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

From The Independent archive: Robert Webb on ‘Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)’ by Patti Smith

Friday 26 November 2021 21:30
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<p>Smith selected the three-chord song as a framework for her spontaneous verse </p>

Smith selected the three-chord song as a framework for her spontaneous verse

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.

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