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
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.)