Poor Bruce Springsteen.
Well, I don't necessarily mean "poor" because the guy's rolling in dough, and seems to have finally found happiness after years of searching. But I can't think of another performer whose works have been misinterpreted as often as his. In 1984, you may recall that Ronald Reagan, running for reelection, said that Springsteen's songs reflected the renewed optimism currently sweeping the country. Onstage a few nights later, Bruce wondered if the Big Jackass had ever listened to the Nebraska album, and launched into "Johnny 99," a song about a laid-off auto worker who gets drunk, kills a man, and tells the judge that he'd be better off dead. Bruce's record sales benefited from Reagan's "endorsement," and Springsteen was clearly affected. His powerful missive against blind faith before his scorching version of Edwin Starr's "War" (found on Live 1975-85) sounded like a direct attack on the incident.
A few days after the controversy surrounding "American Skin (41 Shots)" broke, my sister e-mailed me asking for my take on the incident. Though I said that I couldn't make any true judgements about the song until I heard it, I still wrote a minor essay (most of which has been reprinted here) about what I felt Bruce was saying. When I realized that I could have something good for PCC, I put aside my moral objections to Napster and downloaded a bootleg of the debut performance of the song.
Throughout the song, the words "41 shots" are heard, both in the background and the foreground. This isn't an expression of moral outrage; Bruce's tone is too sad and reflective for that. Instead, he gives us a basis on which to think about how our society has regressed. Springsteen isn't condemning the police for their actions. He has never been one to make moral judgements in his songs, or use his fame as a soapbox for his political views. Here, he tells a story about what people are going through and allows the listeners to relate it to their own lives. The now oft-quoted chorus drives this home:
Is it a gun?
Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet?
This is your life
It ain't no secret, my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American Skin
Bruce is showing a remarkable understanding of the situation, even compassion for the officers involved. By saying, "This is your life," he's asking the audience to put themselves in that situation, and to wonder if they would act any differently than the police did. That last line, though, articulates the fears of everybody involved: the police, the victim, society.
Bruce's coining of the phrase "American Skin" is particularly evocative, and works on several levels. The obvious connotation is that of its color--that, despite the progress made since lynchings were common, you can get still get killed for looking different. But the police also live in their "American Skin," and they can get killed just for trying to do their job. Finally, our skin is designed to protect us from external elements, but it can't protect us from what goes on inside our bodies and minds, or in the minds of other people.
The second verse expounds on this:
Lena gets her son ready for school
She says "Now, on these streets Charlie, you've 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
I can't hear those words and not think back to my idyllic suburban childhood. When a police car would drive by we were taught to wave to them, because they were your friends, always there to protect you should you ever need them. I wonder if children today are still waving to passing police cars, and if the police still wave back--or if they stop, get out of their cars, and draw their weapons.
Since this controversy started I've been thinking of Springsteen's compelling 1982 song "Highway Patrolman," in which a small-town policeman is caught between trying to do a good job while at the same time trying to protect his renegade younger brother. In the last verse, the brother kills somebody in a fight and the narrator chases him through the winding rural roads. Eventually, he lets his brother escape through the Canadian border. Again, what would you do in that situation?
Me and Frankie laughin' and drinkin'
Nothing feels better than blood on blood
Takin' turns dancin' with Maria
As the band played "Night of the Johnstown Flood"
I catch him when he's strayin'
Like any brother would
A man turns his back on his family
Well, he just ain't no good
Another touchstone song is Neil Young's "Ohio," recorded just a few days after the Kent State tragedy in May 1970. Young, like Springsteen, focuses not on the actual event but puts the listener on the campus and
challenges their beliefs. That's why the line "What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?" against those strident guitar chords still sends chills up the spine thirty years later.
Frankly, I don't see why the Police Department has a problem with this song. I can only guess that they haven't yet heard the song, and are going by the initial reports. The song is not about the Diallo shooting, but references it rather chillingly in a portrayal of a society that has become increasingly violent and paranoid to the point where even good people can make decisions that result in the death of innocent people.