by David Meltzer
Portraits in Jew
The Norman Greenbaum Story
It's the sawtooth riff that
pulls you in every time
-- a smart take on
John Lee Hooker's "Boogie, children"
mixed with polite gospel shouts,
with a shmear of psychedelic-lite.
"Spirit In The Sky" climbed
to #3 on the Billboard charts in '69
& was universal enough in that cauldron time
to be played on American Bandstand
& praised in the then-underground Tanach,
But we kids in Temple Beth-El's Junior Congregation
were perplexed. Why was Norman Greenbaum
singing: "I got a friend in Jesus"?
"A lost Jewish neshama [soul] brainwashed
by those Jews-for-Jesus missionaries," speculated
Rabbi Zeigelman in his brimstoney
"Youth-in-Turmoil" Rosh Hoshanna sermon
It seemed so weird back then,
a hit by a singer with such
a Jewish name was as rare
as a good pastrami sandwich
in rural Mississippi. And it was
just as weird
to hear a hit rock song
invoke the "J" word. So,
was Norman Greenbaum an apostate?
Turns out that Greenbaum was raised
in Malden, MA, his parents running
a local bakery famed for its babka.
He went to the after-school Talmud Torah.
He had a bar-mitzvah. And his parents
kept a kosher home.
In high school, he played in bands
with other Jewish guys who
eventually followed the normal career paths
of young Yids -- Lawyers, Doctors
& the inevitable Accountants. Although
he tried the straight life by attending
Boston University, he cast a dissenting vote
against the creeping meatball
& dug in as a musician.
LA '65 -- Greenbaum moved west
& founded Dr. West's Medicine Show,
a psychedelic jug band. In addition
to a washboard bass, banjo & a moonshine jug,
Dr. West featured a trippy light show
& band members in various unlisted conditions.
I owned their only album, a $1.88 find
at the Woolworth's on Bergenline. Their semi-hit was
"The Eggplant That Ate Chicago," perhaps a poke
at Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater." With
a limited demand for a chemically altered jug band,
Dr. West split in late '68.
But why Spirit in the Sky? One evening, Greenbaum
saw Porter Waggoner sing a song about a preacher
on Hee-Haw. Right then, he decided he'd write
a religious rock song. And like many Jewish writers of Xmas tunes,
he realized there was more money in name-dropping Jesus
than in mentioning any of the Hebrew God's various appellations
-- among them: "Adonoi," "Shaddai" and I-AM-WHO-I-AM.
And, yes, his parents were aghast when they heard their son
praising the other team's savior each time they turned on the radio in
their dented blue Rambler. But when the song zoomed the charts, his dad
asked: "Got any more like that?"
Sadly, no. Follow-up singles and albums tanked
& by 1980, Greenbaum went to work as a cook
in a restaurant. Things picked up in the mid-80's
when "Spirit" became a hit again, this time in Britain.
This led to the song being used in many films,
television shows and commercials. Greenbaum
lost count of the number of projects
the song has been licensed to & wryly notes
it brings in more royalties today
than it did in '69. He is able to live a modest life
from the proceeds off his one-hit
paean to the Christian take on the afterlife.
Despite lucrative offers, Greenbaum no longer tours.
His voice is not what it was
& he'd rather have fans remember the song
as it was performed decades ago. And no,
he never seriously considered changing his name
to further his career.
How Harold Bloom Chills Out
Professor Harold Bloom of Yale
1,000 page a day
reading habit as
"perhaps a neo-Lamarkian
inheritance from an unknown
Talmudic sage ancestor"
the C-Span interviewer asked:
"I've heard you are
a baseball fan"
Bloom's Jabba the Hut-meets-Flastaff face lit up.
"Oh yes, I've supported the Yankees since 1936,
when an uncle took me to a game.
In fact, when this interview is concluded, I shall
turn on this television set to see
'how the Yankees are doing.'"
The Mama Cass Story
"Mama" Cass Eliot
started out as Ellen Naomi Cohen
-- a super-smart zoftiga
Maryland girl who dreamed
of attending medical school.
& who wasn't
When the music jones hit
it caused her to do a Jewish unthinkable:
drop out of high school. She then
dreamt Broadway kleigs, but
casting directors could only see
a talented blimp with a strong voice.
Eliot found a niche in the folkie scene,
whose lefty ethos seemed more
inclusive. But when
early versions of the Mamas & the Papas
auditioned for potential managers
the mantra always seemed
"that fat girl's gotta go!"
Lou Adler took a chance
& was rewarded with a musical sensation
--the first six Mommas & Papas singles went Top Ten! --
that forever captured the honeyed fun
of mid-Sixties SoCal pop. Eliot proceeded to
indulge in a casoulet of drugs
& perpetual room service. You might have
done the same, too, if you had the share the stage
nightly with that beautiful shiksa
Michelle Philips and pretend that no
one was snickering at you.
Eventually, the band went the way
of too many 60's things -- a drug/sex/jealousy
house fire. Cass bailed out first
& back into the world of standards
& show tunes that were her first
affection. She was a regular on variety programs
& talk show couches
participating in humiliating skits
that typecast her as
a hippie Totie Fields. She often
wept after the tapings, but soldiered on
-- binge eating, crash diets, sucking up
huge amounts of drugs, getting
She died of a heart attack after a smash
two-week run at London's Palladium. Although
the mythic ham sandwich was sitting
on a night table, coroners found no evidence
of choking or traces of drugs in her
-- she just beat herself up to death
with a coronary as closure.
But that ham-on-rye, dyybuck
of the Jewish unconscious, lives on.
Sadistic visions of TV-dirigible Eliot
cramming swine into the gullet
once more, then paying dues
to the Author of THE LAWS.
And her daughter, more of a fun-child
than a love-child, often tells reporters:
"The first thing people ask me
when they find out who
my mom was is ... 'Uh -- is it true
about the ham sandwich???'"
The daughter always needs
to stress: "She HATED being called
(a short guide for the perplexed)
B.B.G. - B'nai Brith Girls. Sister group to AZA (American Zionist Association). Archetypal social club for suburban Jewish high schoolers.
dyybuck - In Yiddish folklore, a ghostlike spirit that takes possession of the living.
zoftiga - The state of being overweight.
shiksa - Female non-Jew, often used in a derogatory manner.
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