MALDEN – Nothing could stop the Spirit in the Sky from shining through in Malden Square.
That’s because legendary Jewish-American songwriter Norman Greenbaum, author of the chart-busting 1969 hit “Spirit in the Sky,” made a return visit to his hometown Oct. 16 for the dedication of a mural that’s an ode to the anthem.
“As a musician and a young kid, we dream of writing songs and hope someone will like them,” Greenbaum said upon receiving a citation from Mayor Gary Christenson at the John and Christina Markey Malden Senior Community Center after the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We have aspirations for getting a band together, hopefully for a gig or two, and getting someone to manage us, getting us a record contract. When all that happened for our band, I thought it was the greatest thing ever.”
But, he added, looking out at the audience, “This might have topped it.”
“Spirit in the Sky” topped the charts in the U.K., while Billboard ranked it No. 3 in the U.S. following its release 50 years ago. Unconventionally long at over four minutes, incorporating a diverse array of themes as it discusses “where we’re gonna go when we die,” the song has remained a cultural mainstay, appearing in films from “Wayne’s World 2” to “Apollo 13.”
To honor the song’s writer and original recording artist, the community group Malden Arts commissioned Texas-based artist Jesse Melanson to create a commemorative mural on the back wall of a city-owned building on Exchange Street. The finished artwork depicts a rainbow-colored musical scale with notes streaming out of an outstretched hand into the heavens.
Beneath the mural, Greenbaum, who is approaching his 77th birthday, led a singalong of the song to an enthusiastic crowd during the dedication. He cut a spirited figure with his flowing hair and beard, using his cane as a guitar as he reflected California cool with a peace-symbol bracelet and cat-motif T-shirt (he now lives an hour away from San Francisco).
As Greenbaum explained to autograph-seekers afterward, his hit song incorporates Hopi Native American beliefs about a spirit in the sky; country-western musicians including the late Porter Wagoner; and Old West outlaws who wanted to be buried with their boots on and desired to make amends to God.
The song contains several references to Jesus, including the lyrics:
“Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky.”
He discussed the subject of having a Jewish last name like Greenbaum while writing a song that mentions Jesus.
“I don’t think people should even ask that question,” he said. “All kinds of other people write religious things.” He cited the Doobie Brothers and Willie Nelson. He also pointed out to a questioner that fellow Jewish-American songwriter Irving Berlin had written “White Christmas.” “Should he have written ‘I’m dreaming of something Hanukkah’?” Greenbaum asked rhetorically.
Regarding his Jewish faith today, Greenbaum said, “I don’t think you’re supposed to live where you were raised. You have to find your own way. A lot of people turn to other things. I think that’s an OK thing. You used to have to stay home, not [go] far away. Now everybody goes to do their thing.
“I’m not an open weirdo. I never belonged to a cult or was involved in anything radical. I think my philosophy is mellow.”
Although Greenbaum may have traveled far from home, he is aware of where he comes from. Several family members were on hand for the event, including his cousin Roy Belson, the recently retired school superintendent in neighboring Medford.
Greenbaum was born in 1942 in Malden Hospital “two months premature,” he said, and was raised near Suffolk Square, on Lisbon Street. He regrets his former neighborhood’s redevelopment.
“I can’t see the house I grew up in,” Greenbaum said. “The neighborhood, the stores. It would have been nice [to see them]. It would have been nice to have seen Suffolk Square refurbished as a thriving tourist spot.”
Asked whether he will return next year for the 60th reunion of the Malden High School Class of 1960, he said, “It’s hard for me to gauge what I’m going to be doing.”
That’s because he’s still keeping busy, with an upcoming benefit show in Charlotte, N.C., with Gloria Gaynor and Kool & The Gang. He’s also putting together a new band that includes his significant other, Bonita Capps, who joined him for the celebration in Malden.
“I think it’s been wonderful,” Capps said. “It’s the first time for me, and the first time for Norman, that he’s been really acknowledged for the song. He’s totally honored.”
“It just appeals to people,” Greenbaum said as he signed autographs. “People love dancing to it. I’m taking this to the grave.”