Friday, April 18, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 108): "GLORIA (IN EXCELSIS DEO)" (1975) Patti Smith

It’s Good Friday, the traditional date on which Christ was crucified. But since Easter is a moveable feast and Good Friday has to be the Friday before that, whether or not we’re anywhere in the vicinity of the actual day is pretty much up to conjecture. Still.

It’s also a good day to refer to today’s song, a classic from Patti Smith. This song and Horses, the album it kicks off (produced by John Cale), made waves in the winter of 1975-76 but I don’t think I heard it till 1977, closer to 1978. But when I heard it I immediately recognized that this song—probably a bit begrudgingly—was the most kick-ass rock song since . . . you name it. Fact is, none of Smith’s rock gods had sounded this vital in a long time. Jim Morrison, one of her big flames, had been dead for four years already; Jagger, another, hadn’t really rocked like this since Exile, and Dylan, though his Hard Rain album still showed him to be able to grunge-up his image and style, borrowed from Smith some of the poet posturing he displayed in his Rolling Thunder Revue. Smith was King of the Cats, in 1975.

I chose the song for today for that great opening line—of the part Smith calls “In excelsis deo”—“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” If that’s not a great Good Friday reflection I don’t know what is. That whole Lamb of God sacrifice bit is heavy on symbolism but not strong on logic, though we certainly had it drummed into us back there in Catholic school. “He sent his only son to suffer a horrible death so that you could go to heaven, if only you’ll go to Church every Sunday and take Communion.”  Small price to pay for letting God die, isn’t it? Anyway, the idea that you could say “thanks, but no thanks” to that whole sacrifice idea is rather tonic, to say nothing of the idea that really puts the bite into Smith’s delivery: “my sins my own, they belong to me …. ME!”

In this view we might be following in Joyce’s Stephen’s notion that the man of genius makes no errors, each fault a “happy fall,” so that even your grievous errors and your tawdry sins are yours for the making and the keeping. Nobody, least of all some god of forgiveness, is gonna come along and whitewash them away. Let’s go to our graves taking credit for our lives, foulness and all. It’s defiant, but it’s also very grown-up.

Smith weds this poetry slam to Van Morrison’s “Gloria,” which he recorded with the band Them back in the early Sixties. It’s one of the greatest revisits and revitalizations in all of rock history. She takes the song, which is all about that glory hallelujah of the best piece of ass the singer ever had, and cranks it out of the park, with her “put my stamp on her” and her delirious “make her mine make her mine make her mine.” This song is so seductive, so ecstatic, and so raunchy too.  Listen to how she gives you the full effect just by how she says “humping on the parking meter.” The girl that the singer is looking at in Smith’s version is so runaway randy it’s a wonder she doesn’t set the stairs on fire “comin’ up my stair, here she comes.” Smith sounds like she’s rubbing one off just waiting for this chick to get from the street to her bed. And then with that big tower clock “chiming in my hawrt, goin’ ding dong ding dong ding dong . . . .”

It’s sheer, unadulterated lust. It’s the crazed rut that’s supposed to be a sin. Also, assuming that Smith is singing as a woman, this is homosexual lust ignited here, and it's worth remarking that it takes a woman to deliver this kind of sensual worship without any testosterone-fueled posturing. There is no thought here other than the flesh and all its thrills. And if all that wasn’t intoxicating enough, Smith’s manic delivery of the enunciated letters of the girl’s name is a chant of prayerful intensity. When speechless with orgasm the only thing most people can get out is “God” or some profanity, but here G-L-O-R-I-A gets whiplashed and strung out and chortled and swallowed as if mouthing the letters of her name is like taking her name in vain, a sin in itself, and almost as thrilling as banqueting on the babe’s bodacious charms. It’s borderline lunatic—as Keats speaks of the poet “e’en to frenzy bold.” Smith is that bold all the way.

And don’t neglect that great set-up: “I move in this here atmosphere where anything’s allowed”—all is permitted, that’s the great canard of the “God is dead” philosophes, and here it’s simply the way we roll, but reflect, “I go to this here party and I just get bored.” Even in such an anything-goes atmosphere things can get pretty ennuyeux, no?  “Until I look out the window, see a sweet young thing . . . . “ And the rest is all about that spell, that stamp, that plunge.

There’s a place—if you push it hard enough—where the passion of the Christ and the passion of lovers are parallel, where “the God made flesh” flips over to “the flesh made God.” Smith knows all about that, but let’s not go too far, just now. But when I was 19, 20, and this song was part of the soundtrack of sex, well, that’s something I still believed in.

The tower bells chime, ding dong they chime
They’re singing Jesus died for some-body’s si-innnnnnssssssssss . . . . . but not mine

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