Patti Smith is an interesting person and a fine musician, always worth listening to; I particularly enjoy her recent recordings. And in her youth, she recorded Gloria by Van Morrison; it’s a contender for the best single-song rock performance ever. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)

Cover of Horses by Patti Smith

The Context · Patti was a New York poet with chops, who came out of nowhere in 1975 on Horses, featuring Gloria. Her history is a long one, and I’m not going to tell it all here, but you might enjoy reading up on her; she toured and played with a lot of interesting people, then she retired from music to raise a family, then her husband and brother died, then she got back into the business. I’ve not heard all her records, but have liked what I’ve heard.

When our son was born in 1999, we didn’t get out much for a while. The first time we got a babysitter and went out, it was to see Patti in a big rock & roll ballroom. She was just totally beyond great. We’d been away from bars for many many months and in the interim the smoking ban had come in. It was kind of disorienting; barroom ambiance, loud rock music, people dancing, no tobacco (a modest amount of cannabis smoke drifting from the corners though). We went home exhausted but un-smelly and woke up clear-headed.

Patti’s been making records regularly since her return to the scene; I have two of them, Gone Again and trampin’, and I listen to them quite a bit, trampin’ especially. It’s loud and uncompromising but still lyrical and lovely, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.

The Music · Patti’s Gloria is just under six minutes long and it’s not complicated. Patti improved Van’s lyrics; she enters, snarling against a surging electric vamp: Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine. Then for the next three hundred seconds or so she rides the musical curve up and up and up into a Dionysian climax, and ends with that same snarl about Jesus. It doesn’t try, particularly, to be subtle or ironic or subtextual or any of that crap; Patti just stays on the beat and pushes her voice and the band to the edge and beyond, and if you play this loud enough your heart will be racing and your head will be banging when they get to the top of the song.

Patti Smith

Rock and roll played right (and Lord knows it doesn’t happen that often), well there’s nothing else that comes close.

Sampling It · I went to play the Horses CD to refresh myself in writing this, and discovered to my horror that it’s not there on the shelves; nor is Radio Ethiopia, in either vinyl or silver. So they must have fallen by the wayside, and the track I’ve been headbanging to on airplanes must be classic-Napster fruit. Well, I’m just going to have to go out and buy them; and you should too.


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September 25, 2006
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