Friday, November 10, 2017

The Greatest Record of All Time

I woke up this morning feeling pretty certain that the greatest record of all time is Norman Greenbaum’s 1970 hit Spirit In the Sky, which no one doesn’t love.

How not, before you’ve heard him sing or play a single note, to love a pop star who uses his real name when his real name is as ethnic and nebbishy as our hero’s? Did Robert Zimmerman not adapt a more glamorous name before launching his career as an entertainer? Did not Shlomo Finkelbaum and Chaim Weitz? One hears Norman Greenbaum and reflexively pictures a spotty, chubby, yarmulke-wearing Yeshiva student with little bits of the egg salad sandwich he had for lunch clinging to his orthodonic braces. In fact, our hero was a skinny, lank-haired hippie who might have grown up an observant boychik in a Boston suburb, but who had relocated to Los Angeles as a young adult, and there written the, uh, mindbending Top 55 hit The Eggplant That Ate Chicago for a group I would have expected to have seen at the Troubadour, when it was a folk club, but did not, though my first group, The 1930 Four, had the pleasure of borrowing Peanut Butter Conspiracy’s amplifiers when we played Hoot Nite there. 

But can we please stay focused? Once Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band had broken up, Norman apparently relocated to Petaluma, in southern Sonoma County, whence Winona Ryder would later emerge, and saw country star Porter Waggoner, a key early patron of Dolly Parton, on television, singing about religion. He was inspired to compose his own little homage to Christianity (though, being Jewish, he didn’t understand that Christians aren’t permitted to assert they’ve never sinned), basing the arrangement on the hoariest blues riff in all christendom, one featured mere weeks before in Canned Heat’s On the Road Again, and which would be the bedrock on which boogie bands beyond counting would build their careers. 

Producer Erik Jacobsen’s stock in trade had always been gently electrified folk-based music, but there was nothing very folky about the sound Norman’s Fender Telecaster, into which an electronics whiz friend had implanted a distortion device, made in the recording studio. Indeed, Norman and lead guitarist Russell DaShiell sounded together like an auto body repair shop in a town that didn’t very vigorously enforce drunk driving laws. Jacobsen hired a female gospel trio from down in Oakland to bolster Norman’s anemic lead vocal, and presto — the greatest record of all time! 

I saw Norman in concert as Spirit in the Sky was selling its two millionth copy and reaching No. 3 on the Billboard chart. He was something less than Mr. Excitement. He sang badly out of tune from first song to last, and within a couple of years was working as a cook in Sonoma County, even though everyone from Canadian songbird Dorothy Combs Morrison, of whom only Canadians have ever heard, and the seminal UK Goth band Bauhaus was trying in vain to surpass the sublime original version. The extremely silly UK glam/Kabuki band Doctor and the Medics got to No. 1 with their faithful imitation of the original version in 1986, the year after I relocated to Santa Rosa, where Norman was by this time working as a sous chef. 
After the original, my own favourite version of the song is actually one of the thinly disguised copies of which the UK has produced so very many — Alvin Stardust’s My Coo Ca Choo. Here, Al, whose real name as a boychik had been Bernard Jewry (!), did a Gary Glitter, re-emerging from obscurity (he’d achieved pre-Beatles fame as Shane Fenton) to take a bite out of the glam rock pie. Visually, he takes Gene Vincent’s sinister fetishism (later a key part of The Music Machine’s brand) to heretofore-undreamed-of heights. Watch this and tell me Billy Idol didn’t learn everything he knew from him. Just try! 

No comments:

Post a Comment