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Under the Boss' Skin

Bruce Springsteen talks about his reunion tour, recording plans and the recent controversy over a new song about the tensions of race relations in America.

April 01, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN

Wanting a new song for the final shows of his 1999-2000 reunion tour with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen thumbed through his notebook early last year and noticed the words "American Skin." It felt like the ideal title for a song he wanted write about race relations in America.

In drafting the song, Springsteen drew on images from a highly publicized 1999 incident in which four white New York City policemen shot an unarmed black West African immigrant, Amadou Diallo, 41 times. The officers said they mistook the wallet in Diallo's hand for a gun.

Springsteen and the band played the song in Atlanta and New York, and it became a cause celebre when the president of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, misinterpreting the song as an attack on law enforcement, labeled Springsteen a "dirt bag."

"American Skin (41 Shots)" arrives on record this week, on a two-disc live album that will be released Tuesday by Columbia Records. It's one of the most evocative songs of Springsteen's career-a tense, chilling work that carries the documentary feel of his best "Nebraska" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" narratives.

The tune is a highlight of Springsteen's first TV concert special, which airs Saturday on HBO. Recorded at the New York shows, both the special and the album capture marvelously the intensity and character of the tour.

The key to the reunion's success was that Springsteen and the eight-member band looked forward, not back, using new and relatively unfamiliar tunes to define his themes of commitment and community.

In an interview, Springsteen, 51, spoke about "American Skin," the tour and the future. He and his wife, singer-guitarist Patti Scialfa, still have a home in Los Angeles, but they and their three children (ages 7 to 10) spend most of their time at their home in New Jersey.

Question: Did you anticipate the controversy over "American Skin (41 Shots)'?

Answer: No, I was surprised because the Diallo incident had been written about extensively in newspapers and magazines, and I felt the song was simply an extension of the music I had been writing for my whole life. It was a meditation on what it means to be an American at a particular moment in time.

It struck me as almost funny that all these people would go on the record about something they never heard, since there was no record of it out. The song had only been played once in Atlanta when the uproar began. We were rehearsing for the New York shows and [guitarist] Steve [Van Zandt] brought in these [news]papers and we both went, "Holy cow. What's going on here?"

Q: What was your purpose in writing the song?

A: It felt to me like the most necessary issue to deal with at the turn of the century was the question of race in America and how we deal with one another. To some degree, the answer to that question is going to decide a lot about how the nation as a whole eventually rises or falls.

I wanted to point out that people of color are viewed through a veil of criminality and that ultimately means they are thought of as somehow less American than other Americans, therefore people with less rights....Not just by law enforcement but the guy behind the counter at the convenience store and whoever.

The first verse is about people trying to cross the river of race, and how the river is tainted with blood. The second verse is about a mother sending her child to school, having to give very specific instructions about how to act. It's so painful for her because most people assume their children will be safe, but she can't make that assumption. She knows the slightest movement or slightest misunderstanding could mean the end of your life.

Q: What about the presidential election? Did you feel strongly about either candidate?

A: Well, it goes without saying that I'd rather we didn't have a Republican president.

Q: Do you think George W. Bush's election will lead to renewed activism in pop and rock?

A: I don't know how that plays itself out in the musical world exactly. I've read that "Nebraska" was my response to the Reagan years. It may have been, but I wasn't thinking about that directly when I was writing. I was just thinking about the things I cared about that were not being voiced in some fashion. I think that's a songwriter's job.

Q: Before we talk about the reunion tour, let's go back to the 1992 tour you did with a different band. Did it hurt you when so many of your fans wouldn't accept you or the albums or the other musicians you toured with?

A: I don't take it personally in that fashion. I have a long relationship with an audience out there that is going to feel a whole variety of different ways about things I do. That's family life, you know [laughs]. I don't feel that someone must accept what I'm doing at a given moment 'cause they like what I did in the past. The [change] was just something I felt I had to do.

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