It seems as if there was very little forethought or enthusiasm when Patti Smith decided to cover Gloria, the bawdy slice of primitive teenage braggadocio that Van Morrison had written in the not-so-innocent days of the summer of 1963, leading up to his eighteenth birthday.
Recorded while fronting Them, his was a straight recitation of events, without frills, with a slightly menacing beat, his ragged, scratchy vocals full of innuendo and proud lust in the crowing tale of a nocturnal assignation with a girl.
Already a garage rock anthem by the time it appeared on Them’s debut album Angry Young Them in 1965, it was covered 26 times – including by The Doors and Jimi Hendrix – before Smith recorded it for Horses, her own debut album in 1975.
The song didn’t hold Smith in its thrall like it did so many others. Still more poet than singer, she used it as little more than a blank canvas for her to vamp over. The reason she agreed to cover it when band members Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl brought up the idea in 1974 was pure pragmatism: “We did very simple songs in the beginning,” she explained in 2007. “Lenny and Richard would find a three-chord song for me to sort of chant over, and then we would merge the chant with the song, it was an organic process. I didn’t think about it. I just did it. In fact I didn’t have any real interest in covering that song, but I just liked the rhythm of it.”
Smith did a complete face lift of the song, rewriting almost every lyric, putting her own impious psycho-sexual stamp on it, changing the title to Gloria: In Excelsis Deo, and stretching it to 5:54. You could hardly call it a cover any more. Now you’d call it a reimagining; back then it was almost an abduction of a sacred rock totem, recasting it into something completely different, beginning with the opening lines: ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins… but not mine,’ borrowed wholesale from her poem Oath.
“I wrote the opening lines to Gloria in 1970, when I was, like, twenty-one or something,” she said. “I wrote them in response to organised religion. They weren’t really against Jesus Christ or anything, they were more to declare my own existence and my own independence. I have a responsible streak in me from being the oldest of four children. I think it’s part of my nature. I can’t say that I always exercised it. Nor did I want to. I wasn’t interested in my responsibilities when I wrote the lyrics to Gloria. I was exercising my right to be free. The freedom of choice.”
The Patti Smith Group’s Gloria was dangerous and threatening in a way the Morrison version never could be. His is all beat, drive and a cathartic simplicity. Smith’s version is more teasing, complicated, and as much a personal declaration of autonomy and liberation as a story of sexual congress and conquest – seemingly, in her telling, with another woman, despite Smith always maintaining that she is resolutely straight. Putting herself on the same footing as men was defiant and revolutionary back in 1975 – and perhaps more so today.