Ray Padgett has written a great piece at the Cover Me blog about how Patti Smith's version of Gloria came to be. Cover Me concentrates on "the Cover Song". Here's most of the post about Patti Smith's Gloria:
The Story Behind Patti Smith's "Gloria"
Before there was a song called Gloria, there was a poem called “Oath.” And the transition from one to the other might never have happened without forty bucks and one loud bass note.
Smith wrote “Oath” in 1970, opening with a line that wouldn’t become famous for five more years: “Christ died for somebody sins but not mine.” A giant kiss-off to her cult-like Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, the poem rattled off lines like “Christ, I’m giving you the goodbye, firing you tonight” and “Adam placed no hex on me.” The hostility towards religion that shocked so many in Gloria pales in comparison to the text of the original poem.
She performed “Oath” at her very first poetry reading, at St. Marks Church’s prestigious Poetry Project series in February 1971. She kept performing “Oath” in both solo and duo incarnations for the next few years. When she released her first book of poems, 1972′s Seventh Heaven, she left “Oath” out. It wasn’t until 1975 that “Oath” would get any sort of release – and by then it had changed rather dramatically.
Smith’s poem “Oath” and Them’s garage-band staple “Gloria” merged in a spontaneous moment one day in 1974. Playing regular concerts at Max’s Kansas City and other small clubs, Smith now had a three-piece band and the practiced what they called “fieldwork,” or what a different sort of band might call jamming.
“In the beginning it was just Lenny and I, and then we brought in a piano player, who was Richard Sohl,” Smith told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross in 2006. “So it was just the three of us… and we did very simple songs, because the configuration was so simple. We just chose songs that were basically three chords, so I could improvise over them.” A song so simple a child could play it, “Gloria” was a staple of these sessions – at a later point they auditioned second guitarists by playing Gloria for forty minutes or more to see who dropped out first (after many others couldn’t handle it, Ivan Kral stayed the course and soon joined the band).
One day though, it evolved into something new. In practice Patti wanted to play it. She hit a big E note: boinnnggg! She recited a bit of ‘Jesus died for somebody sins but not mine.’ You know, moving into Gloria seemed like a natural progression. Especially when we began, there was not a lot of forethought into what we did.”
From the moment Smith hit that E note, Gloria ceased being a cover by the strictest standards. Over half the words in the final version are her own, and even the bits she takes from Van Morrison are often radically rewritten.
From the original seed, Gloria evolved. Smith began adding new lyrics until only the first six lines of “Oath” remained. They began playing it live in late ’74, where it opened with a bass guitar playing the familiar piano riff, reminiscent of that first bass note inspiration.
For a live radio concert in ’75, Smith even used the occasion to put the call out for a drummer, the last missing ingredient in the transition from poetry to rock-and-roll band. After a little self-mythologising about how the band got together, she reaches the next stage while the band vamps behind her: “So they got together and they looked for a drummer. And I know you’re out there! And I’m waiting for you! And we will go, and the rest will follow! The rest will follow! And oh it will be so good…” and right back into the song. After the show ended, Clive Davis went backstage with the contract for a seven-album deal on his new label Arista. And before long, they added Jay Dee Daugherty on drums.
With the Clive Davis deal in place, the band set out to record an album. Going into the studio in August 1975, Smith wanted to keep covers to a bare minimum. “On my record, I’m trying to reveal as much about myself as I can,” she told Crawdaddy around that time.
Some have written that Kaye talked Smith into including Gloria on the album, a story he disputes. “Nobody needed convincing because we were all on the same page,” he told Rock Town Hall. However, there was little question this song was closer to his heart than it was hers.
Kaye had been performing the song in its more traditional form since before he met Smith, and has often called it “the national anthem of garage rock” (having released the acclaimed Nuggets compilation a few years prior, he was the undisputed authority on the subject). “To me, Gloria is the greatest of them all,” he told author David Todd in 2012.
Smith didn’t seem to feel as strongly. In her earliest interviews, she constantly mentions a trinity of musical heroes: Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison. Yet that other Morrison – Van – never comes up, despite, by that point, having proven himself in both the worlds of rock and roll raunch and highbrow poeticisms that Smith herself would draw upon. Nevertheless, Kaye – or good sense – prevailed, and the recording got underway at Hendrix’s Electric Lady studios.
The Velvet Underground’s John Cale was producer, but once he agreed and the sessions began, she began thinking she’d made a mistake. “My picking John was about as arbitrary as picking Rimbaud [as my favourite poet],” she told Rolling Stone in 1976.
Over the month-long recording sessions, they fought over everything, from the band’s cheap instruments (Cale made them buy new ones) to the amount of improvisation – Cale pushed for more, eventually pushing the formerly 4-minute track Birdland past the nine-minute mark. The fighting didn’t appear to damage Gloria, though, which emerged relatively unchanged from the live versions the band had been playing around town.
The band – Smith, Kaye, Kral, Daugherty, and Sohl playing the studio’s massive grand piano – recorded the track totally live, according to engineer Bernie Kirsch in 2009. “The band was a live group; they were playing in the clubs and they had the songs down, so when they went in the studio it was mostly a matter of picking which performance was best,” he said. “There were not a lot of fixes I can recall.”
By the time it came to mixing, Cale was gone. “I’m not sure what occurred, but he didn’t complete the project,” Kirsch said. “If I recall, he wasn’t there for most of the mixing. I don’t know what the politics were — it wasn’t in my domain. So I basically took over and did the mix with Patti.”
was released on December 13, 1975, with Gloria as the opening track (a month later it was released as a single, backed with a live “My Generation”). The critical reaction was immediate, with plenty of praise (the New York Times called it “extraordinary”) and a few detractors (the Village Voice derisively dubbed it “an ‘art’ statement”). But whatever the reaction to the album, many honed in on “Gloria” in particular.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many focused on the first line of the album, slightly rewritten to “Jesus died for somebody sins, but not mine.” Was this a call to arms for atheism? A reflection of Nietsche’s “God is dead”? Simply your everyday punk-rock provocation? For anyone following Smith’s career, that attitude wouldn’t have been a surprise. She speaks about rebelling against her strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing in many early interviews. “My father taught us not to be a pawn in God’s game,” she told Interview in 1973. "The religious part I guess is from my mother, who is a complete religious fanatic.”
Yet anyone outraged – or even anyone thinking Smith was taking a definitive stand – perhaps missed the sense of humour, the tongue just a little in cheek. In her first-ever interview in 1972, already regularly performing “Oath” live, she told Victor Bockris, “When I say that bad stuff about God or Christ, I don’t mean that stuff. I don’t know what I mean; it’s just it gives somebody a new view, a new way to look at something. I like to look at things from ten or fifteen different angles, you know. So it gives people a chance to be blasphemous through me.”
Smith’s definite statement on the matter may have come thirty years later, when she reflected on Gloria to Terry Gross. “People constantly came up to me and said ‘You’re an atheist, you don’t believe in Jesus,’ and I said ‘Obviously I believe in him’… I’m saying that, y’know, that the concept of Jesus, I believe in. I just wanted the freedom. I wanted to be free of him. I was 20 years old when I wrote that, and it was sort my youthful manifesto. In other words I didn’t want to be good, y’know, but I didn’t want him to have to worry about me, or I didn’t want him taking responsibility for my wrongdoings, or my youthful explorations. I wanted to be free. So it’s really a statement about freedom.”
“I always enjoyed doing transgender songs,” she told The Observer in 2005. “That’s something I learnt from Joan Baez, who often sang songs that had a male point of view. No, my work does not reflect my sexual preferences, it reflects the fact that I feel total freedom as an artist.”
A lot of people had opinions. The obvious question was: What did Van think? If he ever said anything to her privately, Smith hasn’t said. His one public statement on the matter, in a Rolling Stone profile two years later, reveals muted approval.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” he said when asked about the cover. “I could even dig that for what it is. It doesn’t floor me like some things. I’m the type of cat that would listen to black soul music or black gospel music… that’s what I would listen to. But if something comes along like what Patti Smith is doing, I have a tendency now to accept it as what it is and get off… it’s just what it is and I enjoy it that way.”
Since then, other artists have been more forthcoming. “The opening to Gloria might be one of the greatest moments in American music,” Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha said when inducting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Johnny Marr called it “a massive influence on me” and said that “she gave new energy to American garage rock.”
With Horses having her raised her profile outside of New York, she continued to tour and perform Gloria as her regular set closer. Most notably, she performed the song on the first season of Saturday Night Live, supposedly singing the “Jesus died” line right as the stroke of midnight signalled Easter’s arrival. CBGB tuned all their TVs in the bar to Channel 4 so everyone could watch – and earned themselves a shoutout at the performance’s end.
In January 1977, Smith’s relationship with the song changed forever, without her even playing it. Six songs into a show in Tampa opening for Bob Seger, she fell 15 feet off the stage and broke several vertebrae in her neck. After an experience than could have killed her, she began reevaluating “Gloria”‘s message. In fact, she blamed her attitude toward the divine for her injury.
“I fell during ‘Ain’t It Strange’,” she told Melody Maker not long after the accident. “Now all this sounds like mythical bull but it is a truth – just like the guy at Altamont got shot during ‘Under My Thumb,’ I fell just as I was saying ‘hand of God, I feel the finger.’ And I did feel the finger push me right over. It was like, I spend so much time challenging God when I perform and in everything I do… that I feel it was his way of saying, ‘you keep battering against my door and I’m gonna open that door and you’ll fall in.’”
“I did say ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,’ and I still believe that,” she continued. “I wasn’t saying that I didn’t like Christ or didn’t believe in him, just that I wanted to take the responsibility for the things I do… I’m a one-to-one girl and I have always sought to communicate with God through myself. And I feel that was one of the reasons I fell offstage.”
When she returned, the song stopped getting played quite as often. Then on September 10, 1979, in Florence, she played her biggest concert ever, her last before a 16-year retirement. For the first time ever, she opened with her usual show-closer: Gloria. And she made one dramatic change to reflect her new beliefs. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins,” she sang. “Why not mine?”
Smith continues to perform Gloria regularly at her concerts in its original form, but she’s lucky she released it when she did. If she tried to get permission now for her quasi-cover, she probably couldn’t.
“You can’t really do that with most songs, because artists won’t give you the licensing,” she told LA City Beat in 2007. “I developed the Prince song When Doves Cry and put a biblical verse in the middle of it, and he blocked it.