“Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out.
Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about…”
A very special moment in Malden’s history occurred on Oct. 16. One for the ages. Ya had to be there to know exactly what I’m jabbering on about. Malden gathered and experienced a communal moment/event rarely seen in these dark days of political/social divisiveness. Ya had to be there. You really did. Music and art brought us together for a glorious moment in time and space. Music, art and Malden’s favorite son, our very own “One Hit Wonder” straight outta Suffolk Square (and his old haunt Faulkner Pharmacy) — Malden High School Class of 1960 — Norman Greenbaum.
Sharon, Naomi and the rest of the volunteers at Malden Arts are transforming our sleepy little hamlet just north of Boston into a happening art-filled community with colorful, thoughtful and quirky murals splashed across our five square miles. From Beach to Wicklow Street Austin, Texas, based artist Jesse Melanson (and his assistant Megan Lacey) poured their heart, soul and a ton of paint on the backside of a tired old building on Exchange Street transforming it into a beautiful destination spot for fans of music, art and the big boss man, Norman Greenbaum.
Such a great night in Malden Square. We gathered. We waited for Normie to show up. When he arrived (on time.) he split the crowd in two and greeted each and every person as an old friend. Reminded me of a lyric from the song “Monterey” by Eric Burdon “His Majesty, Prince (Greenbaum), smiled as he moved among the crowd.” Norman looked great. The elder statesman of a historic generation. His freak flag still flying — the long flowing grey locks and beard to match. His cane the only sign of “father time” creeping up on him. And in fairness, Normie was in a horrific motor vehicle accident just four short years ago. Not bad for a 77-year-old guy post-traumatic car accident. And with all due respect, his “campara” Bonita looked great also (and kept a close, watchful eye on our/her hero).
My brief moment with Normie was unforgettable. Mostly what I took away was how genuine he was. No pretension whatsoever. He looked you in the eye. Not over your shoulder as a lot of celebs will do as they feign interest. He cared. Firm handshake. Connection made. Malden friendship. Thank you for that Norman.
Mike Provitola reminded Norman that when Normie was at Lincoln Jr High he had Mike’s dad (the legendary) “Mundo” as a gym teacher. Normie was approached by Police Chief Molis and, with a straight face, introducing himself explained that he and the MPD had been sitting on a parking ticket that Norman acquired when he was in high school. Which was still unpaid. Chief actually handed him a real ticket with his Lisbon St. address (42) on it (vehicle type: “Magic Bus?” or “Magic Carpet Ride?”). Chief believes in authenticity when he is pranking. As Normie stood listening intently chief continued, he needed that ticket to be paid. For a brief moment, the look on Normie’s face was priceless. Then laughter all around. An instant connection between chief and Big G. You could see the sparkle in Mayor Christenson’s eyes as he shook hands with Normie. They greeted each other like old friends. Small talk made easy when it’s sincere.
In multiple lifetimes you could not have imagined this night. Norman takes his place center stage in front of the four-story tall mural. Cane in hand with his fiancée and “pest controller” Bonnie to his right. Queue the song that brought us all there, the timeless classic, “Spirit in the Sky.” Who would have ever thought that we’d be standing on the corner of S. Washington and Exchange Street Norman Greenbaum leading us in a group sing-along accompanying himself on “air cane” to the song we all adore, the classic rock anthem “Spirit in the Sky.”
Of course, we knew all the words. Cathy Leblanc with Dave and Ethel Haskell singing loud and proud. Attorney John Tormey doing the “New York Shuffle.” Paul and Lisa Hammersley with mile-wide smiles. Councilor (Ryan) O’Malley and Councilor (Craig) Spadafora, in a kumbaya moment, shoulder to shoulder singing in two-part harmony. I made that one up. But both loving the special moment, nonetheless. Paul Sieswerda and his pops, who graduated with Normie, fist-pumping to the fuzz-toned guitar drenched classic. Joe Viglione capturing all the fun for his blog. The first couple of Malden, Maryanne Smith and Donna Denoncourt, shaking their moneymakers like it ain’t nobody’s business.
The sing-along was pure unadulterated joy. Norman channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix making use of his cane. Straight fire. His spirit and presence felt. Seriously felt among the two or three hundred who gathered. Norman finishes. Smiles. Raises his finger to the sky towards the mural. Does his trademark hand flutter type motion and flashes the peace sign. More smiles, all around. His spirit felt. Happiness.
As Peter Falk’s iconic TV character ‘Columbo’ would say “Just one more thing sir” — After the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the John and Christina Markey Senior Center Mayor Gary’s obviously heartfelt words for Norman had Big G emotionally (and visibly) shaken. Norman rose slowly from his chair, walked toward the staging area, where Gary handed him a citation proclaiming our forever love for him. Norman’s words were humble. Barely keeping it together. Befitting his background. Befitting the blue-collar upbringing he had in Malden. In Suffolk Square. At MHS. In a choked voice, paraphrasing here: he was grateful for the opportunities his career and this particular song have bestowed upon a kid from Lisbon Street. He was grateful for the support he received early in his musical pilgrimage. Grateful for the people who believed in him. Believing in him enough to sign him to a record deal. Grateful for the opportunity for his music to be heard all over the world. Still paraphrasing, he had many highs in his life and he was grateful for them but “this may have topped them all” was his closing statement. Mic drop moment.
Postscript 1: Mayor Gary’s remarks were, as usual, clever and witty. Of course, I’ll share some of them. Looking out into the faces of the hundreds of people showering their love on Norman Gary says: ’Well, let me just say how relieved I am that Norman Greenbaum is not on the ballot Nov. 5. Seriously, we hear the saying “All roads lead back to Malden” bandied about over time but it’s people like Norman who actually make that so. Just imagine — his song sold over 2 million copies — and I think 200 views is a lot when I post something on Instagram. One can see why we are so proud to call him Malden’s own.
Postscript 2: What is it with humble rock stars from Malden with Billboard smash hits!? The other humble rock star from Malden with a Billboard smash hit is Extremes’ Gary Cherone. Cut from the same humble cloth those two.
Postscript 3: Mayor Christenson awarded Normie a wicked cool Citation. Loved the last line: “Again, we express our gratitude to Norman Greenbaum, and we are honored that a work of art inspired by his song is now displayed in “the place that’s the best” — downtown Malden.
Postscript 4: Mayor Gary also awarded mural creator Jesse Melanson a wicked cool Citation. This line stuck out: “Jesse’s goal was to “design the best work possible and encourage the world to think and live creatively.” His art will inspire and foster civic pride for years to come.
Postscript 5: “Spirit in the Square” is Chief Molis trademarked and licensed.
Postscript 6: Chief Molis’s brother Joe is an amateur brewer. I am told, if he had time, he would have brewed his “Spirit in the Rye” ale.
Postscript 7: Speaking of Gary Cherone, he would have loved to have been at the ceremony but he was on tour in India with Extreme. From the other side of the world he wanted Norman to know that growing up he loved “Spirit in the Sky” and for years never knew Normie was from the other side of Malden. Gary says that for him it has always been a song that reached back through the years to his childhood and a lot of fond memories. He was “thrilled” to hear that Malden recognized him and stressed he wished he could’ve been there. Gary continued: “Zei gezunt from India Norman.”
Postscript 8: I went home overjoyed to have shared this night with Norman Greenbaum and the Malden community. Thank you Normie for the fun you brought into our, at times Groundhog Day lives, on this cool night in October of 2019. A happy city, one spirit, for this brief moment at least. Music, art, community and our love for Norman Greenbaum. Kindly raise your hands if you agree.
Peter Levine is a longtime Malden resident and contributor to the Malden Observer. He can be reached at PeteL39@aol.com for comments, compliments, complaints or criticisms.