I first heard Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” 10 years ago this week: June 12, 2000, at Madison Square Garden. He had written the song about the police shooting of unarmed Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo in The Bronx, in 1999, and played it for the first time in Atlanta on June 4, 2000.
The New York tabloids did their best to stir up a controversy around it, and the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association of New York called for a boycott of Springsteen’s 10-show Garden stand. The shows were still packed, and Springsteen performed “41 Shots (American Skin)” every night. I remember wondering what the crowd reaction would be that first night. There was some scattered booing, but that was about it, and life went on.
“Though the song was critical, it was not ‘anti-police’ as some thought,” Springsteen later wrote. “The first voice you hear after the intro is from the policeman’s point of view. I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view.”
Springsteen included it in his Live in New York City concert album, recorded at the last two shows of the stand, and also featured a studio version on his 2014 album High Hopes. Last week, on a SiriusXM DJ show devoted entirely to the current police-violence protests and the state of the country, he began with “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Certainly, in light of the recent horrifying death of George Floyd — which has resonated throughout the world — the song seems as timely as ever, and a new version of it by Low Cut Connie (see the last video, below) made me think about some of the many different versions of the song, by Springsteen and others, that have been performed over the last 20 years:
Here’s the Live in New York City version:
And here’s the High Hopes version, recorded in 2013 and featuring Tom Morello on guitar:
Here’s Jackson Browne, accompanied by Morello, performing it at the MusiCares Person of the Year tribute to Springsteen at the Los Angeles Convention Center in 2013.
Here is Browne singing it with Vy Higginsen’s Gospel Choir at the Concert Across America to End Gun Violence show at the Beacon Theatre in New York in 2016:
Here is Living Colour with a stunningly intense live version of it, from 2001:
Here is Mary J. Blige singing some of it to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Here is a version by Jen Chapin, with the Rosetta Trio:
A choir version! From the Dutch group, Popkoor Estrellas:
An instrumental, by Swedish pianist Thomas Törnheden:
And here’s the new, stripped-down version by Low Cut Connie:
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