NEW YORK Bruce Springsteen was one of the few people in Madison Square Garden on Monday night who had nothing to say about his politically explosive new song, "American Skin," which he played without a word of introduction, about 40 minutes into his show here.
The majority of the crowd cheered the song, which, with its repeated refrain of the phrase "41 shots," addresses the February 1999 death of Guinea native Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times by New York police officers as he stood, unarmed, in the doorway of his Bronx apartment building.
But a vocal minority booed or otherwise expressed displeasure at Springsteen's musical commentary on the incident that raised racial tensions in the city.
Kenny Kline, a 49-year-old retired New York City police officer, turned his back to Springsteen and the E Street Band as they played the surging, catchy rock ballad, keeping his middle finger raised high throughout the song.
"[Springsteen] doesn't know what it's like to be a cop it's a layman's interpretation," Kline said. "It's easy to say '41 shots' from the outside."
But the former police officer also said he didn't blame fans for applauding "American Skin." "They don't know any better."
Springsteen and the E Street Band debuted the song at their previous show, June 4 in Atlanta, and it led to insults and calls for boycotts from two major New York police groups, as well as condemnation from New York City's police chief and mayor. Bob Lucente, president of the New York state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, on Friday called Springsteen a "f---ing dirtbag."
Amadou Diallo's parents attended Monday's concert, according to the Associated Press.
Though the song is officially unavailable, fans are circulating a bootlegged audience recording of the Atlanta performance, using the Internet MP3-trading program Napster.
Springsteen and the band launched into "American Skin" seven songs into their show at the Garden, following an atmospheric version of the vintage ballad "Point Blank." As Garry Tallent played a thumping bassline and Roy Bittan played swelling synth chords, Springsteen began singing the new song's refrain, "41 shots," in a near-whisper that grew louder with each repetition.
"Forty-one shots and we'll take that ride/ Across this bloody river to the other side," Springsteen sang in a choked moan, his eyes shut tight.
E Streeters Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa looked unusually solemn as they repeatedly sang the song's chorus along with Springsteen.
As "American Skin" continued, it moved from a ballad into a full-bore rocker, complete with a squealing guitar solo from Springsteen and a saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons.
Bernadette Conway, a 27-year-old from Long Island who said her brother and other family members are police officers, walked out of the arena for the duration of "American Skin."
"I think he's very ignorant," Conway said after the show. "Until you send your brother ... into the streets, don't tell me about '41 shots.' "
Conway attended the show with Rachel Stark, 28, of Jersey City, N.J., who said her uncle, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. Stark said she was startled by the crowd's embrace of "American Skin."
"There were people dancing to it, going 'Yeah!' " she said. "I can't believe the band backed him up on this, the crowd backed him up it confused me."
As they left the arena, Stark and Conway traded insults with Victoria Stong, a 36-year-old from Long Island City, N.Y., who described herself as an activist and carried a hand-lettered sign that read, "Support the Boss and Diallo: 'American Skin.' "
"A guy tried to spit on me, and a lady pulled [the sign] down to the floor," Stong said.
Many fans at the Garden defended Springsteen's song. "The police officers [who criticized the song] probably didn't even look at the lyrics," said Lisa Catapano, a 30-something fan from Washington, D.C., who praised Springsteen for not commenting on his song. "It's very typical of him. He didn't give an explanation or a rationalization or a justification."
Uniformed police officers outside Madison Square Garden before and after the show declined to comment on the song, as did security guards inside the arena.