Originally published in Sonic Boomers / 2009
By Steven Rosen
It isn’t new for Norman Greenbaum, but it’s still exciting. Yet another movie – the 46th by his account – is featuring his one true hit, 1970’s “Spirit in the Sky,” on its soundtrack. This time it’s “Sunshine Cleaning,” a quirky indie “dramedy” starring popular young actresses Amy Adams and Emily Blunt as two sisters whose business is cleaning up messy crime scenes. A hit at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, it has opened to strong business this month in limited release.
Greenbaum, now 66, has dutifully added this latest film to the list he keeps at his Web-site, www.spiritinthesky.com, where he also posts photos and sells CD’s, T-shirts, tattoos, stickers, guitar picks, magnets and autographed pictures. His primary occupation, at this point, is tending to “Spirit in the Sky’s” legacy. The producer who first signed him as a singer-songwriter in the late 1960s – Erik Jacobsen – is the song’s publisher and works closely with Greenbaum, who gets songwriting and performing royalties, to keep it alive.
“Sunshine Cleaning” joins “Apollo 13,” “Contact,” “Wayne’s World 2,” “The Dish,” “Remember the Titans,” “W” and a host of other films, commercials, video games and TV programs in getting a rise out of that song. And it makes sense – “Spirit in the Sky” opens with instantly recognizable rumbling power chords; a jubilantly catchy, sing-along melody; and the upbeat religious lyrics about that “friend in Jesus” waiting in the Great Beyond. It was good-spirited hippie rock ‘n’ roll at its finest, the biggest hit single Reprise Records had ever had at the time, so well-produced it continues to sound contemporary to this day.
“You listen to a lot of songs that old and they sound tinny,” Greenbaum says. “This one just blasts away. I just got a couple E-mails from guys hitting 60 who say, ‘I still play it as loud as I can.’
“To me, it’s the opening riff that gets to you. It resonates and goes up your spine. And then the message is a good thought.”
Greenbaum owns a home in Santa Rosa, California, where he lives alone with his cat. Long divorced, his two children are grown – a daughter is a realtor, a son a train engineer in Alaska. So he recently had time to consider, during a telephone interview, “Spirit’s” status as one of rock’s greatest one-hit wonders. For better and worse.
Greenbaum realizes, the “retro” market being as insatiable as it is, that there’s probably some demand for his return to the concert world. But there are problems – since everyone would want to hear a loud, rockin’ “Spirit.”
“I have tinnitus, and it’s hard for me to perform,” he explains. “I have it bad and I go for days without sleeping because my ears just ring. Being up in front of amplifiers is killer for me. It’s difficult for me to just go to a club and listen – it bothers me for days. Whenever I try to do something, it becomes more and more evident it’s not in the best interest of my ears.”
Actually, if not for “Spirit,” Greenbaum could probably do the quieter acoustic folk circuit without concertgoer complaint. Many of his subsequent Reprise recordings, after the Spirit In The Sky album, have a rustically pastoral, hippie-folk sensibility and sensitive, introspective lyrics. He followed that with Back Home Again. And his last Reprise album, 1972’s acoustic Petaluma, with its cover of a long-haired, thickly mustached Greenbaum wearing overalls and holding a chicken at his farm, features lovely songs like “Dairy Queen” and expert playing on mandolin from Ry Cooder, washboard bass by Jim Kweskin Band’s Fritz Richmond, and keyboards by Butterfield Band’s Mark Naftalin. It was a poor seller, however. “I can’t let the Petaluma album fade away,” Greenbaum says. “It’s too good.”
Before “Spirit,” Greenbaum had played as a solo folk act in his native Boston/Cambridge area, where he also attended Boston University. He loved the good-time humor of jug-band music, especially as practiced by Kweskin. But deciding to be in a band, he moved to L.A. and eventually formed one – the bizarrely comic Dr. West’s Medicine Show & Jug Band. The quartet wore make-up, had a psychedelic light show, incorporated skits into their act and did such goofball things as all-kazoo versions of “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Eleanor Rigby.” Along the way, in 1966, it had a semi-hit with a zany Greenbaum composition, “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.” “I do believe that it’s the only jug band song to hit the charts,” Greenbaum says.
Eventually going solo and signed by Jacobsen – who had produced Lovin’ Spoonful and Sopwith Camel – Greenbaum moved to the Bay Area, where his producer lived. “Spirit’s” sound was the result of a collective effort — lead guitarist Russell DaShiell provided the hot solo and the urgent bleating; Greenbaum contributed the gritty ancillary sound through a guitar with a built-in fuzzbox. A gospel group, the Stovall Sisters, offered exuberant back-up. (Drummer Norman Mayall and bassist Doug Killmer also played on the song.)
As a quasi-religious single, the song caused some quizzical reaction because Greenbaum was Jewish. (That continued with its more secular follow-up, “Canned Ham.”) He was, for those who knew his Dr. West connection, something of a jokester. So did he really mean what he sang? His label sometimes seemed in on a joke, promoting him with magazine ads like “I Am Curious Greenbaum,” a sly take-off on an X-rated Swedish movie of the day, “I am Curious (Yellow).”
Greenbaum says the song came to him while watching a television show featuring country singer Porter Wagoner, who wore glittering “rhinestone cowboy” costumes and had skyscraper-high, carefully coiffed hair and was capable of wrenchingly melodramatic, even tragic, subject matter in his songs. On that show, Wagoner sang a religious tune.
“Here’s a guy who sits in front of a religious-looking backdrop and gets all somber even though he’s wearing those clothes and he’s in that gigantic pompadour,” Greenbaum says. “I thought this is good. And I thought of writing something religious. And, well, I have to use Jesus, I just have to.”
For the record, Greenbaum is a semi-practicing Jew. “I observe Hanukah, that’s the holiday I always observe,” he says. “I’m still looking for the Hanukah gelt (money) I never can find.”
There are those who take “Spirit in the Sky’s” religious message very seriously. “Funny enough, it’s very popular at funerals,” Greenbaum says. “A few people a week tell me, ‘My boyfriend, or father, or kid died and it was their favorite song, so we played it at their funeral.’ One person who knew he was dying burned 30 copies, gave to all his friends who would be at the funeral and instructed everyone, when they got in their cars to follow the hearse, to put it in the CD player and have it blasting out.”
Greenbaum has his own beliefs about an afterlife. It may or may not involve a spirit in the sky. “I believe there’s something else out there,” he says. “I think we’re part of something bigger, because when we dig up dirt in the garden, there are ants living in their own little world, and beyond that is a world with plants with cats and dogs pissing on them, and beyond that you’ve got your yard, beyond that the ocean. So I think there’s another world. It’s a little different than a heaven, but sort of the same thing. And who knows how many hundreds of years it will take until we find that next form? But it will be found.”
If Greenbaum harbors any bitterness, it is that he had trouble extending his recording career after Petaluma. By then, he was viewed as a Northern California hippie farmer, extolling the wonders of the back-to-nature movement in song – who wouldn’t tour to promote new work. Worse, he was seen as a rustic whose big rock ‘n’ roll hit was a fluke. (For awhile, he and his wife raised goats.)
He’s not sure he could have ever followed “Spirit” with an equal hit, but he did want to still work in music, he says. For a time, he even moved back to Los Angeles to be closer to record companies. But it didn’t matter.
“In the late 70s, I was making demos, living in L.A., had good management and record companies would be on the verge of signing me and then back out saying, ‘We just don’t trust him. He won’t leave the farm.’ And my manager would say, ‘He lives six blocks from you in West Hollywood.’ And they said, ‘We don’t care; we’ve made our mind up.’”
Eventually, no longer able to pay his band, he even became a cook in a restaurant. And he lived frugally until royalties allowed him to buy a house and tend to his enduring “Spirit.” And it keeps his spirits up. “I feel good about its longevity,” he says.
CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: email@example.com