Listen to this track by proto-punk poet and her merry band of garage rock enthusiasts The Patti Smith Group. It’s “Gloria”, the opening track to their 1975 record Horses. That album would be a reflection of their work that melded fifties beat generation poetry with sixties garage rock music.
This song is the embodiment of that mix, taking a poem that Smith had performed for years called “Oath”, and fusing it to the 1965 garage rock classic by Them, which makes this a quasi cover version of sorts. It’s almost as though, in a time before sampling was formalized in the way we know it today, this piece was manually sampled. It was an effort at trying to tie the deeper questions of life to something that was just as common; a love of rock ‘n’ roll radio. It was also a way to tie it directly to the experiences of her generation.
Where is all of this pointing toward? Something that looks at lot like a search outside of that which had always been accepted as fact by the generation that came before. That’s what makes this so punk rock.
Patti Smith straddled both the worlds of stripped down rock music and with the literary world, aligned with Richard Hell and with Allen Ginsberg (both of whom were befriended by Smith) in equal measure. Both of these men were on the scene at Max’s Kansas City, where The Patti Smith Group had a residence, and is forever associated with the musical scenes that flourished in this venerable venue. This era was the flashpoint for what would become the New York punk scene, which went beyond music, also including literary and theatrical scenes, photography as evidenced by the work of Smith’s friend and confidante Robert Mapplethorpe in particular, filmmaking, and visual art.
Part of the punk ethos even at this early stage was to start from where one was in order to express oneself, separated from the assumptions and aspirations of previous generations. Of course, that was not a new idea. Even the word “punk” was derived from the beats in the fifties, subsequently borrowed to describe the emerging artistic scenes in New York by the early to mid-seventies. With both the beats and the punk scensters, the values of the status quo were called into question, and largely rejected in favour of starting again while using the tools to hand. That’s what makes this song an important and representative part of the early punk scene, even if it’s also attached to a literary tradition.
The opening line of this song is among the most recognized of the era, certainly being provocative, and even considered blasphemous among some quarters.
Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine …
To me that opening line isn’t really about faith or the divine or necessarily of their rejection. The idea of Jesus could have been replaced by anything that stood as representative of post-war culture. It concerns itself with starting again from scratch and with new perceptions beyond what had been presented in a tightly-wrapped cultural package by the generations that had come before. I think the reason this song is such a strong opener to the album is that it sounds like a mission statement, like a musical manifesto of what the artist stands for. And these opening lines in turn give that mission focus; “I’m not going to accept what I’m given. I’m going to pursue life as I see it for myself and come to my own honest conclusions.”
“Gloria” is, in its way, a song about growing up and growing older, moving beyond childhood and trying to make sense out of what it means to be an adult. It’s about taking what was taught and interpreting it with a new perspective. That’s why it works so well as a song that could be defined as a cover version, but sort of isn’t one, too. It acknowledges that we carry the child in us around as we make our way; growing up in the fifties and sixties, listening to the radio, and being shaped by the feelings that it inspired. As such, this song does something else for which punk is known; it involves the audience by making the story of the artist the story of those listening, too.
To learn more about the background of this tune, take a look at this article that tells the story behind “Gloria” and how it evolved from Smith’s initial spoken-word poem to the full-blown garage punk anthem it became.
To get a sense of the New York punk scene of the early to mid-seventies, there are two books to recommend. The first is Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCaine which presents a series of vignettes and interviews with some of the key figures (and not so key figures) on the scene who made it what it was.
The other book is Just Kids, by Patti Smith herself about her time on the scene, and about her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe when the two came to New York in 1967 as young and idealistic artists looking to find themselves.
After many periods of semi-retirement over a forty year recording history, Patti Smith is an active writer and musician today. Check out her latest efforts at pattismith.net.