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The Week in Rock Band: Norman Greenbaum – “Spirit in the Sky”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on September 16, 2008

You know it’s a must

So I promised more Rock Band coverage, but rather than just write a game review (for which I don’t have much to say anyway–I didn’t even buy the new instrument peripherals or anything, and I don’t care about character customization, so…yeah), I’ve decided to instead write about a handful of songs featured in the new Rock Band that seem worth discussing once more. The enjoyment one gets out of Rock Band is basically the sum of the songs constituted therein anyways, so perhaps this is the truest review of the game after all. At the very least, maybe if I write about other songs enough, I can get “Lump” out of my head sometime this week (why, Harmonix, WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY)

Jesus is a stoner. This, I believe, is the unofficial hypothesis of “Spirit in the Sky,” the 1970 megahit by the decidedly Jewish Norman Greenbaum. That’s the only conclusion I can draw from a song that bridges the gap between religious fervor (“Spirit,” Greenbaum says, was inspired by an attempt to write his own version of a gospel song) and bemused toastedness better than any hit song in history. The song mostly details Greenbaum’s belief that his good deeds in this world will ensure his place in heaven upon his death, and encourages his listeners to act likewise. But it lacks any sort of urgency in the matter–it’s far too mellow and buzzed-sounding to harsh anyone’s mellow with fire and brimstone-type judgement (Greenbaum acknowledges that you “gotta have a friend in Jesus,” but neglects to detail the consequences if not). When Greenbaum sings about going to heaven, he does it with the kind of “WOAH COOL” mentality that Bill & Ted had when they visited the afterlife in Bogus Journey.

I mean, it makes sense to me. Long hair, robes, very patient and tolerant, often surrounded with freeloaders, possibly without gainful employment–sound like anyone you know? It’s remarkable that in 35 years of Christian Rock, from Brewer & Shipley to Evanescence, that more of the genre doesn’t make this connection more explicitly (the closest things I can think of are Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright” and the Christian stoner character Mary-Kate Olsen played on Weeds). Seems like it could make the genre far more palatable for the non-religious–I mean, only a fraction of people out there can relate to belief in God or Jesus, but everybody loves getting high, right? (Why else would liquor stores be closed on Sunday morning?)

Maybe it was the fact that Greenbaum wasn’t Christian to begin with that permitted this sinful-sounding gospel anthem. I mean, religious music isn’t supposed to swagger, right? But this song struts with such a cool, strolling beat that it could even be considerable as a glam-rock precursor. What really makes the song, of course, is that wicked guitar tone–sounding like the fuzziest, grimiest, most intoxicatingly decadent thing this side of the first note to “Wild Thing,” one of the great guitar hooks of the decade. And providing support is that pattern of guitar beeps played against the riff in between the verses, sounding like a beacon from a far-away lighthouse, or something equally mysterious and strangely compelling. Only a goy like Greenbaum could get away with all this.

It’s not too surprising that the song has become a deserved mainstream pop perennial, surprisingly transmutable to any number of different sub-genres. The song was mined for its rife stores of irony by 80s gothternative one-offs Doctor and the Medics, who had a UK #1 with their version the month I was born. Then UK Pop Idol Gareth Gates took it to #1 in the UK for a third time earlier this millennium with his Xenomaniacal version. In between, it was covered by definitive 90s Xtian Rockers DC Talk, interpolated by electro-poppers Goldfrapp on their single “Ooh La La” and even namechecked by John Lennon as an acceptable rock song (a tthe crux of his I HATE EVERYONE period, no less). Now it’s in Rock Band 2. Not bad for a religious poser of a one-hit wonder.

“Perhaps the only head scratcher is the inclusion of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” which most will recognize as an overused sports anthem” was one of the editorial messages when I first read the announcement about the RB2 track listing. Agree that its inclusion is slightly puzzling, but it’s definitely one of the game’s most pleasant surprises. And aside from that commercial with Tiger Woods playing golf on the moon, I dunno if I’ve ever heard this song at a sporting event. I guess there’s at least one VG journalist that won’t be joining our Jewish friend at the place that’s the best.

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