Article 2000-06-12 New York City, NY

Born to Run, or at Least to Be Redeemed

For a songwriter who tries to be as concise and clear as possible, Bruce Springsteen can be strangely misunderstood. The mere fact that he had written a song prompted by the shooting of Amadou Diallo set off a hair-trigger response from police supporters.

In a case that divided the city, the four police officers who fired 41 shots at Mr. Diallo, an unarmed street vendor from Guinea, testified that they thought he was reaching for a gun when he was apparently reaching for a wallet. They were acquitted of murder charges.

Reacting to the title of the song, ''American Skin,'' and its refrain of ''41 shots,'' Bob Lucente, the president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, denounced both the song, for supposed anti-police messages, and Mr. Springsteen, calling him a ''dirt bag.''

''American Skin'' itself, which Mr. Springsteen performed on Monday night in his first of 10 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden, is no anti-cop diatribe. With piano chords tolling behind Mr. Springsteen's care-worn voice, it's a resonant elegy and a reflection on how fear can become deadly.

The song begins with Mr. Springsteen intoning ''41 shots'' again and again. In the first verse, a policeman kneels after the shooting over the ''body in the vestibule, praying for his life''; in the second, a mother instructs her son to be polite to policemen, never run away and ''keep your hands in sight.''

The third and last verse declares, ''We're baptized in these waters and in each others' blood.'' In between, the chorus asks questions that may have run through the officers' minds — ''Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life'' — and concludes, ''You can get killed just for living in your American skin,'' a line that could apply to both Diallo and the policemen. The song is determinedly evenhanded as it ponders what led to those 41 shots.

Mr. Springsteen has made no statement beyond the song itself. But on Monday night, he opened his three-hour set with a new rocker, ''Code of Silence,'' that he wrote with Joe Grushecky, a kindred songwriter. It could be about a couple who have stopped speaking — he calls someone ''darling'' and ''baby'' — or a broken public trust. He also placed ''American Skin'' between ''Point Blank'' and ''The Promised Land.''

''American Skin'' is not the first Springsteen song to be misread. ''Born in the U.S.A.,'' released in 1984, is the bitter testimony of a down-and-out Vietnam veteran wondering what became of his birthright. But President Ronald Reagan, in his re-election campaign, tried to enlist it as a patriotic anthem. On Monday, Mr. Springsteen sang the version of ''Born in the U.S.A.'' that he introduced in the 1990's: a solo, with keening slide guitar lines steeped in the blues, that makes the song's desperation unmistakable.

''American Skin'' and ''Born in the U.S.A.'' represent one side of Mr. Springsteen's songwriting: tales of ordinary people crushed by forces they cannot control. That's the side that has emerged as Mr. Springsteen, who is 50, has grown older. When he emerged in the 1970's, he was already writing about outsiders and castoffs, but they held on to some hope that in classic American style they could zoom down the road to better times.

Those were the songs he recorded in the 1970's and 80's with the E Street Band; he and the band members went separate ways until the late 90's. Mr. Springsteen has been touring with them for a year, and they have reached a new peak as an ensemble: gleaming with the keyboards of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, surging with the bass lines of Gary W. Tallent and the drumming of Max Weinberg, honking with rhythm-and-blues from Clarence Clemons's saxophone and unleashing three lead guitarists — Mr. Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. Mr. Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, strums acoustic guitar and sings backup. The band vamps like a soul revue, then hits like a stainless-steel fist.

And while Mr. Springsteen performed some of his no-way-out songs — including a version of ''Youngstown'' that howled with desolation — the concert was not about compassion or fatalism. It was about camaraderie and redemption. Twice, Mr. Springsteen let songs stretch out and turned himself into a preacher, promising to spread ''the ministry of rock 'n' roll.''

He dropped to his knees, stretched out his arms and worked the crowd like a gospel singer. The house lights stayed on through much of the show; Mr. Springsteen wanted the audience to join in, and wouldn't rest until it did (although he met no resistance). He was also bonded with the band, sharing a microphone with all the musicians whose instruments were portable, even trading vocals on a love song, ''If I Should Fall Behind.''

Reuniting with the band and singing anthems like ''Born to Run'' and ''Thunder Road'' have rejuvenated Mr. Springsteen. There were also unreleased songs in the set, and they were substantial and tinged with optimism. ''Further on Up the Road'' vowed, ''Let's take the good times as they come'' and ''Land of Hope and Dreams'' predicted, ''Tomorrow there will be sunshine, and all this darkness pass.'' The way the band sounded, it was easy to believe.

'American Skin (41 Shots)'

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots and we'll take that ride

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

No secret my friend

You can get killed just for living in your American skin

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

41 shots

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 that you'll always be polite

Never ever run away,

Promise me you'll keep your hands in sight

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

41 shots

41 shots

41shots

41 shots

Is it a gun?

Is it a knife?

Is it in your heart?

Is it in your eyes?

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 I got my boots caked with this mud

We're baptized in these waters and in each other's blood

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

No 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

By Jon Pareles via The New York Times.

Springsteen Song About Diallo Prompts Anger From Police

Standing on the stage at Madison Square Garden momentarily shrouded in darkness, Bruce Springsteen sang the words ''41 shots'' nine times last night. The words begin his new song deploring the killing of Amadou Diallo by four police officers.

The crowd grew silent, then rose in applause, as Mr. Springsteen began to sing. Scattered boos were quickly enveloped in the cries of ''Bruce!''

The song, ''American Skin,'' has been criticized by Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, who has urged New York City officers to boycott Mr. Springsteen's concerts.

But that boycott was not strictly observed yesterday. ''It's not a big deal. People blow things up,'' said Natalie Carbone, 25, a New Jersey native, lifelong Springsteen fan and New York City police officer. ''I don't think this will affect what police officers think about Bruce Springsteen. It's just a song.''

But other fans said they were disappointed that Mr. Springsteen had chosen to perform the song in New York City. ''He shouldn't use his power to make a statement like that,'' said Heather Milyo of Staten Island, whose fiance is a police officer. ''I think you have to be in a cop's shoes to understand what happened.''

The ''41 shots'' Mr. Springsteen sings about refer to the number of bullets fired at Mr. Diallo as he stood in front of his apartment in the Bronx last year, and it includes the lyric, ''You can get killed just for living in your American skin.''

Although Mr. Springsteen has not released a recording of the song, controversy has built around it since he first performed it on June 4 in Atlanta. Mr. Diallo's mother, Kadiatou Diallo, has said she took the song as a sign that people cared about her son. But police officers, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mr. Safir have frowned on it, suggesting that it is wrong to condemn the officers who were acquitted of murder and other charges in February.

Representatives of Mr. Springsteen yesterday declined to comment on the criticism of the song.

Mr. Diallo, a black street vendor from Guinea, was shot by the four white officers on Feb. 4, 1999. The officers testified that they had thought he was reaching for a gun. Mr. Diallo was unarmed and was apparently reaching for his wallet, a fact Mr. Springsteen focuses on in the song.

Mr. Springsteen sang: ''Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.''

Mr. Giuliani said yesterday that he understood why the officers were angry about the song. ''There are still people trying to create the impression that the police officers are guilty, and they are going to feel strongly about that,'' he said.

Mr. Safir said that police officers had a right not to like Mr. Springsteen's music. ''I personally don't particularly care for Bruce Springsteen's music or his songs,'' he said.

By Julian E. Barnes via The New York Times.
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