It’s been a while since I tried to record myself recording. On video, I mean. It’s also been a while since I recorded anything at all. Haven’t laid down a lick since February, and that’s not like me. I’ve been writing and preserving ideas on the little Flip camera, like always. That happens almost every day. But I haven’t done a thing in the studio since I started preparing for the Mackenzie Hall show.
At first it had to do with not wanting to muddy the water with too many new songs. Then it became something else — the familiar “what do I do next?” wandering that will sometimes happen in the immediate aftermath of a new album.
I’m in a bit of an odd place right now. I feel like it’s been a while since I released an album I didn’t feel really good about, with things really kicking into high gear with CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN. That’s five albums in a row that I think make up some of the best work I’ve ever done. While I don’t feel the weight of whatever expectations there may be from anyone else (I could never get into the mindset of trying to figure out what anyone who isn’t me might make of what I’m doing), there’s a bit of internal pressure to have the next album live up to that level of “quality”, regardless of where it goes musically. But getting too wrapped up in thinking about that stuff can lead to “recording block”, where the songs are there but it’s confusing trying to figure out what to tackle, because, as always, I don’t want to fall into the trap of repeating myself and recycling a winning formula.
Things can’t get too safe or comfortable. Things have to keep evolving.
I’ve been stuck between finally trying to finish this multiple-CD-set-of-new-material thing that’s been a few years in the making and figuring out whatever the next normal full-length album wants to be. Working on both at once is an option, but it could lead to over-ambitious confusion shit. I think it was healthy to take a bit of a break, especially after what that show took out of me. These days it isn’t like me to go a month or more without recording anything, but sometimes it can help to get a bit of perspective. I still don’t know what exactly I want to do next, but I know I need to start doing it soon if i want to stay in shape and keep the momentum going. I’d like to get at least another two albums out there this year so I can match the three I put out last year. I figure that’s a realistic goal.
Yesterday I thought, “Well, fuck it. It’s been long enough. I haven’t recorded a thing in more than a month. To hell with trying to do something blindingly different. Let’s just do something, even if my voice doesn’t feel like it’s quite back to its old self yet after that irritating baritone-inducing throat infection episode.”
So here is some of what I did.
This is by no means a taste of what you should expect from the next album. It might not even show up on the next album. It’s just what I ended up doing on this particular day. It’s an absurdly simple song from a compositional standpoint. Basically it’s the same two chords through the whole thing, making it the complete antithesis of everything I was trying to do a few years ago. It’s the kind of song I said I would never write again circa 2005. Of course, we all know where that went. I learned that, as rewarding as it is to mess with song structure and avoid repetition, sometimes simple things are good too. Sometimes simple is best.
I kind of half-wrote this thing the other night (the initial idea I captured is at the beginning of the video, recorded in total darkness, hence the black screen), and filled in some more lyrics a few minutes before I started recording it. After the fact I realized the line, “Climbing up the old blood tree,” and the variations that followed were probably subconsciously inspired by Derek Harrison’s “Barking up the Wrong Blonde Tree”, a song he posted on his blog some weeks back. Oh wait…you can hear me use that title verbatim in the initial sketch, because it was in my head and it had the right amount of syllables for the vocal melody I wanted to sing. Alright then.
Thanks to Derek for inadvertently giving me the words I used as a jumping-off point.
The arrangement still needs a little something more, I think. Maybe some Wurlitzer. Maybe some more vocal harmonies. Maybe some electric guitar or organ. Maybe all of the above. But it’s getting there. It was about time to give that 1945 Martin 00-17 some more love, and the Pearlman TM-LE continues to be a formidable secret weapon on acoustic guitars. I figured if it could make a piece of crap classical guitar that cost less than two hundred bucks sound like it was worth several times that amount, it might sound pretty nice in front of a guitar that is the opposite of crap.
One thing captured on video was this weird mechanical sound that started up out of nowhere when I was in the middle of recording the initial acoustic guitar part. You can see me looking confused, wondering where it’s coming from. I thought maybe I was having a stroke for a moment, before realizing it was something going on outside. I assumed the take was ruined, but played through it anyway. While listening back to what I’d done, I found myself wishing that noise came through louder on the track, because it provided a nice bit of buried dissonance.
Turns out it was someone using an aerator on our front lawn. I thought of grabbing a microphone and recording more from the porch, but by then they were finished. What a tease. When the song is finished and mixed you probably won’t even be able to hear the aerator whining anymore unless you listen on really good headphones or a revealing hi-fi system, but I enjoy the hilarity of something I assumed would derail the performance becoming a sound I now really like. Score another one for happy accidents.
I had some fun with cheesy video effects this time. I tend to stay away from that sort of thing, but I felt like it made some of the static shots of me doing stuff a bit more interesting in the absence of a dedicated camera person. And slowing down moments of profanity can only make them more amusing. Watch as I swear at the phone and the doorbell! Hold your breath as I potentially ding up an expensive vintage Martin acoustic guitar! Giggle at the sped-up piano mic’ing preparations!
I should warn you that a few parts get a lot louder without warning — the drums and the shaker in particular. But on the whole, this is probably a more interesting and more representative look at a bit of what happens when I’m recording stuff than the last solo recording video was, and it’s almost twice as long. I should also warn you that I use some pretty strong language when things interrupt me or fall and hit other things.
So there you go. It still needs a bit of wallpaper, but it’s getting there. Everything is an improvised first take except for the singing. I generally get down a “guide vocal”, which is what you see part of in the video, and then take another pass with more commitment, so what’s in the mix is the second take. I think I like where it’s going. Maybe I’ll put a rough mix up here for a bit once it’s finished. And yes — I do sometimes drink water and play piano at the same time. It’s not me trying to show off. It’s just how I roll when I’m thirsty.
(Edit from the future: More than two years later, when I knew a little more about editing, I took the recording footage and carved it into something much less boring, chopping out more than ten minutes in the process. Instead of watching the equivalent of an ant crawling around on video, you now get to see a bit of the song taking shape in a more tangible way. This edit can be seen OVER HERE, on the page for the album this song lives on.)
I pulled out CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN for a listen all the way through the other day for the first time in quite a while. And I thought, “This is the album that kind of ‘put me on the map’? How messed up is that?”
It’s a pretty odd one when you think about it. So many songs, most of them very short. Some pretty weird subject matter. Some pretty oddball vocal performances. Some pretty odd production choices. I didn’t think anyone would like it then, and it still surprises me that it’s maybe the most popular thing I’ve ever done.
It’s not that I don’t think it’s worthy of the attention. I think it’ll always be one of my own personal favourites in my discography. I just never expected so many other people would think so too.
Another thing that struck me was the sound/production quality. At the time, this album was by far the best-sounding thing I’d ever done. After I finished listening to it the other day I threw on LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS and just about lost control of my bodily functions for a moment. Most of the important gear (mics, preamps, compressors, mixer) has remained pretty much the same over the last five albums, but it’s interesting to hear how much has changed sonically just in that short time. I guess I really am still getting better at whatever it is that I do…but it doesn’t tend to register just how much some things have improved until I’m looking at two examples that stand in such stark contrast to each other.
If I recorded CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN today it would sound a lot richer and fuller. But it wouldn’t necessarily be better…just different. It wouldn’t be the same album it exists as now. I think it’s as it should be — a document of the time in which it was created. Five albums into the future, I’ll probably be thinking the same thing about NIHILISTS.
Every album comes from a different place, and things are always shifting and changing, even if it’s such a subtle thing that it isn’t immediately obvious what’s shifted. It’s all just a big never-ending journey, with floppy-shoe-wearing clowns and cynical princesses and suicidally depressed court jesters. Or maybe that’s the concept for my first music video. Who can say?
To that end, I’ve read all kinds of things about the Loudness War (google it if you’re interested in reading about how most music sounds like poo these days). One thing that was always interesting to me was how, through compressing the crap out of everything to get it to stand out, you end up shooting yourself in the foot. Once your song hits the radio, it’s going to go through another limiter — the one radio stations use to make sure all the songs are at an even level — and it’ll sound awful when it hits the airwaves, with whatever transients that weren’t crushed at the mastering stage now turned into complete mush. It might be louder than everything else when you pop it in your car, but on the radio it won’t be any louder than any other song. Meanwhile, a song that isn’t squashed a the mastering stage and has some dynamics left intact will jump out as sounding a whole lot better, because it’s only getting compressed/limited once.
I never imagined I would get to hear a demonstration involving my own music. Theresa has played my stuff on The Rock a few times, on her Sunday night show that spotlights local music (thanks, Theresa). Tonight I tuned in, because she said on Facebook I was one of the artists she would be playing and I was curious what song would get the nod. Turned out it was “Crustacean Cancer Survivor”, which seems to be one of the songs on the new album people like most.
What was instructive for me was hearing how much modern music — even music that comes out of this city — sounds pretty much the same from a production standpoint. Or at least the “rock” music does. Much of it is electric guitar-based, and the electric guitars are all recorded and processed to sound the same way. The drums are mic’d up to within an inch of their lives and sound about the same from one song and artist to the next.
I’m not saying it’s wrong. I understand this is the sound that’s “in” right now. It’s what you hear on commercial radio, so if your aspirations are to get your songs heard in that realm, it makes sense to go for that sound.
What was really interesting, though, was hearing my song in the midst of all this. I mastered it myself, using no real mastering equipment at all. I didn’t use a ton of compression, and I recorded, produced, and mixed it at home. Compared to some of the other songs, many of which were recorded in more traditional studio spaces and properly mastered, the depth and life my song had was shocking. The other songs just sat there. Mine came roaring out of the speakers.
I’m not saying my music sounds better. At least it shouldn’t sound better than something recorded in a professional studio. But it’s interesting to compare professionally produced stuff and recorded-by-some-dude-in-his-house stuff, and to hear how the two different kinds of stuff sound on the radio. I think my stuff sounds pretty good in that context. So hooray for me!
On another note, Tom Lucier (a stuff-doer if ever there was one) has started doing this thing where he uses the audio recording function on his iPhone to interview other local stuff-doers, and also to get down some thoughts. To my surprise, his latest audio recording kind of has a bit to do with me. I wasn’t expecting that. Thanks to Tom for the kind words. I think ukulele lullabies are a wonderful idea. I mean, how many kids can say they got ukulele lullabies to lull them to sleep?
These past few days I’m all about the random videos. I don’t know why. But here are two more.
This is a quick demonstration of the Washburn 5200, with my face mostly out of the frame.
This thing is LOUD for such a small-bodied guitar. I think it’s going to record really well, with little in the way of low end mud. And as I say in the video, while I tend to avoid playing with picks (the sound is too bright and thin for me, and I can do a lot more with my fingers), this guitar doesn’t seem to mind so much.
And this is some poorly-filmed dancing. Pardon my potty mouth and use of innuendo.
I have to be subtle with my footwork when a record is playing, because any sudden movements tend to cause skipping. Need to figure out something to put underneath the turntable that’s shock-absorbent without being ugly. I’ve been buying a lot of records over the past year or so, and I thought it might be time to start…you know…listening to them. So I’ve been doing a fair bit of that lately. I think I might even like Elliott Smith’s Either/Or more after hearing it on vinyl yesterday. There’s a warmth to the record the CD doesn’t quite seem to capture.
I keep finding surprises. First there was the pink Sunny Day Real Estate vinyl, which looks even cooler up close than it does on video. Then a 45 fell out of a Harry Nilsson album — a 45 that has nothing to do with the full-length album it was hiding inside of. The most recent discovery was that not only has my vinyl copy of Exile on Main St. (which will probably always be my favourite Stones album) never been played — or, if it has been played, the needle didn’t touch it very many times — but there are a bunch of postcards inside in mind condition. A collector’s item, maybe?
I’m of two minds about this. Part of me says, “Hey…this could be worth a bit of money by the time I’m dead. Maybe I should put it back in the plastic cover and leave it on the shelf, admiring it but never playing it.” Another part of me says, “What good does it do me if it just sits there and I can never enjoy it? Maybe it’ll be worth a few hundred bucks in ten years. Big deal. Records should be listened to, not gawked at.”
Which part of me will win? The excitement!
All of this vinyl lovin’ has got me thinking again about how much fun it would be to try putting something of mine out on vinyl. What do you think? Should I do it with something new? Or is there a particular album of mine you’d like to be able to put on your turntable? At this point, I think anything I do would end up having to be a double-vinyl release, given the length of my albums. I think I might ask people on that Facebook thing what they think as well.
Speaking of my stuff, I’ve gone through more than two hundred copies of the new album in just over a month. That’s nuts. The boxes at Phog and Dr. Disc have just been refilled, because they were empty yet again.
Meet Gerozino the Giraffe, who takes a strange pleasure in helping me alphabetize piles of vinyl records and has a thing for Stina Nordenstam. There were a few surprises along the way, along with a musical interlude from Gerry (I figure we’ll call him that for short, and maybe sometimes “Z” for extra short, plus implied street cred).
After Stina finished singing, I threw on Radio City by Big Star as the continuing soundtrack for record alphabetizing, and man…that’s a damn fine album. I’ve never heard another example of “power pop” that I like even half as much. For more than a decade now, every single time I listen to “Back of a Car” I think I hear the phone ringing during the mid-song instrumental break. Must be something about the frequency of the electric guitar part or something. Even today, I ducked into my bedroom to make sure the phone wasn’t ringing during that part.
There isn’t a song on the album that isn’t great, but it’s an especially eyebrow-raising crime that “September Gurls” wasn’t a smash hit. Alex Chilton’s guitar break in the middle of that song, and again at the end, has to be one of the most joyous musical moments you’ll ever find on an album that sits buried in the “pop/rock” section of a record store. It is for me, anyway.
The album was ending just as our work was over.
After that, I went back to a few tracks on #1 Record (the album that came before Radio City) and was struck again by the thought that, much like Lennon and McCartney, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton were born to harmonize with each other. There’s something magical about their vocal interplay on a song like “Thirteen”, or Chris Bell’s own “You and Your Sister” (which shows up on his own lone solo album, cobbled together and released posthumously). Maybe at some point I’ll attempt to write something here about Chris, who was — and, though no longer living, remains — another woefully unsung songsmith, singer, and guitarist.
Hey, it’s time for the CJAM Jammy Awards once again. You should be able to vote over HEREfor your favourite shows, along with the best local music venue and best local band/artist. I’m not saying you should vote for me. Obviously the best band/artist to ever come out of windsor is Betrayer. Come on. I don’t have to tell you that. But if you’re a Windsor-dweller and/or a CJAM fan and/or a fan of any of the music that comes out of the armpit of Ontario, you should vote and stuff. Voting ends sometime in mid-April.
I was told last year I was actually in the running to win the best local artist award thingy (which still kind of boggles my mind) before The Locusts Have No King took it home for the second year in a row. They ended up changing the rule after that so no one could win it twice in a row. Would have been nice to be the beneficiary of that rule, since I’m unlikely to ever have a shot at that sort of thing again, but what can ye do?
You thought the random Toronto video I made was random? You were right. But this is even more random.
I missed some of the more exciting moments and didn’t end up getting any footage at all at Folkway, mostly because of the bag of douche who kept wailing on an electric guitar in a very loud and masturbatory way until just before we left to grab a bite to eat. He must have gone on for something like forty-five minutes, pretty much nonstop. No one else in the store could hear anything they tried to play. At all. Talk about having no respect for other customers who are actually there to buy something (this guy didn’t leave with a guitar, or an amp, or even a set of strings as far as I could see).
There were a few times Travis and I looked at each other while holding guitars we couldn’t hope to get any impression of no matter how fervently we plucked or strummed, and we both wore facial expressions that said, “Are you frakkin’ kidding me?” We don’t need to speak, you see, because we employ that mind-speakin’ thing. Luckily we had just enough in the way of small peaceful moments to get a bit of playing in and make a few informed decisions. Mark nobly told the bag of douche to quiet it down for the people who drove all the way from Windsor (he was back at it again a few minutes later, but the talking-to eventually paid off), and it’s always good to see him and Rich and the rest of the Folkway gang.
All in all, though the video is as random as it gets and most of the cheesy fade effects I implemented don’t seem to have taken, while the clip of everyone’s food looks all distorted like it’s on drugs, it was a fun day. Normally it’s just me and Johnny Smith, but this time Travis came along and we met up with my partner in smoo once we hit Guelph. It was kind of an adventure.
Travis and I both ended up leaving with new guitars, which was kind of inevitable. We were both on the fence…until we fell off. Believe me, I know the last thing I need any more of at this point is guitars. But sometimes an instrument just speaks to you. And it says, “Whoa. I’m wooden. Buy me.”
We’ll ignore for he moment how Keanu Reeves often says the same thing.
I was able to justify grabbing this guitar because (a) I wanted a guitar I could dedicate to open C and/or standard tuning (every guitar that once lived in standard tuning over here has drifted elsewhere, and I’m not sure which guitars of mine would work well in open C), (b) it’s a 1932 Washburn 5200, cheaper than the last one of its kind I saw at Folkway, which i liked a lot and probably would have bought if it had been a few hundred dollars less, (c) it looks quite a bit like the guitar Nick Drake is sometimes seen holding in pictures, and (d) DIRTY MARSHMALLOW.
You wouldn’t believe it based on their modern output, but once upon a time Washburn made some really nice guitars, particularly during the Lyon & Healy and Tonk Bros. eras. A nice side effect of Washburn’s current output being complete crap (relatively speaking) is most people don’t know they ever made any acoustic guitars that could be considered anything other than “beginner instruments”, and you can grab a vintage Washburn that’s comparable to Gibson or Martin guitars from the same period in terms of tone and feel, but for much less money…at least until people catch on and realize the vintage Washburns are a world away from the laminated shitboxes made in factories these days and the prices rise accordingly.
This guitar sounds ridiculously good in open C tuning. What’s kind of funny is Travis might have considered buying this guitar if it wasn’t a twelve-fretter, making some of the higher frets difficult to access. And I might have considered buying the 1956 National 1150 he ended up getting if it didn’t look so much like the old Kay acoustic I already have (the tone and feel are very different in spite of the similar-looking-but-slightly-smaller Kay-built body) and if I didn’t already have my eye on the Washburn. Maybe it was fate.
They’re both really nice axes, and I think we both would have been pretty happy with either one of them, but we went there with certain feelings in our guts, soulful stomach growling ensued, and we both emerged victorious. I’ll post some video of that Washburn as soon as I get around to filming something that looks decent enough to put up here. And I’m going to tell myself I’m officially done buying acoustic guitars for now. I think I’ve got all my bases and tunings pretty much covered. We’ll see how that goes, though.
This is the guitar Travis got.
And this is the guitar i got.
Thanks to Travis and Meryl for being a part of the adventure, to Johnny Smith for driving and coughing with the conviction of a young Denzel Washington, to Rich and Mark at folkway, to the makers of food at With the Grain, to the random guy who tried to prove to us how large his penis was through needlessly loud and flashy electric guitar-playing, and to elliott for tagging along as always.
Off to Guelph we go. Random video to follow, probably.
Also, I don’t want to jinx myself, but I think my throat and voice may be starting to return to normal. I mean, yesterday I only drank two bottles of cough medicine instead of my usual eight, and today I might drink only one. Not that I was coughing very much to begin with. You know how it is.
Hopefully this bodes well for the days ahead, and maybe, if I’m lucky, by sometime next week I’ll be sounding enough like my old self to start working on recording the next album.
Bree sent me some pictures she took at the Mackenzie Hall show. Here are a few of my favourites.
Here you see a bit of the setlist I ended up shuffling and playing fast and loose with.
Elliott, in his role as piano-dwelling good luck charm, where he remained all night.
I ended up barely playing this guitar at all. Shame on me.
It ain’t a show without some bugle.
Water to the left of me, bugle to the right — here I am playing piano for you.
I’m always blown away by the pictures Bree takes. She makes it look so effortless when she’s snapping them, and then I see the images she ends up capturing, and I think, “How the hell did you do that?”
It also has to be said: Elliott is pretty photogenic. I think he’s gloating over it. I really, really like that first shot of my glasses and the harmonica holder Travis let me borrow resting on the piano bench. There’s something about the composition that just grabs me. The image has hands.
I still sound like a cross between Leonard Cohen’s illegitimate son and a bullhorn. It’s starting to get a little old now. I’d kind of like my old voice back, please…
On the bright side, writing that big thing about Harry Nilsson earlier in the week led me to pull out Nilsson Sings Newman for the first time in a very long time. I don’t think it ever quite hit me until now what a great album it really is. What Harry does with Randy Newman’s songs — the vocal nuances, the way he uses his voice as orchestration, and what he does with his own instrumental overdubs on organ, guitar, percussion, tack piano, and marimba — is nothing short of brilliant. They practically become new songs altogether in Harry’s hands.
That guy was something else. I read he added so many vocal tracks to some songs, five people had to work the mixing board simultaneously in order to get the right fader moves.
That’s ten hands. That’s nuts. That’s what life was like before Pro Tools.
This seems to have become the designated time of year for me to get sick. The weather starts to get nice, spring starts to show its face, and bam. Industrial-strength sinus infection. I always seem to be in the middle of working on something I’m excited about when it hits, too. At least this time I’m not waist-deep in the recording of another album. I’m only trying to figure out where to go next. So the timing is better than usual from a musical standpoint. I think I’ve hit on an idea that will get things moving along. I just have to wait until I don’t sound like Leonard Cohen’s illegitimate son to tackle it.
I just experienced a first for me — a coughing fit and a serious nosebleed. At the same time. I’m not sure if the coughing caused the bleeding or if it was the other way around, but that sure was something. I felt a little like an abstract art piece of a sprinkler system gone wrong. Go away, stupid sickness. Go bother Bono or someone else who can buy you off.
In the meantime, I’ve been writing more lyrics than music. That’s not normal. Musical ideas are always coming, but words only show up when they feel like it. They must like me right now or something, because I’ve written words for at least three new songs (along with a few half-songs) in the past few days, only one and-a-half of which have any music to go with them.
I’m a little on the fence about what to call the next single-disc album. These days I kind of like to have the title in place ahead of time so I’m not scrambling for what to call something at the last minute. The next one will be my thirtieth “official” solo release in the CD format. That feels like a bit of a milestone. So it’s tempting to call it something simple, stupid, and true. Like, say…Thirty.
How brilliant is that?! An album title from me that’s the opposite of long-winded.
There’s another title I even have cover art to go with already (I drew it myself). And while I find it amusing, some serious religious types may find it a little offensive — though it isn’t meant to be at all and I have no interest in mocking any religion through music for any reason.
Now watch me settle on a completely different title in the ninth hour.
In other far less pleasant news, Alex Chilton has passed away. He was fifty-nine and died of an apparent heart attack. Alex was a fascinating, elusive character, tricky to pin down to the end. He was a “difficult” artist if ever there was one.
His discography is all over the map, and pretty inconsistent. There are some stinkers in there. But when Alex was good, he was scary good. There’s a huge tome waiting to be written about his work with the Box Tops, the odd saga of Big Star, his strange subsequent solo adventures, production work for the Cramps and others, co-founding Tav Falco’s Panther Burns project, and more. Now that he’s gone and suddenly more interesting to everyone, someone probably will write that book.
As it stands, there’s a wealth of information available between the Big Star book written by Rob Jovanovic and Robert Gordon’s It Came from Memphis (still one of the best books I’ve read about anything), in addition to what you can glean from various blogs/websites/internet places. Word is a biopic is in the works based on the Jovanovic book, and while it’s nice to think of more people being introduced to the music of Big Star — who were so unknown while they existed, and then so celebrated and influential after they broke up, the joke was that while everyone who heard the first Velvet Underground album went out and formed a band, everyone who heard the Big Star records became a rock critic — I can’t see a happy ending there. Biopics rarely manage to get at any kind of deep truth about their subjects.
There’s a sort of similar career arc to Harry Nilsson’s, except Alex never had the kind of commercial success Harry did to begin with. The Box Tops had some hits, but Alex had no creative control over that music and was more or less a pawn in the hands of the record company, with all the money from his success lining the pockets of others. He was a bitter veteran of the music industry before he was even twenty years old.
Once people caught on to the greatness of what Big Star had done, he seemed to almost delight in not giving his audience what they wanted, releasing weird cover albums and straying as far from the glorious power pop of the first two Big Star albums as possible. The man had range, from the pre-Joe Cocker soul gravel of the Box Tops, to the Beatles-meets-Kinks-meets-something-else of the first two Big Star albums, to the barbiturate-drenched self-sabotage of the third Big Star album, to the mess of solo work that lurched from punk and psychobilly deconstructions to weirdly polished funk-and-soul-influenced soft rock.
In recent years Alex took to playing semi-regular shows with a reformed Big Star, with two of the Posies subbing for absent original members Chris Bell (band co-founder and another unsung talent, who died in a car accident in 1978 — his is yet another strange, sad tale) and Andy Hummel (who left the band in the mid-1970’s and never returned). You could sense his heart was never in it, even if the chops were still there.
It’s always sad and a little sobering when your heroes die. A lot of the artists who have had a profound impact on me are still alive and kicking, and many more died before I was born or before I dug deep enough into their music to feel like I’d lost something. Alex is one of the first to go where I’m in a position to feel that loss in real-time. His music has served as a pretty big part of the soundtrack of my life, often during some of the darker moments.
I was first intrigued by Big Star around 1998 when I read a bit about the band in Rock: the Rough Guide, the book that was instrumental in saving me from musical mediocrity early in my teenage years. I found the first two albums at the mall on one CD. Radio City is still a desert island album for me, overflowing with one perfect melody and hook after another. The same is true of Third / Sister Lovers for different reasons. It’s the sound of Alex realizing his dreams of stardom are toast and, already cynical and jaded beyond his years at the age of twenty-three, drinking and taking a lot of drugs to numb the pain of commercial failure, pissing all over the potential pop appeal of his songs while capturing exactly where his head is at, and somehow making brilliant music almost in spite of himself.
It doesn’t sound like anything else that came out of the 1970’s. While Alex would later dismiss it as “half-baked”, I think it stands as maybe the best thing he ever did. It’s influenced too many other bands and artists to list them all. Alex did it better the first time, though. Beautiful moments and messy, ugly moments co-exist, sometimes in the same song. Alex drawling “play it for me, guitarist” in the middle of “Dream Lover” (a song that kind of sums up the ethos of the whole album, though it wasn’t included on the initial release) has always been one of those absurd musical moments I love, because it’s spontaneous and silly and weary-sounding, and it works better than it has any right to. He could still rock out, as “You Can’t Have Me” and a blistering cover of “Til the End of the Day” prove, and “Blue Moon” sounds like Elliott Smith twenty years before we even had Elliott, but the album’s most vivid moments are the harrowing musical fever dreams like “Holocaust”, “Kangaroo”, and “Big Black Car”.
Alex’s solo work is spotty, to put it kindly. After Big Star he seemed determined never to give so much of himself again. But Like Flies on Sherbert is some sort of demented masterpiece of sloppy lo-fi punky rock, sounding (again) some distance ahead of its time.
Some of it’s hilarious. The take on “Girl After Girl” sounds like it belongs in a David Lynch movie, a 1950’s throwback that’s at once reverent and contemptuous, with a grotesque vocal performance. As much as I love Alan Vega and Suicide, I think this is what the “Elvis in hell” description should have been levelled at. And “No More the Moon Shines on Lorena” has to be one of the weirdest cover versions ever recorded by anyone.
Some of it’s scary. The cover of “Waltz Across Texas” sounds like a drunken psychotic break set to music, and the title track sounds like one of Phil Spector’s horrifying acid-fried nightmares, complete with the sound of a synthesizer being tortured, the tape speed slowing down near the end, and Alex screaming in German with almost enough force to break the microphone.
Some of it’s really catchy. “Hook or Cook” is infectious, out of tune bass and all, and features the great line, “I’ll try anything twice or ten times.” “Alligator Man” doesn’t even have a bass part, and it still sounds like a party. And “Hey! Little Child” is one of the tightest performances on the whole album, a rock stomp driven by one of the all-time great electric guitar riffs, though even that gets turned on its head with some pretty skeevy lyrics.
This music is very much its own thing, deeply Southern, and I think it’s been unjustly maligned by critics unwilling or unable to take it for what it is — the sound of a man falling apart and keeping it together at the same time.
There’s supposed to be some video footage that was shot during the recording sessions for Flies. It would be nice if it was made available someday in some form. An article in Mojo magazine some years back described a scene captured on video that had (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) a “wrecked, spotty Chilton playing guitar like he’s forgotten how, smiling like a kid destroying a sand castle”. Someone who was there at the time was quoted as saying the recording of the album “nearly killed us” and “was a terrible experience from beginning to end”. You can’t taunt me with juicy tidbits like that and then not even have a crappy version of the footage find its way onto YouTube!
I think pretty much everything Alex did during this “lost” period is kind of essential in one way or another, rough as some of it is. What can I say? I’m a sucker for the raw, not-giving-a-shit, emotionally honest stuff. His cover of the Seeds classic “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” might even beat the original. Its insane longing was a good companion during one of the more romantically frustrating times of my life, when the late-period Guys with Dicks albums were being recorded in late 2001 and early 2002.
Live in London also comes from Alex’s time in the wilderness. It’s an album few people seem to have anything good to say about. While the band was under-rehearsed and it isn’t all brilliant, I think the live version of “Bangkok” wipes the floor with the admittedly great original studio recording. It sounds almost electrically charged with menace, the electric guitars imitating the machine gun sound effects from the studio take. When Alex’s vocal mic feeds back mid-song you can almost see him smirking. The live take on “Kangaroo” is pretty great too.
I pulled out Third for another listen in the wake of Alex’s passing. It was good to meet up with that old friend again. I still think “Nightime” is one of the most beautiful things he ever did, complete with a gorgeous string arrangement and some spooky slide guitar from Lee Baker. It always brings back memories of a pretty unpleasant vacation in a tiny Italian tourist town almost a decade ago. I listened to it a lot during that miserable week and-a bit. When Alex sang, “I hate it here — get me out of here,” I felt every word.
When I got to “Take Care” (which was originally meant to be the closing track), I couldn’t help thinking how appropriate and timely the closing lines were. What was once a tender-sounding false goodbye now works as a true farewell.
This sounds a bit like goodbye.
In a way, it is, I guess.
As I leave your side,
I’ve taken the air.
Please, take care.
If you read what goes on here with any regularity, you know I tend to ramble about random stuff that mostly has to do with myself and the music I make. Right now, though, I kind of feel like writing about something else. Maybe it’s because I’ve got a brutal head cold.
I’m not planning on making this a regular feature that operates according to any kind of schedule, but maybe once in a while I should deviate from all things me for a moment, when the spirit moves me.
So let’s talk a bit about the man known as Nilsson.
Harry Nilsson recorded eighteen studio albums between 1966 and 1980 if you count a few movie soundtracks he composed that were made up of original material. And yet most people who know Harry, if they know him at all, remember him either for the two biggest hits he had, which he didn’t write himself — “Without You” (a Badfinger song) and “Everybody’s Talkin” (written by Fred Neil) — or the songs he wrote that were hits in the hands of others (Three Dog Night scored with “One”, and the Monkees had hits with “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”).
It seems like some sort of cosmic joke that for a songwriter with the voice and talent Harry had, the most success he ever experienced was with songs that weren’t his own, and the songs of his that were monster hits only made it big after being commercialized and sung by other acts.
Before we get in too deep, just so you know, this is not aiming to be a biographical be-all and end-all. Between Wikipedia and other online resources you can learn about more than just the broad outlines of Harry’s life, and it’s been written about by people who have probably done a far more efficient job than I will. These are just some thoughts and impressions.
As it happens, the very best online resource by far for all things Harry is right overHERE. If you have a few hours to kill and an interest in Harry’s music, I can’t recommend that site enough. There are a ton of rarities over there, excerpts from books, videos, interviews, reminiscences, and more. I’ve heard and seen things over there I thought I’d only ever be able to guess about, from obscure commercial spots to radio interviews.
Harry was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1941. According to most biographies his father abandoned the family when harry was three, which I imagine had more than a bit of an effect on young Harry. He would later end up doing more or less the same thing to his first wife and child.
Only, she wasn’t his first wife.
For years no one really knew that Harry was married for a short time before Diane Nilsson (who has been referred to as his “first wife” for decades now) came into the picture.
“1941”, a song on Pandemonium Shadow Show — and one Harry considered his songwriting breakthrough — goes like this:
Well in 1941, a happy father had a son.
And by 1944, the father walked right out the door.
And in ’45, the mom and son were still alive,
but who could tell in ’46 if the two were to survive?
Well, the years were passing quickly,
but not fast enough for him.
So he closed his eyes through ’55
and he opened them up again.
When he looked around, he saw a clown,
and the clown seemed very gay.
And he said, “I’d like to join that circus clown and run away.”
Well, he followed every railroad track
and every highway sign.
And he had a girl in each new town
and the towns he’d left behind.
And the open road
was the only road he knew.
But the colour of his dreams
were slowly turning into blue.
Then he met a girl —
the kind of girl he wanted all his life.
She was soft and kind and good to him,
so he took her for a wife.
And they got a house not far from town,
and in a little while
the girl had seen the doctor
and she came home with a smile.
Now in 1961, a happy father had a son.
And by 1964, the father walked right out the door.
And in ’65, the mom and son were still around.
But what will happen to the boy
when the circus comes to town?
Not many people can marry a catchy melody and a bouncy tune to lyrics that do such a succinct job of painting a picture of abandonment and the cycle of continuing abandonment it often creates. Harry made it seem as natural as breathing. The circus references could be a metaphor for music and the appeal of the open road, or maybe a shout-out to his paternal grandparents who were Swedish circus performers/acrobats. Change the 1960s to the early 1970s and it might as well be straight autobiography.
But we’re getting a bit ahead of the plot here.
To help support the family, Harry dropped out of school in the ninth grade to work odd jobs. There was a stint at the Paramount Theater. When the Paramount closed he got a job at a bank, lying that he was a high school graduate. His employers learned the truth at some point, but they liked him so much they decided to keep him on with the caveat of a year-long “probationary” period, after which he became a regular long-term employee.
Harry worked at the bank at night and pursued a musical career during the day. He got most of his initial work writing songs for other artists, though he would sometimes have to transpose the songs down several steps to accommodate someone else’s vocal range. Not a lot of singers had as wide and elastic a vocal range as Harry did.
He released some singles of his own under different names, but most of them sunk without a trace. Tower Records signed Harry to a brief recording contract and released a collection of songs called Spotlight on Nilsson, revealing a remarkable voice that hadn’t quite discovered what it wanted to say yet. It didn’t sell or attract much attention, and though Harry’s songs were being recorded by the likes of Glen Campbell and Fred Astaire, he kept his bank job.
In 1966 harry signed to RCA Victor, and Pandemonium Shadow Show was released in 1967. This was his first fully-formed full-length artistic statement. It didn’t set the charts aflame, but it got some serious critical praise and won him some powerful fans — not least among them the Beatles, who named him as their favourite artist at a press conference.
Harry told a story about getting a phone call early one morning from John Lennon, who said, “Harry. It’s John. I just wanted to tell you your album’s fuckin’ great.” The next week, on the same day, at the same time, there came a call from Paul McCartney, who said the same thing minus the profanity. When the next week rolled around, Harry combed his hair, showered, and got dressed, waiting for a call from Ringo.
It never came. But two out of four Beatles ain’t too shabby.
The album revealed not only a skilled craftsman, but one with a jaw-dropping vocal range — not just in terms of the notes he could hit, but the places he could take his voice tonally and emotionally, overdubbing himself into a veritable choir or leaving the voice naked and unadorned depending on the needs of the song.
Without Her from “Pandemonium Shadow Show” (c) 1967
(Songs that come from official, non-bootleg albums will be streaming audio only so nobody gets sued for copyright infringement or anything silly like that.)
Harry got a manager who set up some TV appearances and along with RCA coordinated a brief European tour. It would be the only proper tour of Harry’s life. He found he didn’t enjoy playing live and effectively retired from live performances at the beginning of his career, preferring to express himself through the recordings.
Aerial Ballet followed in 1968, further developing the somewhat Beatles-esque but chameleon-like and totally unique sound Harry had established for himself. This album featured what would later become his first big hit, and one that would net him a Grammy award after getting a prominent role in the movie Midnight Cowboy the following year — the Fred Neil song “Everybody’s Talkin” — though Harry’s own songs were no slouch. His original version of “One” lives on a different planet from the rocking Three Dog Night cover, all late-night weariness and delicate, gravity-defying falsetto swoops.
One of the great things about these songs is the way Harry left himself space for that kind of wordless vocalizing. He engages in a match of vocal Ping-Pong with himself at the end of “Don’t Leave Me” that has to be heard to be believed. It sounds like something you could do today with a delay pedal if you were a great singer in full command of both the effect and your instrument, except there’s no delay here. It’s just two layered vocal tracks. You could hear that song a dozen times without noticing the way Harry weaves his voice into the string arrangement, mimicking a cello during the first verse with such skill that he sounds like a cello. The musicality of that voice on only his second “proper” album is already insane.
The luminous bossa nova singer Astrud Gilberto would later record a seamless cover version of “Don’t Leave Me”, changing very little about the original musical arrangement — proving there wasn’t any kind of song Harry couldn’t write.
There were some gorgeous songs on Aerial Ballet, ranging from sombre (“I Said Goodbye to Me”) to joyous (“Bath”) and back again, and on the whole it did what so many sophomore albums set out to do but rarely achieve, building on the sound the first album established while showing growth and lobbing in some surprises along the way.
Between the Monkees making his songs into hits and getting a gig writing the music for hit TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Harry felt his career was secure enough to quit the bank job.
An early look at his perverse sense of humour, which would become much more pronounced and twisted in the years ahead, came in “Cuddly Toy”, one of the songs the Monkees had a hit with. It sounds like a pretty simple, peppy tune, until you realize what the lyrics are really saying:
You’re not the only cuddly toy
who was ever enjoyed
by any boy.
You’re not the only choo-choo train
who was left out in the rain
the day after Santa came.
That’s how you call someone “promiscuous” in a pretty nasty way in a song and get away with it, at a time when doing that sort of thing was not so easy.
Harry’s next album, Harry, came along in 1969 and offered even more variety. One new wrinkle was an interpretation of a Randy Newman song. That was a harbinger of things to come.
In 1970 Harry teamed up with Randy to record Nilsson Sings Newman, an album of stripped-down arrangements of Randy’s songs as sung by Harry. It didn’t sell much, but it did call attention to the then-relatively-unknown talents of Randy Newman, and over the years its reputation has grown as a lot of people have come to recognize it as some of Harry’s best work.
As a Randy Newman fan, it’s an interesting switch to hear such a capable voice (nothing against Randy’s voice, which is perfect for what he does) singing Randy’s sometimes acerbic lyrics. Some of the things Harry does with his own subtle overdubbed instrumentation, and even more so with the multi-tracking of his own voice, are so good it boggles the mind.
Check out what happens here when the song shifts gears about fifty seconds in.
Vine St. from “Nilsson Sings Newman” (c) 1970
All of those voices belong to one guy. That’s a man with one hell of a vocal instrument.
I’d be curious to hear what might have happened if Harry had gone ahead with another of his ideas and recorded an album of Laura Nyro songs too — an interesting parallel, in that her songs were also more successful commercially in the hands of others while her own brilliant work was often neglected. But it wasn’t to be.
Harry’s next major project was brought on by a drug-induced moment of inspiration: “I was on acid, and I looked at the trees, and I realized that they all came to points. And the little branches came to points. And the houses came to points. I thought, Oh! Everything has a point. And if it doesn’t, there’s a point to it!”
This was how The Point was born — a cycle of songs and then an animated film about a round-headed boy named Oblio who has to wear a hat to hide his “pointlessness” from the other people in town, who all have pointy heads. Oblio is eventually cast out into the pointless forest where he and his dog Arrow learn all things have a point, no matter how elusive it may be.
It’s one of those timeless animated films you might enjoy even more as an adult than you did when you were a kid. It has a lot of still-relevant things to say about discrimination and the dangers inherent in a political system that gives power to bullies and bigoted simpletons. They should be showing it in schools, really, even after all this time. It hasn’t lost any of its charm or power over the years.
With his profile on the rise, Harry decided instead of re-releasing his first two albums to capitalize on his success he would take what he felt were the best songs from both albums, cut them down to one LP, and alter them according to where he was at now. The result was Aerial Pandemonium Ballet — maybe the first true “remix album” ever made by a mainstream artist.
It’s not one I pull out often. I tend to prefer the original arrangements. But a few songs might have been improved during the revamping stage (“Daddy’s Song” always sounded better to be with Harry’s more energetic re-recorded vocal and the choir of kids backing him up), and it’s an interesting artistic experiment any way you look at it, taking old songs and playing around with them instead of reissuing them as they already existed. It also sold more copies than the two albums it drew its source material from combined — another indication that Harry was gathering momentum.
1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson marked a pretty serious shift in direction. It’s a schizophrenic rock album. The disparity between the three hit singles pretty much says it all: “Without You” is a power ballad to end all power ballads. “Coconut” is a silly, catchy, tropical-tinged number delivered in several different voices (as usual, all sung by Harry). And “Jump into the Fire” is manic rock, Harry screaming his head off, the bass guitar de-tuning in the middle of the song, the whole thing shot through with an atmosphere of insane desperation.
Martin Scorsese used this last song as part of the soundtrack for Ray Liotta’s psychotic cocaine meltdown near the end of Goodfellas. Say what you will about Marty — I don’t think he’s made a truly great film since Casino, and I thought The Departed was kind of meh — but he’s always had a brilliant mind for using music to underline key moments in his films.
Speaking of brilliance, both “Coconut” and “Jump into the Fire” sit on one chord. There’s no chord progression in those songs — it’s one chord. What’s more, it works, and it doesn’t get boring. How many people can write a one-chord song that stays interesting all the way through? How many can write two, and stick them on the same album, and turn both into hits?
The album was a commercial and critical success. “Without You” was a #1 hit, winning Harry his second Grammy Award. It was also a brief bright spot in the troubled life of Badfinger, whose two main singers and songwriters Pete Ham and Tom Evans would soon both commit suicide. Theirs is a sad story that just about defies belief, full of record label treachery, lawsuits, bizarre feuds and in-fighting, and all the stuff bio-pics are made of.
Harry followed up his most commercially successful album the next year, under pressure from RCA to to duplicate the NilssonSchmilsson formula. Son of Schmilsson was even more wide-ranging and started to test his fan base with jokes, mid-song belches, country music parodies, and a breakup song that dared to get to the point in the opening seconds. “You’re Breaking My Heart” begins: “You’re breaking my heart / You’re tearing it apart / So FUCK YOU.”
In the opening song he paid tribute to the act of singing his balls off. On “I’d Rather Be Dead” a group of senior citizens sang about bed-wetting. And on the closing track Harry sang about feeling up the world itself.
There were some gorgeous songs there too, chief among them “Remember (Christmas)” — one of the most beautiful things Harry ever wrote. But it seemed people were quick to focus on things they found offensive or difficult to understand, and some took the opportunity to write Harry off as a juvenile joker. The album still sold well, cracking the top twenty on the Billboard charts and going gold, but the singles didn’t generate as much heat this time around.
You’re Breaking My Heartfrom “Son of Schmilsson” (c) 1972
Of course, he decided to follow up two “rock” albums with an album of old standards sung live in the studio with a full orchestra. It was a daring move, and a very uncool one at the time. It might have lost him some serious commercial momentum at a pivotal point. But A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is now considered one of the best albums of its kind ever made.
Unlike by-the-numbers standards albums recorded in recent years by the likes of Rod Stewart as half-baked attempts at regaining some long-lost credibility, Harry just loved these songs and wanted to sing them, and he made great use of his phenomenal vocal range. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to get dressed to the nines and slow dance with someone lovely in an otherwise empty but well-lit and exquisitely-decorated ballroom. Well, at least if you’re me it does.
Later in life, when he was interviewed for a book about Gordon Jenkins (who conducted the orchestra) called Goodbye: in Search of Gordon Jenkins, Harry said he felt this was “the best album I’ve ever been associated with. I’ll hold it up against anybody’s — show me what you got. It neutralizes all the other shit — the drinking and drugging and hanging out and doing silly albums.”
Then all hell broke loose — the drinking, drugging, hanging out, and doing silly albums.
In 1973, Harry and John Lennon both found themselves in California while John was navigating his separation from Yoko Ono, beginning a period of productive debauchery John later dubbed the Lost Weekend. The two became drinking buddies, and John decided he wanted to produce Harry’s next album.
It sounded like a dream come true to everyone who’d always thought of Harry as the fifth Beatle who just never ended up joining the band. But the priority was partying, and making music took a bit of a back seat to getting fucked up.
Today it’s tough to suss out which stories about this time are true and what’s just folklore that’s been exaggerated over time for dramatic effect. But Harry and John definitely got up to no good. The night that summarizes the entire lost weekend for many is the infamous “Troubadour incident” when Harry and John showed up at the club bombed already and proceeded to drink more, heckling the Smothers Brothers, who were making their triumphant comeback that night only to have Harry and John crash the party and piss on their parade. They were ejected from the club and the evening degenerated into drunken violence.
One bit that never fails to crack me up, from a different night, though it fits right in here: one night while out drinking again, for whatever reason John was moved to place a tampon on his head. He asked a stranger, “Do you know who I am?” expecting her to be starstruck. Her response: “Yeah. You’re an asshole with a tampon on his head.”
Harry said the Troubadour train-wreck haunted him for the rest of his life. It saddled him with the reputation of a troublemaker who got John Lennon drunk, as if John had no control over his own actions or alcohol intake.
Somehow, in the middle of all this herculean drinking and drugging along with John, Keith Moon, and others, Harry managed to rupture a vocal cord. Some sources say he fell asleep on the beach one night after carousing and drinking and caught a cold. Harry himself is quoted in the Gordon Jenkins book saying he knew he was at the end of his vocal zenith at the time of Schmilsson in the Night, and he just managed to sneak in the last of that seemingly limitless range during those recording sessions as he felt it slipping away.
I don’t buy either story.
The truth is probably that Harry just got reckless and strained his voice, the booze and drugs didn’t help, and the real damage was caused by continuing to sing with abandon, pushing through the pain instead of allowing himself time to recover. Elton John tells a story of seeing Harry in a recording studio with blood pouring out of his mouth when he tried to sing. How much of this is exaggerated, falsely remembered, or coloured by the drugs Elton himself was doing at the time, or even when it happened, is all difficult to say. But it feels like there’s some kernel of truth in there.
Whatever was behind it, the wasted jam session captured on the bootleg A Toot and a Snorein ’74 provides the first aural evidence that Harry’s voice was in trouble, along with audio documentation of the last time John Lennon and Paul McCartney were ever in the studio together.
The documentary recently made about Harry’s life and music may clear up some of the murkiness surrounding this and other questions. I hope it does. I’ve yet to get the opportunity to see it.
After visiting the hospital (so he must have known something was up), Harry was told in no uncertain terms to rest his voice for at least six months or risk permanent damage. Not wanting to disappoint his friend, and with an album to record, he instead chose to force his way through the sessions with John, experiencing what must have been incredible pain in the process.
In hindsight it’s kind of hard to believe John didn’t know something was amiss when Harry’s voice came blasting through the studio monitors sounding like he’d been spending his spare time gargling shards of broken glass. Then again, given the copious amounts of booze and drugs everyone was consuming at the time, maybe he assumed Harry was going for a rougher, more rock-and-roll vocal sound inspired by John himself.
Harry gargled with brandy to numb the pain and kept a bucket out of sight to collect the blood produced by coughing fits so John wouldn’t know and wouldn’t try to stop the sessions. There’s something haunting and a little sad about that for me — the idea of Harry causing himself physical harm out of a sense of pride and obligation, hiding how much he was hurting, and still somehow managing to go on making music.
The album they ended up with was Pussy Cats. Harry wanted to call it “Strange Pussies” but RCA balked, though he did manage to work a sneaky drug reference onto the front cover. It’s been described by some critics — and listeners — as a chaotic mess. It lost Harry a lot of fans who hadn’t already jumped ship after the dirty jokes on his last “rock” album and the un-hip collection of standards that followed. But it’s a fascinating aural document of what was going on in his life at the time, and probably a more effective musical distillation of the Lost Weekend than anything john was doing in the mid-’70’s.
It can be painful in places to hear the abuse Harry puts his already damaged voice through. But there’s a kind of bruised dignity there too. Like watching a boxer who’s in obvious trouble but refuses to go down,in spite of the other man having the upper hand, and somehow manages to get in a few powerful blows against the odds. In some songs, particularly “Save the Last Dance for Me” and the jazzy-bluesy “Old Forgotten Soldier”, the ragged vocal sound works so well it’s difficult to imagine the words being sung any other way.
I’ll never be able to hear “Save the Last Dance for Me” as an uptempo song again after the brilliant, defeated-sounding treatment it’s given here, both in the wall-of-sound album cut and the beautiful, stripped-to-the-bone demo version appended to later CD issues as a bonus track that’s just Harry alone at a Fender Rhodes, singing out his soul through his mouth.
In addition to the booze-soaked rockers, there are some great ballads on this album — chief among them “Don’t Forget Me”, which is where the title of this post comes from, with Harry sounding a bit like a sweeter-voiced version of his friend Randy Newman and penning some fantastic bittersweet lyrics. And there’s “Black Sails”, which conveys a sense of desperation in the vocal performance that isn’t quite like anything else Harry ever did.
“All My Life” does a nice job of summing up Harry’s modus operandi of the time, complete with an off-kilter string arrangement and a feeling of barely-controlled chaos many of the other songs share. The version of “Many Rivers to Cross” that opens the album, meanwhile, is to my ears the best version of the song ever recorded by anyone, and it manages to make even Joe Cocker’s version sound kind of tame by comparison. You can tell Harry is giving it everything he has, shredding what’s left of his voice, and the primal scream at the end brings back memories of Lennon’s cathartic first proper post-Beatles solo album Plastic Ono Band.
One source claims this song is where Harry hurt himself, as John kept encouraging him to put as much rasp into his voice as possible and Harry went beyond the call of duty. If that’s true, talk about suffering for your art…
Many Rivers to Crossfrom “Pussy Cats” (c) 1974
That voice — a remarkable, otherworldly instrument — was never quite the same again. Harry would gradually recover most of his range, but aside from a few brief magical moments he would never again sound like he could blast off into the stratosphere and drop back down to earth again at will without any effort at all.
One good lasting thing did come out of it all. After another long night of drinking, John took harry down to RCA headquarters and used his clout to negotiate a new record deal for his bearded friend, giving him a huge chunk of money and complete artistic freedom to do whatever he wanted in the studio. Harry was grateful for the rest of his life.
The Lost Weekend came to an end, but only for John, who returned to Yoko and recoiled into — depending on who you believe — either an idyllic “house-husband” stint or a lonely drug-soaked existence during which he barely left his bed for a period of years. Harry kept right on partying, turning his album recording sessions into an extension of his living room and the bars he would frequent. He took to drinking saki, storing it in RCA’s coffee urns, thinking the warmth helped to loosen up his voice while giving himself a good excuse to get bombed in the studio. A full bar was set up for the rest of the musicians to drink as they pleased.
Some would have you believe this period of Harry’s career is spotty at best and should be written off as drunken self-indulgence. I think it produced some of the most honest work he ever did. He stopped giving even a half-assed stab at making commercial music and just did whatever the hell he wanted to. I think you can make an argument that here, more than at any other time in his musical life, he was completely and plainly himself, following whatever impulses he had, with no apologies and no ambition to produce a shiny pop product.
Duit on Mon Dei (say that out loud) was the first album to come out of the post-Pussy Cats madness. Harry wanted to call it “God’s Greatest Hits”. Again RCA nixed that idea. Harry did at least get to appear as his own shoulder-dwelling angel on the cover. I’ve always thought he looks like he’s in the process of dispensing some very bad advice to his shades-wearing, earth-bound counterpart.
This has been my least favourite Nilsson album for years, in part because on the first few listens it struck me as one of his least varied efforts, falling into a somewhat same-y tropical soft rock groove. I need to give it another listen with fresh ears. Even if I don’t end up re-evaluating the whole thing, there are still some definite high points.
Harry’s voice, while still sort of shot, is starting to come back here. He writes a love song to his television and a song about homelessness in which he adopts the character of a lonely frog. Robert Greenidge, the steel drum player, is phenomenal, executing some jaw-dropping musical ideas on what has to be one of the more difficult instruments to play. And the somewhat odd instrumentation is twisted into something really unique on “Salmon Falls”, which has some great philosophical lyrics about rebirth and some powerful, cinematic music.
“Easier for Me” is the highlight of the whole album for me. It’s kind of criminal it’s such an unknown song. The steel drums and the laid-back tropical-tinged soft rock thing both go away for a minute, and a string section takes over. It sounds like an old standard that could have been sung by a weary Sinatra. But it’s not a standard. Harry wrote it himself.
His damaged voice makes it even more special than it would have been if he’d sung it at the peak of his vocal powers. He sounds like a beaten man trying to tell you something beautiful, knowing you’re probably not listening anyway.
The recording sessions spilled over into another album. Sandman seems to be many fans’ least favourite Harry Nilsson moment, and the moment they jumped ship if they hadn’t already hurled themselves overboard.
I love the whole crazy thing.
Maybe what puts some people off is the disjointed nature of it all, with beautiful ballads sitting next to self-indulgent experiments. The back cover shows what’s left of Harry’s clothes after he’s been eaten alive by a giant crab, which might say something about where his head was at. Me, I live for that unpredictable stuff. Harry’s voice is still a little rough, but he seems to have recovered a lot of confidence, and he screams like a madman in some places.
There’s some wonderful, creative stuff here. “Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left for Everybody” has to be one of the catchiest songs ever written about the end of the world. “Something True” and “Will She Miss Me?” are two of Harry’s best ballads from any period. “The Ivy Covered Walls” is a fascinating a cappella track, with barbershop harmonies (alas, this time not sung by Harry himself) underpinning some great lyrics and great singing. “Thursday (Here’s Why I Did Not Go to Work Today)” is a great lazy jazzy tune that somehow finds a way to incorporate the word “surreptitiously” and has Harry putting his new ragged vocal sound to good use, with some fantastic phrasing.
The Ivy Covered Walls from “Sandman” (c) 1975
It’s the trilogy of “The Flying Saucer Song”, “How to Write a Song”, and “Jesus Christ You’re Tall” that tests the patience of most listeners. But how can you not get a kick out of Joe Cocker screaming in the background like a man suffering through the DT’s while trying to run from the dentist on “The Flying Saucer Song” as Harry spins his shaggy drunk story? He’s really poking fun at his own drunken persona there — he’s having a conversation with himself, and he still finds a way to get thrown out of the bar he’s drinking in…by himself. And in the middle of the whole mess, he drops in some great lyrics that are easily missed but worth listening for.
“How to Write a Song” contains some genuinely useful advice for aspiring songwriters, along with some banjo picking that in this context is kind of hilarious.
If you write it on guitar, place your guitar upon your knee.
If you write it on piano, don’t do that.
Place your fingers on the strings of your guitar (not your piano).
If you write it on piano, don’t do that.
Now strum or press to get a feeling.
This may take a little time.
Now think of something sad or something funny,
which inevitably brings us to the rhyme.
Let’s assume you’re just an asshole
and there’s nothing in your brain.
It might help if you remember
these useful little hints.
Don’t try to rhyme “silver” with anything.
Yeah…that goes for “orange” as well.
Now notice how cleverly I just used them both,
And all I have to do is rhyme “well”.
You’ve got to be very tricky,
’cause to avoid these words takes talent.
So never, ever trap yourself like that,
or you’ll end up saying words like “ballant”, “phallant”, “gallant”,
“wallant”, “callant”, “hallant”.
I’m sure you’ll catch on fast.
Now some tips on tempo, and some subjects to avoid.
Like the use of the word “baby”,
unless you really have to say it.
As to tempo (or, as we say, “Time”),
that’s strictly up to you,
because that depends on how you play it.
Now let’s do one.
Now think of a rhyme.
That’s it — you’re doing fine.
Now think of the good time we just had together.
If you practice these instructions,
on the boat of song you’ll sail.
And if you listen very carefully,
I’m sure you shalln’t fail.
I said “shalln’t”!
That rhymes with “talent”!
That takes talent!
That IS talent!
Oh my god! I’ve done it again!
Harry came up with another crazy promotional idea. To tie in with the name of the album, he told RCA he wanted every LP to come with a handful of sand inside so when people opened the record it would fall out all over the place.
That was the last straw. They told Harry he needed to get an outside producer for the next album and it was time to put an end to the drunken revelry in the studio, because the albums weren’t selling anymore. Harry agreed. The result was an album mostly made up of covers called That’s the Way It Is, released in 1976.
The AllMusic guide is not a resource I put a lot of stock in, but in this case I kind of dig what Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes about the album:
Well, what do you expect from an artist who’s reading Penthouse, surrounded by liquor bottles and cigarettes, on the cover of his album? Perfection? Accessibility? Sanity? Well, you ain’t gonna get that from Nilsson, a man who left sanity behind shortly after he entered the mainstream with “Nilsson Schmilsson”. Instead, you get a record from an artist who’s just at the fringe of popular culture, not really caring if he has a hit, but not really wanting to be so weird that he’s just a cult. Realizing all of this, the artist also knows that he doesn’t need to try so hard — he can be as lazy as he looks on the cover.
So, that means “That’s the Way It Is” is essentially a covers record, with songs ranging from material penned by longtime favourite Randy Newman (“Sail Away”) to longtime fan George Harrison (“That Is All”) to oldies (“Just One Look/Baby I’m Yours”) to obscurities (“She Sits Down on Me” and “Zombie Jamboree”). Only two original songs then: the faux-reggae “Moonshine Bandit” and “Daylight Has Caught Me”, co-written with Dr. John. Everything’s given a rather lush but not particularly sleek treatment, placing it closer to soft rock than to the unabashed cult rock that Nilsson was producing at this point.
So, this winds up being an album that’s not as gleefully weird and funny as its predecessors and yet is stranger because of that. Because, for chrissake, who wants this album? It doesn’t have enough perversity or indulgence for those who treasure his weirdness, but it’s way too idiosyncratic and odd for anyone who might like the L.A.-style vibe. Not a bad record, really, but certainly not a very good one, even by latter-day Nilsson standards.
This is one of the few albums I don’t own, so I can’t say much about it, though what I’ve heard seems to confirm the consensus that it’s hit-and-miss. Still, it has to be said: Harry’s singing on George Harrison’s “That Is All” is gorgeous. The album might be worth owning just for that one song.
With 1977’s Knnillssonn (a play on how everyone misspelled his name), Harry decided to get serious again on his own terms. He made a concerted effort to write the best songs he could, canned most of the jokes, didn’t include any covers at all, and downplayed traditional rock instruments in favour of strings, acoustic guitars, and prominent melodic bass.
A triumphant return to self-production, this was Harry’s favourite album of his own material. It’s easy to hear why.
They’re great songs. The arrangements are never less than interesting, and they’re lush in a good way. Best of all, Harry’s voice was healed up nicely by now. His range dropped a little, but he used it to great effect, dipping down to hit some resonant baritone notes he probably never could have reached before, and then soaring off to heights even he must have sometimes feared were no longer accessible to him after all the vocal-cord shredding that went on during the Pussy Cats sessions.
“All I Think About Is You” is one of the best unrequited love songs in the history of recorded music, with a startling economy to the lyrics that belies their depth. There’s not a single unnecessary word. Just enough to get the point across. It’s also a wonderful vehicle for that new vocal range that slants toward the lower notes.
There’s some impressive yodelling strewn about in a few songs, some nice falsetto moments, and then there’s a bit during the bridge section on “Perfect Day” that has to stand as some of the best singing of Harry’s life. Even if it isn’t him singing the harmony (it’s hard to tell), there’s a startling purity to it all. It must have been one of those days he was talking about when he said in the Jenkins book, “Years later, on a given night…some of it comes back. If I take a really good, hot shower…”
More than anything else, the album was proof that Harry could write beautiful grown-up songs about almost anything when he really wanted to.
RCA promised to give the album a healthy promotional push, with the aim of drumming up something of a comeback for Harry. Then Elvis died and the label shifted all of its attention and resources to milking as much money and album sales out of the King’s demise as they could.
Harry’s proudest moment was forgotten. It sold next to nothing, and before long it hit the cut-out bins.
RCA let him out of his contract, though not before reneging on their promise never to release a “greatest hits” album while Harry was still on the label. They didn’t even have the decency to use a proper picture of Harry on it.
And that was the end of his public musical career, more or less.
He still did some music-related work — co-writing a musical, penning the soundtrack for Robert Altman’s critically savaged Popeye film, and recording one last studio album (Flash Harry, released only in the UK, and by all accounts more of a marking-time release than any kind of substantial artistic statement) — but considered himself retired.
It was the death of John Lennon that got Harry to put an end to his ambivalence about making public appearances. He threw himself into promoting gun control and trying to raise money for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
Harry didn’t record another proper album in the 1980s, though he did contribute the odd song to TV shows and compilation albums. And he recorded a slew of songs for a Yoko Ono tribute album. They might not be Harry at his absolute best, but some of those covers are pretty cool, ranging from lilting ballads to weird, unhinged pseudo-funk rock.
The Popeye demos are full of hidden gems, and you could look at them as a whole lost album. The recordings range from fleshed-out studio numbers to more austere recordings with nothing but Harry, a keyboard, and a drum machine. There are also a few rough, fascinating work tapes that are just piano and voice where you can hear ideas being worked out in real-time. Harry’s in great voice throughout, and “Everybody’s Got to Eat (Wimpy’s Song)” is classic Nilsson through and through.
The crown jewel is “He Needs Me”. Paul Thomas Anderson recognized the power of this deceptively simple song — and the emotional resonance of Shelley Duvall’s untrained singing — when he used it as a recurring theme throughout Punch Drunk Love, aka “the first Adam Sandler movie that made you think he could mature into a serious actor someday, before he went and destroyed whatever goodwill he accumulated here by making some profound cinematic stinkers”.
PTA went for the full orchestral version, with additional sweetening from Jon Brion. I think the rough demo is even better in some ways, skeletal as it is, with Harry playing broken-down carousel organ and tossing in background vocals that sound like a half-assed imitation of a tuba.
There’s no way that should work. But it does, and it’s somehow perfect, at once silly and beautiful.
That was harry, in a nutshell.
I’m not sure he ever really settled into full-on sobriety. But he did settle down for the most part, preferring to spend time with his family and tinker with music when it suited him, with no grand plans to release anything more to the world at large.
All of that changed in the early 1990s when he learned his financial advisor had embezzled his life savings of five million dollars. As Harry put it: “I went to sleep financially secure and woke up with three hundred dollars in the bank”.
Cindy Sims served little more than one year in prison before being released. She never made restitution. She was probably back to work before long, destroying the lives of more people unfortunate enough to trust her. Harry found himself with a mountain of debt and had no choice but to declare bankruptcy and return to music, hoping to generate some revenue. The stress contributed in large part to a massive heart attack he suffered in 1993.
Harry survived. But he must have felt he was operating on borrowed time. He tried to work with RCA to put together a three-disc compilation of his best material to reintroduce himself to the world and get some money coming in. RCA again vetoed most of his ideas and asked him to trim his selections down to two CDs. Same as it ever was.
While it remains the best compilation to pick up for someone new to Harry’s world since it does cover a pretty good amount of musical ground and manages to touch on both the hits and some key deep album tracks, Personal Best as it was released (and as it still exists) didn’t end up reflecting his intentions at all. Maybe it was RCA’s revenge for all the hoops Harry made them jump through back in the ’70’s.
On a somewhat random note, for years I wondered about the live performance of “Without You” with Ringo Starr and one of his seven million “All-Starr” bands in 1992 at Caesar’s Palace. As far as I could tell, it was the last proper public performance of any kind Harry ever gave. There’s footage of him lip-syncing a few songs on Spanish television from around this time, and the disparity between how unhealthy he looks and the sound of his younger self on the playback is a little unsettling. But that isn’t a true live performance, as any major dude will tell you.
Most written accounts say Todd Rundgren had to handle the high notes that night Harry was singing with Ringo. When I found a bootleg recording, I learned it wasn’t so. Todd may be singing harmonies somewhere in there, but that’s Harry singing lead all the way through.
The song is transposed two full steps down to the key of C. It makes for a difficult listen. It’s not that Harry’s singing is godawful or anything. Of course you’re not going to be able to sing the same way when you’re fifty-one as you did when you were thirty — unless you’re Roy Orbison.
It’s just that this is a guy who once had one of the most beautiful voices in all of music, and now he can’t come close to scaling those heights that once seemed so easy to touch. So instead of the chorus being powerful, it sounds like he’s destroying what’s left of his voice in order to try and hit the high notes. At the same time, there’s something compelling and kind of noble about it. That he would even have the audacity to try, knowing he wouldn’t be able to sing it like he used to, knowing he was less than what he was…that takes guts.
Feeling time was short, Harry decided this was his last chance at getting his music heard. He felt he had a few albums worth of material still left in him. He would play live if people wanted him to. He would do whatever it took to reconnect with his audience.
He began working on an autobiography and a new album, with Mark Hudson producing. From the few songs that have leaked out into the world, it sounds like it could be pretty good, assuming we ever get to hear however much of it was finished. There’s a weathered charm to Harry’s wizened voice. He was as witty as ever, and he could still whistle with the best of them
The day he finished the vocal tracks in 1994 he had another heart attack in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He was fifty-two. The album, given a working title of Papa’s Got a Brown New Robe (there’s a Harry album name if ever there was one), remains unreleased, save for two songs that snuck out on a promotional CD.
As is usually the case, Harry has experienced something of a resurgence following his death. He still isn’t quite a household name, but his songs show up in movies pretty often. Someone came up with the corpse-humping idea to incorporate “Coconut” into a Coke commercial in the dumbest way possible. A documentary about Harry’s life and music, Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everbody Talkin’ About Him?), was made a few years ago, and everything I’ve read about it indicates that it’s well done and was made by people who had their hearts in the right place.
One glaring omission from the more than thirty people interviewed for the film is Ringo Starr. While he didn’t call Harry that fateful month back in the 1960’s when Paul and John were praising him, Ringo became one of his closest friends, even buying him and his family a new house when everything went to hell near the end.
It would be great to learn more about how these two formed such a tight bond and hear about some of the adventures they shared. But Ringo isn’t talking. He still feels too close to it all, and too wounded by Harry’s death.
“It’s in my heart,” Ringo has said. “And that’s where it’s going to stay.”
You have to respect a man who’s still hurting from the passing of one of his best friends and chooses to keep his memories to himself, though I think it would make for some interesting reading if, say, one day Ringo wrote a book about his life and touched on his relationship with Harry.
(If you’re reading, Ringo, do it! Do it while you still can! Write that book!)
I think the main reason he wasn’t a larger star during his lifetime, and the reason he’s still somewhat under-appreciated today, is because Harry couldn’t sit still. You could grab two random albums from his oeuvre and there’s an excellent chance they won’t sound much like they were made by the same person. While I think of that as a great thing, and a quality I search for in other artists, it doesn’t really translate to album sales and remaining popular with the masses. I guess that’s still true today, unfortunate as it is.
Still, for anyone who’s open-minded and curious, there aren’t many discographies as interesting, surprising, enthralling, maddening, and sprawling as Harry’s. I’d stay away from the compilations, since there are way too many of them to even know where to start. No single disc collection is ever going to sum Harry up.
I’d give you a list of albums I think you should pick up if you’re new to Harry, but it’s impossible. Harry is list-proof. Even the somewhat subpar stuff is kind of essential to understanding who he was and what made him tick. Some of the albums are available on two-fer reissues, though at this point there are so many different releases of any given album — some remastered, some not — it’s difficult to know what to grab.
The best thing to do is probably just jump in and see where you end up.
Here’s Harry at his very best, performing solo in 1971 for the BBC. It’s a very rare performance and not something I ever thought I’d get to see. I didn’t even think tapes of it survived. But if it exists somewhere and it has to do with Harry, the people over at the For the Love of Harry blog are going to dig it up sooner or later. Good on them. I think Harry should come back to life and do a one-man show here at Mackenzie Hall. I’d be first in line to see that.
(Of course, in typical Harry fashion, what seems to be a live performance really isn’t at all. He played to no one but the film crew and edited in unrelated audience footage after the fact, deconstructing the whole thing. What a guy.)
Last night was insane. I haven’t felt so exhausted since…well, I can’t even remember. But there’s bad exhausted, where you feel like garbage, and then there’s good exhausted, where you feel like you accomplished something and “earned” your exhaustion.
This is the second kind.
Let me try and set the stage for how completely my expectations were obliterated, and what a ridiculous success the whole thing was in the face of the very real possibility that it could have been a disaster.
I asked a bunch of people what they thought about my idea for this show a month or two before it was going to happen. Almost no one thought it was a good idea. Some of them said in no uncertain terms, “You can’t do that. You’re going to fail.” Playing twice as much music than is customary when a local act plays a live show was a bad idea. Not charging a cent for anything was a very bad idea. Having no opening act, no one else on the bill, and no other musicians to flesh out the sound was an especially bad idea.
I took some of this to heart for a little while. Then I decided I didn’t care about getting a larger draw from having a sparkly opening act, and I couldn’t for the life of me think of anyone who would (a) want to play for free and (b) make sense opening for me. In hindsight, I can now think of a few people who might have been up for it and could have been fun to get involved, but at the time I was preparing for the show no one came to mind.
I didn’t feel like I could play for any less than an hour if I wanted to make something approaching a valid musical statement. And it would feel wrong to cash in on all the support I’ve received over the last year and-a-bit by saying, “Well, the CDs have been free, but now you have to pay to come to this show.”
If I was going to play a show that was all mine, the only way it made any sense to do it at all was to do it my way.
I put up some posters, told some people about the show, and posted about it here, on Spyspace, and on Facebook. I probably could have promoted it more aggressively, but promotion is not one of my strong suits. It makes me feel too much like a pimp.
A lot of friends spread the word. CJAM — always a source of incredible support — plugged the show a lot, Dalson Chen wrote a really nice and unexpected article in the Windsor Star calling attention to it, Murad wrote a very nice little piece promoting the show in the new issue of WAMM, and some buzz seemed to be building. But I knew there was still a very real possibility that not a lot of people would show up. Lots of friends and not-friends say they’re coming out to something to be polite when they know they won’t be there. Some of them do mean to come, but then something comes up and prevents them from getting there. And some people are just flakes who almost never mean anything they say.
Buzz does not necessarily translate into a large audience. An all-ages, alcohol-free show meant some people who wanted to drink and preferred a bar atmosphere probably wouldn’t come. It was Oscar night. There was another show happening at Phog at 9:00 — which still gave people time to catch my show and then head over there if they wanted to see both, but some folks would probably want to hang out at Phog all night long. Some people disagree with the whole “my music is not for sale” credo and the way I go about things in general. Those people, even if they pretend to support me to my face, might not come to the show as a form of silent protest. I have no idea what kind of a draw I am, and this isn’t a place where people show up on a Sunday regardless of what’s going on.
If you were going to be there, it was going to be for one reason only: to see the show.
I’ve also been trying to get over some sort of non-contagious viral throat infection or something over the past few weeks. It hasn’t impacted my vocal range or tone, but feeling something there sometimes makes me reluctant to push too much, which leads to feeling like my voice is not at its most flexible. Singing and talking seem to irritate whatever this thing is, and I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to sing or for how long. But I wanted to try my best. If the singing wasn’t going well, I would at least be honest with the audience and explain why.
Going into the show with this throat thing still not all the way gone didn’t do a whole lot to ease my anxiety.
In the days leading up to the show I filled a huge cardboard box up with a bunch of copies of the last five proper full-length albums and put together five JohnnyBox sets. All told, there were well over two hundred CDs there. I thought maybe I would go through half of that at the most, and it would be convenient to have a bunch left over. We had a ton of bottled pop and coffee available too.
Mackenzie Hall is, it has to be said, an amazing place to play. The second we walked in at 5:00 when no one was there but chairs were set up and the piano was ready, the hardwood floor glistening, I said out loud, “Even if it really is a train wreck and I end up sucking horribly, it’ll still be fun. Look at this place! This is beautiful!” Ric (who tunes my piano) made sure the grand piano was tuned a few days before I played at the behest of wise Bob Ouellette, and it sounded phenomenal. The acoustics of the space are phenomenal. The people who work there are phenomenal, and endlessly helpful.
For what it costs to rent the space for a night and what you get, it surprises me more musicians don’t consider playing shows here. I imagine the price might rise a bit if you’re not playing a free show, but I still think it would be a steal. The place is beautiful. I wish I captured some video of what it looked like walking in before anyone showed up. Alas, I was distracted by the task at hand.
I had no idea how many people to expect, since no tickets were sold and I didn’t create a Facebook event to gauge the number of “planned attendees”. A lot of people who said they were coming didn’t end up showing (or maybe in some cases they were there and I just didn’t get the chance to see them). At about 6:30 there were maybe fifteen people there.
I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if no one else ended up coming out for the show. Might take some pressure off. Might be fun. At the same time, I didn’t want to only have the first row of seats half-filled and end up with egg on my face. Then all the people who told me I couldn’t and shouldn’t do this would be able to say, “We told you it was a bad idea.”
At 7:00 I heard someone shout, “We need more chairs!” I started playing about ten minutes after the hour. Lots of people actually came on time. That surprised me. More people came after that. By the time I was a few songs into the first set, I looked up to see the place was packed.
Sergio — a great guy who works at Mackenzie Hall and was a huge help all night — told me they started out with about eighty chairs set up, bumped it up to a hundred and twenty when those were filling up, and before long most of those seats were taken too. There were also people standing in the back. This means there were a hundred and fifty people or more there at the peak of it all. There was no opening act, and no other entertainment. Just me. All these people showed up specifically to see me.
That is absolutely insane.
If everyone who said they were coming had been there, it would have turned into a Radiohead song. You know the one. It involves sardines packed together in a crushed tin box. Somewhere around fifty people I was expecting to see were not there at all, and I imagine I really did lose some potential audience members by making the show all-ages, alcohol-free, and not having it happen in a bar.
And yet the place was still packed. Some people had to leave during the break after the first set, but about a hundred of them stayed until the very end.
My box sets were gone before I sang a note or announced to anyone they were available. Before the end of the night every single CD was gone, every single bottle of pop was empty, and the gigantic pot of coffee was bone dry. People listened. People applauded. When it was all over, people stood up while they clapped their hands. I guess some folks call those things standing ovations. I call them surreal.
The whole thing was demented. I’ve never felt such an overwhelming sense of appreciation and communal goodness in a live music setting. It felt like people had a genuinely good time, and I did too.
I took on a ridiculous workload, with no one else to lean on musically and no safety net, and I didn’t fall flat on my face. I proved to myself I can play a one-man show in a place like that and pull it off. I did it the way I wanted to, and it wasn’t a train-wreck after all.
I’m not thumbing my nose at the people who told me I was asking for trouble. I know at least some of them meant well, even if the whole “I was with you all along” thing where you pretend you were supporting me the whole time after the show is a success, when a few days ago you were telling me I was an idiot to do it this way…not cool. Not cool at all. But there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in being told you can’t do something and then doing it anyway.
In some bizarre twist, this was maybe the least nervous I’ve ever been playing a show, when it was also probably the largest gamble I’ve ever taken with my music. I’m not quite sure how that happened, but there you go.
Huge, huge thanks have to go out to Travis for letting me use his PA system (which sounded like it was made for Mackenzie Hall), to Jay Zeman for doing a great job with the sound and taking a gigantic amount of stress off of my stress-bearing body parts (right away he knew exactly the kind of ambiance that was needed and gave me just enough volume to hear myself well without the uber-sensitive ears being at all offended), to Johnny Smith for making sure everything ran smoothly and working the merch/refreshments table along with greeting people and getting the entire show on video (talk about multitasking!), to Adam Peltier for being the very first person to show up (he drove from Chatham to be there) and one of the last to leave, to Dalson Chen for taking these pictures, to Josh Kolm for also getting a good chunk of the show on video, to everyone at Mackenzie Hall, and to everyone who came out.
The response was far beyond anything I was expecting in my wildest dreams…and I’ll seriously tell you about a dream I had that relates to this show in a little bit. I messed up all over the place and felt like an athlete out of shape, but my voice didn’t let me down, and I ended up rejigging the set list on the spot, throwing out songs I planned to play and pulling out songs I hadn’t rehearsed at all based on what people said they wanted to hear and what I felt like doing, just kind of winging it.
I’m not sure I’ve had such a positive experience playing my own stuff live since back in high school. Even then, it was never quite like this. In school you’re obligated to attend an assembly, and when it gets you out of class for a period or two you’re not going to turn that down. In this case no one was obligated to come at all. It’s a pretty cool feeling to look out into a gigantic sea of people and see at the same time a lot of friends and a lot of faces you’ve never seen before in your life. And then to realize all these people are here to see you, for one reason or another. And then, on top of that, to have them applaud and laugh at your random banter.
It’s a gigantic cliché to say this, but you really could hear a pin drop in the place. I made the somewhat scary (and potentially dangerous) decision to sing one song a cappella with no musical accompaniment at all, and the silence in between the words was electrifying. That’s right! I’m pouring on the hyperbole! Hell, the first song I sang included the word “hyperbole” in the lyrics. That could have been a train-wreck right there, because it was designed as an open-ended vehicle for improvisation. But I think it turned out pretty well. And once that didn’t fall apart, I knew I was going to do alright.
I took some chances, and some things turned out better than others. “The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight” doesn’t work as well on solo guitar as it does as a fleshed-out piece on the album, while the spontaneous decision to add some percussive harmonic slaps to “Knee-Jerk Howl” worked out pretty nicely, I thought. But the unpredictability is kind of the fun of it all.
I’d scan and post my handwritten set list, but I think Adam took it home as a memento (with my blessing). I hope he gets a few bucks for it on eBay or Kijiji. You could call it “the set list that didn’t quite happen as it’s written” and really turn some heads.
Thanks, in addition to those already mentioned, and in no particular order, to Bob Ouellette, Dr. Sinclair, Bree, Amanda Goodface, Derek, Sergio, Joey Ouellette, Uncle Brian, Richard Langlois, Leesa, Mary-Lou Gelissen, Matt Rideout, Beverley Anger, Katie (my sister from another mister) and Matt and Nik and Mary, Murad and Stefan (who, like many people, I didn’t get the chance to talk to), my old partner in musical mayhem Gord Thompson, Adam Fox, Ryan Fields, the nice girl with blonde hair who had to leave during the intermission, Tara and Jonathan, Samantha, my partner in Smoo, Josh Kolm and his camera-wielding friend whose name I can’t remember, Max, Stephen Hargreaves for suggesting Mackenzie Hall as a place to play…the list goes on.
Thanks to everyone for all of the support, all the people I’d never met before who said nice things, all the people who stayed home to watch the Oscars when they could have heard me singing about eating old lipstick and oysters leading sheep to something foul-smelling (I know you’re out there!), everyone who wanted to be there but couldn’t make it for one reason or another, everyone who grabbed some CDs, the nice photographer fella who fixed the piano’s music stand for me, and on and on. I got to talk with some people during the break, but I wish there had been time to do more mingling. I was up for more at the end, and some chatting did go on for quite a while, but a lot of people had to leave when the music was over.
Sunday night and all. You gotta get up early Monday morning. I know how it is.
For those who weren’t there, or those who just want to revisit some random piece of something I said about tree frogs, here is the entire show in sequence, minus a few bits of banter and the beginning of one song. The camera being used changed after “Wait All Morning” at the beginning of the second set, as you’ll see. The sound is better with the first camera (the trusty Flip), but the second camera allows more closeups so you can see my exciting facial expressions and such. I also worked in as much of Josh’s footage as I could, which probably features the best sound quality of all.
That grand piano is a beast. The audio doesn’t do it justice. If you were there and you heard how that thing sounded in the room completely unamplified, you know what I mean. It didn’t make me want to trade in my piano (I still think my upright is pretty special), but man, is it ever nice to play a perfectly-tuned, beautiful real piano like that in a live setting, instead of the usual digital piano compromise. I could have just noodled around on that thing all night long. I found out it’s a Yamaha S400 that cost about $60,000 when it was purchased back in the 1990s. Not too shabby.
What impressed me the most was coming home, immediately sitting down at my piano (which is not a grand, and cost nowhere near that amount of money), and discovering I didn’t feel like I’d moved down in the world. It takes a pretty spiffy upright piano to hold its own against a grand like that.
There are some songs I meant to get to that I kind of wish I’d played — chief among them a few potentially interesting covers, including a Britney Spears song, and a few CREATIVE NIGHTMARES tracks. And I missed a few requests because it didn’t look like the requestees were there.
“Requestees” is so a word. Shut up, Firefox.
I did miss a few requests I wanted to play for people who couldn’t be there. My apologies to Maya and my sweet popsicle of smarf. I’ll just play private concerts in your homes for both of you to make up for the oversight. I also forgot to bring posters and my harmonica holder, though Travis saved my arse there.
Why did I never think to type “arse” instead of “ass” on this blog until just now? It’s such a fun substitute.
Thanks again to everyone who came out and was a part of it all. It’s surreal to feel so appreciated, but I appreciate the appreciation. Hopefully the gratitude came across. That’s what the whole show was about, really. When you clear away all the cobwebs, it was meant to be a giant thank-you to everyone who has supported the music, enjoyed CDs, given them to other people, used them as coasters, or whatever. When I did some rough calculations to figure out how much money might have been made if I’d charged even just admission at the door and still kept everything else free, it kind of frightened me. But I’m glad I stuck to my guns and did it my way all the way. One of my missions in life is to keep money and my music as far away from each other as possible. I may even have to take out a restraining order someday. But we haven’t quite reached that point yet.
Onward to the video action.
The original set list as I mapped it out looked something like this:
An Avalanche in Hell / Analyze the Oven
Beneath the Darkening Sky
Wait All Morning (Anna Atkinson)
Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names
Water to Town
Creepy Crawly Things
You’re Missing (Bruce Springsteen)
I Have the Touch (Peter Gabriel)
The Cost of Allowing Yourself to Remain Living
Wind Chimes Sing with Her (Travis Reitsma)
The Sun Is a Red Ball of Lies Tonight
Blue Cheese Necklace
Thief of Idle Breath
No Reason to Get out of Bed / How These Things Tend to Go
New Oyster Blues
I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Frank Sinatra)
Bent Bird, Broken Wing
Abandoned House Burning Down
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
Revenge Is Sweet
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
In My Time of Weakness
Somewhere in there I was going to work in “Maya x 3”, “Highest G”, the Clone High theme song, and maybe “Condensed Journey of a Tree” along with “Take Me Home Tonight” by Eddie Money. That’s right. Eddie Money, bitchez. I was iffy on the Idaho song and didn’t think I would do it until the last second. I was tempted to do “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush and “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes, but a lot of the covers ended up getting cut. A lot of the more uptempo material fell by the wayside as well. I was feeling the mellow vibe. Or something.
As you’ll see, things didn’t stick to the script at all, and the song order ended up getting shuffled all over the place. There were instruments I didn’t end up getting to (the ukulele! The National Resophonic! The lack of bluesy slide guitar! No!), but hopefully there was enough variety to keep it interesting. It was kind of fun going back and forth between two different areas to play different things. And I know I shouldn’t apologize when I make mistakes because most of the time no one would know if I didn’t say anything, but I can’t help it. It’s a knee-jerk howl I can’t contain.
(One of these days I’ll get around to giving the second set the same single-video treatment given to the first set, with the best footage and sound synchronized for maximum sex appeal.)
LIVE AT MACKENZIE HALL(Sunday, March 7th, 2010)
(Thanks to Larry Girard for saving the day once again and digitizing the show’s second half.)
Some of the highlights, for me:
The improvised percussion at the end of “Someday Our Children Will Give Us Names” coming off better than I expected.
The Springsteen song, which I always wanted to try playing. Even when I managed to completely forget the chords for the first part of the bridge section, it didn’t fall apart.
“It’s Okay”. I think that song inspired some of my best singing of the whole night.
Every time I played that 1940s Martin 00-17. Holy richness. The other guitars trembled in awe on their stands.
Singing the a cappella U2 song and hearing dead silence between the words. In general, it was so quiet, when someone coughed it sounded like a thunderclap.
There were some less magical moments as well, like the roughness of the completely unrehearsed “Crustacean Cancer Survivor” and mucking up the end of “Peculiar Love”. And I kind of wish I thought of more exciting, high-energy things to play for the encore instead of a ballad and another song that practically turned into a ballad. I guess “A Well-Thought-Out Escape” made sense to close with, since if I had a “hit” that would probably be it (I love how Tara cracks up when I make reference to that in my introductory spiel), but it seems like a bit of an odd version. Whenever I’ve played that one live before I’ve belted it out and held notes at the end for a crazy long time. This performance is more muted, without much in the way of belting.
I was pretty spent by that point, so maybe it was a fitting comedown after all. Who can say in these troubled times?
On the whole, I feel pretty good about the performance, warts and all. Some people told me they actually enjoyed the fact that there were mistakes because it made it feel more authentic and involving. Score one for butterfingers! If only the camera pulled back when I sat down before the encore so you could see the sitting ovation as it happened, and then more of the standing ovation at the very end. If only.
You thought I forgot about that dream I mentioned, didn’t you? But no. I was saving it for the right moment.
A night or two before the show, I had a dream some middle-aged guy was complaining about how if he was going to pay to see me play live he wanted to hear all new material that hadn’t been released anywhere beforehand so he would feel like he was getting his money’s worth. Lady Gaga told him the show was free, so he had no right to be prickly. He was left flabbergasted, with nothing more to say.
Who knew Lady Gaga would turn out to be the voice of reason?
On an unrelated note, what the hell happened to Hawksley Workman? That guy used to make some interesting, creative music. I’m really not feeling what he’s been up to since Lover/Fighter, though, where it felt to me like he jettisoned all the weirdness that made his music different and exciting in exchange for what sounded like a bid at more mainstream recognition.
I just heard a new song of his called “We Dance to Yesterday”, and unless it’s a piss-take on poppy stuff (hey, it could be), it’s…not encouraging. If I had a large European following and was invited to film a live showcase on Bravo’s “Live at the Rehearsal Hall” program, I would feel like I was on the right track blazing my own idiosyncratic path, instead of following that up by trying to contort my sound into something more appealing to pop radio.
Then again, maybe Hawksley just decided he wanted to try different things and this is really the music he wants to make for himself…in which case it simply doesn’t do it for me. But if it makes him happy, it can’t be that bad, right? Sheryl Crow? Bueller?
On another unrelated note, I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s take on Alice in Wonderland yet, but what was he thinking when he got Avril Lavigne to contribute the title song to the soundtrack? Talk about a mismatch. Talk about wrong. Talk about…just make it stop!
These, my friends, are the painful things I think about in random moments of self-inflicted pop badness.
Oh yeah — I almost forgot. I have a ton of extra posters leftover. If anyone wants one, just let me know.
Finally, LOVE SONGS FOR NIHILISTS is still hanging out inside the top twenty on the CJAM charts. That’s three weeks in a row. Madness.