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 over HERE. 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 Nilsson Schmilsson 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 Heart from “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 Snore in ’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 Cross from “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.)