Patti Smith, America’s punk-poet queen, isn’t known for being a crowd-pleaser. She first made her name in the seventies on the New York performance poetry circuit, doing readings to a backdrop of squalling feedback courtesy of guitarist Lenny Kaye.
Her first album, 1975’s Horses, with its opening line “Jesus died for someone’s sins, but not mine”, brimmed with stream-of-consciousness fury and wilfully ignored punk’s self-imposed rule about two-minute songs, instead delivering 10-minute epics that referenced her literary heroes, among them Rimbaud, Blake and the Beat poets. Certainly, a hit single was never part of the plan.
Yet there is one track in the Smith catalogue that, at concerts, makes the quietly faithful leap about and punch the air. It tells of hedonistic abandon, red-hot desire and love as “an angel disguised as lust”. With its big chorus and romantic proclamations, 1978’s “Because the Night” is, to all intents and purposes, a power ballad — more Pat Benatar than Baudelaire.
The song was initially conceived not by Smith but by her fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen. He began writing it in 1977 in Los Angeles during the sessions for his Darkness on the Edge of Town LP. But, after composing the melody and the chorus, he abandoned it.
Down the corridor from Springsteen, Smith and her band were working on their 1978 LP, Easter. Smith’s producer, Jimmy Iovine, was simultaneously engineering for Springsteen and could be found darting frantically between the two studios. It was his idea that Springsteen offer the song to Smith.
Legend has it that Smith wrote the verses while waiting for a phone call from her new boyfriend, Fred “Sonic” Smith, with whom she would later settle down and have two children. Released as a single, the song was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic. In her book Just Kids, she recalls ambling around downtown Manhattan with her friend and ex-lover Robert Mapplethorpe and hearing “Because the Night” blaring out of successive storefronts. “Patti,” he remarked, archly. “You got famous before me.”
If Mapplethorpe was supportive of Smith’s success, some of her fans were less approving and accused her of selling out. Not that she cared: “I liked hearing myself on the radio,” she told New York Magazine. “To me, those people didn’t understand punk rock at all. Punk rock is just another word for freedom.”
Springsteen has always credited Smith for turning the song into a hit, though he hasn’t altogether relinquished his stake. He frequently performs it at concerts, replacing the sex-induced sweat of Smith’s version with a different kind of perspiration — that of the working man labouring under the hot sun.
It has become his go-to track for starry duets: in 2004 he sang it with REM’s Michael Stipe in a Vote For Change concert in support of the would-be president, John Kerry, and has performed it multiple times with Bono. Indeed, one of the song’s more startling renditions came during a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary show, when Bono invited both Springsteen and Smith to perform it together with him. On this occasion they went with Smith’s lyrics.
The song has proved to be cover-version catnip to other artists. 10,000 Maniacs did an elegant if somewhat vanilla interpretation for an MTV Unplugged performance in 1993, complete with a string section. Garbage restored the heat and the power for their 2013 collaboration with Screaming Females, released to coincide with Record Store Day.
At 69, Smith still delights in playing the song in her live shows, a joyful explosion of lust shoehorned between darker tales of misfits and outsiders.