Story of the Song: Gloria (In Excelsis Deo) by Patti Smith

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  • Patti Smith
    American singer-songwriter, poet and visual artist
Smith selected the three-chord song as a framework for her spontaneous verse  (Handout)
Smith selected the three-chord song as a framework for her spontaneous verse (Handout)

Patti Smith wasn’t especially interested in “Gloria”, Van Morrison’s smouldering tale of lust from his days with the Belfast five-piece, Them. She was simply selecting three-chord songs that could be used as a framework for her spontaneous verse. “I liked the rhythm, and we just sort of used it for our own design,” she said.

The formula worked better than she could have imagined. Richard Sohl’s soft, Debussy-like piano and Lenny Kaye’s pungent guitar accompany the most memorable of openers: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”, a line resurrected from her 1971 poem, “Oath”. Smith described it as her youthful manifesto on freedom: “I wasn’t saying that I didn’t like Christ ... just that I wanted to take the responsibility for the things I do.”

It’s the song that, Morrison once said, sounds best played live for 20 minutes. His own concert recording, on the 1974 set, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, runs to a disappointingly short three-and-a-bit minutes. Smith stretches it to fit her own lyrics, mixing in her poetry and adjusting the tempo accordingly, from canter to gallop.

“Gloria” was written in 1964, as a tribute to a close cousin of Morrison’s, Gloria Gordon, who had recently died of cancer: “I dug her”, the singer has said of his muse. It first appeared as the B-side to the Them single “Baby Please Don’t Go”, the famous riff reputedly supplied by their guitarist, Billy Harrison (who didn’t receive a writing credit).

By the mid Sixties it was on the set-lists of most American garage bands. When Jim Morrison and The Doors wrapped-up their summer season at Hollywood’s Whisky-A-Go-Go in 1966, Them were also on the bill. “We all got pretty soused and we ended up all getting on stage together and playing ‘Gloria’,” recalled The Doors’s Robbie Krieger.

There are blurred photographs of the two tousle-haired Morrisons jamming together, but sadly no one thought to tape it. Smith idolised Jim Morrison and knew “Gloria” well enough. She gave her version a subtitle, “In Excelsis Deo”, and made it the first track on Horses, her influential debut album from 1975. Van Morrison approved: “If something comes along like what Patti Smith is doing, I have a tendency now to accept it as what it is and I get off.”

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