Close Reading Patti Smith’s “Because the Night”
Patti Smith performing at Provinssirock festival, Seinäjoki, Finland, 2007. Photograph by Beni Köhler via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
Supplementing my regular essays, I’m interested in performing a series of traditional close readings of poems, passages, dialogue, and even art, demonstrating the utility of a critical practice that’s sometimes obscured more than its venerable history would warrant. If you’re interested in seeing close readings on particular works of literature or pop culture, please Tweet your suggestions @WithEdSimon.
The collaboration between heartland arena rock bard Bruce Springsteen and punk poet goddess Patti Smith which led to the seminal 1978 track “Because the Night” off of the latter’s album Easter would superficially seem to be one of the more unlikely relationships in popular music. By a certain reductionist accounting, there might be an apparent incongruity in Springsteen, the denim-clad working class bar rocker singing about the Atlantic City boardwalk and unemployed steel workers penning a song made famous by Smith, a denizen of CBGBs, Robert Mapplethorpe’s former lover, and the prosodic inheritor of Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire. Such an analysis would, however, owe more to marketing than to poetics, for those stated differences between Springsteen and Smith are superficial, the gulf between “classic rock” and “punk” always an issue of marketing more than structure.
If a reading of Springsteen begins and ends with the influence of music critic and producer Jon Landau, who instituted a rigorous (if informal) course of American Studies for the Boss that was responsible for the Steinbeckian overtures of his music as it grew out of the earliest formulations of the E Street Band, then it can be easy to overlook the sheer avant-garde oddness of the earliest albums he crafted. “I saw rock and roll’s future,” Landau famously wrote in a 1974 article, “and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Albums like 1975’s Born to Run, 1980’s The River, 1982’s gothic masterpiece Nebraska, and especially the continually misread faux-jingoism of 1984’s Born in the USA have contributed to the myth of Springsteen as byways rambler at home in Jersey bars, Pittsburgh steel mills, and Ohio VFW halls; the folk inheritor singing “Yeah we’re laughin’ and drinkin’, nothing feels better than blood on blood;/Takin’ turns dancin’ with Maria as the band played ‘Night of the Johnstown Flood’’ (with a wag noticing that the traditional song namechecked in the lyrics doesn’t actually exist). By contrast, Smith was the iconoclast who could open her 1975 album Horses with the blasphemy of “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.” Yet it was Springsteen who would give Smith her only major U.S. hit with “Because of the Night,” a castaway from his 1978 Darkness at the Edge of Town sessions, when sound engineer Johnny Iovine, who was also producing Easter, asked if the song could be covered by Smith, who has become completely identified with the track.
As much as stereotype lumps Springsteen in with lesser heartland rockers like John Cougar Mellencamp or Bob Seger, as a lyricist the Boss was as at home with twitchy, absurdist stanzas as much as the best experimental Dadaist, and Smith’s tastes encompass more than decadent poets, but artists in heavy FM classic radio rotation from Jim to Van Morrison (and of course, Bob Dylan was the common denominator between both the punk and the working class hero). Consider the opening track off of Springsteen’s first album, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, wherein on “Blinded by the Light” he sings “Madman drummers, bummers, and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat/In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat/With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round/With this very unpleasing, sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground.” Springsteen’s early lyrics, shorn of the sentimental Americanism that marks even some of his most brilliant later albums, engages an irrational aural sense worthy of Tristan Tzara.
“Blinded by the Light” is, in the same sense of Dylan’s earliest amphetamine fueled tracks, completely meaningless. The song’s celebration is not sense and syntax, but rather sound. It’s a stream of consciousness sheer exuberant love of words and what they sound like, the play of rhyme and rhythm, rather than anything as mundane as what said words may mean. Critic Viktor Shklovsky in Art as Technique defines “literariness” by its qualities of “defamiliarization,” how the regular is made odd, the prosaic strange, so that poetic language is that which draws attention to itself precisely as artifice. “Blinded by the Light” is an exemplar of this, making clear the arbitrary oddness of language itself, while not conveying information in any literal manner, or even in a comprehensible manner. If such a quality particularly marks experimental poetry, then early Springsteen is arguably more radical than Smith. At least that’s certainly the Springsteen that composes “Blinded by the Light,” which makes the disjunct between the two icons far less stark than they first appear.
“Blinded by the Light” didn’t appear on Darkness at the Edge of Town, nor has it been particularly frequent in the E Street Band’s concert rotation, though Springsteen has performed it live and in duet with Smith. Though Smith was long a critical darling, “Because the Night” was her only hit, topping the American charts at number 13. Any formal consideration of lyrics does, to a certain unavoidable extent, bracket out issues of personality, context, and performance so as to focus on the words themselves, but a few comments should be made about how the song actually sounds. The three-minute long masterpiece, beginning with minimalist piano arrangement and then bursting forth with an explosion of orchestral sound punctuated with Lenny Kaye’s guitar so as to make it as reminiscent of Phil Spector’s wall of sound production as much as the Ramones, is a very different song when performed by Springsteen or by Smith. With Smith’s falsetto, “Because the Night” sounds every bit the keening of damage that we’d associate with downtown Manhattan in the age of garbage strikes and daily murders; when mumble-growled by the Boss the listener’s thoughts turn to “Of course this is a Springsteen song.”
“Blinded by the Light” is in keeping with the emotional register of the songs on Darkness at the Edge of Town, but Smith is easily able to convert that characteristic tone into the downtown grandiosity that she brings to her performance. While “Blinded by the Light” is unmistakably a Springsteen song in terms of lyrical content, checking many of the standard Boss themes – teenage forlornness and implied doomed love – even if adolescence and explicit hopelessness aren’t literally mentioned – Smith elevates the material in a manner that even the original can’t match. Springsteen is, in some sense, a great lyrical ghost writer (as indeed that’s how he began his career), and following Iovine’s suggestion of giving the track to Smith, it makes sense that the songwriter was fully able to fully intuit the needs of the singer (consider his 1977 track “Fire” which was made a hit by the Pointer Sisters but was written for Elvis).
As with some of the best of Springsteen, there’s a power to the critical deployment of cliché that would be considered galling in other poets. “Desire is hunger in the fire I breath/Love is a banquet on which we feed.” It has to be said – in a straightforward sense – this is bad poetry. This is adolescent poetry; this is the scribblings of a love-sick teenager in a black-and-white marbled composition notebook. That’s precisely what gives the stanza its power, however; Springsteen has the deep understanding that part of the purpose and power of rock is that it gives voice to those dumb teenage emotions that have such immediacy to those who experience them, it’s what fuels “Born to Run,” and its what makes the pathos of “The River” so heartbreaking when viewed in retrospective. In “Blinded by the Night” the identity of the narrator and his (her?) beloved is occluded, but the emotions themselves seem so characteristically teenage that its hard not to classify the song in the same canon of high school rebellion that The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” exists in. When the triteness of those lines is delivered with earnestness, it elevates the lyrics to the level of the sublime not in spite of their triteness, but because of them. In the perennial argument about song lyrics in contrast to poetry, giving new life by Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, there does have to be a concession made to how aural experience is a different tool in the arsenal of the singer than it can be for the poet (even if poetry is delivered). That is to say that plenty of poems contain a certain elemental power whether recited or written, but “Blinded by the Lights” most maudlin lyrics would lose everything when constrained by the whiteness of the page. Yet their sheer unembarrassed-by-corniness-in-delivery makes them brilliant. They provide a shot of the exquisite, raw, glandular reality of the narrator.
Something almost gothic in the vampirism of the lyrics, which if in keeping with Smith’s persona seems odd from Springsteen. Let me not be misunderstood here – I’m not arguing that “Because the Night” is about vampires, but I am saying that lyrically there is something vampiric about it, and that insomuch this is a Romantic theme an argument can be made about the song being a sort of neo-Romantic vestigial organ (which as I will later demonstrate is especially true of what I consider its most unambiguously brilliant line). The gothic is of course the most adolescent of modes, and even if the narrators are not explicitly stated as being teenagers (and an honest accounting would say a close reading of the lyrics can’t substantiate such a conclusion), the melancholic drama of the song is in keeping with a certain youthful pathos. “Love is a banquet on which we feed” is certainly Byronic in its overtures, but in some ways “Because the Night” almost seems to describe the relationship between a mortal and a vampire, or perhaps between those whose fantasy lives allow for such imagination. The line “With love we sleep/With doubt the vicious circle/Turn and burns… Forgive, the yearning, burning” as well as “Come on now try and understand/The way I feel under your command/Take my hand as the sun descends/They can’t touch you now” certainly have their Nosferatian overtones. There is a valorization of night as being that where things happen under cover of darkness, where illicit loves are allowed. Of night being the only state in which such love is even possible.
The genderless, ageless, timeless characters of the song enjoy their love “in our bed until the morning comes,” with the lyric a sterling example of that venerable genre of the aubade, the poetic form whereby lovers mourn their separation with the dawn (as in John Donne’s seventeenth-century “The Sunne Rising”) and which was particularly popular in the nineteenth-century. Unlike most aubades, it’d be easy to read the narrator as a woman pleading with her partner with whom she shares an unequal love: “Come on now and try to understand/The way I feel when I’m in your hands” has a vulnerability in its display of a love expressed to a not equivalently interested significant other. It would be a mistake to read the narrator as a woman because of that vulnerability, a critical fallacy based on gender reductionism that doesn’t take into account that depending on the performer, such an identity will shift the attendant meanings of who an audience interprets the speaker as being. Regardless, in the neutral world of the lyrics itself there’s nothing that confirms the gender of the narrator nor the sexuality of the speaker. What is apparent, however, is that whoever the narrator is, they fear that their beloved is not as committed as they are (whether those fears are justified or not can’t be known from the lyrics), and that their aubade is thus an argument for staying, a certain Carpe diem Cavalier pronouncement of love.
The feelings of (skeptical?) invincibility stated in the song – “They can’t hurt you now” – are delivered as shaky tricolon, but there is a strange ambiguity in the claim. Who is the “They” that is threatening the lover? Why do they want to hurt the lover? Such uncertainties are shot through the lyrics, which far from the typical love song that Springsteen himself rejected it as when he cut it from the track list of Darkness at the Edge of Town, evidences a deeper and more disquieting narrative uncertainty. From the title itself – because of what? – ambiguity haunts the song. It’s impossible to tell if we’re to read the lyrics literally or not; impossible to tell if the narrator is overstating the case or if this is a sober reading of an actual situation. The answer to the question, where the later is given after the former is posed, is that this undifferentiated “they” is incapable of hurting the beloved “Because the night belongs to lovers/Because the night belongs to lust… Because the night belongs to us.” It’s a fascinating declaration of rebellion, one reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” but also an anemic declaration since common sense would tell you that it’s not true. Regardless of the literal inaccuracy of the statement, in the more important sense the statement is one of utopian possibility, declaring an exemplary sovereignty for the “night” as a domain of freedom simply because the lovers wish it to be so. Part of the message thus is the manner in which love has a certain omnipotence to it, if not in an actual sense than in a numinous way.
It’s easy to imbue “Because of the Night” with a strictly delineated narrative which isn’t actually in the lyrics, since an exemplary performance by either Springsteen or Smith will project a sense of cohesion which isn’t actually indicated in the lyrics. Unlike many other Springsteen songs, such as the story of working-class disappointment in “The River,” the serial killer’s murdering spree in “Nebraska,” or criminal desperation in “Atlantic City,” the narrative in “Because of the Night” is stripped down to its constituent parts. No plot beyond the moment; sentiments implied but their literalism uncertain; no visible setting, time period, or circumstances. Barely any characters. Because of this, the song is almost allegorical, if not elemental. “Because of the Night” doesn’t actually tell a story, at least not beyond the most basic narratological definition of what a story is. Rather the song is presenting an argument; “Because of the Night” is a manifesto, not a ballad. And that axiom appears in the middle of the song in the aforementioned exemplary lyric, what elevates the song to antinomian brilliance, when the performer sings “Love is an angel disguised as lust.”
This is the most fascinating and important line in the entire song, it is the theoretical hinge on which the rest of the lyrics rotate, and in its disjuncture, its subversion, and its unexpectedness it classifies “Because of the Night” as a neo-Romantic parable. If the opposite formulation had been sung – “Lust is an angel disguised as love” – then it would be a mundane, formulaic, moralizing contention. Culturally there is a narrative that will devalue sexuality so that claims of love can be understood as mere mask for carnal pleasures. The inversion in this song is a statement of collapsing the spiritual into the physical, the material into the transcendent, and thus an encomium for lust whereby it’s defended not as oppositional to love, but as love itself. As a sentiment, I’d argue that “Lust is an angel disguised as love” is worthy of William Blake; it’s the sort of aphorism that one could expect to find in Proverbs of Heaven and Hell.
Smith has always been a keen student of the Romantics, none more so than Blake (whom Van Morrison also enthusiastically read). Her poems and songs have run a course through Blake and into the symbolists, the decadents, the Beats, and thus the sentiment of the lyric is fully in keeping with the fleshy, exuberant embrace of sexuality as synonymous with love that one would expect in the punk’s oeuvre. But the man who wrote “Because of the Night” has a similar evocation of the immediacy of sweaty fumbling, of the transcendence implied by sex. Springsteen’s sources might be different from Smith’s, but the lyricist who could write in another song “Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir/At night on them banks I’d lie awake/And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take” has an identical understanding about how a traditional morality doesn’t encompass the power, freedom, and significance of sexuality. The lyric reminds us of a fundamental proverb of spiritual emancipation – that the hormonal and heavenly need not be in opposition. Often they’re the same thing.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.