BETWEEN THE LINES: Numerous artists and performers have been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. None of them, however, or any performer for that matter, has ever had the distinction of having an extensive exhibit at the National Constitution Center (NCC).
After almost three years at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, when it was heralded as a “must see” for his fans, “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen” debuted last winter at the Constitution Center on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it ended a nearly seven month run earlier this month.
A Springsteen fan a decade before he achieved superstardom, I intended to see the exhibit that featured scores of artifacts and memorabilia from the New Jersey rocker’s four decade career, but I never made the trip to Cleveland. My regret was assuaged when it was announced, about a year ago, that at the Constitution Center would host the exhibit. I finally saw it last month, accompanied by one of my oldest friends — in longevity and years — in my inaugural visit to the center.
Hosting the exhibition in Philadelphia was quite appropriate since Springsteen’s roots encompass the southern Jersey Shore area, just north of the city, where he was raised and cultivated a small, yet loyal following years before he burst into the national spotlight.
While some may have been initially puzzled why the NCC offered to present an exhibition of relics amassed during the career of a rock and roll star, its president and CEO, David Eisner, explained that the exhibit “offers a unique perspective on our First Amendment freedoms, the meaning of the American dream and the role of artists in politics and protest.”
Naturally, Springsteen, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concurred with that assessment and sealed the deal.
Bruce Springsteen was a suitable subject for the Constitution Center because he is not just some guy with a band. He has likely changed, influenced or reinforced the outlook of how his fans view the nation and the world, with songs that are as entertaining as they are socially responsible and confirm an artist’s right to protest through song without fear of retaliation.
One example is “Part Man, Part Monkey,” a lively ditty about the 1925 trial when John Scopes was tried for violating Tennessee’s law against teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Let creationists dwell on these Springsteen lyrics:
“…Well did God make man in a breath of holy fire / Or did he crawl on up out of the muck and mire / Well the man on the street believes what the bible tells him so / Well you can ask me, mister, because I know / Tell them soul-suckin’ preachers to come on down and see / Part man, part monkey, baby that’s me.”
Another is “American Skin (41 Shots),” a musical account of the 1999 killing of 22-year-old West African immigrant Amadou Diallo, by four plainclothes New York City cops in the Bronx, who fired at him 41 times after when they thought he was going to pull a gun as he reached for his wallet.
Nothing in Springsteen’s wide-ranging repertoire is quite as divisive as “American Skin” — as it demonstrates the Constitutional right to free expression — which is perhaps the ultimate illustration of why the exhibit was ideal for the National Constitution Center.
The focus of the controversial song culminated when Springsteen and the E Street Band played Madison Square Garden shortly after the song debuted 12 years ago. Prior to the first of 10 shows at the Manhattan arena, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the police union, called for a boycott, as the song drew attention to the NYPD’s perceived policy of racial profiling. The PBA urged officers, who moonlighted as Garden security, “to avoid” working the Springsteen shows or not to attend if they had tickets. In the end, the boycott was deemed a failure though a smattering of boos was reportedly evident every night, including the two nights I attended, when Springsteen performed it.
His most recent album, “Wrecking Ball,” invigorates his notions of social responsibility. While it rocks, it also contains lyrics that allude to the arguments addressed by Occupy Wall Street activists, as it deplores the state of the economy, big business greed and economic inequality.
As it turned out, as much as I was impressed by the Springsteen display, I was equally awed by the center, a non-profit institution dedicated to the crux and framework of America’s vision outlined in the U.S. Constitution, which is as educational as it is inspiring.
The NCC, which opened in 2000, is the nation’s only non-profit institution devoted solely to the Constitution and the principles set down by the Founding Fathers in 1787. As you amble through the museum, you get an absorbing, impartial lesson of America’s basic ideas through numerous interactive exhibits, multi-media, as well as traditional displays, and may also stop to watch short films and catch a glimpse of historical artifacts.
Whether or not one is an average citizen, a layman or a student, walking through the center, one gets a meaningful affirmation how this noteworthy document, albeit flexible, shapes our nation as it limits and distributes the power of the government.
In a hushed voice, I asked my friend Steve, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if members of Congress toured the NCC every so often to refresh themselves about what they’re elected to uphold?”
Neil S. Friedman is a veteran reporter and photographer, and spent 15 years as an editor for a Brooklyn weekly newspaper. He also did public relations work for Showtime, The Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson. Friedman contributes a weekly column called “Between the Lines” on life, culture and politics in Sheepshead Bay.
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