against the Machine and now Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, have recently run afoul of the cops with their music. And, despite the rampages of the enforcers who would dictate which music we can listen to, so far the net tally has been Artists 2, Cops 0.
On Monday, June 12, Madison Square Garden was the site of the first of ten sold-out Springsteen concerts in New York City. Myself and a friend who is currently curating an art show about police violence decided to head over there and take our chances with the sidewalk ticket sellers.
I have been a lover of Springsteen’s music for over 20 years, and I was sure this show would be historic, but I wasn’t exactly prepared for what happened inside that arena. I had totally forgotten that you barely ever sit down during a Springsteen concert, but you don’t get tired. And I forgot what it was like to go on that journey through the lives of all those "lost and broken-hearted" and fierce and unrepentant people. These characters from the dark side of town were like old friends, folks you understand and love because Springsteen is that rare artist who tells the stories of working people without blaming them for what the system dishes out, or giving up on them.
About a half-hour into the set, the band moved into "Point Blank" — a quietly devastating song about the slow but relentless way the system shatters the hopes and dreams of a young woman:
"You grew up where young girls they grow up fast
You took what you were handed and left behind what was asked.
But what they asked baby wasn’t right
you didn’t have to live that life.
I was gonna be your Romeo you were gonna be my Juliet
These days you don’t wait on Romeos
you wait on that welfare check
and on all the pretty things that you can’t ever have
and on all the promises
That always end up point blank, shot between the eyes
Point blank like little white lies you tell to ease the pain
You’re walkin’ in the sights, girl, of point blank
it’s one false move, and baby the lights go out."
The song ended and we were standing there kind of wounded in the darkness of that huge hall, when the voices started dropping in:
"American Skin" opened with this mournful and angry and instantly memorable chorus. Right away thunderous cheers went up — welcoming the invitation to take a musical trip into gut wrenching territory. And then people listened hard..
What is this song saying?
The first verse recalls the story told in the courtroom by one of the cops who killed Amadou Diallo:
"41 shots they cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule
Praying for his life..."
The next verse describes the now-daily ritual millions of mothers go through as their kids walk out the door and into an occupied zone—their own neighborhood..
"Laina 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, you’ll always be polite
Never ever run away
Promise me you’ll keep your hands in sight..."
Springsteen sets that scene so plainly and movingly he invites anyone, including this audience, mostly white and over 30, to walk for a moment in the shoes of people who must live under this terror.
Some critics and fans have tried to take the edge off things by claiming that the police had "misunderstood" the song — that "American Skin" simply mourns a "tragic situation," or reflects on "how fear can become deadly," and takes no sides. I suppose one could interpret the lyrics on paper through that humanist lens. In the last verse the carnage is everywhere, in the river, on all of our shoes: "We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood."
But that night in Madison Square Garden we heard something else — anger and determination. And when Clarence Clemons came in at the end with a single anguished sax wail, I felt the presence of every life stolen by men trained to be executioners. By the last chorus, many people were singing along, some of us crying. And there was no doubt that a collective protest against the cutting down of all the Amadou Diallos had taken over the room — heartfelt.
Mao Tsetung says that in judging a work of art we should always consider both the subjective intent of the artist and the objective effect on the people and the struggle. And that sometimes the artist intends one thing, but the effect is quite another.
Springsteen has yet to comment on the song so I can’t say for sure what he thinks, but on Monday night there was little doubt that "American Skin" took listeners to a different verdict than the jury and the cops did on the killing of this unarmed Black man. The murder of Amadou Diallo was a great injustice, and the song is a powerful protest. The Diallo family, who sat as invited guests in the first row, reportedly felt the same way.
Springsteen is known for digging deep — looking for answers about how and why the "American Dream" betrays the people. In "American Skin" he explores how such a murder could have happened. The repeated words "41 shots" become the bullets that have cut down so many — leaving a "bloody river." The words "It ain’t no secret/ No secret my friend/ You can get killed just for living in your American skin" are clearly a reference to the reality that in America you can be killed by the police for the "crime" of being Black.
But there are layers of meaning in the lyrics and it’s not clear to me what Springsteen intends with the story of the cop "down on his knees." One critic argued that the line: "You can get killed just for living in your American skin" could apply to both Diallo and the police. And Springsteen seems to be suggesting that the cops are caught in a situation where fear and racism mix for a murderous conclusion.
I’m not sure what Springsteen thinks about the role of the police in society. A couple years ago, he did a benefit for the family of a slain cop in New Jersey, which was really disappointing to all of us who know that the people live under daily occupation of these murderous enforcers.
Maybe the first verse of "American Skin" is meant to pose a challenge to the character who is "kneeling over the body in the vestibule" to stop this killing situation. But the lyrics imply that the character is "caught" in a tough situation.
The problem is that in capitalist society, cops are not just doing a "tough job" (and they are certainly not part of the working class); once they take this job they are the enforcers of the ruling class order — part of the armed forces of the state. Their job is to protect the interests of the rich and powerful. It is an ugly job and they are trained in an ugly mentality — to hate and fear and put down the oppressed. So there is a built-in antagonism between the cops and the masses of people that can only be resolved by hard revolutionary struggle. As for individual cops, the only possible path to redemption is to totally denounce the enforcer’s role and spend the rest of their lives trying to make up for it! In real life, the cops who cried on the stand, after they were busted for killing Amadou, were quick to dry their tears when the not guilty verdict came in, and have not to my knowledge quit the force!
The response of the police to "American Skin" has also been very revealing. The police do not seem interested in the subtleties of the lyrics. Apparently any suggestion that Amadou Diallo’s killers were in the wrong is enough to unleash a torrent of ugliness. And I think it only confirms that the police do consider it "their job" to carry out such killings—with impunity. And anyone who questions this is on the "boycott list."
While Springsteen may not share my revolutionary viewpoint on the police, the objective effect of "American Skin" has been to powerfully put these wrenching questions on the cultural agenda — and this was a brave move by the E Street Band.
The impact of this whole episode on the country at large has also been very cool, as all kinds of folks welcomed this new work. The poet, Suheir Hammad, well known here for her own unforgettable piece on Amadou, sent these comments out by email: "Anyone whose known me since childhood knows i’ve always loved bruce springsteen, and that i wanted to be clarence clemons on the alto sax. the sisters hammad have always agreed that if folks didn’t like bruce, they’d probably never taken the time to listen to his ill lyrics.... when an artist’s work is in the service of truth, we should offer up the respect due."
Hip hop artist Flavor Flav, who included the track "41:19" on a recent Public Enemy CD, also spoke out: "Bruce Springsteen, he sees the picture. Can’t no one blame a man for seeing reality the way that it is. And y’know what? I’m with my man all the way."
I think the following taxi conversation reported on the internet said much about the impact of this song:
"‘Did he sing it — the song — 41 bullets, I mean 41 shots — did he sing that song?’
‘Yes, he did!’
‘He did? He really did? He sang 41 shots?’
‘Yes, he really did.’
‘Oh! He is a man! A real man.’
‘It is a very powerful song. He sings the words ‘41 shots’over and over quietly. [I give him an example]. It’s very powerful.’
‘You know, I saw him once, in 1988, he came to Africa with Sting and I saw him. He is a good man. He is not afraid to take a stand.’
"And so we went on, a West African taxi driver and a typical suburban white guy, two fans united by the power of Bruce Springsteen’s words, music and soul."
No doubt Bruce Springsteen will have more to say about the meaning of "American Skin" but in the meantime the song is speaking for itself.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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