"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
As usual, Bruce Springsteen let his music do the talking. Opening up a 10-night stand at New York’s Madison Square Garden Monday night, the New Jersey native refused to back down from the controversy surrounding his new, unreleased song “American Skin.” Unveiled during an Atlanta show on June 4, “American Skin” (aka “41 Shots”) details the New York police shooting of an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times on Feb. 4, 1999, while standing in the vestibule of his apartment building. The four police officers charged with manslaughter in the case, who mistook Diallo’s wallet for a gun, were found not guilty earlier this year in a trial that polarized the city.
The song has quickly won the ire of New York’s police chief, its mayor and the head of the state chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, who publicly labeled Springsteen a “fucking dirtbag.” The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has called for a boycott of Springsteen albums and concerts.
Springsteen, who met with Diallo’s parents before the show but has not spoken publicly about the controversy, wasted no time answering his critics Monday night. Strolling onto the Madison Square Garden stage with his E Street Band members for the first time in more than a decade, he launched into another new work, “Code of Silence.” Although the song was about a relationship gone distant, it was hard to miss the meaning of the title, repeated throughout the song, which Springsteen sang with unusual seriousness and intensity for an opening number. No doubt the singer was thinking about another code of silence — the NYPD’s blue wall of silence — as he kicked off the marathon three-hour show.
The real drama, though, started 45 minutes later, when Springsteen sang “Point Blank.” A haunting number from his 1980 release, “The River,” the song’s about a young teenage girl whose life turns sour after she has a baby and must rely on welfare checks. But again, in the context of the Diallo controversy, lyrics like “Well, they shot you point blank/You been shot in the back” took on new meaning.
Then, as the lights dimmed, longtime Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemons kicked off “American Skin” with the single phrase “41 shots,” which each band member then took turns repeating. As fans realized they were hearing the new song for the first time, an electricity swept the building, as did some scattered boos.
The bad news for the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is that the new song marks Springsteen’s best effort in a decade. “American Skin” is a musical as well as a lyrical powerhouse and tackles the one topic still off-limits to rock ‘n’ roll: race relations in America. “It ain’t no secret my friend/You get killed for just living in your American skin,” Springsteen sang.
Halfway through the song a minor commotion erupted when a well-dressed man in his 40s got within a few feet of the stage and began aggressively flipping Springsteen a double bird. Security guards quickly whisked him away. It was unclear whether Springsteen ever saw the man.
By song’s end, it was up to fans to vote their conscience by either standing and applauding or booing loudly. (And no, in this case, those were not calls for “Bruuuuuce.”) It was a rare moment of discord for a Springsteen show, where fans usually meet to bask in nostalgia and relive keg parties down on the shore.
But Springsteen wasn’t yet done with the subject at hand; he closed what seemed to be a deliberate trilogy on a more typically upbeat note. As fans mulled the importance of “American Skin,” Springsteen, working himself into a frenzy, counted off “The Promised Land” from his ’78 album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Prowling the stage with his guitar slung over his back and wailing on his harmonica, Springsteen belted out: “I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land.”
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)