G L O R I A
A song that comes in many incarnations. Though originally Van Morrison’s baby, Gloria has escaped from him and his recordings of it are far from the most renowned. I’ll admit I’m not much of a fan of Van Morrison; in his solo career he’s too often wasted his vocal gifts on mawkish, subpar material. But in the early days with Them, he approximated American blues more convincingly than anyone in swinging England with the possible exception of Eric Burdon. Gloria was only a minor hit, but it caught on for being catchy and easy to play. Them’s version was a driving, bluesy showcase for their frontman’s vocals, but it was the three-chord simplicity of the tune itself that made every aspiring garage rocker to jump all over it. It’s become a staple of guitar-101 setlists. The list of cover versions is far stretching and includes guitarists ranging in mastery from Jimi Hendrix to Bill Murray.
The original was, like many a pop song, an ode to a hot chick, though the lyrics were the least important item on the menu. That shortcoming has lead to some inspired ad-libbing. The Doors made Gloria a concert staple, and the live recording became a hit for them. Jim Morrison’s rendition is a lascivious fantasy about a naughty schoolgirl. Morrison was known for interrupting otherwise concise songs with hazy rants about mystical ancient snakes, but there’s nothing mystical about the verses he inserted into Gloria. It’s probably the most erotically charged moment of his, or anyone’s, oeuvre. It’s downright dirty, and not a little bit creepy for making it clear that little Gloria is a schoolgirl whose parents aren’t home.
Songs by men about lusting for young girls are rock music’s bread and butter. So many men have sang about screwing Gloria that the song had soon picked up the misogynistic tang of a gang-bang video. Man, that Gloria must be a real slut! Clearly, Gloria needed rescuing from mindless iterations by all-male garage bands, and Patti Smith was the one to do it. Smith took a classic example what I’ll call a ‘male-gaze song’, chucked everything but the chorus, wrote new words and made it the most definitive rendition of Gloria. She started with the now iconic line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”, asserting her own rebellious view before launching boldly into the famous chorus – “Make her mine, make her mine!” It was a ballsy rewrite. Smith took the traditional hungry, lewd male-gaze perspective and made it her own. She wants Gloria too, but for her own reasons. She made it mean more than just desire, though her version is as sexy as anyone’s. It’s a post-gendered howl of empowerment, breaking free of the confines of both religious dogma and boring parties, asserting her responsibly for her own actions, her own desires. Smith took a song that would almost be sexist if it weren’t so dumb, turned it inside out and came back with an anthem I would call feminist if it weren’t so universal.