It’s the early 1980s, and you’ve been spending the past few years simultaneously buying as many contemporary punk, post-punk, and punk precursor albums as you can possibly afford. Or even that you can’t.
But you still haven’t landed on Patti Smith, maybe because your first experience has been her Bruce Springsteen cover/collab “Because The Night” which you liked well enough a few years prior, but just never blew you away.
But one Christmas — let’s call it Christmas, 1983 — you’re at Tower Records, because that what you did on Christmas and while you’re excited to get the Bongos Numbers With Wings EP and Holly & The Italians The Right To Be Italian, you also decide to finally take the plunge and pick up Patti Smith’s Horses.
By this time you’d heard — but not really heard — a couple of her songs on the college radio, or maybe after falling in love with the Pretenders & Go-Gos, you wanted to go deeper on this whole “woman rocker” thing, which still felt like a novelty then.
In any event, you’d never really listened to Patti Smith before, and so you bring Horses home and put it on. The opening track is called “Gloria,” — the same as the opening track of the second U2 album — but you know enough to know that it’s kind of a cover of the Van Morrison song. But the Them version song, of course, was a raucous, guitar-driven rocker. This one isn’t. For one thing, it doesn’t start out with drums and guitars. Instead, there are a couple of quiet piano notes and then this:
Jesus died for somebody’s since, but not mine
Whoa! What the fuck was that? Could people even say that? Seems blasphemous. It’s not like you’re all that religious: while you were raised Catholic and had gone to Mass every week during your childhood and teen years — not to mention went to Catholic high school — you happily and permanently lapsed the second you turned 18 and were an adult. Or really, an “adult.”
Meanwhile, the song is building and building, a guitar and a hi-hat have started to keep a tentative beat while Patti explains herself. Or digs herself in deeper. Or both.
Melting in a pot of thieves
Wild card up my sleeve
Thick, heart of stone
My sins my own, they belong to me
People said “Beware”
But I don’t care
Their words are just rules and regulations to me
And with that second “Me,” the song kick into a kind of a strut, with guitarist Lenny Kaye sticking sparse rhythms in one speaker and quick stinging leads in the other, and as Patti continues to sing about a “sweet young thing” she has spotted and decided that she wants, and now “Gloria” is getting faster and faster and Patti is mixing her words with Van Morrison’s, except after the sweet young thing is knocking on her door instead of Van’s door instead being made to feel alright Patti has now “made her mine,” and yet at the same time she doesn’t yet even know the sweet young thing’s name and the guitars and drums and piano are all getting faster and faster and Patti is asking asking asking for a name at least give me your name and then she gives her name gives her name and her name is her name is
And that moment, when they’re alternating Patti spelling out her name with the guys in her band shouting it, that moment is one of the most thrilling things you’ve ever heard, leveraging the familiarity of the classic song but adding so much more power and nuance. Van Morrison’s song is all about getting to fuck Gloria, but Patti Smith’s version is all about what that fucking means to her and her sense of self and sense of what her sins are.
And, at the same time, it’s a viscerally thrilling rock ‘n’ roll song, full of tension and release and tension and release, which is why she immediately goes back for more — a thing that Van Morrison couldn’t do — while the rest of the band whirls and churns around her, guitar chords crashing against bass lines and ever-faster drumbeats into another ecstatic chorus and suddenly comes to a halt so Patti can bring the song back to full circle.
Tower bells chime
“Ding Dong,” they chime
“Jesus died for somebody’s sins
But not mine”
And then then whole band explodes into one last chorus of “GLORRRRRRRRRIA” because why the hell not? The genius of “Gloria” is that everything that is happening on a lyricial, sociopolitical or philosophical level can be totally and utterly ignored because it’s all a fully visceral thrill ride, and you are able to enjoy Patti chanting “ding dong ding dong ding dong” without even caring about what it means, because the glorious sense of freedom she’s singing about is all there in the music, from the opening piano chords to Lenny Kaye’s wild soloing at the end.
And you say to yourself, that first time you truly listen to “Gloria,” you say to yourself “Holy Jesus fuck, I gotta hear this again right this second!”
“Gloria” Saturday Night Live, 1976
“Gloria” live in Rockpalast, 1979
“Gloria” live on Jools Holland, 2007
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