observations and opinion
A song’s best friend and his own worst enemy: Harry Nilsson
Twenty years and eight days ago, it occurred to me that someone ought to record a tribute album to Harry Nilsson. Harry had written or popularized dozens of great songs. He was beloved by fans, many of them other recording artists. Maybe it could be one of those “duet” things, I thought. And I bet Harry could use the money.
But I was wrong. Harry wouldn’t need the money, because he died the next day. This came as a shock, a memorable one precisely because the news arrived the day after I had been ruminating about the imaginary tribute album. The only reason to remember the tribute album idea, of course, is that it became suddenly too late for it the next day.
Harry Nilsson sang sentimental songs and unless he altered his character in mid-life, died a sentimental man. He would be justified in feeling hurt that the twentieth anniversary of his departure went unremarked, especially by his avowed fans (this one, anyway). But Harry was the kind of sentimentalist who wore a heavy cloak of sardonic humour – a shield, like his beard and those damned overcoats of his. The man who sang “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you” might have something to say to those who have forgotten him.
Not forgotten. Harry has had moments of notoriety in death – that tribute album (no duets, of course) got recorded in 1995. A biographical film (“Who is Harry Nilsson and why is Everybody Talkin’ ‘bout Him?”) was released in 2006. And most noteably, his music formed the soundtrack of a very big motion picture in 1999 (“You’ve Got Mail”) – he was almost a character in the film, a kind of singing Shakespearean chorus.
But for those of us who hunted down and found every single Harry record there was, back in the days of vinyl, there is almost no level of remembrance adequate to celebrate this most peculiar artist. I say “peculiar” because Harry, universally recognized as a beautiful, almost superhuman vocalist in his early career, refused to perform live. Famous first because John Lennon and Paul McCartney said he was one of their favourite singers, Harry stayed in recording studios. But for some awkward appearances on TV shows (The Smothers Brothers, the Ghost and Mrs. Muir even!) he stayed out of sight.
But he put out amazing records. Records that didn’t sell much (Pandemonium Shadow Show, Aerial Ballet), records that were basically perfect and totally unknown (“Nilsson sings Newman”) then records that sold a lot (“Everybody’s Talking”) and then superstar status (“Without You”). He made an animated film about being different (“The Point”), later recorded with the biggest stars on the planet, partied with them and then, in the mid 1970s, fell into a liquor bottle. And then he pretty much stopped putting out amazing records. Then rehab and lip-syncing on Japanese variety shows. And then, he was gone – heart trouble, they said.
It has to be said that Harry is something of an icon for dissolute living and career self-destruction. That’s not very kind, but it’s pretty damned true. I remember the fury that boiled in me the day that John Belushi died – stupid stupid stupid, I yelled at the TV. This kind of booze and drug spiral sucked the life out of artists (like Harry) or just killed them fast (Belushi et al) and it still pisses me off. But artists are very, very human and when they’re dipped in money and fame, offered every substance imaginable to ease their pain, it’s not a surprise they go down that road. The sensitivity and temerity that lets a man write “Daddy’s Song” or its sweet TV translation, the theme to “Eddies’ Father”, is a raw nerve that anyone might choose to dull.
So tonight, 20 years and 7 days after Harry’s early exit from this world, I stop to note his passing and, as they keep saying at funerals, celebrate his life. Or more accurately, his work. His best work, in one listener’s opinion. In rough chronological order, some special songs that Harry created or imbued with his extraordinary voice and sensibility:
“Without Her” from the Shadow Show album features every aspect of his artistry: a great melody, simplicity, beautiful multi-octave harmonies (all done by Harry of course) and a haunting lyric (“I spend a night in the chair thinking she’ll be there, but she never comes…”).
“I Guess the Lord Must be in New York City” was Harry’s composition for the film Midnight Cowboy. Of course, it was the same movie which used his recording of someone else’s song, “Everybody’s Talkin” that turned Harry into a recording and radio star.
“Without You.” Nobody got their heart broken in the 1970s without playing this over and over and over. If you were there, you know it’s true. This also features the supremely intense vocalization, crossing over multiple octaves, that distinguished Nilsson from every other pop singer alive.
It is hard to pull any other song from the “Nilsson Schmilsson” album because they’re all great. Moonbeam, Coconut – minor hits both.
You should listen to “The Point.” I can’t recommend watching it (it’s not that good) but some of the songs, especially “Lifeline” are lovely. Truthfully one always looks at The Point and wonders if this was the start of the era when Harry started to get his way too often.
“Remember” has become something of a later –day popular favourite from the Nilsson canon. It is pretty, sentimental but hints at doubt (“dream – love is only in a dream”) and in many ways is emblematic of Harry’s superstar recording sound.
In the years following “Son of Schmilsson”, he did a vanity project, “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night” which featured his take on numbers from the classic American songbook. It is fair to say that, for those who heard it, Harry introduced them to a whole new (old) kind of song. Among the beauties on this album is his transcendent “Somewhere over the Rainbow” which you will hear in the last scene of the aforementioned “You’ve Got Mail.”
After that he went on the infamous “Long Weekend” that lasted years and wrecked his voice. He put out boring self-indulgent albums. But his comeback record in 1977, “Knnillssonn” even with the stupid name, houses some fine and lovely songs. His voice is huskier, fragile but still true. “Lean on Me” is sweet (“you’re the wind and I’m the sea…oh lean on me.”) My personal favourite is the achingly sad “All I Think About is You”:
How can I run away From darkness at the close of day When all I think about is you? Not knowing, where I’m going, what am I to do? When all I think about is you I spend an hour knocking, knowing that my heart is mocking me She doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t know why I bother, what else can I do? When all I think about is you.
“All I Think About is You” didn’t do much to revive Harry’s recording career. But what it did do, unintentionally but lastingly, was capture the sad romance of Nilsson’s sensibility. There is something about this shaky recording of a halting, raw song that says: the love is gone, and it’s never coming back, but he’s not ready to say goodbye.
I’m not ready to say goodbye either. So let’s just say, good night Harry.