Thanks to the miracle that is Netflix, this past weekend I was able to watch John Scheinfeld's wonderful documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? I've been a loyal fan of Nilsson's since roughly seventh grade, so I knew the answer(s) to the title question(s). But it was a joy to hear his friends describe the singer/songwriter whose two biggest hits as a singer were on songs he didn't write and whose biggest hits as a songwriter were on songs he didn't sing.
It got me thinking about the art of entertainment, and how some of the greatest practitioners of that art are considered second-class in their fields because they are not "serious" enough.
If only I could have a friend/who'd stick with me until the end/and we would stay away from crowds/and signs that said 'No Friends Allowed.'
Nilsson, who was what one survivor describes as "a singer's singer," had a voice that defies description, except to say that he could sing anything and you'd want to hear it. As a songwriter, he was incapable of writing something boring. He loved melody, but he soared in harmony. One critic reviewing an album of his complained that Nilsson had not credited all the wonderful background singers who had added so much to his work. Nilsson hadn't credited them because they were all him.
Harry Nilsson was asked to write a song for the film Midnight Cowboy, and he came up with a true classic that really fit the story and the mood of the film. The producers opted not to use "I Guess The Lord Must Be in New York City," but instead took the already-recorded and released track they'd been using as a filler on the footage: Nilsson's cover of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'."
I'll say goodbye to all my sorrow/and by tomorrow/I'll be on my way/I guess the lord must be in New York City.
Nilsson wrote songs for the Monkees ("Cuddly Toy") and Three Dog Night ("One"), both of which he had recorded himself. He covered songs written by members of Badfinger ("Without You," Nilsson's biggest hit single) and an entire album of standards (A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night, considered "the best make-out album ever made"), before that became a rite of passage for aging pop singers.
He wrote songs for children and for adults. He played keyboards, guitar, drums and who knows what else. He personally lifted songs by Ringo Starr and many others with his background vocals. He was a friend to all four Beatles, at least two Monkees, both Smothers Brothers and most anyone else involved in the music business in the 60s and 70s especially.
You gotta have soap/to wash your sins away/and you gotta have hope/that's the price you gotta pay/and you gotta give love/or your love will walk away/and you gotta stay loose/it's the only way to stay.
Harry Nilsson wrote a fable for children that resonated with adults. The Point was a brilliant rumination on being different and why people fear what is different. It was also, Nilsson liked to say, the longest pun in history, and it was born, according to its creator, as a result of recreational drug ingestion of one kind of another.
Nilsson was a very serious ingestor. He was clearly an alcoholic, used a good deal of cocaine and in the words of one of his friends, "Whatever was around, Harry would take it." Eventually, this and his lifelong addiction to nicotine conspired to attack his heart, and ended his life at the age of 52. He had seven children, and left behind two ex-wives and a loving widow.
Sit beside the breakfast table/think about your troubles/pour yourself a cup of tea/and think about the bubbles.
During his career, Harry Nilsson created a great many wonderful songs, probably even more wonderful recordings, and one indisputably great album. Nilsson Schmilsson, which held his aforementioned biggest hit single "Without You," combined Nilsson's enormous singing and songwriting talents with those of probably the best pop music producer of the time, Richard Perry, and in one of those odd accidents that happen every now and again in entertainment, the combination at that moment was absolutely perfect.
From "Gotta Get Up," the first song recorded and the album's opening number, to "Jump Into the Fire," which was a little too long but that was okay, this was a record--yeah, vinyl that RCA insisted was thinner and better, and you had to flip it in the middle--that demanded to be listened to whether you were a fan of the artist or not going in.
There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten/we never thought it would end, then/we never thought it would end.
During John Lennon's fabled "Lost Weekend" in Los Angeles in 1973, he and Nilsson collaborated on some binges of legendary proportion, and also on the Nilsson album Pussycats. But during the recording process, Nilsson ruptured a vocal chord and kept the information to himself, concerned that Lennon would halt the sessions. His voice recovered eventually, but never completely.
Around this time, Nilsson met his third wife Una, and embarked on a love affair that lasted to his death in 1994. They had six children together, and although Harry would still go off on his drinking and drugging escapades, the couple had a fairly stable family life.
I'm gonna wake up every morning/come home every evening/just jump into bed/and lie there and laugh with my wife.
Harry Nilsson is not a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; he has never even been on the short list for inclusion. Although his music remains fresh and accessible, he is not mentioned as one of the more influential artists of his time. His prodigious songwriting output is not recognized for its intelligence and originality. His voice, which was universally considered among the best ever to sing popular music, is not mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra's or Paul McCartney's.
There are those who will argue that aside from Schmilsson, Nilsson never made a whole classic album, and maybe they have a point (although Harry comes damn close). But I'll contend that Nilsson isn't considered a great artist because he made it seem too easy, and because his art was too entertaining. He was too good at what he did to gain recognition for the genius he brought to it.
Those who do the best work to please an audience are often overlooked until late. Until late in his life, Alfred Hitchcock was considered a director of vulgar entertainments and never received a competitive Academy Award. Groucho Marx accepted an honorary Oscar as well--when he was in his eighties. Charles Dickens was not considered a great novelist until he was dead. Crime novelists like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were not recognized for their style and technique until after they died. In his lifetime, Vincent Van Gogh sold a grand total of no paintings to anybody but his brother.
Why is it we don't value people who care about giving us their art and hoping we like it?
This documentary came at just the right time, maybe. If the world is ready to recognize Harry Nilsson, this should be the moment to do so. How do you start a Facebook campaign? Anybody?
Turn on your radio, baby/listen to my song/turn on your nightlight/baby, baby I'm gone.
By the way: If you've read this far, thank you. But you might also want to take a look at the issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine that is officially available tomorrow: It contains a new Aaron Tucker story, "The Gun Also Rises," and I'd love to hear from Aaron's loyal fans again. What do you think? Don't hesitate to let me know!