Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen Discuss How ‘Because the Night’ Came to Be (Book Excerpt)

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To those who know, Patti Smith, pioneering punk poetess and rock star without peer or precedent, requires no introduction. But times change, generations succeed generations, and sometimes the world needs to be reminded of things like “Why Patti Smith Matters,” which is exactly the book that veteran music journalist Caryn Rose published yesterday via University of Texas Press

Rose, whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Salon, the Village Voice, Vulture, Backstreets, the Guardian and Variety, explains, “I was eager to take on the formidable task of chronicling Patti Smith’s career because aside from Smith’s own work, the existing scholarship didn’t possess the kind of informed, careful perspective of her life and art that it deserves.”

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The book combines original research and primary sources — one of whom is Bruce Springsteen, who gave Rose an exclusive interview on the making of their 1978 hit song, “Because the Night.” A section of the book focusing on the song appears below.

Today, Jimmy Iovine is known as a legendary producer and music industry mogul who founded Interscope Records and cofounded Beats Electronics with the hip-hop pioneer Dr. Dre. But in 1977, Iovine was a scrappy engineer in his mid-twenties who was currently engineering sessions for Bruce Springsteen that would become “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”

Following “Radio Ethiopia”’s lack of success, Arista Records would have strongly preferred that Patti hire someone with more of a production track record. “So I fought for Jimmy, and he had something to prove,” Patti said. “Jimmy worked really hard with us, but he really wanted to make a special mark on this record.” Springsteen had a backlog of material for his record and was continuing to write, so he had a lot of unfinished songs lying around. This included a track initially called “The Night Belongs to Lovers.”

As it happened, this was the first song Springsteen recorded on his first day in the studio, but he only had a rough vocal and no lyrics except the chorus. As Bruce moved his record in a different direction, Iovine zeroed in on the song. The details of when and where Iovine got Springsteen’s blessing to walk that Maxell C46 cassette out of the studio differ slightly each time either of them tells the story, but it boils down to Iovine campaigning Springsteen for the song, and Bruce saying yes.

Springsteen told me, “I was a tremendous admirer of Patti, you know, and I was just flattered that she was interested in collaborating, and I was just happy that she found something that she could do with the song, you know, because that song would still be in my archives if it wasn’t for her. And it would be something that nobody had ever heard of.”

There was one big problem: Patti was not interested in singing someone else’s songs. She felt strongly about wanting to write and record her own material, whether by herself or with someone in her group. So the tape went home and sat on her mantel. “Even now it makes me laugh,” Patti explained in 2017. “Every day I’d come to the studio, he [ Iovine] wouldn’t say hello to me, he’d say, ‘Did you listen to the song? Did you listen to the song?’ I’d say, ‘No, I haven’t listened to it yet.’ ‘Should we go back to your apartment and listen to the song?’ For days. ‘Did you listen to the song?’ ”

She continued:

“At that time, I was building a romance with my future husband, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith, and he lived in Detroit, so I only got to talk to him once a week. I’m home and I’m waiting for Fred to call. 7:30 comes, he doesn’t call. 8:00 o’clock, I was getting really agitated, and I noticed the tape sitting on the mantle and I thought, ‘I’ll listen to that darn song.’ I put it on and — it’s flawlessly produced, great chorus, it’s in my key, it’s anthemic. So Fred finally calls me at like almost midnight, but by midnight, I’d written all the lyrics.”

The next day, Patti had a different answer when Iovine asked, “Did you listen to the song?” They recorded and finished it in two days.

The song, now titled “Because the Night,” was released as a single right as “Easter” hit the streets and spent three months on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching number 13. In the United Kingdom, the single went to No. 5 and was certified silver by the British Phonographic Industry, which means it sold more than 250,000 copies.

I asked Springsteen whether he remembered the first time he heard the song on the radio and whether he had any regrets. “I was just happy because I realized I had written a great chorus — that, I knew,” he said. “But I didn’t have the rest of the song! I had me mumbling kind of a few things and had a great hook, I knew that… A great hook, as great as one can be, is still not a great song. And so she turned it into a great song.”

“Bruce wrote the music, and I always think of myself as the translator,” Patti told an interviewer in 1978. “He gave me the music, and it had some mumbling on it, and Bruce is a genius mumbler, like the sexiest mumbler I ever heard… He wrote the tag ‘Because the night belongs to lovers,’ which was in between the mumbling… I respected his lyrics, and I thought it was a very nice sentiment, so I built the rest of the lyrics, which are obviously mine, around his sentiment.”

Springsteen continued, “Was I expecting for it to go to the Top Five, or whatever it did? Well, as far as I knew, none of us were doing that. I wasn’t having any big hits, you know. [He laughs.] So it was a surprise when the record kind of actually cracked mainstream Top 40 radio. It was a surprise just because of the type of artist that Patti was — but when it works, it works!”

There was some rockist partisanship at the time of the single’s release, with detractors muttering that Smith didn’t actually do anything, that it was Bruce’s song, and others once again charging that she had “sold out.” The best response to that is her own: “Punk rock is about freedom, it’s not about your chart position. And I’ll sing any song I fucking want.”

“Because the Night” was made for FM radio, but it also stood out amid its competition. Patti’s performance of the song embodied an intense vulnerability and yearning, and the emotional delivery of the lyrics was frank and unapologetic. Nowadays someone would probably call it “fierce,” but reaching for an easy and overused label is a way of minimizing a woman taking up space and could not be further from the intent of the song. “Because the Night” was a grown woman singing about her wants and dreams, and there are no more perfect couplets than “love is a ring, the telephone” no matter the decade in which you listen to it. How do those six words manage to perfectly encompass that feeling of elation and relief when the phone finally rings and the right person is on the other end of it?

There was no way to know how this song would expand to fill the space it was given, that there would be a new cover of it in every generation, that it would fly out over the rooftops and become an anchor for the people who needed to hear it. In 2010, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Concerts at Madison Square Garden, Bono introduced the song by saying that “this is the song we wish we’d written” before inviting both Bruce and Patti out to perform it with U2. As Lenny Kaye said, “I don’t think that either Bruce or Patti understood the power of that song until it became a song and started riding up the charts… And together we all made something that was greater than all of us.”

 

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