Boss doing what he does best
I've got a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen next week at Madison Square Garden, but I don't have to see him perform his new song, "American Skin," to know that is was written with the same sense of care, honesty and integrity that has typified all of his work.
The song — is case you've been living in a musical shell this week — has caused a national stir, grabbing front-page headlines in New York City and becoming a topic of national discussion. The tune was inspired by the death of Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant who was shot at 41 times by four white police officers last year while standing in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. The officers who killed Diallo, who was hit 19 times, said they thought he was reaching for a gun when he apparently tried to remove his wallet from his pocket.
Diallo had no gun.
"41 shots," repeats the song at one point. "Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life ... You can get killed just for living in your American skin."
Some New York cops are outraged, asking fellow officers to boycott Springsteen's sold-out 10-night stand at the Garden. One report had Bob Lucente, the president of the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, referring to Springsteen as a "scum bag."
He, and apparently a select few others, just don't get it.
Springsteen is simply doing what he's always done: singing about America and, on occasion, the social and political issues that he deems worthy of comment. As a brilliant songwriter, he's able to pen third-person narrative tales and sing passionate first-person songs about life as seen through the eyes of others. And unlike much of the phony anger-rock that hits the airwaves today, Springsteen is never silly enough to paint himself as a victim. Growing up as a white, lower-middle class American in suburban New Jersey, he's always been smart enough to know he's been dealt a pretty decent hand in the card game of life. "Born To Run," may have been a legitimate autobiographical tale of the frustrations of small-town youth, but most of Springsteen's politically conscious songs have been written with an eye on the news, not his own well-furnished living room.
That, of course, is what gives his work such credence and validity.
Springsteen sang about Bronx shootouts 27 years ago on "Lost in The Flood," an exceptional track from his debut album. He sang about the torment of Vietnam veterans in "Born in The U.S.A." and became publicly annoyed when the Republican Party — clearly missing the point of the song — tried to turn it into a campaign-trail anthem. He wrote compassionately about living with AIDS in "Streets of Philadelphia" and about unemployed factory workers in "Youngstown." And, like many songwriters, he has used the trials of love as a muse for his work.
No one does this better. No one makes it all feel more real.
Some New York cops may consider "American Skin" a cheap shot, but Springsteen apparently feels that — despite the four officers' acquittal of any wrongdoing — the cheapest shots of all were the 41 that cops fired at an innocent man. They forget that it has been Springsteen who has donated his time and money to aid the families of slain police officers, and that he's been an honorable role model for three generations of American youth.
Perhaps if the NYPD officers scanned the record charts, they'd see they've picked a fight with the wrong guy. The silly Limp Bizkit sings about "breaking stuff," while some white Clorox-headed wannabe rappers load their venomous "messages" with expletives and cry about the non-existent social injustices they face. Woodstock '99 turns into a fiasco of destruction and violence but — like many of the acts on the bill — offered no significant social message or purpose.
Through it all, Bruce Springsteen continues to put on amazing rock shows and write songs that matter. He has never blatantly disrespected or targeted anyone, but has simply and intelligently asked the questions that sometimes need to be asked.
Steve Corbett, the political/social issues and metro columnist here at the Times Leader who's been known to stir up some controversy himself over the years, stopped me in the newsroom the other day with the simple words: "Bruce is doing what Bruce is supposed to be doing."
Bruce is doing what he's always done. He's calling it like he sees it.
And unlike some of today's insignificant artists who must follow every sentence they say with the catch phrase of the day — "Ya know what I'm sayin'?" — Springsteen's never had to ask us that question.
His music has always made that perfectly clear.