Last Saturday I read an article in Entertainment Weekly about how Joseph Brooks, the guy who wrote this song (most successful single of the 70’s, 10 weeks at #1 in 1977, Grammy Award, Academy Award), later became a rapist who would lure young actresses to fake casting calls and assault them. He committed suicide in prison in 2011.
Does our repugnance at such behavior mean we should no longer like or listen to the song? Of course not! Which was why I spent the rest of the day remembering this Patti Smith cover of it I heard at an outdoor concert on a rainy night in Central Park.
Before the show, my girlfriend and I had gone to an automobile-themed restaurant that I thought looked cool from the outside. We took one look at the menu prices and bolted while the waiter went to get us water. Instead we ate hot dogs from a street vendor, one of the few times I’ve ever been brave enough to do that. It was raining pretty good and the crowd was sparse and I remember little about the show except the image of Patti on the edge of the stage with a boot up on the speaker and the wind blowing back her hair and her a capella rendition of this song.
This would have been 1979 or 1980, after the release of Easter with its rampant Christian imagery and the chart success of “Because the Night,” so it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise that Patti would sing a top forty song that could be interepreted to have religious overtones.
But it was! I still at that point believed my rock and roll heroes lived in some kind of bubble of artistic integrity and purity. I remember thinking, where did Patti even hear this? (Most successful single of the 70’s, 10 weeks at #1 in 1977, Grammy Award, Academy Award.)
Debby Boone later said she was thinking about God and not a boyfriend when she sang the song. We can take her at her word but in her version it’s arguable. As Patti sang it there was no question she had a higher power in mind. Nonetheless, she kind of butchered it: a crooner she was not, and the wet weather didn’t help her in reaching the high notes.
But close enough for rock and roll, as they say, and utterly sincere and spiritual and unexpectedly moving and one of my favorite live show memories. I still turn the song off if it happens to come on the radio (it is after all a saccharine piece of shit written by a rapist) but I usually wait a line or two to give a smile for Patti’s performance.