"The air was thick in the Garden that night." That’s how Bruce Springsteen remembers the concert twenty years ago this month when he and the E Street Band performed his song "American Skin (41 Shots)" in New York City for the very first time.
A longtime progressive and activist, for decades Springsteen had walked a tightrope with his audience. Many of his white suburban fans were likelier to identify with the politics of Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, or Ted Nugent than the political causes Springsteen supported. He appeared at rallies and benefits for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Christic Institute, and Amnesty International.
On that June evening in Madison Square Garden, Springsteen and company’s pre-show ritual was more intense than the typical last second huddle before storming the stage. That’s because a few nights earlier in Atlanta—June 4, 2000—Springsteen had given "American Skin (41 Shots)," its inaugural performance. In his review of Springsteen’s show, an Atlanta music critic described the song in detail, and a bootleg recording leaked to the internet. The reaction was swift and severe, both a pathetic and tyrannical rejection of criticism and police accountability.
His protest anthem was in response to the New York Police Department’s killing of Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant whose attempt to reach for his wallet to correct a case of mistaken identity (a police officer thought he was a rape suspect) proved fatal. Four cops fired 41 shots, hitting Diallo with 19 bullets. Within seconds, the 24-year-old was dead.
The NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association demanded a boycott of Springsteen’s show at the Garden, and many officers refused to provide security for the singer and his band. Bob Lucente, then president of New York State’s Fraternal Order of Police, denounced Springsteen with juvenile invective and homophobia, calling him a "dirtbag" and "floating faggot."
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (currently serving as Donald Trump’s towel boy) criticized Springsteen, and asked him not to play "American Skin" in New York—a position consistent with his sycophantic support of the police throughout his mayoral tenure. In the immediate aftermath of the Diallo shooting, Giuliani had praised the officers involved, and used the power of the police against the outraged citizens who filled the streets marching for justice.
As is too often the case with so many state-sponsored killings of unarmed black men, that justice was buried in a grave alongside America’s other victims of police brutality. Four plainclothes police officers, members of the department’s Street Crime Unit (SCU), were charged with second degree murder. All were acquitted.
But indignation over their release led to a wrongful death suit against the city of New York and a $3 million out of court settlement for the Diallo family. It also provoked scrutiny of the SCU, small bands of plain clothes officers roaming the streets in search of criminals. Racial profiling and excessive force complaints grew on an almost daily basis until the city terminated the unit in 2002.
"Here is what systematic racial injustice, fear, and paranoia do to our children" Springsteen wrote in "American Skin." "Here is the price in blood." The song begins with Springsteen and the band repeating the words "41 shots," underscoring the ghastly number of bullets aimed at Diallo, and, in the songwriter’s own words, the "daily compounding of crimes—large and small" in a racist society.
In the first verse, Springsteen offers the perspective of an observer who sees a police officer "kneeling over his body in the vestibule." The chorus begins, "Is it a gun / Is it a knife / Is it a wallet / This is your life," capturing the paranoia with which cops must live before transitioning into the threat that black Americans face on the curbside, in the alleyway, the park, or, as in the recent case of Breonna Taylor—the EMT killed during a "no knock" raid intended for another house in Louisville, Kentucky—their own homes.
"It ain’t no secret…You can get killed just for living in your American skin." With that last line of the chorus, Springsteen challenges the instability of American identity—asking to whom it belongs, and how the state uses its power to deny it to those who have inherited it as birthright or earned it through immigration.
Springsteen’s impassioned vocal, and the E Street Band’s muscular support, allow the music to gather urgency as the lyrics tell a story that begins with a few individuals but soon implicates anyone with an interest in American democracy.
In the second verse, Springsteen depicts "the talk" that black parents must have with their children, warning them of the dangers that accompany their every interaction with law enforcement.He then plays a simple but emotive guitar solo in the middle of "American Skin" that explodes into an alteration of the chorus: "Is it a gun / Is it a knife / Is it in your heart? / Is it in your eyes?"
Springsteen explains, "That line asks the audience to look inside themselves, for their own collaboration in events."
As long as America continues to relegate generations of poor black Americans into underclass permanence, it will have to recognize its culpability in the specter of death that stalks the streets of the inner city. Black children breath the most heavily polluted air, with rates of asthma and other respiratory problems unimaginable in the suburbs. They receive a disgraceful education in an underfunded and understaffed school system, and suffer from inadequate health care and limited opportunity in food deserts among abandoned lots.
These undercover catastrophes, like the music of "American Skin," detonate into flames of visibility when the police commit "a lynching in broad daylight." That’s how Jesse Jackson described George Floyd’s death a few days ago.
From "The Ghost of Tom Joad" to "Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen has created chronicles of exile, asking his country to mourn and better represent the "Souls of the Departed," to use the title of one of his other political songs. But among all his memorable compositions, it is "American Skin," twenty years later, that most resonates in our current days of fury.
Springsteen regularly performs "American Skin," often dedicating it to victims of racist violence. At a Florida concert, he dedicated it to Trayvon Martin, and in Baltimore, to Freddie Gray. During a 2016 Chicago performance, Jake Clemons—the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons—ended "American Skin" with a plaintive saxophone solo. After lowering the instrument from his lips, while the soft drumbeat faded into oblivion, he elevated his arms in the spotlight.
"We’re baptized in these waters," Springsteen sings in full throated shout, "And in each other’s blood."
Springsteen’s anthem addresses the social and spiritual disaster awaiting a society that allows one shade of skin to function as a shield, and a darker shade to double as a target. With the language of communal baptism, he is hoping for the possibility of redemption.
A reevaluation of national identity, even patriotism, that imbues Americans with solidarity—treating the violation of one as a violation of all—offers the promise of salvation.
That promise, facing the suffocation of tear gas and the blunt force of the billy club, is fighting for emergence in the American street.