Norman Greenbaum: Spirit in the Sky
was having dinner with my parents at a local Korean restaurant a few weeks ago, and as I was perusing the Karaoke selections, I came across “Spirit In The Sky”. Guess who was listed as the artist? “Unknown”. I asked my mother (one of the few boomer parents who remember the 60s) if she knew who performed the song. The moment she heard me say “Spirit In the Sky”, she railed off the chorus as if she had just heard it on the radio moments before. “Going on up to the spirit in the sky. That’s where I’m gonna go when I diiieee. Yeah, of course, it’s a classic!”
“I know, but do you know who did it?”
“Oh, shit. Steppenwolf probably.”
“No!” my father interjected suddenly as if the mere mention of Steppenwolf was enough to elicit derision from him. “It was Stealers Wheel.”
They were both wrong. It was little Norman Greenbaum, whom I discovered after feeling like the song was stalking me. Was I hearing it over the car commercials at Taco Bell, or was the song just echoing in my head everywhere I went? Whatever the reason, it never left me, just as I imagine it has never left the head of anyone who’s heard it since 1969.
It would be easy to discount the eerie familiarity of this song by chalking it up to the countless pop culture appearances it has made over the years. According to the official Greenbaum site, the song has been featured in movies such as Remember The Titans, Miami Blues, Contact, Apollo 13 and Wayne’s World 2, national ad campaigns for companies such as H.B.O., Enron, American Express and Infiniti, and TV shows like “Beverly Hills 90210”, “Arliss”, “Rock & Roll Jeopardy”, “Gideon's Crossing” and “The Drew Carey Show”. Actually, according to Greenbaum, he can’t recall how many times the song has been licensed. All of this overexposure, you might assume, would relegate this song into the pantheon of aural wallpaper classic rock, turning it into another one of those songs that’s just there and nothing more. But unlike “Born to be Wild” (which sounds pretty dated), “Spirit in the Sky” just won’t stop begging for attention. It’s essentially a novelty song, but one of those rare novelties that define the sound of an era, but, through its seamless integration of influences, sounds unlike anything else. According to my mother, “Spirit in the Sky” was a true oddity on the radio, and one that Greenbaum obviously felt wouldn’t represent him as well as the two other songs (God knows what they were) that were released well before the titular track off his first solo album.
I first noticed the cultural resonance of this apparently cheap and disposable pop song when I realized I’d hum the opening guitar riff whenever I got into my car, as if “Spirit In the Sky” was synonymous with driving. Surely the song feels like the open road. The dusty electric guitar lick that announces the arrival of what is Greenbaum’s attempt at a gospel hymn conjures up Easy Rider-like imagery. Handclaps help get the congregation up out of their pews and moving, and then we get our first taste of the song’s most identifiable element, that great ascending echo guitar effect that sounds as like the rock’n’roll manifestation of your soul leaving your body. Herein lies the greatest strength of “Spirit in the Sky”, its uncanny ability to name check Jesus without sounding dogmatic, just rockin’ and free. When Greenbaum says, “that’s where I’m gonna go when I die”, in the context of the music, it comes off as a personal choice he’s made.
I like to imagine myself in a beat-up pickup driving along a desert highway with Norman’s open coffin in the back surrounded by a choir of gospel singers. Then Norman sings to me enthusiastically about his own death. “When I die and they lay me to rest, I’m gonna go to the place that’s the best. When they lay me down to die, I’m going up to the Spirit in the Sky.”
In my dream, Norman sits up from his casket in the pickup bed, reaches through the cabin window and rests his callused fingers on my shoulder.
“You know man, some people, they go to the Spirit in the Sea, others go to the Spirit in the Earth. Me? Well I go to the Spirit in the Sky. And when they lay you down to die, pal, my friend Jesus is going to recommend you to the Spirit in the Sky, too. But heck, what do I know about eternal salvation! In real life, I was never then, nor have I ever been, a Christian. I’m just some Jewish musician who really dug Gospel music. So I made my own decision. I decided there was a larger Jesus Gospel market out there than a Jehovah one. You go wherever you feel like going, buddy.”*
He smiles as I grasp his hand and I smile back. He slowly lays himself back into his pine box. Some members of the choir help nail the top in place, while the others just keep on clapping. Then as the sun is just about to set, we hear that echo guitar riff burst out of the coffin and off into the heavens. I put my pedal to the floor, roll the windows down the rest of the way and tune my radio to the static-y, far-off AM station to pray at the altar of one-hit wonders.
*Everything about Norman here is true.
By: Gabe Gloden
Published on: 2004-02-26