Los Angeles Times, Sunday, April 1, 2001
by 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 célèbre 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 rightsNot 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.
Q: I've had this theory that you got the idea for taking time off from the band while on the Amnesty International tour and seeing how much Sting grew musically after leaving the Police. Did that have an impact on your thinking?
A: It might have. Sting moved a lot between musicians and seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of it, plus I met a lot of different musicians on that tour. There were some very admirable players, all with their own voices doing different things. By that time in the late '80s, I felt I knew this voice I had with the E Street Band and I didn't at the time have any idea of where to take that voice forward. So, I wondered what it would be like to play with other musicians. And I enjoyed the experience tremendously.
Q: How intimidating was the prospect of the reunion tour? These things usually seem like nostalgia exercises or desperate attempts for a final payday. Why did you think yours would be perceived differently?
A: I was very aware of the dangers, but I had a lot of confidence in this band.
We had played together sporadically, like when we released the greatest-hits
album, and the guys sounded great. The challenge was to put the music into a
contemporary context. That was always on my mind.
At the first rehearsal, all we did was play unfamiliar materialsongs from the "Tracks" album [of previously unreleased material] or new ideas I had floating around. Then occasionally we would hit on things we had played in the past. The thrilling thing was seeing how good the band was playing. If you saw us on that tour, you saw us at our best.
Q: That's hard for a lot of people to accept. It goes against the idea that people make their best rock music in their 20s. What's your feeling about that?
A: There may be some truth to the fact that you may write some of your greatest songs at that age, but it doesn't mean that you won't also write great songs later, or that the band's playing won't get even better. If a band stays healthy and takes what they do seriously, it only figures that you are going to get better at it. I think we had that idea earlythat we were going to be around for a long time.
Q: Do you think that's also why your writing seemed to have a timelessness about it?
A: Well, I was conscious of writing songs that I could sing for years. That might have been something I got from country musicPeople like Hank Williams. I wanted to write songs that I could get on stage and sing when I was 40 or 45, songs that I could even add to because of the experiences I'd have.
Q: How hard was it not to lose perspective during the enormous success of the "Born in the U.S.A." experience?
A: Not as hard as the "Born to Run" period because I was older. I was 35 and had already been through quite a bit. I felt I was going on a very big ride, but I saw it as a challenge. My heroes were people like Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley or the great soul heroespeople who took a very large risk by accepting that exposure. They went after what they could. They claimed as big a part of the country for themselves as their abilities and their talents allowed. I found something admirable about that. They had tremendous influence and tremendous success at doing so and redefining what it meant to be an American for a lot of people in their audience.
Q: This is your first TV special. Why didn't you do it earlier?
A: In the early days, I just thought television was fundamentally a cool medium and what we did involved heat and passion and getting your blood up. But there have been a lot of breakthroughs in technology that made the idea of filming more inviting. The "Tom Joad" tour was a tremendous experience for me, and I felt very badly that we didn't film one of the shows. But I don't think we decided to film this show until the last week or two. The idea was just to see how it'd look, maybe just keep it for ourselves. But when I looked at it, I felt we caught an awful lot of the band's excitement, the heat and the passion.
Q: So you'll be on HBO with Steve Van Zandt and "The Sopranos." Since he's in the cast, have they invited you to do a guest shot on the show?
A: No [laughs]. It's a fabulous show. Steve has me in stitches every week on the thing. To me, it's one of the best things ever on TVthe level of writing is so rare, the level of psychological depth, the questions they are consistently able to bring up , very impressive, very hard to do on a consistent basis. I watch it all the time.
Q: What about the other new song on the album? When did you write "Land of Hope and Dreams"?
A: During rehearsal, just a couple of days before we played those [warm-up shows] in Asbury Park. I needed something brand new that was going to restate our purpose and our ideas on the tour. Literally, we were on stage and I was just kind of strumming that riff. The title had also been in my notebook for a couple of years.
Q: What about your next album?
A: I'm always wrong when I give a date, but I don't see why it should be too
far awaycertainly not the two or three years that it sometimes took us
in the past. I wrote some songs toward the end of the tour, and I have some
songs from when I worked with Joe Grushecky. We played a couple of those, "Code
of Silence" and "Another Thin Line." Then I have some songs written
before the tour, when I was already thinking about playing again with the band.
"Further on Up the Road" is one of those from the New York show.
I also have another acoustic album in the works, but right now I want to get with the guys and see what happens in the studio.
Q: In 1995, you said one of the great lessons you learned after you finally had a family was that giving 100% to your job wasn't the same as giving 100% of your life to your job. Did you find yourself slipping back into obsessing about the music once you got back on the road?
A: No, no. I think once you learn that lesson you don't tend to go back to that place, though I could never explain that to a young artist. I think the fear when you are young is you will somehow be diminished by separating your energy into this and that. In truth, it expands who you are and what you can do, your connection to the world, the way you see things, and all those feelings get funneled back into your music, so connecting with your family or someone you love enriches both your life and your music.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times