“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”. – Patti Smith
The genre of Post Punk, is not usually noted for its great raft of unabashed love songs, but in 1978 and as a result of a collaboration between a very unlikely pairing, came the unexpected.
In 1977, and still recovering from the serious spinal injuries she had sustained after accidentally falling 15 feet from a stage in Florida, Patti Smith was recuperating at home in New York. Along with her band, her record company, and the public’s new found hunger for all things CBGBs, there was another album to write. Patti wrote slowly, sometimes taking weeks over a poem, she wasn’t someone who could knock out 20 songs over the weekend and be ready to record them on Monday.
Preparation for work on her third album “Easter” included the hiring of sound engineer Jimmy Iovine, who Patti had spotted recording with Bruce Springsteen at the Record Plant studios. Despite Jimmy having never produced an album before, Patti immediately liked his attitude
“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”.
“Because the Night” was a half completed song that Bruce Springsteen had started writing in 1976, and abandoned allegedly because he was never happy with the verses. Even if he had finished it, there was no rush to record or release it, in the mid 1970s Springsteen was embroiled in a legal battle with his manager which had kept him out of the studio for over a year.
Aware of the song’s potential, Jimmy Iovine convinced Bruce to give a demo copy to Patti, with the idea that maybe she could come up with some different lyrics for the verses. The story goes that the cassette of the song sat on her mantle-piece, again abandoned, until one night while she was waiting for her then boyfriend, later husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith to call her from Michigan. Separated by distance the couple relied on the telephone to stay in touch, but as long distance calls were expensive they would limit themselves to weekly calls, making them at night when the rate was cheaper.
“Love is a ring, a telephone…”
On this particular night Patti had expected Fred to call her at 7.30pm, but when he didn’t, and as she waited, she played Bruce’s cassette for the first time. As the phone continued not to ring, she played it over and over, writing the words that would become the verses, the circumstances infusing them with a yearning and expectation.
By the time Fred called at around midnight, the song was finished.
Even after writing the verses, Smith was still unsure about recording what she still saw as someone else’s song, but encouraged by Jimmy and her band, she decided to give it a try. “Because The Night” became Patti’s biggest commercial success by far, it elevated her from cult status to the pop charts. It also, we think, caused some re-evaluation of Springsteen and allowed him to shed his 4th of July “Born To Run” image into something darker and more stripped down, and the song became a watershed moment in both of their careers. The half-written, stalled version which passed between them, emerged on the other side still with its unmistakably anthemic Springsteen chorus, but now pitted against the quiet brooding desperation of Smith’s verses.
On the surface, Smith and Springsteen might seem an unlikely pairing, but underneath the poetry and the posturing, together these New Jersey natives created one of the most enduring torch songs of the post punk era.