Thursday, March 10, 2011
March 10, 2011: Who’s (Listening to) the Boss?
The first prominent occasion on which Bruce Springsteen was badly misread was, to put it bluntly, a result of either colossal ignorance or willful inattention to detail. Even at seven years old, pretending to drum along to the first and title song on my cassette tape of Born in the U.S.A. (1984), I knew that the song was no kind of simplistic celebration; the first two lines are “Born down in a dead man’s town, / The first kick I took was when I hit the ground,” and it doesn’t let up from there. So when Ronald Reagan spoke at a campaign rally about Springsteen’s “messages of hope” and then sought permission to use “Born” as a campaign theme song, he was, again, guilty of either having no earthly clue about the song or of thinking his audience would themselves listen only to the chorus and drums and pump their fists right along with him. In any case, Bruce promptly rebuffed the idea, joking that he didn’t know which of his albums was Reagan’s favorite but he was pretty sure it wasn’t Nebraska (1982), and that was that.
The second such famous misreading, though, was significantly more complex, if to my mind also much more tragic in what it has perhaps not allowed many Americans to hear. When Springsteen decided to write a song about the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting, he was entering already extremely controversial and divisive territory; Diallo was the West African street vendor who while returning to his apartment building was mistaken for a wanted criminal by a group of four plainclothes New York policemen and, when he reached for (it seems) a wallet to prove his identity, was on the receiving and fatal end of 41 shots from those officers. The shooting, and even more the subsequent exonerations of the officers in an internal investigation and not guilty verdict delivered to them in a trial (which had been moved to an upstate location), profoundly divided the city and much of the nation; and when Springsteen gave his song (titled “American Skin”) the parenthetical subtitle “41 Shots” (and included over twenty repetitions of the phrase in the song’s opening and closing sections) he seemed explicitly to be aligning with one side in those divisions and debates. Certainly that was how New York’s police took the song, leading both to a proposed boycott by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (whose president publicly called Bruce a “fucking dirtbag”) and to an officer walking around the stage with his middle finger raised during an entire performance of the song at New York’s Madison Square Garden in June 2000.
Yet I would, again, argue that these responses represent another, and even more tragically inaccurate, misreading of a Springsteen song. The entire first verse of the song actually presents the perspective of one of the police officers, a man whom the speaker addresses with “You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule, / Praying for his life”; in the subsequent first chorus, when Springsteen sings that “It ain’t no secret / No secret my friend / You can get killed just for living in / Your American skin,” the “you” in question is thus demonstrably here the policeman, facing the life threatening conditions of his daily work and struggling with the kinds of split-second decisions that can go so terribly wrong. The second verse certainly adds in a very distinct and even opposed perspective, that of an African American mother addressing her young son about the potential dangers he faces in interactions with the police, and so in that chorus the “you” is this young boy who could indeed be killed solely for living in his, equally American skin. But once we have these multiple verses and perspectives and audiences in mind, the final verse can be read in its full import and power (and I think it’s as powerful as any moment in American literature): “41 shots and we’ll take that ride / ‘Cross this bloody river and to the other side / 41 shots and my boots caked in this mud / We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.” The final line, with each phrase echoed by the full E Street Band behind Springsteen, both acknowledges the blood and violence that has been and always can be spilled on both sides of such a divide and yet fully transcends any and all such divisions, making as affecting an appeal for our national unity and community as any I know.
Musical taste is, of course, individual and subjective, and my love for this song isn’t an analytical position. Yet whatever one thinks of it as a work of art, I believe that the whole of the song, and these final lines most especially, constitutes a vitally significant contribution to our national narratives and identities, a perspective that, in the wake of an incident like the Diallo shooting even more than ever, deserves to be heard and engaged as widely as possible. Plus, just listen to Clarence’s sax solo at the end. More tomorrow, on a peace treaty that ended a very minor war and should end a very major contemporary debate.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Not exactly identical to my favorite version of the song (which is on the Live in New York City double album), but close: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVKZKVcyVZM
2) The Amadou Diallo Foundation, a perfect example of how we can indeed cross that bloody river to the other side: http://www.amadoudiallofoundationinc.com/
3) OPEN: What texts (in any medium) would you say have been mis-read?