Prof Jud Cost
“I always had a sense of humor”, Norman Greenbaum told me recently, discussing Dr. West’s Medicine Show & Junk Band for the liner notes I was about to write for the Sundazed Music reissue of the “Eggplant That Ate Chicago”. “So”, he added, “I wrote songs with senses of humor.” Even Norman’s monster hit, “Spirit In The Sky”- a song that outwardly might seem serious-unwinds with a sly wink at ‘tent show’ televangelists and the “back to nature” movement sweeping the decaying hippie cult off the urban sidewalks and into the rural outback in the early ’70s. Besides all that, as everyone with half an ear can tell, the song-floating on a kelp of handclaps and riffing fuzz guitar-just sounds great, the kind of thing you can never play just once. The only gripe I’ve ever had with Greenbaum’s masterpiece is that it’s just too damn short, ending at least five minutes before it should. It’s one time when the “leave ’em wanting more” rule should have been suspended.
But a gunny sack full of dusty gems accompanying “The Big Hit” on this English Greenbaum career catch-all CD, also awaits those who have never had the pleasure. “California Earthquake” retains “Spirit’s” fuzziness but dresses it up in Creedence flannels stained with a couple of shakes from a bottle of Bayou Pickapeppa sauce. And who else but Norman would rock out to the tale of a “Canned Ham”-with funky chick-singer vocal chorus? The tune, however, remains a must for Greenbaums’s 16-bar, echo-laden lead guitar break-a signature item from this highly underrated ax wielder.
“Marcy” opens with a dramatic “Tommy” kind of lick, then sends the listener careening somewhere else entirely, ducking theremin laser bolts from out space. “Hook And Ladder”, with its backwoods counterpoint, puts lit matches between the toes of McGuinness/Flint and runs like hell,. “Junior Cadillac” sounds like the template Boz Scaggs used to create his persona. And “Petaluma” is a finger-pickin’ mini-masterpiece dedicated to the Egg Capitol Of The USA. This Limey package skims off the very best of Greenbaum’s four classic albums: “Spirit In The Sky”, “Back Home Again”, “Petaluma” and “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago”. There’s a surprise around every bend, a chicken in every pot, and it’s guaranteed to scratch itches you never even knew you had.
Spirit in the Sky: The Best of Norman Greenbaum [Varèse Sarabande, 1995]
Boston jughead, California dreamer, great lost hippie. He spun tales of harmless weirdness from Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band (“The Eggplant That Ate Chicago,” No. 52 in ’66, how quickly many forget) to his royalty-investing days as a chicken farmer and goat-milk entrepreneur, the latter recounted in homely tunes like “Petaluma” and “The Day the Well Went Dry” (although I miss the agrarian escape song “I’m Campin”). Nor was “Spirit in the Sky” anything like a one-shot, as he proves on the great lost album track “Marcy,” a fond and respectful ode to a chick who takes her chances (although I miss the great lost dope synonym “Tars of India”).A-
I got this cd a couple years ago because I’ve always had a guilty pleasure for the song “SPIRIT IN THE SKY”, which was heavily played on am radio when I was in high school. It was a way overplayed hit back then that everybody eventually grew tired of, and it finally faded away. I also vaguely remembered his other single “CALIFORNIA EARTHQUAKE”, which was a minor hit for about 5 minutes. But it was “SPIRIT IN THE SKY”, with its fuzzy guitar tone and the hand-clapping rhythm that I found myself missing after all these years. To my surprise, after playing this album, I found Greenbaum to be an excellent songwriter. I expected to hear a lot of that Spirit in the Sky sound on here. But instead, this album has more of a country-rock sound to it, with songs like “CANNED HAM”, the hook laden “HOOK AND LADDER” (shoulda been another single), “DADDY I KNOW”, with a great sounding fiddle, and a song that begs for a listen “THE DAY THEY SOLD BEER IN CHURCH”. He even offers a little R&B sound with “JUNIOR CADILLAC”, and a little gospel with “JUBILEE”. And you get a few psychedelic rockers thrown in for good measure. This Best Of cd has a lot to offer with all his singles, b-sides, and rarities included. And there’s not a clanker in the bunch. I think Norman Greenbaum, with his songwriting talents, could have been a big star. But he quit the music business for good in 1972 at the height of his popularity, and never looked back. For me, this album was a great trip down memory lane, and a pleasant surprise to boot!
Patrick Earley (Edmond, Oklahoma)
Some see Norman Greenbaum as just a 1960’s drop out who had one big hit and then disappeared. I remember Norm as a person who played his guitar and sang in a coffee house in Hollywood, CA. He wrote music and lyrics that reflected not only the happenings of the ’60s but also songs that showed just who he was and what he was about to be. In listening to this CD, I remember how good days were then and just how much people really cared for each other. His music makes me happy and I think that anyone who missed living and growing up in the ’60s would love this CD. It has a great way of lifting you up. Spirit In The Sky was magical and still is. Wierd tells Norm’s story during those days and his later songs like Back Home Again tell of his life later on. He is a genius with words and has a great power to make listeners want to hear the next cut, just because. I am only sorry there are not more of Norman’s songs to enjoy. I hope you will give this CD a chance and I promise you, you will be glad you did! Canned Ham, Marcy, Skyline…amazing stuff.
Always & Forever (US)
Now if you ask me, and quite a few folks who happen to be fans of guys named Norman do now and again, this is probably the third or maybe fifth-best “Norman” album of all time. (Larry Norman probably takes the cake, and the Norman Sisters and their singing mina birds is up there near the top).
Before you commence to thinking Norman Greenbaum was a one-hit-wonder, in the mode of so many other one-hit wonders, take a listen to this here album and see if you don’t discover a certain depth that you might not have heard before. The testament to the depth of “Spirit in the Sky” is the fact that it was covered and became a hit all over again in the 80s. In fact Larry Norman did a cover himself a few years ago. (a mysterious “Norman” connection)
Junior hates this album because he doesn’t understand it… but that boy is as dumb as a sack of hammers, so I don’t pay him no heed. The twins like it plenty good and me and Mama like to listen up and reminisce about the 70s when we do. I suggest you buy it and rediscover one of the underrated artistes of the 70s.
Cletus J. “Bubba” Juckabee Jr. (Chesterfield County)
It takes me back some years. Great to relax to.
This CD is chock full of fun songs! From Marcy to Gondeliers, etc, etc, all I can say is good time listening. Norman never tries to get too deep and the music reflects that simplicity. But yet I give it 5 stars, because most people in music try to prove their depth every chance they get. It’s nice to see someone just having a good time and producing listenable, and great music.
Call me weird, but when my husband and I pass on we are going to donate our bodies to science. I have told my husband that at my memorial I want the song “Spirit in the Sky” played as the memorial service is ending! I’ve also told him that I will do the same at his memorial service (if he should pass on first)!
Love it! The beats and riffs are catchy. Hardly even listen to ‘Spirit’ anymore and still enjoy the album.
Michael McCormick (Savannah, GA)
I bought this CD because I heard Spirit in the Sky and wanted to listen to it again. I’m not religious, in fact I’m an atheist but that doesn’t seem to get in the way of my liking it. I imagine NG is a jew and not a devotee of JC. At any rate, to me music is music and I don’t have to agree with what it is saying. Heck I enjoy Go Tell it on a Mountain despite having no Christian background. I’m like the dog you pet on the head and call him an SOB, I just eat up being petted (by music). I like Tom Lehrer’s I Hold Your Hand in Mine, not just for the comic value, but I think it is good music, too. I guess I’m a little weird like NG although I am the opposite of a hippie, being a very conventional sort. I like most of the other pieces on the CD also, especially Canned Ham.
I wasn’t a teenager in the ’60s, but I still enjoy this album. Most of the songs are amusing, if not great. Spirit in the Sky is the big hit that most people have heard. There are other good songs though. Weird, Daddy I Know, The Day the Well Ran Dry, The Day They Sold Beer in Church and Gondoliers are strange, whimsical and entertaining. Marcy is pretty. I’ve seen a couple of people mentioned Canned Ham, I don’t get, it’s too goofy – unless Canned Ham was a 60’s euphemism for something else… Hook & Ladder – which was later covered by Nancy Sinatra – has some excellent guitar work by Ry Cooder.
L. Costas (Studio City, CA)
The tunes on this album keep showing up … in commercials, on oldies radio, in movie soundtracks. … Just goes to show you can’t keep good music down … Get this, its a keeper … a fan from Petaluma
this song is the first one I heard after I was told I had Parkinson and I said that is the song I want it played when I die it is so fitting. thank you for a song so well written and sung.
Spirit in the sky is the best
I remember listening to and liking the song “Spirit in the Sky” back in ’70, about 13 years before I gave my life to Jesus Christ. Had you told me then that it was a pretentious song, I wouldn’t have believed it (but then again, I wouldn’t have known what “pretentious” meant). None the less, it would be interesting to know how many people, since the inception of the song, have come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior because of this song. It is like Paul the Apostle preached, “whether in pretense or in truth , Jesus Christ is preached, and in that I rejoice!”
I find it interesting that out of all of the songs N.G. wrote, this is the only one to have the kind of impact on the world that it had. If you were to ask Him, I don’t even think J.C. would find this song pretentious. Things will happen in your life when you touch the heart of God, and I think Mr. Greenbaum did, in a big way.