Classic Tracks: Patti Smith's "Gloria"
Oct 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson
It's one of the most haunting openings of any debut album. Soft, almost mournful piano and bass set up a slow rhythmic foundation. Then a woman's voice sings/speaks:
Patti Smith's "Gloria" MP3
Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine
meltin' in a pot of thieves, wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me…
The rhythm picks up, guitars fall in and the singer continues with her narrative, which she intones, slurs, hiccups and rasps in almost equal measure. Musically, it's clearly based on Van Morrison/Them's “Gloria,” but it's been turned upside down and stretched out, and that song didn't have anything about “a sweet young thing humpin' on the parking meter/Leanin' on the parking meter.” The song accelerates some more, and the excitement of the prospective encounter becomes palpable, and this time it is a variation on Morrison's original, as the singer's would-be conquest is “Comin' through my door…Crawlin' up my stair…Waltzin' through the hall…Knockin' on my door… ” The spark of the first passion is there, “She whispers to me and I take the big plunge…” and the guitars are galloping now toward the inevitable chorus: “And her name is, and her name is…G-L-O-R-I-i-i-i-i-i-i G-L-O-R-I-A Glooooo-ria…” Whew, this rock chestnut has never sounded like this — and it's only halfway done.
In retrospect, it's difficult to remember the impact that Patti Smith's first album, Horses, had upon its release in the fall of 1975. Unless you were actually living in New York at the time and knew about the fresh, young bands that were playing in dives like CBGBs and Max's Kansas City — idiosyncratic groups like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Blon- die, none of whom had released debut albums yet — chances are you hadn't heard anything remotely like it. Sure, there were glimpses of the “new wave” to come in late-'60s bands such as the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and flashes in some of the rock 'n' roll churned out in the early '70s by David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Lou Reed and others. But no one had quite put together the combination of elements that Smith and her band did: freewheeling poetry, nods to '50s and early '60s rock, vocals that could sound tossed off and insistent in the same line, slashing power chords, a bit of reggae. It was quite an assault, all unified by Smith's unique vision.
She grew up in a working-class town in southern New Jersey, and like so many people who become great artists, she never quite fit in with her peers. Growing up she loved black music, and in the mid-'60s she fell hard for the Rolling Stones after seeing them on The Ed Sullivan Show. Her mother bought her a couple of Dylan albums and that opened her eyes in other ways. The music and poetry of Jim Morrison and The Doors affected her deeply, as did the work of French visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud. In 1967, she left New Jersey for New York, gravitating around the art scene at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute. There, she met an artist named Robert Mapplethorpe (who, much later, would become renowned for his homoerotic photography), and it was he whom she credits with encouraging her to explore her interest in drawing and writing poetry.
After spending some time with her sister in Paris, she returned home to New Jersey briefly but then moved into Manhattan's famous Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe. In those days, the Chelsea was an incredible energy center for artists of every stripe — Janis Joplin lived there (when she was in New York) and befriended Smith, as did Beat icon William Burroughs, Dylan's buddy Bob Neuwirth, playwright Sam Shepherd and various members of Andy Warhol's scene. To earn some bread, she worked in a bookstore, and also became a rock journalist for a spell — writing for Rock magazine, Crawdaddy and other outlets. She befriended rock critic Lenny Kaye, and when she started doing poetry readings in the early '70s, Kaye frequently accompanied her on guitar.
Acceptable Use Policy blog comments powered by Disqus