Monday, October 21, 2013

American Skin

As mentioned previously, it was an exhilarating two weeks over at the outstanding One Week//One Band music blog, where a dozen or so very impressive writers wrote exhaustively about 40+ years of Bruce Springsteen's lesser-known (but still extremely high quality) works. One of the more prominent writers was (as you have seen) my pal and compadre here at Reason To Believe, who offered some amazing takes on some amazing songs.

My turn finally rolled around at the literal very end; I got to serve as the anchorman (so to speak) with my post on "American Skin," Bruce's most misunderstood song ever, as well as one of his best.

Here is a quick tease:

And if you actually listen to “American Skin” and get past self-serving lip-service, you find a song steeped in empathy and begging for understanding. Is there anger? Maybe in the background, but it’s nowhere near the dominant emotion here. Sadness is. And in that sadness we find desperation, resilience, loneliness, fear, frustration and maybe, just maybe, a gleam of salvation. There are also, very critically, bits of religious imagery and that fractured Catholicism that Bruce has carried with him his entire career. But even that is different this time around—because this time that Catholicism is meeting head-on with his, for lack of a better term, Americanism. So while he’s talked about baptism before in unsettling terms (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Reason to Believe”), it’s never quite like this. Where it’s not just water, but in “each other’s blood.” 

There is no good vs. bad paradigm laid out here. Springsteen takes us on a journey “across this bloody river, to the other side.” He takes us down to the darkened, unforgiving streets that he knows so well and used to bathe in such romanticism (“Incident on 57th Street,” “Jungleland,” “New York City Serenade”). But the romance is gone now. It’s replaced by hard reality of human judgment and human error. He begins the story with hints of atmospheric allegory before bringing it down to earth.

41 shots, and we’ll take that ride
Across this bloody river
To the other side
41 shots, cut through the night
You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule,
Praying for his life.
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 livin’ in
Your American skin.
It’s amazing the criticism this song received from those who clearly never heard it, or if they did, were unable to truly listen. Because there’s not some deep-hidden reveal that you need to listen to dozens of times to catch. It’s in plain sight, what he’s singing about:

You’re kneeling over his body in a vestibule
Praying for his life.
These are not the sentiments of someone who is seeking vengeance or blame—Springsteen literally puts the focus on the officer who so clearly made a mistake and realizes it, and gives him such humanity. Rather these are the sentiments of someone who sees something much bigger at play here and knows we are all a part of it. All of us who walk around in our American skin share in it.

Here is the link to the full post.


This was originally published on the music blog One Week// One Band, found at

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