Springsteen originally recorded the song during the long hiatus after the breakout Born to Run release in 1975. A number of experiences from that time, including the Time/Newsweek cover appearances, a lawsuit by a former manager and the process of regular old growing up, reshaped some of his thinking and diluted the exuberant optimism of the Born to Run years. By the time Darkness came out, Springsteen himself had changed as an artist and as a person, offering some glimpses of the man who would release the bleak Nebraska four years later and The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995.
He'd put out two albums in 1973, then lingered and sweat over the epic that turned into Born to Run in '75. Ordinarily, an popular musician in that situation would have released something in 1977 or maybe even in 1976. But the lawsuit that kept him out of the studio meant that the songs which would create that album never managed to gel together, and by the time Springsteen and the E Street Band could record again, their muse had a new and more somber outlook. Most of the songs that will be on The Promise are somewhere in between the grand theatrics of the first three albums and the noirish tales of Darkness (It'll also come in a deluxe version that will include a DVD of a Darkness-era concert from Houston, a 2009 concert where the band played the whole album straight through, and some other live performances from the Born-Darkness transition period. It'll set you back north of $100).
Promise has some songs that made it onto Darkness in different versions. "Candy's Boy," a kind of moony doo-wop declaration by a small-timer about how much he loves a girl who seems to get an awful lot of gifts from well-to-do men, becomes "Candy's Room," whose faster tempo and avalanche of building sound brings a hint of menace that the singer may be willing to settle for such a situation for only so long before he takes steps to change things.
Which brings us to "Because the Night." Springsteen has said he was never able to fully finish a satisfactory studio version of the song, and producer Jimmy Iovine, who was working with the E-Street band as well as the Patti Smith Group in a next-door studio, played the song for Smith and she included it on her 1978 album Easter. She also released it as a single, and it remains her biggest hit. Springsteen, on the other hand, never did make a version of the song that satisfied him but did include it in his concerts beginning with the Darkness tour, where it became a mainstay. Many live versions and some studio recordings of the song crept out into listener's hands through the shady lands of the bootlegging community, but "Night's" only official release was a live version on the Live-1975-1985 box set.
Much like the more comedic "Fire," "Because the Night" was an experience shared mostly by fans who had seen a Springsteen show rather than just bopped along to "Hungry Heart" on the radio. And his live performance, which I have had the good fortune to hear in person (14th row, center section on the floor, Rosemont Horizon in Chicago in 1984 -- I'll probably forget my own mother's name before that fact leaks out of my brain), remains the definitive version of the song. Although Smith's recording is better able to capture the urgency that seems to best suit the song and that Springsteen has really only managed with it live, her quirky voice seems to wax and wane out of sync with the words she's singing.
This is just my opinion (see the header for a reminder), but it seems like the best version of "Because the Night" outside of a live Springsteen show is the 1993 version from 10,000 Maniacs' appearance on MTV Unplugged ("Night" may be a good luck charm -- it was the Maniacs' first Top 40 hit after 12 years together and gained them the same kind of attention it had gained Smith). The show had bands play their songs with acoustic and miked instruments instead of amplified ones. The Springsteen studio version from Promise, on the NPR "First Listen" feature, lacks energy and seems drained and wan next to the versions done by both women and by Springsteen himself live. But the Maniacs gave the song the urgency that best suits it and lead singer Natalie Merchant was much more in control of when she should be loud and when she should be soft than Patti Smith was. She's also a better technical vocalist than Smith was during the initial "Godmother of Punk" phase of the latter's career.
"Because the Night" may have been one of those songs that its creator was born to play rather than record. Its best showcase might not a band isolated in a studio but a crowd of thousands singing along to every word and both feeding and feeding off the energy of the performance and the performers. Its first authorized studio release persuades me of that anyway, and most of the studio bootlegs of it I've ever heard fall short of the track from The Promise.
Oh, the risk of death? Well, it's not because I've rambled on about a pop song for this long and irritated a reader so much I'm in danger -- one back-click and you're quite free from my opinions. It's because my friend Philip, who reads this blog, is a Springsteen devotee and when he sees the sacrilege I have just committed, he may keel right over. His wife is going to kill me.