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Classic Tracks: Patti Smith’s “Gloria”

It's one of the most haunting openings of any debut album. Soft, almost mournful piano and bass set up a slow rhythmic foundation. Then a woman's voice

It’s one of the most haunting openings of any debut album. Soft, almost mournful piano and bass set up a slow rhythmic foundation. Then a woman’s voice sings/speaks:

Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine
meltin’ in a pot of thieves, wild card up my sleeve
thick heart of stone
my sins my own
they belong to me, me…

The rhythm picks up, guitars fall in and the singer continues with her narrative, which she intones, slurs, hiccups and rasps in almost equal measure. Musically, it’s clearly based on Van Morrison/Them’s “Gloria,” but it’s been turned upside down and stretched out, and that song didn’t have anything about “a sweet young thing humpin’ on the parking meter/Leanin’ on the parking meter.” The song accelerates some more, and the excitement of the prospective encounter becomes palpable, and this time it is a variation on Morrison’s original, as the singer’s would-be conquest is “Comin’ through my door…Crawlin’ up my stair…Waltzin’ through the hall…Knockin’ on my door… ” The spark of the first passion is there, “She whispers to me and I take the big plunge…” and the guitars are galloping now toward the inevitable chorus: “And her name is, and her name is…G-L-O-R-I-i-i-i-i-i-i G-L-O-R-I-A Glooooo-ria…” Whew, this rock chestnut has never sounded like this — and it’s only halfway done.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to remember the impact that Patti Smith’s first album, Horses, had upon its release in the fall of 1975. Unless you were actually living in New York at the time and knew about the fresh, young bands that were playing in dives like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City — idiosyncratic groups like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Blon- die, none of whom had released debut albums yet — chances are you hadn’t heard anything remotely like it. Sure, there were glimpses of the “new wave” to come in late-’60s bands such as the Velvet Underground and The Stooges, and flashes in some of the rock ‘n’ roll churned out in the early ’70s by David Bowie, the New York Dolls, Lou Reed and others. But no one had quite put together the combination of elements that Smith and her band did: freewheeling poetry, nods to ’50s and early ’60s rock, vocals that could sound tossed off and insistent in the same line, slashing power chords, a bit of reggae. It was quite an assault, all unified by Smith’s unique vision.

She grew up in a working-class town in southern New Jersey, and like so many people who become great artists, she never quite fit in with her peers. Growing up she loved black music, and in the mid-’60s she fell hard for the Rolling Stones after seeing them on The Ed Sullivan Show. Her mother bought her a couple of Dylan albums and that opened her eyes in other ways. The music and poetry of Jim Morrison and The Doors affected her deeply, as did the work of French visionary poet Arthur Rimbaud. In 1967, she left New Jersey for New York, gravitating around the art scene at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. There, she met an artist named Robert Mapplethorpe (who, much later, would become renowned for his homoerotic photography), and it was he whom she credits with encouraging her to explore her interest in drawing and writing poetry.

After spending some time with her sister in Paris, she returned home to New Jersey briefly but then moved into Manhattan’s famous Chelsea Hotel with Mapplethorpe. In those days, the Chelsea was an incredible energy center for artists of every stripe — Janis Joplin lived there (when she was in New York) and befriended Smith, as did Beat icon William Burroughs, Dylan’s buddy Bob Neuwirth, playwright Sam Shepherd and various members of Andy Warhol’s scene. To earn some bread, she worked in a bookstore, and also became a rock journalist for a spell — writing for Rock magazine, Crawdaddy and other outlets. She befriended rock critic Lenny Kaye, and when she started doing poetry readings in the early ’70s, Kaye frequently accompanied her on guitar.

Within a couple of years, encouraged by friends, Smith started singing and then formed a band based around Kaye. Kaye and Mapplethorpe produced her first independent single in 1974: “Piss Factory,” a poetic ramble about her time working in a factory as a teenager, backed with “Hey Joe,” which combined the oft-covered rock song (popularized by Hendrix) with thoughts about the then-current story of heiress Patty Hearst’s kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. As Smith’s following grew and she started receiving glowing notices in the New York press, she was courted by a few labels, and in the spring of 1975 she signed with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. Shortly after that, she entered Electric Lady Studios in Greenwich Village to cut her first album with producer John Cale, an Englishman who had been an original member of the Velvet Underground, put out a few albums of his own and also produced albums for The Stooges and former VU chanteuse Nico.

“In my mind, I picked [Cale] because his records sounded good,” Smith told Rolling Stone in a 1975 interview. “But I hired the wrong guy. All I was really looking for was a technical person. Instead, I got a total maniac artist. I went to pick out an expensive watercolor painting and instead I got a mirror. It was really like A Season in Hell for both of us. But inspiration doesn’t always have to be somebody sending a dozen American Beauty roses. There’s a lotta inspiration going on between the murderer and the victim. And he had me so nuts I ended up doing this nine-minute cut [“Birdland”] that transcended anything I ever did before.”

Electric Lady was a large basement space, which had been a country and western club for 30 years, and also briefly a rock venue called Generation Club before Jimi Hendrix bought the building in 1968, intending to operate it as his own club. Instead, he was convinced by his engineer, Eddie Kramer, to turn it into a recording studio — this became the first project designed by fresh-out-of-college John Storyk. (Contrary to popular myth, Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland was not recorded there — it was cut at the Record Plant — and, in fact, Hendrix only got in a couple of months of recording at Electric Lady, which opened in the summer of 1970, before his death.) Engineer Bernie Kirsch, who started at Electric Lady as an assistant in 1971, got the assignment to work on Smith’s Horses. Kirsch says that he had heard of Cale back in 1975, but not Smith; still, the singer immediately impressed him.

“She was always very professional,” Kirsch remembers. “She had a particular point of view as an artist and she was very concerned about making the kind of art she envisioned. There was not a lot of compromise in that area. And from what I could see, the record company let her do what she wanted.”

The sessions for Smith’s Horses stretched over a couple of weeks in Studio A during the late summer of ’75: “We would start late at night and work into the morning hours,” Kirsch recalls. “It may have just been ‘musician’s hours,’ and that’s what they wanted, but also the studio was divided into slots with a day slot and an evening slot, so it may have simply been that.”

Both control rooms were equipped with Datamix consoles — part of Kramer’s legacy, as he’d used them extensively at the Record Plant before Electric Lady was built.

“You don’t hear much about them anymore, but they were great-sounding consoles,” Kirsch says. “Simple, very nice EQs.” Monitors were Altec 604s, and at the time Horses was cut, the tape machine was an MCI 16-track. (Kirsch says that 24-track heads for the MCIs came in right after Horses — his first 24-track project there was Chick Corea’s The Leprechaun, which began Kirsch’s lifelong association with the jazz piano great.)

Kirsch notes of Studio A’s tracking space, “The live room was divided into soft-surface and hard-surface areas — a hard floor on one side of the room and a carpeted area on the other. The side where the hard surface was had a white material on the wall that was like a carpet. Then there were lights above that threw color on that wall. At one end there was a drum area that had built-in baffles in front about chest-high that you could see over when you were playing, but nothing above it; it was open to the ceiling, which was relatively tall — maybe 18 feet or so. There was also a grand piano — my recollection is that it was a Yamaha.”

Playing that Yamaha was Richard Sohl. The rest of the band comprised Jay Dee Daugherty on drums; Lenny Kaye on guitar (and some bass); and Ivan Krall on bass, guitar and keyboards. Allen Lanier added some guitar and keys, Tom Verlaine added more guitar, and producer Cale some bass.

Kirsch believes he miked the piano with either a pair of Neumann U86s, or one 86 and one 87. “On the drums we probably had an Electro-Voice 666 on the bass drum, a [Shure] 57 on the snare and 87s overhead. I may have used ribbon mics — Beyer M160s — as overheads; I don’t recall. Guitars were 87s on the amp; we had a [Sennheiser] 421 on the bass speaker, plus a direct. For Patti’s vocal I used an 87.” Reverb came from the studio’s EMT 140 stereo plates.

The tracks were cut, Kirsch says, “all totally live, with Patti in a booth, but everybody else in the room. The band was a live group; they were playing in the clubs and they had the songs down, so when they went in the studio it was mostly a matter of picking which performance was best. There were not a lot of fixes I can recall — maybe a few fixes on the vocals from different takes where she’d improvise or do different poetry things. It was unusual to have a singer improvise with lyrics in those days.” (One track, the epic “Land,” featured some studio machinations — multiple Smith vocals overlapping and playing with/against each other.)

As Smith revealed in interviews when the album came out, Cale was an intense presence in the studio, and Kirsch notes today, “I’m not sure what occurred, but he didn’t complete the project. If I recall, he wasn’t there for most of the mixing. I don’t know what the politics were — it wasn’t in my domain. So I basically took over and did the mix with Patti. I think we mixed it in both Studio A and Studio B.”

Horses didn’t produce any “hits” per se, but both “Gloria” and “Free Money” got significant airplay on college and other progressive radio stations, and by the time the punk/new-wave floodgates really opened up during ’76 and ’77, the entire album was regarded as a classic progenitor of the movement.