An expanded version of this article – with a new Lenny Kaye interview! – appears in my upcoming book ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’. Preorder it at Amazon.
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 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 opened for Andy Warhol protégé Gerard Malanga in front of an audience that included Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, and many other luminaries of the cutting-edge downtown poetry scene. Though Lenny Kaye – who Smith had cold-called after reading a story he had written for Jazz and Pop magazine – backed her up on guitar for several readings, she delivered “Oath” alone. Only later did Kaye begin joining in, adding squalls and feedback bursts to heighten the tension.
“Oath” reading live at St Marks in 1971 (Smith’s first performance):
“Oath” reading live in 1973 with Lenny Kaye:
Though she kept performing “Oath” in both solo and duo incarnations for the next few years, she must have sensed it was missing something. When she released her first book of poems, 1972’s Seventh Heaven, she left “Oath” out. Her second book the following year Witt didn’t include it either. One would never know “Oath” existed unless they came to see a reading in person – and even then they might miss it, since it usually took all of sixty seconds.
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. “We bought Richard Hell’s bass guitar from him for $40, sometime in ’74,” Kaye told the blog Rock Town Hall in 2011. “We’re in the practice room, and 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. But this loose approach to covers was nothing new for the band.
Their first single, a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” (itself a cover of The Leaves) opened with an extended Patty Hearst monologue. Her regular show-opener was a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” whose very few lyrics Smith generously fleshed out with verses of her own. Their other Velvet Underground cover, “Pale Blue Eyes,” had a tendency to sacrilegiously segue into “Louie Louie.” Not to mention, of course, Smith’s profane twists on the Who’s “My Generation.”
“Hey Joe” debut single:
“We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together” cover live:
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.
First recorded live performance of “Gloria,” 1974:
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-mythologizing 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.
“Gloria” live on WBAI (w/ call for drummer):
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. “It’s got a great sense of release, and when it hunkers down on those chords, you can do anything. I can take a solo; you can spout out about the night. It just lends itself to everything.”
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 Horses sessions were contentious. Before they even started, Smith’s first choice of producer got vetoed. “I had lined up another producer first,” she told the Independent in ’95. “I didn’t know anything about producers and just picked Tom Dowd because I admired him. But he was on Atlantic, and Ahmet Ertegun [former head of Atlantic Records] was really against me.”
Smith’s second choice was the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, 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 favorite poet],” she told Rolling Stone in 1976. “I saw the cover of Illuminations with Rimbaud’s face, y’know, he looked so cool, just like Bob Dylan. So Rimbaud became my favorite poet. I looked at the cover of Fear [Cale’s 1974 solo record] and I said, ‘Now there’s a set of cheekbones.’ The thing is I picked John… in my mind I picked him because his records sounded good. But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person.” When she told him this, he reportedly responded, “You bloody fool, you should have picked my engineer!”
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 Mix 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.”
“It was kept together by a really stable engineer who watched all the shenanigans going on and sort of hung onto it,” a placated Cale said in Sound on Sound in 2006. “Bernie, he was great.”
Horses 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. “He used to blasphemy and swear against God, putting him down. I got that side of me from him. 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 humor, 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.”
Another focal point for analysis was the song’s unusual gender dynamics. Rather than change genders so she was singing about a boy, she kept Morrison’s original – and expanded upon it with all that “humpin’ on a parking meter” bits. Perhaps inevitably, many took it as a lesbian anthem. It wasn’t. Smith had often written from a male perspective, in her poetry and her lyrics.
“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.”
Besides, she had no reason to write a lesbian anthem. “I tried to make it with a chick once and I thought it was a drag,” she told Bockris. “She was too soft. I like hardness. I like to feel a male chest. I like bone. I like muscle. I don’t like all that soft breast.”
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.” Even Madonna named her as an inspiration in an HMV ad campaign a few years back.
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 signaled 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. The show’s Gilda Radner later got a lot of mileage out of a Patti Smith parody named Candy Slice.
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.”
“I think Patti changed [after the fall] and came to grips with her own spirituality and some sort of a spiritual system,” her drummer Jay Dee Daugherty said in punk oral history Please Kill Me. “I think she didn’t feel that way anymore. This is something I’ve not talked to her about, this is my own observation. She was working out some theme of resurrection and corning to a different place.”
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?”
“Gloria” live in Florence 1979:
The small change was “a long time coming,” she said about that moment in the Philadelphia City Paper when she reemerged in 1995. “I was very involved with Christianity in my youth and had grown skeptical of church dogma… As I got older, I did more New Testament studying, especially through Passolini. His words were enlightening, portraying Christ as a revolutionary. I reassessed [Jesus Christ] and realized that he gave us the simplest and greatest ideas: to love one another, making God accessible to all men, and giving people a sense of community, that they would never be alone. It’s not reconciliation as much as it is a tip of the hat.”
She didn’t perform it on her comeback tour with Bob Dylan in 1995, but by the following year it was back in the setlist – original line intact.
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 [anymore], because artists won’t give you the licensing,” she told LA City Beat in 2007. “I developed [a version of] the Prince song ‘When Doves Cry’ and put a biblical verse in the middle of it, and he blocked it. He made me take off the Bible verse, and the Hendrix Foundation does not allow you to put your own poetry on a Jimi Hendrix song.”
On the other hand, maybe such restrictions wouldn’t stop her even today. Because, as she first sang in 1975:
People say “beware!”
But I don’t care
The words are just
Rules and regulations to me, me
If you liked this story, 19 more like it appear in my upcoming book ‘Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time’. Preorder it at Amazon.