Bruce Springsteen and the Connective Tissue of “American Skin”

By

Amadou Diallo was nearly, literally, home free.

In the early morning hours of February 4th, 1999, four police officers dressed in plainclothes and members of the now-obsolete Street Crimes Unit, confronted Mr. Diallo in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building. The West African immigrant had just returned home from getting a quick bite to eat after finishing a long day of work that ended at midnight. An American resident for just over two years, Diallo had lived in the States long enough to know the police were going to need his identification. It turns out reaching for his wallet became the very gesture that killed him, at least per the officers’ sworn statements. Each testified that Diallo, he believed, was pulling a gun.

In response, the officers fired upon him again and again (and again).

Forty-one times, in fact.

Diallo’s body lied in the doorway with nineteen bullet wounds. Two police officers emptied their weapons entirely; a third fired five times and another four. Officers would testify that he somewhat matched the description of a serial rape suspect they’d chased for a year. It would be another year before they caught the real offender.

The overwhelming amount of firepower involved, as well as the mistaken identity, led to a media frenzy and anti-police protests in New York. Concerns of police brutality and race became common talking points in the wake of Diallo’s murder, and every officer was charged with various crimes, including second-degree murder and criminally negligent homicide. The four, all Caucasian, would be placed on paid leave before eventually being acquitted of all charges.

The testimony of one—officer Sean Carroll—said he wept and held Mr. Diallo’s hand as he died, knowing he’d misread the situation.

* * *

The soundtrack of my childhood is saturated in Springsteen.

As a child of the ’80s, I came to the catalog a bit later than legendary releases like Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. I would discover those much, much later. Raised by a single mother who loved road trips and singing aloud, nearly all of my Springsteen memories include the rolled down windows of a late ’70s Ford LTD—a car so large it required its own zip code.

My mom was an administrative assistant for most of my childhood. My neighborhood was called Mobile Manor—emphasis on the “mobile,” since it was a literal trailer park—on the outskirts of Chandler, a booming metropolis of hundreds in southwestern Indiana, situated between cities named Boonville and Daylight.

Mom was committed to small victories for our family, making memories despite the lack of resources, often in the form of short day trips to St. Louis or Cincinnati in that LTD—sandwiches (bologna, Kraft singles, white bread) in the cooler, motel rooms that open to the outdoors, strategically scheduled activities advertised with “kids free” or “family day.”

On those trips, with the windows down and the music up, my right arm was a stunt plane, winding and looping and swirling alongside the steel tank my mother was driving, performing aerial tricks in response to the melodies and gusts of wind.

The music was the best part, full-throated refrains from the up-and-coming duo, Yvonne and Matt, which covered all your favorites. We were equals on “Eleanor Rigby” while my mom would take the lead on all things Tina Turner, singing in agreement to lines like “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” as she likely thought of my absent father. She’d sound feisty singing and driving on that old bench seat.

Springsteen provided plenty of emotional resonance in those days. Sure, the captivating snare of “Born in the U.S.A.” was an obvious hit, but my mom loved to explain to me the sentiments behind Springsteen’s other early hits. She’d sing along to “My Hometown” while driving past the familiar touch points of her own past. She’d honor “Glory Days” with a conviction that conveyed its truth. Yeah, they’ll pass you by.

We are baptized in these waters and in each others' blood.

Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen’s songs have always felt familiar, even familial—musical narratives featuring real people in real places with real struggles. Three-dimensional characters in three-minute melodies. Springsteen in many ways, via many songs, told my mom’s story, a hardened protagonist shaped by hard times trying her damnedest to accomplish hard things. Bruce reminded her she wasn’t alone, and without words, she told me he’d be there for me, too.

It was the beginning of my love for Bruce and a lasting gift from my mother.

* * *

It was the song I’d never heard that made me cry.

Four years ago I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first and only time. Pete Peterson and I grabbed a couple nosebleed seats in Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena and marveled at the Spirited (with a capital S) three-hour-plus affair. He delivered twenty-eight songs that spanned every album from Darkness on the Edge of Town to High Hopes that night, but it was an unknown tune, “American Skin,” that made me cry.

Midway through this new (to me) song, the E Street Band and traveling ensemble, with their sum total of twenty-something performers, fell completely silent and an auditorium packed to the rafters with adoring fans was hushed as a library.

You can get killed just for living in it.

You can get killed just for living in it.

You can get killed just for living in it.

He wouldn’t stop singing that line. It was moving. It was unnerving. It was painful.

“What is this song?” I turned to ask.

“You’ve never heard ‘American Skin’?” Pete responded.

No, I had not.

The lyrics told the story: the first verse from the perspective of a policeman who’d accidentally shot the wrong man, the second verse from the perspective of a worried mother tasked with raising a young black son. The connective tissue is a truth-telling chorus that resonates just as strongly today as it did when it was written in ’99. Twenty years later, these words could have easily been penned in 2018:

Is it a gun? Is it a knife?
Is it a wallet? This is your life.
It ain’t no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin.

Springsteen wrote the song in response to Mr. Diallo’s murder. The powers-that-be of the time did their best to politicize it, calling for a boycott of Springsteen (who went on to sell out ten consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden). Springsteen was called every name in the book in op-eds in major NY papers, and the police chief himself called for all cops to refuse to provide security for his shows.

Yet the Boss himself stated at the time that he never intended for the song to be politicized or to send an anti-cop message. He simply did what he always does. He told a story. Real people. Real places. Real life. And as always, he’s in the middle of it. The third verse:

Forty-one shots
I got my boots caked in this mud
We’re baptized in these waters
And in each other’s blood

* * *

It’s here in “American Skin” that I find what I love most about Bruce Springsteen. There are 100 songs I could highlight in his vast catalog, each a shining example of songcraft or narrative. But “American Skin,” in particular, binds together despite our dividing lines.

Springsteen doesn’t invent a narrative here. Criminal files tell the story. Court transcripts spill the details. The bloodstains and bullet holes in the doorway aren’t metaphorical. Springsteen sets this nightmare reality to song and paints a contemporary picture before introducing the turn that puts you and me on the same stoop—just a few minutes after midnight.

“I got my boots caked in this mud,” he sings with all manner of emotion. He’s stepped in it. We’ve all stepped in it. Our shoes give it away; we were at the crime scene, too. We’re all complicit in this murder, this system, these fears that work so well to divide. Our boots are caked in this mud —the mud of racism and classism and sexism. Us versus them.

Fear of the other. Fear of one another.

This beautiful gospel of Springsteen reminds us once again of what is true. His stories continue to do what they’ve always done. They convict and connect. They hurt and then heal. “American Skin” shares the vivid details of someone else’s story because I’m too entrenched in my own to bother to reach out. Once again, Bruce’s songs awaken my once deadened senses.

We are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.

Yes. Yes we are.

Amen.

Matt Conner is a former pastor and church planter turned writer and editor. He’s the founder of Analogue Media and lives in Indianapolis.


2 Comments

  1. Gw

    Thank you for this post. I’m halfway through “The trouble I’ve seen” by Drew Hart in a church class. So far, I highly recommend it.

  2. Emma Chmura

    @emmaj

    Matt, I know the point of the article is Bruce Springsteen and American Skin, but the paragraphs about your mom… My heart just welled with admiration for her feisty perseverance, for her efforts to build a good life for her boy, including finding ways to make fun adventures part of your childhood.

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