Patti Smith’s spiritual journey

Legendary punk poet Patti Smith, right, is greeted by Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (L’Osservatore Romano). Speaking to The Guardian, Smith has said: “I like Pope Francis and I’m happy to sing for him. Anyone who would confine me to a line from 20 years ago is a fool!” She continued: “I had a strong religious upbringing, and the first word on my first LP is Jesus. I did a lot of thinking. I’m not against Jesus, but I was 20 and I wanted to make my own mistakes and I didn’t want anyone dying for me. I stand behind that 20-year-old girl, but I have evolved. I’ll sing to my enemy! I don’t like being pinned down and I’ll do what the f**k I want, especially at my age.”

If you have ever been curious about the complicated spiritual journey of iconic punk poet Patti Smith, Ray Padgett’s essay on her version of “Gloria” is exceedingly helpful. This was posted HERE back in 2014. What follows is a shorter excerpt of his article.

Before there was a song called “Gloria,” there was a poem called “Oath.” And the transition from one to the other might never have happened without forty bucks and one loud bass note.

Smith wrote “Oath” in 1970, opening with a line that wouldn’t become famous for five more years: “Christ died for somebody sins but not mine.” A giant kiss-off to her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, the poem rattled off lines like “Christ, I’m giving you the goodbye, firing you tonight” and “Adam placed no hex on me.” The hostility towards religion that shocked so many in “Gloria” pales in comparison to the text of the original poem.

She performed “Oath” at her very first poetry reading, at St. Marks Church’s prestigious Poetry Project series in February 1971. She opened for Andy Warhol protégé Gerard Malanga in front of an audience that included Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Sam Shepard, and many other luminaries of the cutting-edge downtown poetry scene. …

Though she kept performing “Oath” in both solo and duo incarnations for the next few years, she must have sensed it was missing something. When she released her first book of poems, 1972’s Seventh Heaven, she left “Oath” out. Her second book the following year Witt didn’t include it either. One would never know “Oath” existed unless they came to see a reading in person – and even then they might miss it, since it usually took all of sixty seconds.

It wasn’t until 1975 that “Oath” would get any sort of release – and by then it had changed rather dramatically.

Smith’s poem “Oath” and Them’s garage-band staple “Gloria” merged in a spontaneous moment one day in 1974. Playing regular concerts at Max’s Kansas City and other small clubs, Smith now had a three-piece band and the practiced what they called “fieldwork,” or what a different sort of band might call jamming. …

One day though, it evolved into something new. “We bought Richard Hell’s bass guitar from him for $40, sometime in ’74,” Kaye told the blog Rock Town Hall in 2011. “We’re in the practice room, and Patti wanted to play it. She hit a big E note: boinnnggg! She recited a bit of ‘Jesus died for somebody sins but not mine.’ You know, moving into ‘Gloria’ seemed like a natural progression. Especially when we began, there was not a lot of forethought into what we did.”

From the moment Smith hit that E note, “Gloria” ceased being a cover by the strictest standards. Over half the words in the final version are her own, and even the bits she takes from Van Morrison are often radically rewritten. …

Horses was released on December 13, 1975, with “Gloria” as the opening track (a month later it was released as a single, backed with a live “My Generation”). The critical reaction was immediate, with plenty of praise (the New York Times called it “extraordinary”) and a few detractors (the Village Voice derisively dubbed it “an ‘art’ statement”). But whatever the reaction to the album, many honed in on “Gloria” in particular.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many focused on the first line of the album, slightly rewritten to “Jesus died for somebody sins, but not mine.” Was this a call to arms for atheism? A reflection of Nietsche’s “God is dead”? Simply your everyday punk-rock provocation?

For anyone following Smith’s career, that attitude wouldn’t have been a surprise. She speaks about rebelling against her strict Jehovah’s Witness upbringing in many early interviews. “My father taught us not to be a pawn in God’s game,” she told Interview in 1973. “He used to blasphemy and swear against God, putting him down. I got that side of me from him. The religious part I guess is from my mother, who is a complete religious fanatic.”

Yet anyone outraged – or even anyone thinking Smith was taking a definitive stand – perhaps missed the sense of humor, the tongue just a little in cheek. In her first-ever interview in 1972, already regularly performing “Oath” live, she told Victor Bockris, “When I say that bad stuff about God or Christ, I don’t mean that stuff. I don’t know what I mean; it’s just it gives somebody a new view, a new way to look at something. I like to look at things from ten or fifteen different angles, you know. So it gives people a chance to be blasphemous through me.”

Smith’s definite statement on the matter may have come thirty years later, when she reflected on “Gloria” to Terry Gross. “People constantly came up to me and said ‘You’re an atheist, you don’t believe in Jesus,’ and I said ‘Obviously I believe in him’… I’m saying that, y’know, that the concept of Jesus, I believe in. I just wanted the freedom. I wanted to be free of him. I was 20 years old when I wrote that, and it was sort my youthful manifesto. In other words I didn’t want to be good, y’know, but I didn’t want him to have to worry about me, or I didn’t want him taking responsibility for my wrongdoings, or my youthful explorations. I wanted to be free. So it’s really a statement about freedom.”…

With Horses having her raised her profile outside of New York, she continued to tour and perform “Gloria” as her regular set closer. Most notably, she performed the song on the first season of Saturday Night Live, supposedly singing the “Jesus died” line right as the stroke of midnight signaled Easter’s arrival. CBGB tuned all their TVs in the bar to Channel 4 so everyone could watch – and earned themselves a shoutout at the performance’s end. The show’s Gilda Radner later got a lot of mileage out of a Patti Smith parody named Candy Slice.

In January 1977, Smith’s relationship with the song changed forever, without her even playing it. Six songs into a show in Tampa opening for Bob Seger, she fell 15 feet off the stage and broke several vertebrae in her neck. After an experience than could have killed her, she began reevaluating “Gloria”‘s message. In fact, she blamed her attitude toward the divine for her injury.

“I fell during ‘Ain’t It Strange’,” she told Melody Maker not long after the accident. “Now all this sounds like mythical bull but it is a truth – just like the guy at Altamont got shot during ‘Under My Thumb,’ I fell just as I was saying ‘hand of God, I feel the finger.’ And I did feel the finger push me right over. It was like, I spend so much time challenging God when I perform and in everything I do… that I feel it was his way of saying, ‘you keep battering against my door and I’m gonna open that door and you’ll fall in.’”

“I did say ‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,’ and I still believe that,” she continued. “I wasn’t saying that I didn’t like Christ or didn’t believe in him, just that I wanted to take the responsibility for the things I do… I’m a one-to-one girl and I have always sought to communicate with God through myself. And I feel that was one of the reasons I fell offstage.”

“I think Patti changed [after the fall] and came to grips with her own spirituality and some sort of a spiritual system,” her drummer Jay Dee Daugherty said in punk oral history Please Kill Me. “I think she didn’t feel that way anymore. This is something I’ve not talked to her about, this is my own observation. She was working out some theme of resurrection and corning to a different place.”

When she returned, the song stopped getting played quite as often. Then on September 10, 1979, in Florence, she played her biggest concert ever, her last before a 16-year retirement. For the first time ever, she opened with her usual show-closer: “Gloria.” And she made one dramatic change to reflect her new beliefs. “Jesus died for somebody’s sins,” she sang. “Why not mine?”

The small change was “a long time coming,” she said about that moment in the Philadelphia City Paper when she reemerged in 1995. “I was very involved with Christianity in my youth and had grown skeptical of church dogma… As I got older, I did more New Testament studying, especially through Passolini. His words were enlightening, portraying Christ as a revolutionary. I reassessed [Jesus Christ] and realized that he gave us the simplest and greatest ideas: to love one another, making God accessible to all men, and giving people a sense of community, that they would never be alone. It’s not reconciliation as much as it is a tip of the hat.”

She didn’t perform it on her comeback tour with Bob Dylan in 1995, but by the following year it was back in the setlist – original line intact.

Ray Padgett is author of Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time. This article is excerpted from his website.

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