I wrote Night almost exactly twenty years ago. It felt quite sophisticated to me at the time and I was very proud of it. It’s a rare song in that I wrote the chords and the melody long before I wrote the lyric. I loved the way the tune sounded on guitar so I wanted the words to do it justice. But nothing I wrote seemed to fit. I gave up.
About a year later I woke up one morning shortly after dawn. I was living on the Upper West Side in a tiny studio apartment with a loft bed. I climbed down the ladder from the loft bed, picked up my guitar, played the familiar chords and wrote the lyric in a matter of minutes.
I’ve never written another song like it. It’s a tender song addressed to two women. The first verse is sung to the man’s mistress, the second verse to his wife/girlfriend. Basically it’s a love song sung by a man who has just been unfaithful.
A few weeks before I wrote the words I’d been to the Walter Reade Cinema to watch the Antonioni film, La Notte. The film, beautifully shot in black and white, stars Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau as a bourgeois married couple who end up at an all-night party thrown at an aristocrat’s mansion. Marcello wanders alone through the mansion and finds a ravishing woman - Monica Vitti - in an ornate billiard room. They flirt and soon kiss. Meanwhile Moreau rambles around looking anxious and sad. She steps past some partiers on the terrace and paces down a dewy lawn towards the woods. It’s now dawn. Marcello sees her and runs after her. Just a few minutes before he’d been kissing another woman but now he clutches his wife as if his life depended on it. But she’s somewhere very far away. In the final frame Marcello smothers Moreau on the lawn like a desperate baby clinging to its tragic mother.
Somehow, this last image stunned me. I no longer cared that I’d been bored for much of the first hour and a half. It had all been a slow-burning dream leading to this haunting revelation. I can’t really explain what that revelation is. I just got it. I fear I have more in common with Italian men than I like to think.
If none of this makes sense, please see the film. If you still don’t get it, watch L’Aventura, another Antonioni film which ends similarly and which hit me just as deeply. Okay, you may not get it after that. And this song may not be for you.
I wasn’t thinking about the film at all when I wrote the song. The connection only dawned on me once I finished it. It offered up the song’s title.
Recorded, produced and mixed by Riley McMahon at the original New Warsaw Studios in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for Spottiswoode & McMahon’s S&M. Treated and mastered by Ennio Galliani in his laboratory on East 7th Street. Featuring Candace DeBartolo on saxophone, Tim Vaill on drums, Riley McMahon on lap steel, Hiroko Taguchi and Mary Wooten on strings, Paul Ossola on bass, and me on Spanish guitar and vocals.
I don’t like the way I sing this song. Given the way it’s voiced on the guitar there’s only one key that’s right: A minor. But that’s a little too high for my voice or too low. In the French version I sing it an octave lower, but what might sound cool in French can sound ridiculous in English. Music is hard.
About a dozen years ago I received an e-mail from a woman I didn’t know called Olga. I can’t remember much about it except she wrote to say how much she liked UGLY LOVE, my first solo record (produced by Peter Fox). Perhaps she’d heard the song Little Girls and Little Boys in TART - a film starring Dominique Swain that was still playing on cable at the time.
I don’t get a lot of fan mail.
I sent Olga a message thanking her for the compliments. She responded by volunteering her boyfriend to shoot a music video for me. Turns out Olga lived in LA and her boyfriend, Mike, was an aspiring director. I was skeptical.
Riley and I were just finishing S&M at the time so I suggested Mike send me a treatment for NIGHT. It seemed the most cinematic of the collection. To my surprise, Mike’s treatment was very good. He also promised to shoot the whole thing on film (loose ends from reels used on commercial shoots) and to supply a top rate LA crew (all colleagues of his willing to do him a favor). My only expense would be to get myself from New York to LA…
A few months later I land at LAX, pick up a rental car and drive to Laurel Canyon where I crash at my old producer pal Peter Fox’s pad in the balmy Hollywood Hills. The next day I follow directions to a parking lot outside an industrial building in downtown LA. I remember feeling tired and self-conscious. I wouldn’t know a soul at the shoot. Still, I was going to be the star. Worse, I’d be playing the role of… well, what? The character in the song. Me, but not me. It’s one thing to sing a tune, another to embody it on camera. Once again I was confronted with a deep ambivalence about performing. I prefer to think of myself as a writer. Okay, I’d played the song at gigs on guitar and I’d recorded a version. I’d even suggested a video get made with me in it. But why? My music career? Art? Where was Mastroianni when I needed him?
I feel like such an impostor that I immediately lock my keys in the rental car. I’ve never done such a thing before or since. I suppose the timing’s good. If you’re going to be so idiotic then do it when you’re the star and there are plenty of production assistants on hand to solve the problem while you’re getting into make-up. Still, I’m clammy with embarrassment as I introduce myself to the young production manager with a request for help.
“Oh, by the way, I’m him.”
Is that a look of utter disappointment on the poor dear’s face? Or wasn’t she told my name? She tells me not to worry about the car and points me towards the set, a whole storey of an abandoned department store. I’m in awe. It’s a hive of activity - lights, big camera, a fake bedroom, actors getting into make-up, gaffers sticking electrical tape to the concrete floor, an audio guy with earmuff headphones checking levels for playback so that I can lip-sync when I need to, the DP and the young director himself checking the video assist monitor, other productive-looking folks grazing at the craft service table. I want to run away.
Allow me to self-flagellate for a second. This should be a moment to celebrate, the fruit of many year’s labor. “Los Angeles, Here I Am!!!” But I just feel awkward.
Everybody’s perfectly nice and professional. I’m soon in make-up and pyjamas lip-syncing words to a Germanic-looking actress lying next to me in bed. How much is she being paid I wonder? Or did she think this would be her big break? Pretty soon I’m going to have to fake-make out with her with my shirt off in front of a lot of strangers. I’ve watched interviews with famous actors saying how uncomfortable such scenes can be but at least they would have already had some experience in front of a camera! And they weren’t playing themselves either. This is going to be flat-out embarrassing.
When we get to the dreaded scene I do the right thing and keep it fake while obeying the director’s instructions to caress her in such and such a way. It’s never not strange for me to watch. Apologies apologies. Moving on…
They’ve got a bloody rain machine! I’m now outside in PJs and slippers running towards a fire escape beneath an artificial deluge. And now it’s evening and I’m still in pyjamas sitting in a taxi with none other than the handsome Peter Fox at the wheel. He’s been drafted in to play what should have been Riley’s role (but that would have been an extra plane ticket.) These guys know what they’re doing. Seriously.
But I haven’t said anything about the video itself. What I appreciated about Mike Goode’s treatment was that he subverted the song in a surprisingly tender way. It’s no longer the story of a man running home from his mistress to his wife. It’s the story of an old man’s dream. Far more poetic and haunting.
Final thanks go to the editor, Andrew Blackwell. To this day I don’t understand Mike’s motives for making the video. He went to so much trouble and expense but he never got around to assembling the footage. About half a year later I asked if he could send the footage to me. I passed it all on to Andrew. Nice job.