Patti Smith garnered a reputation for bringing a specific poetic nature to the grimy world of punk rock. She took after the rock and roll foundation of Jim Morrison, her predecessor, infusing poetry with hard-driving music. It was a cover by The Doors that landed Smith with one of her most famous compositions.
Back in the late 1960s, The Doors needed additional material to flesh out their small batch of original songs. That meant offbeat choices like Kurt Weill’s operatic ‘Whiskey Bar’ along with blues classics like ‘Back Door Man’ and ‘Who Do You Love’. But the and also took on garage rock occasionally by covering Irish rock band Them and their most notable hit, ‘Gloria’.
Them’s version was loose with words, having lead singer Van Morrison adding raps and made up verses that just so happened to pop into his head. The Doors version let Morrison ramble on for as long as he wanted, with the song’s elastic structure making it ideal for Morrison to improvise during any section. Smith found the song to be the perfect vessel for a new commentary on the up and coming punk scene, creating her own words to bring the song into a new generation.
It all started with a poem entitled ‘Oath’. A kiss-off to her former religious upbringing, lines of the work included: “Christ, I’m giving you the goodbye, firing you tonight” and “Adam placed no hex on me”. But the most provocative part of the composition came from the opening preamble: “Christ died for somebody’s sins but not mine”.
Smith performed ‘Oath’ during poetry readings across New York City before forming The Patti Smith Group. When the band needed a song to jam on, the simplicity of ‘Gloria’ was an easy starting point. Smith remembered how open the song’s structure was and how flexible she could be within it, taking over the simplistic tune and transforming it into a completely new composition. Lines from ‘Oath’ started to find their way into the song, including that ear-catching intro.
Eventually, the poetic parts of ‘Oath’ were situated at the start of ‘Gloria’ in a section labelled ‘In Excelsis Deo’, referencing the Christian hymn of the same name. The first lined morphed into “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” and wound up being the opening track to her debut album, Horses, making Smith’s most galvanising statement the first line most people ever heard from her.