Lovesick in a long-distance relationship with then former MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith, Patti Smith was living in New York City while he was 600 miles away in Detroit, and the only way the couple kept their connection was by nightly phone calls, on a payphone. Often waiting hours just to capture each another’s voices on the other line, the distance was frustrating for the couple, something Smith recalled of the pair’s then separated romance:
“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. 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.'”
At the time, Smith didn’t consider herself a songwriter but found herself writing the lyrics to this song long into the night.
“Fred didn’t call me until almost midnight, but by midnight I had written all the lyrics—all the lyrics,” said Smith. “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.'”
Produced by Jimmy Iovine, “Because the Night” was the first single off Smith’s third album Easter with the Patti Smith Group in 1978, and the meaning behind the lyrics evokes the pains of distance.
Have I doubt when I’m alone
Love is a ring, the telephone
Love is an angel disguised as lust
Here in our bed until the morning comes
Smith, eventually married Fred and relocated to Detroit, where they began raising their two children. Sadly, Fred Smith passed away in 1994, and Patti returned to New York City, and music and the song birthed from their lovelorn state has taken on new lives more than 40 years later with varied covers by artists like Kim Wilde and Patti Lupone, and even Springsteen, who recorded it for his 2010 release The Promise.
In 1993, the song began jumping the charts again and reached No. 11, more than 15 years after its original release when Natalie Merchant revisited “Because the Night” with 10,000 Maniacs on an episode of MTV Unplugged. Two decades later, Garbage and Screaming Females shared another version, which was recently re-released as a bonus track on Garbage’s seventh album No Gods No Monsters in 2021.
Keeping the song a staple on their individual setlists, Smith and Springsteen most recently performed the song together during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at the Beacon Theatre in New York City and were scheduled to perform it again during the New York Homecoming Concert in Central Park in 2021, before the show was canceled due to a storm. The pair also joined u2, who called the track “the song we wish we’d written,” at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary show in 2009.
Now more than 40 years on, “Because the Night” keeps the constant thrum of love and longing, constantly evolves, and continues to honor the union of the Smiths.
Garbage & Screaming Females (2013)
Bruce Springsteen (2010)
10,000 Maniacs (1993)