THE BOOTLEG FILES: “SPIRIT IN THE SKY” Image

BOOTLEG FILES 178: “Spirit in the Sky” (1970 filmed performance of Norman Greenbaum’s hit rock song).

LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: The film was part of a long-forgotten syndicated series.

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not likely in the near future.

A song about dying and receiving a new home in the afterlife courtesy of a certain carpenter from Nazareth may not seem like the ideal material for the rock music charts, but back in 1969 and 1970 “Spirit in the Sky” sold two million copies and scored singer/songwriter Norman Greenbaum a spot in music history. The spirit of “Spirit in the Sky” never faded away – the song has been heavily used in films, TV shows and even commercials, while two cover versions reached the #1 positions in the British music charts.

Yet fans of the song may not be aware that there is a film of Greenbaum’s performance. Thanks to the courtesy of bootleg video and web sites like YouTube, the film of “Spirit in the Sky” has returned to delight a new generation.

Well, not everyone is delighted – Norman Greenbaum, for starters, is not pleased.

“I am not happy about it being on YouTube without permission,” said Greenbaum, in an e-mail exchange with Film Threat.

Let’s backpedal a bit and trace the story behind this rare and unusual film. During the 1960s, Greenbaum was a struggling performer trying to secure a place in the music world. In 1968, performing under the name Dr. West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band, he recorded a novelty song called “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago.” This enjoyed a good deal of radio play, but genuine success still eluded him.

In 1969, Greenbaum released “Spirit in the Sky.” The lyrics, with its proclamation “I have a friend in Jesus,” may have seemed curious coming from someone who graduated from Hebrew school and was bar-mitzvahed. In an interview with the Net magazine Jewhoo!, Greenbaum pointed out that the crossover between faiths was not unusual – after all, Jewish songwriters created Christmas songs. Besides, Greenbaum realized there was a larger audience for a song that mentioned “Jesus” rather than a Jewish-themed meditation.

In any event, “Spirit in the Sky” mixed hard rock, gospel, folk music and a hand-clapping chorus into a wonderfully catchy and somewhat weird mixture (the weirdness: no matter how you slice it, the song is about death). The song became a monster hit, and even John Lennon offered public praise for it.

In 1970, Greenbaum received a call from the producers of “Something Else,” a syndicated TV series hosted by comic John Byner. The program, which was sponsored by the American Dairy Assocation, highlighted the top rock, pop and country music acts of the day performing their hit tunes in different locations around the country. This could be considered as proto-music videos. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Lou Rawls, the Guess Who, Roy Clark, Linda Rondstadt, Poco, Johnny Mathis, Richie Havens and Iron Butterfly were among the stars who appeared on this show.

“They filmed performances, actually lip-syncs, for the weekly show,” Greenbaum recalled.

The “Spirit in the Sky” film was fairly bold and artistic. The film begins with the song’s classic guitar riffs while Greenbaum (playing his instrument) and six shapely young women are seen skipping in silhouette across a horizon. It sort of resembles a hippie parody of Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” and the playfulness of the opening is in wild contrast to the song’s obsession with dying.

The film then cuts back and forth between Greenbaum singing (or lip-syncing) his tune and the lovely women gyrating wildly, with rhythmic hand clapping over their heads. There is also a brilliantly composed shot of Greenbaum looking skyward while singing as the six young women are posed on an overhead railroad bridge, clapping and swinging in perfect synchronization. The film also switches to a negative effect during the hard rock interlude, and the hand-clapping backbeat is then used by having the women’s hand’s framing the screen with Greenbaum positioned in the center of the shot.

“It was very cool for it’s day,” Greenbaum added.

Indeed, it’s still very cool for this day. Alas, Greenbaum’s memory of the actual production is shaky and proper credit cannot be given to the creative artists who came up with this concept. “It was filmed in Nevada,” he said. “Maybe near Carson City or Virginia City. I have no who directed it.”

Unfortunately, the program “Something Else” never resonated with audiences. After a single season of 25 episodes, the show was discontinued. As far as I can determine, it was never rebroadcast after its original run.

Today, of course, the talent line-up on “Something Else” would more than warrant a renewed look at the programs. Yet problems exist on several levels, most notably clearing the music and performance rights and running a digital restoration on these long-unseen episodes.

Even more troubling: it is unclear who owns the rights to the “Something Else” materials. “We’ve been trying to locate the owners,” said Erik Jacobsen, Greenbaum’s producer and publisher and owner of the rights to “Spirit in the Sky.” “Norman has put forth an effort, with no success as yet.”

However, bootleg videos of the “Something Else” have been privately circulating and the episode featuring “Spirit in the Sky” has surfaced online. It is, admittedly, a crappy bootleg – it is black-and-white (“Something Else” was in color) and the visuals are occasionally washed out.

Since Greenbaum and Jacobsen continue to profit from the licensing of the song, they are not happy with the bootleg video’s online presence. YouTube is a particular source of frustration for them, and Jacobsen has tried in vain to get YouTube’s management to yank the video.

“They basically make it impossible to do,” he said. “You can’t reach anyone – they have difficult legal hoops to jump through!”

Jacobsen also noted the bootlegging that is prevalent on YouTube has also generated anger from other music industry entities. “I hope they get sued for billions, the thieving swine!” he proclaimed.

Greenbaum added that a decent print of the film is known to exist. “The San Francisco film archive is supposed to send me a better copy, but I haven’t received it yet,” he said.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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