Patti Smith on ‘Because The Night’ at 40: How Her Bruce Springsteen Collaboration Is ‘A Whole Life in A Song’

todayJune 21, 2018

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Jimmy Iovine, Lenny Kaye, Shirley Manson, Bono and more speak on the significance of Smith’s greatest hit — and the love and loss that continue to fuel it.

In 1977, Patti Smith pressed play for the first time on the tape Bruce Springsteen had scrawled “Because the Night” across. Instantly, she knew the song had transformative powers. She just didn’t realize the full extent of them for decades.

Jimmy Iovine, future Apple Music titan and demonstrated hitmaker, was then an ambitious engineer helming his first album as producer with Smith’s third LP, Easter. He shepherded the star-crossed collaboration, which paired Springsteen’s music and chorus with verses penned by Smith. She feverishly wrote while listening to the demo on a loop as she waited for a long-distance call from the boyfriend who would become her husband and the father to her children, Fred Sonic Smith, the guitarist of Detroit’s rabble-rousing MC5. Set to Springsteen’s building piano arpeggios and rising to an enigmatic chorus, her verses immediately bring us into Smith’s room as she paces, waiting: Love is a ring, the telephone. She finished by the time he rang around midnight, the first sign that this song was different — that this love was different, too.

She and Iovine recorded the track immediately, and “Because the Night” served as Easter’s first single and Smith’s first hit, with reverberations resonating 40 years after its peak at No. 13 on the Hot 100 (on the June 24, 1978 chart). Smith and Springsteen seldom perform the song together, but it’s a regular highlight on both their setlists. They do stride onto the same stage from time to time, sometimes hand-in-hand as they did after an April 2018 performance in New York City. (When U2 performed it at the 25th anniversary concert for the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, Bono invited them both to join the band, and referred to the tune as “the song we wish we’d written.”)

Numerous covers — including a 2013 collaboration from Garbage and Screaming Females, and a 10,000 Maniacs live version from their 1993 MTV Unplugged set, which peaked at No. 11 on the Hot 100 — speak to the pop potency of “Because the Night.” But for Smith, its staying power is rooted in its ability to evolve. Their children were young when Fred died of heart failure in 1994, but now they’re grown, with son Jackson playing guitar and daughter Jesse playing piano in her band. Together with the rest of the Patti Smith Group, they perform “Because the Night” as a layered tribute for Fred and Patti’s love, as well as the family and art that came from it.

Below, Smith, Iovine and Lenny Kaye, her guitarist and longtime collaborator, reflect on “Because the Night” and the path it forged over the last 40 years. Shirley Manson of Garbage, Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster and Bono also spoke on their connections to “Because the Night,” all showing how many lives are tied up in a single love song that began with one long night spent waiting for the phone to ring. (Their answers, from individual interviews, have been lightly edited for clarity and length.)

On the mend — and brink — in 1977

After her epochal debut LP Horses launched Smith and her band out of the subterranean rock clubs of New York and into the national ether in 1975, and follow-up Radio Ethiopiafurther fueled her punk explorations in 1976, she fell off a stage in Tampa, Fla. and nearly killed herself in the process. The fall took Smith and her band out of commission, but before the end of the year, one that established their home of New York as punk epicenter and rock n’ roll hotbed, the eager, hungry band met their match in an eager, hungry producer.

Patti Smith: In January of ‘77 I had a very bad accident. I mean, I fractured my skull; I had several spinal injuries, so I was out of action for several months. We had done Radio Ethiopia and we were supposed to do another record, and I couldn’t do anything. I was flat on my back for months. We had no money. It was one of these desperate situations.

Clive Davis gave me the opportunity to do my third record, but I’m not a prolific songwriter. I never wanted to be a songwriter. Some people can write 30 songs, you know; I would labor over a song for weeks. So we didn’t have a lot of songs. In those days, you only needed eight; you only had 18 minutes a side. But the way that I worked, I looked at every song like it was a poem — it just took a long time.

Jimmy Iovine: I always respected Patti, but I didn’t know her. I thought she was incredible. I walked into the Record Plant, and there she was. For some strange reason, she just said, “I want you to produce my next album.” I said, “Yeah, but I just got fired from one.” She said, “I don’t care. I don’t give a s–t about that.” She recruited me, which was an incredible thing.

Smith: Jimmy had never produced a record, I don’t think; this was his first production job. I had watched him work with Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon, as an assistant engineer, as an engineer. To me, he did all the work. I like workers, and Jimmy was a worker. He would work twelve hours. I thought, “This is the kind of person I want to work with. I don’t want to work with someone of high standing who was a band psychologist or anything, or even a person with vision.” I wanted to work with a fellow worker.

And so I chose Jimmy, which was controversial at the time, because my record company would’ve preferred if I chose someone with a track record. So I fought for Jimmy, and he had something to prove, and we had our material — some of it controversial. Jimmy worked really hard with us, but he really wanted to make a special mark on this record. He was good friends with Bruce, and Bruce had worked on this song.

Lenny Kaye: Jimmy was living on Central Park South — Jimmy always loved elegance — and I remember riding home with Jimmy one morning around dawn after we’d been in the studio all night. We were talking about how cool it would be if these two New Jerseyites, Bruce and Patti, could get together on something. We weren’t really sure how that might happen given the fact that both of them are pretty solitary artists, in a certain way: they rely on their bands, and rely on their own sense of conception.

Then — and I really wish I had these tapes — I remember Bruce wrote a couple songs for Patti, but he wrote them in our style. It was funny — maybe he had them in his back pocket before that, but he was trying to write a Patti song, and he’d give ‘em to us, and we’d have a listen. They seemed like neither fish nor fowl, as they say.

Iovine: I just had so much respect for the both of them, and I love them so much, their music and their lyrics, that I said “This should happen.” People don’t do a lot of things until they do them. No one said that to me, you know what I mean? Patti wasn’t sure about it and Bruce was thinking about it and I was positive about it.

Smith: [Bruce] had the music. He had the chorus, but he was struggling with the verses, and he lost interest, I suppose. He was also embroiled in some legal matters. [These kept Springsteen out of the studio in 1976 and 1977 when he and former manager Mike Appel exchanged lawsuits.] Jimmy somehow talked him into letting me work on the song. We were in the same sphere; we were different kinds of people, but he trusted his song with me.

When Jimmy gave it to me, I really resisted… Bruce was already established, and I felt like I should write my own songs. Jimmy gave me this cassette tape — 40 years later and we still laugh about this — and I looked at it, and I thought, “I really want to write my own songs.” So I put it on my mantle in my little place.

Kaye: Jimmy did not let [“Because the Night”] out of his hands… I have to say, since it was his first hit production, that he had a sense of destiny about the song, and about his place in the music business. [“Because the Night”] would not have existed without Jimmy. I salute him for his fortitude, persistence and vision. He believed in the song. He believed in Patti as an artist.

He came to us at a time when we were crippled, you know? We weren’t just rock poets anymore. We had the audacity to want to be a full-fledged rock n’ roll band, with all that entailed, without losing our sense of creative energy and spirit and outlier status. Patti fell off the stage, and we were kind of down on our luck, especially in the moment when the two sevens clashed, and it seemed like the music we had championed and inspired and encouraged was starting to take over the world. We were unable to be there because we had to recover. He just came there and worked with Patti to make this really definitive album with a great, great single to be its spearhead.

Patti Smith performs live on stage with The Patti Smith Group in Central Park as part of The Dr Pepper Music Festival on Aug. 4, 1978.
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Patti Smith performs live on stage with The Patti Smith Group in Central Park as part of The Dr Pepper Music Festival on Aug. 4, 1978.

“It’s one of those darn hit songs.”

As she healed and prepared for her return to performing, Smith was falling deeper in love with Fred Sonic Smith, who lived two Great Lakes and 600-odd miles away from New York. She soon found herself in a serious long distance relationship, which came with a hefty phone bill — and unexpected inspiration thanks to one frustrated, delayed phone date.

Smith: Every day, Jimmy would call me and say, “Did you listen to the song yet? I’d go, “Not yet, I will.” He’d call me at night. “What are you doin’?” “Nothin’, I’m writin’.” “You listen to the song? Put the song on!” “I will, I will, I will.” We were getting very close to finishing the record. He’d call me or talk to me in the studio, and I’d say, “I will, I will.”

We didn’t have any money. To make a long distance phone call then was really expensive. If you were making $32 or $40 a week, and your phone call was $7 or $15…  we only talked like, once a week. So Fred was supposed to call me at like, 7:30, and I looked forward to his phone calls more than anything in the world. There wasn’t anything that could eclipse my phone call with Fred. 7:30 came; I guess something happened and he didn’t call… Time was going by and I just was beside myself. I couldn’t concentrate. As I was pacing around, I noticed that cassette sitting there. I can see it. It was a typical cassette. It might have said “Because the Night” on it — I think it did — in Bruce’s hand. I thought, “Okay, I’ll listen to the song.”

So I get my little portable cassette player, and I put it on, and I remember looking at it, just staring at this cassette player, waiting for the phone to ring… it’s in the key of A, my key; anthemic; great beat. I listen to it, and I remember it, all by myself, standing there. There are certain things in my past I can’t remember, but this I can remember second by second. I stood there, and I shook my head, and I might have said it out loud: “It’s one of those darn hit songs.”

Kaye: Jimmy really wanted us to have a hit. Even though we had a lot of good material together for the album that would be Easter, Jimmy was always looking for something with hook potential.

Smith: I thought, “This is a moral dilemma for me: Here, he’s giving me a song that’s going to be very popular if I can deliver it. And so, thus, my first really popular song will be written by somebody else — or [someone] not in my band. Is that right?” It was because I didn’t have any sense of being a singer. Now I know that people sing other people’s songs all the time, but I was like, listening to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jim Morrison — people who wrote their own songs. I thought I was supposed to write my own songs, other than songs that I’m reinventing or interpreting. I thought, “Is this fair?”

Meanwhile, Fred hadn’t called me, so I sat there and listened to it over and over. Of course, it’s one of those songs where it’s an immediate song — it’s like the first time you hear a Smokey Robinson song; it’s like potato chips. You want to hear it over and over.

Kaye: Patti played it for me over the phone… and that chorus is, like, just anthemic. There’s no way that you could deny the power of that anthem, that incredible couplet: Because the night/Belongs to lovers. It was really great.

The song itself, in Bruce’s demo form, had a really different feel — it was almost Latin in its movement. It was a little more like what Leiber and Stoller would do with the Drifters; it had that kind of sway to it. When we started working on it after Patti wrote the verse lyrics, we definitely, as the Patti Smith Group, put a sense of rock energy into it that wasn’t there on the original. From there like topseed it just grew.

Smith: Fred didn’t call me until almost midnight, but by midnight I had written all the lyrics. All the lyrics. It was like, done. I sometimes labor for months over the lyrics of a song, still, or I’ll shelve a song. Only very rarely do they come in a night. Funny that it’s called “Because the Night.”

Patti Smith visits Peaches Records on June 12, 1978. 
Tom Hill/WireImage

Patti Smith visits Peaches Records on June 12, 1978.

A “true marriage” on tape

Springsteen’s fourth studio album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Easter are spiritual cousins: they were released within months of each other, and Iovine, who engineered Springsteen’s effort, can be found in both sets of production credits. “Because the Night” took shape during one of Springsteen’s Darkness sessions, but the track needed her words as much as his music in order to strike such a resonant chord.

Smith: Jimmy said to me, “You listen to the song?” I said, “Yeah, I listened to the song.” He said, “What do you think?” I said, “It’s one of those hit songs. It’s a really great song.” “Well, what do you think?” “Well, I wrote words to it.” “You wrote–?!” We were in the studio that night, I think, recording it, or the next day.

Iovine: When the lyrics are that powerful, it’s something you’re attracted to and you want the whole world to hear it. That’s how I felt about Patti. I just wanted to do the best I could to help everybody hear Patti Smith, because she was such an incredible person. Still is. I knew the song was [written for] Darkness, but [Bruce] wasn’t gonna use it. I just thought Patti, a woman, singing those lyrics, at that time, would be very powerful. They’re just great, powerful lyrics… It’s one of the great rock records.

Smith: I took it to the band, and I had a band meeting — it was so serious. When I think about it now I have to laugh at myself, because I was so serious about everything. We had to have a discussion: “Well, I’ve received this song. It’s a really great song. If we record it, it’ll probably be very popular, but of course none of you have written it.” I made such a big thing: “If anybody has any objection, tell me.” They were all like, “No! Do it! Do the song.” I’d been out of action; I’d been seriously injured and hadn’t worked for months, so it was both a dilemma, but a thrilling dilemma to have.

Iovine: I remember playing it two hours after I mixed it for Bruce and [Jon] Landau [Springsteen’s manager]. They just thought it was fantastic. They just loved it. I finished mixing it at 10 in the morning and I played it for them at noon.

Kaye: It was fun to record. It was great to see Patti sing it and soar over it. What I really remember most was when Shelly Yakus, the engineer, and Jimmy mixed it — they had all their hands on the faders, and when the drums came in, they just went, “YEEEAAAH!!!” and pushed the faders up. Those drums come in like thunder, Jay Dee Daugherty’s drums. The next thing we heard was Vin Scelsa playing it on WNEW for about four times in a row on its release date, which is just about 40 years ago from this moment.

Smith: I have been at many crossroads in my life where I’ve been offered really big things, a huge amount of money or some kind of contract I’ve turned down because it wasn’t right for me. It’s not strange that I would have to think about it. But in this instance, we made the right decision. In the end, we were a good match for that particular song. I could have never written a song like that. I’d never write a chorus like that. All I’m saying is he gave us a gift… I would’ve loved [to have] written a song that captured the imagination of the people or the pulse of the people or the beat of the people — but one isn’t good in everything. I have my gifts. That’s a special gift. I really admire pop singers, people that make our hits. I love listening to hit songs. I dance to them; I listen to them. Sometimes people think that because I don’t write them that I’m snobby about it. It’s not that. If I knew how, I would. I haven’t written one. But we did write that.

Iovine: There’s a lot of respect between them. They’re peers. They’re from the same period of time… Patti and Bruce, they have very, very strong points of view on the world and life in general, you know what I mean? That’s what I think you’re feeling. You’re feeling two very strong lyricists, not just writing about, “How do I have a hit?” They’re not casual songwriters, let’s put it that way. Patti and Bruce are writing to say something.

Kaye: We didn’t hear much of Bruce’s record when we were making it, and I don’t think he heard much of ours, but we were in the same time and space. The world outside was the same. I would say they’re parallel records in a certain way, but there was not a lot of specific interaction. Jimmy helped be the matchmaker. The musics of Patti and Bruce have perhaps some similar roots, but also come from different places in the human artistic psyche.

That, to me, is one of the reasons why “Because the Night” is such a special song: they each brought their fascinations into a single song, and thankfully they were able to compliment each other in the same way that sometimes a great collaboration really enhances — like Leiber and Stoller, the Brill Building artists, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It makes for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Smith: Some people think that I didn’t do anything: “You stole that song from Bruce!” No, he gave it to me, and he trusted me with his verses — and I think the verses are good. I think it’s a good marriage. And in fact, when we did it the other night, and he came and did the song with us at the [2018 Tribeca Film Festival], I said to him — he does perform it live, and he does his own lyrics — “Please, sing your lyrics on it!” And he goes, “No, no, I want to sing your lyrics.” That was really nice. When we’re together, he calls it my song. It’s truly a Bruce song, but I infused myself into it.

Written by: New Generation Radio

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