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Patti, Natalie, and the Boss

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Patti, Natalie, and the Boss

With Bruce Springsteen slated to do the halftime honors during this year’s Super Bowl in Tampa, I thought it appropriate to dredge up one of those minor life decisions that, because of my obsessive personality, takes up an inordinate amount of my time.

My iPod Shuffle is a few years old and, by today’s standards, a relic. Imagine how disheartening it is for me to see that all the songs saved in my player would barely register on the space indicator bar of my kids’ Nanos. As a result, I can’t afford to make playlist decisions cavalierly.

This led to a bit of a dilemma for me when trying to decide which version of “Because the Night” to add to my music portfolio. I had to choose between Patti Smith’s, Natalie Merchant’s or Springsteen’s version of the song. This may be sacrilege, but even though technically “the Boss” was the first one to record it, I’ve never been a fan of his rendition. The 1978 song that was made famous by Patti Smith from her album Easter was actually written by Springsteen.

From Wikipedia (bold added):

“The original song was recorded by Bruce Springsteen during sessions for his Darkness on the Edge of Town album. The Patti Smith Group was working on Easter in the studio next door, and the bands were exchanging tapes; Springsteen even composed some songs in the other band’s style. With male-centered lyrics and a reported Latin feel, the original version of the song—a workingman’s lament—wasn’t finding a place on the Springsteen album. Smith took the song and recast it from a female perspective, and it was included on Easter, becoming the first single release from that album. Though it was never released on a Springsteen studio album, in concert beginning with his Darkness Tour Springsteen would often perform the song with his original lyrics, borrowing Smith’s rock arrangement. The only commercially-released recording of a Springsteen version of the song was included on Live/1975–85.”

The highlighted part, I think, ultimately explains the problem I have with the Boss and the different English he puts into his interpretation. I’ve got nothing against “working men” per se (go Steelers!). It’s just that a slight change in focus by Springsteen results in a great bit of difference in the mood and meaning of the piece. To its detriment.

For Smith, “Because the Night” represents the hedonistic abandon she enjoys when in the company of a her equally enthusiastic lover. However, in Springsteen’s lyrics, there’s a few extra lines that put a different spin on what the couple in the song are up to: “I work all day out in the hot sun” and “What I got I have earned, what I’m not I have learned.” So, instead of simple, wanton, wet, and sticky sex, Springsteen’s protagonist seems to be using the rendezvous as an escape from a job he doesn’t like. It’s no longer about them, it’s about him. How typical (right ladies?).

Natalie Merchant’s cover of “Because the Night” has a lot going for it. Like Smith, Merchant’s main character is there for that moment, not fleeing from a previous one. This may relate to their respective looks, but Merchant seems to enjoy the sex because she loves her partner. Smith, on the other hand, seems to enjoy her partner because she loves the sex. Of course, now I’m splitting hairs. The real issue I have with Merchant’s recording is that because it was made during a 10,000 Maniacs appearance on MTV’s “Unplugged, ” the background accompaniment doesn’t fit. As it turns out, “Because The Night” literally requires a minimum wattage of electricity that was incongruous with the famous show’s format. There’s one memorable bridge which is more appropriate for a hoedown (no pun intended) than a night of passion.

Compared to Smith, Springsteen’s performance lacks passion as well. His lines blend into each other, not hitting the beats as hard or as correctly as Smith does. The topic may conjur up soft, round images, but the song requires slightly sharper edges than Springsteen’s vocal provides. And, as the video for the song shows, it was recorded during a particularly narcissistic period for the Boss. He’s wearing a muscle shirt (dare I say “wife beater”) that anyone who has dabbled with free weights during the eighties is all too well aware of. Having owned several myself, I’m embarrassed to admit that I know whereof I speak. This only adds to the “it’s all about me” feeling I get from Springsteen’s version.

I’ve included all three versions below. Getting back to my original dilemma, I finally decided to add BOTH Smith’s and Merchant’s outing to my playlist.

I was getting tired of Annie Lennox’s “The First Cut” anyway.

Patti Smith

Natalie Merchant

Bruce Springsteen

Matt Maul is author of the blog Maul of America.