In February 1999, unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times by New York City policemen, with 19 of the bullets hitting him. They had mistaken him for someone else and, in poor lighting, thought he had taken a gun out of his jacket (it was actually a wallet).
More than a year after the incident, Bruce Springsteen debuted a song inspired by the incident, “American Skin (41 Shots),” at the Philips Arena in Atlanta. It was his last concert before a 10-gig stand at Madison Square Garden in New York.
All of a sudden, Springsteen became a staple of the tabloid press. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of the City of New York called for a boycott of the Garden shows, and when Springsteen performed the song there — and he did, at all 10 shows — he got a mixture of cheers and boos. Later in the year, he received an award from the NAACP.
That said, “American Skin (41 Shots)” is a sad song, not an angry song. It may be a protest song, but its style is reportorial, not rabble-rousing.
Yes, Springsteen keeps repeating “41 shots,” but that’s a fact, not a slogan. A policeman is seen as a figure worthy of sympathy, too (“You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life”).
The most heartbreaking verse shifts to another scene entirely: A mother sends her African-American son off to school, cautioning, “If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite … never ever run away … keep your hands in sight.”
She’s thinking something that she doesn’t say. But Springsteen says it himself, in the chorus: “You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
Sadly, additional reasons to sing this song have arisen over the years. In 2013, for instance, Springsteen dedicated a performance of it to the late Florida youth Trayvon Martin after George Zimmerman, who had killed him, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.
Background facts: Springsteen released “American Skin (41 Shots)” on his 2001 concert film/DVD and CD, “Live in New York City,” which was filmed and recorded at his summer of 2000 concerts with the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden. He also released a new version of the song (combining music from the Garden with a studio vocal) as a promotional single to radio in 2001, and a new studio version, featuring a spectacular guitar solo by Tom Morello (listen below), on his 2014 album High Hopes.
According to Brucebase, he performed the song 80 times between 2000 and 2017.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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