[Editor's Note: "American Grandstand" is a monthly column about music and politics by Grammy-winning writer Dave Marsh. He is the editor of the monthly newsletter Rock & Rap Confidential and has written about music since 1969, when he co-founded Creem Magazine. For Marsh, politics means how music intersects with the real world in ways that are not always as predictable as they seem at first glance.]
Contributing Editor Dave Marsh writes:
Four things shocked me about the reaction to
COLOR="#003163">Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin."
None of them was the announcement by cops and New York Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani that Springsteen had no right to sing a song critical of them.
My first amazement was reserved for the fact that people were actually
surprised by this, as if the cops and their political candidates had not been censoring such criticism for years.
In fact, the cops' assault on "American Skin" and the Springsteen they
thought they knew pales in comparison to other such acts of police
thuggery. In 1989, when N.W.A
released "Fuck tha Police" (
HREF="http://media.addict.com/music/N.W.A./Fuck_Tha_Police.ram">RealAudio excerpt), their record label, Priority, received a threatening
letter from the FBI The next summer, N.W.A did an entire national
tour without once performing "Fuck tha Police." On the last night of the
tour in Detroit, they started to play the song and Motor City cops
bumrushed the stage, taking the group and some of their crew back to
their hotel and holding them hostage for several hours until
COLOR="#003163">Ice Cube, Dr.
Dre and Co. agreed to get out of Dodge.
In 1992, "Cop Killer," by Ice-T's
metal band, Body Count, sent cops
across the country into a frenzy, resulting in Ice-T being dropped from
Warner Bros. and losing his deal for an HBO show. And just a year ago,
when Rage Against the Machine played
a benefit for condemned (and possibly framed) "cop killer" Mumia
Abu-Jamal's defense fund at New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena,
cops and politicians took turns making belligerent threats before
somebody remembered that the First Amendment had not yet been repealed.
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and the legislature arranged to give the
rental fee paid to the arena, a state-owned building, to a fund for the
widows of murdered policemen (or some such).
It's worth noting that within a few months of N.W.A releasing "Fuck tha
Police," there was not an epidemic of murdered cops, but rather the
revelations of the LAPD beating Rodney King half to death. Ice-T's
revenge fantasy was about a police force that now admits that its
ramparts division, at least, railroaded dozens of blacks and Latinos
into prison. Gov. Whitman presides over a state police force that has
been federally indicted for conducting racial profiling arrests on the
New Jersey Turnpike and, in at least one case, shooting four unarmed
black student athletes who never should have been pulled over in the
Press, Public Stands Silent
Maybe what we were supposed to be surprised about was that the cops were
attacking a respectable white rocker. That's a way of saying that, far
from the reality being "we're all on the same side" (as Def Jam's
Russell Simmons claimed in a USA Today op-ed piece), good white
folks are supposed to go along with whatever crimes the police commit
against black people.
The second thing that surprised me was that so few people got to the
real issue. Of the articles I read, only Jimmy Breslin's column in
Newsday nailed it, condemning the "Pekinese of the Press" for
"having allowed a disgraceful and highly dangerous condition to go on
with little more than a timid whisper of criticism through shooting
after shooting, false arrests after false arrests, under a mayor,
Giuliani, who knew no bounds."
Springsteen's "crime" was breaking the blackout on that condition, not
"implying, viciously, that the police killed Amadou Diallo because he
was black" (as a truly loony New York Times op-ed by Lt. George
Molé put it). As Breslin wrote, "The case was fixed in the Bronx
so that it would be taken away from a black judge and moved to Albany,
where a preposterous judge sat like a precinct captain and all but
ordered the jury to acquit." That's what Mayor Giuliani and his cops
omit when they bleat that the four shooters were acquitted.
The third surprise was the presumption that Springsteen said nothing
about the controversy, but instead just played his show with "American
Skin" part of it. I don't know what could be clearer than another new
song, "Code of Silence," which opened the show that Diallo's parents
attended: "There's a list of grievances 100 miles long/ There's a code
of silence and it can't go on." Springsteen never speaks so eloquently
as in his songs, and those lyrics were easy to obtain.
Ignoring "Code of Silence" which only Jon Pareles of The New
York Times grasped in his review is just another way of
slamming the lid on the discussion about cops and violence our society
really needs to have. That discussion isn't about why everybody picks on
the police; it's about why they don't.
Such complicit silence invites big trouble. In "Civilities and Civil
Rights," his great study of the Greensboro, N.C., sit-in movement,
historian William Chafe writes of the segregationists' "pervasive
commitment to civility as the value that should govern all relationships
between people ... a way of dealing with people and problems that made
good manners more important than substantial action. ... As victims of
civility, blacks had long been forced to operate within an etiquette of
race relationships that offered almost no room for collective
self-assertion and independence. White people dictated the ground rules,
and the benefits went only to those who played the game."
One measure of the greatness of Bruce Springsteen as a person is that,
despite every opportunity, he has never played the game. I don't share
his sentimental attachment to the police to me, contributing to a
fund to buy them bulletproof vests just fuels their confidence for the
next unwarranted shooting but I do share his sense of what we are
all in together. It isn't just some dreary mess about a bunch of cops
who "mistook a wallet for a gun," but something far more vile and
The final surprise is that what "American Skin" actually says about cops
has not yet been discussed. The song mentions the cops only once. Its
first verse portrays one of them "kneeling over his body in the
vestibule/ Praying for his life." I presume the ambiguity is deliberate:
Was the cop praying for his victim's life, or his own? That's the
question this society needs to answer, and no matter what, it does not
have a comfortable answer. That's why the cops and politicians like
Giuliani try to silence it.