When I arrive at Madison Square Garden's entrance Monday night for the Bruce Springsteen concert, the only hint of protest in the air comes from a man wearing a rainbow-knit beret and selling bumper stickers that read, "George Bush Couldn't Run a Laundromat." I ask one of the cops on duty—there are about 20 milling around—if he's heard about the fracas over Springsteen's new song condemning the Amadou Diallo killing. "Look, rich people don't give a damn," the cop shrugs bitterly. "All those celebrities—look at Susan Sarandon, she kills us every chance she gets."
Security inside is Sing-Sing-tight: not because of any anticipated unrest over the performance, but to foil the scalpers who line the streets outside. My boyfriend and I have floor seats, but no physical tickets: Instead we've been instructed to arrive early and with photo ID. We spend an hour being counted, lined up, registered, lined up again, and wristbanded (the latter is to prevent "stubbing down": taking ticket stubs from those who are already seated and giving them to folks in nosebleed sections, who then descend to stage level). While we wait, I ask a guard if cops were working security detail on the concert, in defiance of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's call for a boycott. Sure, he replies: "It's an extra night's paycheck." Meanwhile, our neighbors in line speculate about reports that Kadiatou Diallo, Amadou's mother, will attend the show and wonder if she'll be seated near us.
An hour later, everyone has found a seat, though no one's sitting. The lights dim, and the E Street Band begins to play … a completely unfamiliar song! The lyrics go something like this:
Code of silence
Truth so elusive
You don't dare speak
Keep pretending that there's nothing wrong
Walk with your eyes open
But your lips remain sealed
The words seem to refer to the "blue wall of silence" that keeps cops quiet about police misdeeds. Until I realize they could just as well be about a struggling relationship. It's not clear whether Springsteen is singing about police brutality or just about uncommunicative lovers.
There's no such confusion when the band gets to "American Skin," the song that started the whole fuss when Springsteen debuted it in Atlanta. The stage goes dark and a spotlight focuses on sax player Clarence Clemons, the only black member of the E Street Band. "Forty-one shots," he intones. The other band members slowly join in. The lyrics are pinpoint explicit, with a mother telling her son, "Promise me if an officer stops you'll always be polite/ Never ever run away and promise momma you'll keep your hands in sight." (Click here for an audio clip.)
By the second chorus, the audience is chanting along, and the "41 shots" refrain comes at a roar. It's an amazing display, far more impressive than the protests that took place at 1 Police Plaza after the Diallo shooting. The house lights are on, so everyone can see the 18,000 audience members—all of whom, except for Diallo's parents and two others, seem to be white—standing on their feet, rhythmically pumping their right arms in the air and punctuating the verses with howls of approval.
No wonder the Rev. Al Sharpton has jumped on Springsteen's bandwagon: "We were all born in the USA!" Sharpton effused to the New York Post that morning. Springsteen seems to suggest that Diallo is the same sort of innocent, working-class victim as the Vietnam vets and factory boys he's grown famous for singing about. As if to prove that point, the band rockets straight into "The Promised Land," one of scores of well-worn Springsteen songs about the frustration of good-intentioned folks just minding their business and trying to get by. Coming after "American Skin," the familiar lyrics now sound as if they'd been written by Langston Hughes:
I've done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
By the last chorus, Springsteen has brought both himself and the crowd to a new level of frenzy. He is red and dripping and stumbling, and the audience is screaming for more. But is the crowd's fervor directed at the message of the two songs, or is it just a response to the moment and the music? After all, if Springsteen wrote a raw, angry song about long checkout lines at grocery stores, he could probably provoke similar expressions of passion and indignation. If another innocent black guy is shot soon, I suppose we'll find out.