If I had to pick a list of the greatest opening lines in rock and roll, the opening of Patti Smith’s “Gloria” would be right at the top. When Smith softly sings “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” you know you’re in from something entirely different than the “Gloria” that recorded in the mid-1960s. Smith’s version of “Gloria” isn’t so much a cover, but rather a re-imagining of the song where she moves through her own lyrics and the original’s famous chorus back and forth effortlessly.
The original “Gloria” (written by Van Morrison) and performed by Them has become a garage-rock classic over the years. The sexual tension that drives the song isn’t so much mentioned explicitly, but rather felt through Morrison’s frenetic vocals. Morrison has never sounded so desperate and hungry. The performance here (and much of Them’s catalogue) is the exact opposite of Morrison’s solo career, where he takes a more soulful approach to his vocals. On “Gloria”, he is unhinged and crazy. When he shouts out Gloria’s name, it’s not just love- it’s lust. You almost get the feeling that he wants her to shout out his name in return.
There’s no doubt that Gloria is an easy name to spell out and sing along to. But the fact that the name itself comes from the Latin term “Gloria in excelsis doe” (translated as “glory to god in the highest”) makes Morrison’s sexualization of it all the more disturbing. Though many of his contemporaries would explore this idea further, Morrison was taking the sacred and making it profane with “Gloria”.
This fact was not lost on Patti Smith, as she dubbed her own contributions to “Gloria” as “In Excelsis Deo”. Having grown up as a Jehovah’s Witness, she channeled all of her frustrations with organized religion into “Gloria”. The opening line is a direct assault on the very foundation of Christianity, and the philosophy that Jesus Christ died for all of humanity. Smith suggests it may something for others, but for her it doesn’t mean a thing. She has chosen her own life, and her sins “they belong to me.” If the inevitable apocalypse comes and everybody must repent, Smith isn’t buying it. “The words are just rules and regulations to me,” She growls.
Smith takes Morrison’s sexual turn on the Biblical Gloria even further. If Morrison was just after a woman, Smith sees a girl “humpin’ on the parking meter, leaning on the parking meter” and not only finds it attractive, but decides she wants her as well. Morrison’s sexual urges were outrageous, but Smith is more direct and perhaps even more inflammatory. At this point, the music has been building and building to the point where the “G-l-o-r-i-a” chorus sounds positively cathartic. Everything has been building to this moment. The original recording may have been wild, but Smith’s band raises the stakes even higher. The guitars are louder and faster, and the band seems ready to implode from under itself as Smith demands them to scream Gloria’s name in unison.
A few moments later, Smith recalls “at the stadium there were twenty thousand girls” who either tried to make love to her or call out her name (note: I found two different versions of the lyrics online and it’s hard to tell what she sings there.) She then mentions two names specifically – Marie and Ruth. Both names refer to important women in the Bible – Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David and Mary is the mother of Jesus. But this being Smith – she doesn’t hear or listen to them. She’s going to take that deep plunge.
When the band comes around again for chorus again, Smith once again cries out the song’s beginning line. This time, it’s no soft or restrained. She practically screams that that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”. There’s a slight pause, and the band fires out the final “Gloria” chorus as if the world is really on fire.