Spirits in Malden were sky high on Oct. 16 as a favorite son, and song, returned home.
Norman Greenbaum, who wrote and recorded the iconic 1969 pop hit “Spirit in the Sky,” was a member of the Malden High School Class of 1960. He was back on home turf for a ribbon-cutting of a huge, colorful, highly Instagrammable and, yes, sky-scraping mural on the Exchange Street-side of the City Hall building at 110 Pleasant St.
Greenbaum grew up in an observant Jewish household on Lisbon Street in the city’s old, predominately Jewish Suffolk Square. He had a bar mitzvah, attended Hebrew school at Congregation Beth Israel, went to Boston University and played at area coffeehouses prior to moving to Los Angeles in 1965.
In Malden, Greenbaum was surrounded by an amiable group, and Jewish geography was in force. While he chatted with a cousin, Joel Williams of Billerica, I asked Greenbaum about Jewish friends from Randolph who had claimed the same distinction. “Yes, they are my cousins,” he said. And as it turned out, Williams confirmed that the Randolph family members were his cousins as well.
Four stories tall, the mural, in the heart of a downtown that has been undergoing a major revitalization, was painted in August by Austin-based artist Jesse Melanson. A painted placard on the lower left credits its sponsors, Malden ARTLine and the city. To its right is a bio of Greenbaum and a summary of his famous song.
The event, promoted over the past few months in columns such as Peter Levine’s “Malden Musings” in the town’s Observer newspaper, drew a large crowd of starry-eyed, kvelling Maldenians. A singalong of “Spirit in the Sky” soon commenced. Mayor Gary Christenson beamed, as did local officials and police officers who joined the selfie line. Let’s just say our car, parked illegally across Exchange with flashers on, was safe.
The crowd headed a couple of blocks up the street to the John and Christina Markey Malden Senior Community Center, where Greenbaum’s music was playing amid a classic, old-school Malden spread of giant ravioli rounds, chicken and salad donated by Anthony’s of Malden, as well as a large cake tribute to the song of the night.
“Spirit in the Sky,” released on Reprise Records, peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on April 4, 1970, and the tune, which uniquely combined fuzz guitar, handclaps and gospel, sold 2 million copies and earned a gold record from the Recording Industry Association of America. The song has been featured in 32 major films, including “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Apollo 13” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and was used in numerous ad campaigns and television shows, including “Wayne’s World 2.”
Yet at the Markey Center, the long, silver-haired Greenbaum was humble and his heart was right where he stood. “As a musician and young kid, we dream of writing songs,” he mused at the mic. “We hope that someone will like them. We have aspirations for getting a band together, hopefully a gig or two, getting someone to manage us, getting us a record contract. And when all that happened for me, I thought that was the greatest thing ever.”
He paused. “This,” he said to the room, “might have topped it.”
In later remarks, muralist Melanson said it was great fun to paint the piece as kids would pass by and comment. “It was a treat to set some roots here,” he said, thanking his girlfriend, Megan Lacy, and his dad, Albie Melanson, who was a longtime commercial painter.
“His worldwide hit song put Malden on the map when it was first recorded, and it continues to live on in the hearts of many,” said Christenson, before introducing Greenbaum and presenting him with a city citation.
“In keeping with our city’s motto, ‘Strong Past, Proud Future,’ Norman was born and raised in Malden, and today we are proud to continue his legacy by combining his inspirational music with a display of creative art that will enrich the lives of future generations,” Christenson continued.
“We express our gratitude to Norman Greenbaum, and we are glad that a work of art inspired by his song is displayed in ‘the place that’s the best’—downtown Malden!”
The crowd cheered loudly and soon lined up with memorabilia, which Greenbaum graciously signed. Nobody was leaving. “Are you kidding? I’m a big fan,” said Paul Geer of Malden. “I was around in the ’60s,” he said, clutching his 45s of “Spirit.”
I spoke with Christenson about his remarks at the Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration at Faneuil Hall in 2018. (Malden students have consistently scored among the highest in the annual event’s Israel Arbeiter Essay Contest.)
In September 2017, a month after the New England Holocaust Memorial was vandalized by a Malden teenager, Malden High School students gathered at the downtown site, where they read obituaries of Holocaust victims. They also raised funds for stumbling stone memorials at former Jewish homes in Germany.
Arbeiter, a Holocaust survivor, has spoken several times at Malden High School, and he and the city mayor have become close friends. “I just had lunch with Izzy last week in Chestnut Hill,” Christenson told me at the Markey Center, as Greenbaum continued autographing.
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