Monday, March 7, 2011

Who was Harry Nilsson?

Harry Nilsson wrote the song, “One,” as in “the loneliest number you could ever do,” which became a top 10 hit for Three Dog Night in 1969. He also wrote “Cuddly Toy” for the Monkees, and “Best Friend,” the theme to TV’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. So it’s a bit ironic that his own first hit single, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and his biggest hit, 1971's “Without You,” were covers written by others. Nilsson, who preferred to be billed by his last name only, had an erratic career. These days, if he’s known at all, it’s as the guy who partied too hard with John Lennon during the latter’s infamous “lost weekend” of 1973-74. He’s also the guy who owned the London flat in which both Mama Cass Elliot and Who drummer Keith Moon breathed their last, respectively, in 1974 and 1978.

There was a time, however, when Nilsson was big. His 1971 album, Nilsson Schmilsson, produced by Richard Perry, sold a million copies and was nominated for Grammys as Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Best Engineered Recording, etc, and won Nilsson a second Grammy for Male Pop Vocal (the first was for “Everybody’s Talkin’”). Rather than follow that blockbuster with something equally commercial, he chose to litter 1972's Son of Schmilsson with profane lyrics that guaranteed it would receive minimal exposure on the radio. He followed that with an album of standards, then Pussy Cats produced by John Lennon, wherein he sang so forcefully that he damaged his voice. Robert Altman recruited him to write the songs for Popeye, released in 1980, the same year that Lennon’s murder inspired him to campaign for tougher gun control laws. The next time the world heard from Harry Nilsson was in 1994. On January 15 that year, he died of a heart attack at age 52.

Nilsson is the subject of a documentary film, Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him, by John Scheinfeld, who previously made The U.S. VS John Lennon. With his blonde hair and sad eyes, Nilsson looked like a choir boy when he first emerged on the scene in late 1967. Terry Gilliam may have said it best: “He was a fallen angel.” Nilsson started on the path to self-destruction almost as soon as he became successful. The song “1941,” named after the year of his birth, may have offered a clue to his troubles:

“Well, in 1941, a happy father had a son,
and by 1944, the father walked right out the door.”

After moving from New York to L.A., he got a job in a bank’s computer center. He wrote songs on the side that were impressive enough to attract music published Perry Birken, Jr., who signed him up at $25.00 a week. His first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, was released by a reluctant RCA (which already had poet Rod McKuen on the label and didn’t want another singer-songwriter) in 1967. It didn’t sell, but Derek Taylor of the Beatles’ empire heard it and passed it on to the “Fabs” who raved about it during a 1968 press conference in New York to promote their new Apple Corps. John Lennon said “Nilsson is my favorite group.” His next album, Aerial Ballet, wasn’t a big seller either, but his name was on the tip of the tongues of people who could make things happen. Film director Otto Preminger asked him to write the score for his deranged, LSD-drenched 1968 misfire, Skidoo, and he was one of several songwriters (Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell were some of the others) asked to write songs for the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy. “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” was rejected (as was Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay”) when director John Schlesinger decided to stick with the Nilsson recording from Aerial Ballet that he had been using as a temporary track. “Everybody’s Talkin’,” written by Fred Neil, became the song heard over the credits of the Oscar winning X rated film starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and Nilsson’s first big hit.

A career in the fickle world of pop music requires a certain consistency and Nilsson’s career was perversely inconsistent. He was a songwriter, but after scoring a hit with someone else’s song, he followed that with an album devoted to Randy Newman compositions. Despite sterling reviews and a citation from Stereo Review proclaiming it the album of the year, it tanked, and Nilsson’s career didn’t get back on track until he hooked up with hit maker Richard Perry who had successfully produced Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand, for 1971's Nilsson Schmilsson, a lavish recording put together with scraps of songs that Nilsson completed only once the sessions were underway at London’s Trident Studios.

He obviously had some pretty good scraps. The infectiously loony “Coconut” became a top 10 hit, and the psychedelic “Jump Into the Fire” would be given a second life when memorably used on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas. Once again, however, Nilsson the songwriter was overshadowed by Nilsson the singer who sang the hell out of the Badfinger ballad, “Without You,” a dramatic torch song that became a huge number one smash. He and Perry found themselves awash in Grammy nominations and gold records.

“Harry was the most insecure person I’ve ever known, He just didn’t have any self-esteem,” a former wife said in explaining Nilsson’s refusal to perform in concert. Whereas the big “Rock Tour” was a common practice for every artist (except the former Beatles) at the time, Nilsson never hit the road to promote his albums. It didn’t seem to hurt him, but another associate describes him as having a “death wish.” He seriously damaged his career by following Nilsson Schmilsson with Son of Schmilsson, once more under Perry’s guidance, but this time the whimsy of “Coconut” and “The Moonbeam Song” was replaced with the hostility of “I’d Rather Be Dead” and the notorious “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” with its message to a former lover: “F___ you.”

A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, was something else again. An album of standards like “As Time Goes By” and “For Me and My Gal” with Sinatra favorite Gordon Jenkins conducting, it was a beautiful production, but hardly what the world was expecting or wanted in 1973, a year when Led Zeppelin and David Bowie were all the rage, and Elton John released Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Derek Taylor, his mentor from the Beatles empire, produced the disc when Perry refused, warning Nilsson that it wasn’t the right time in his career for such an adventure. The album sales proved Perry right, and it’s little wonder that RCA was preparing to drop Nilsson from its roster of artists. He was spared that fate when John Lennon intervened on his behalf, visiting the record company with Nilsson and hinting that he, and maybe Ringo, might, just might, sign with RCA when their contracts with Capital expired in 1976, but only if they were willing to keep an artist as important as Nilsson on the label.

Nilsson’s life and career rolled downhill rather speedily after that. RCA kept him for a time, but Nilsson was proving successful only at getting his now bearded mug in the papers by joining Lennon (and some say, egging him on) in heckling the Smothers Brothers during the comedy duo’s comeback engagement at L.A.’s fabled Troubadour. According to Lennon’s lover at the time, May Pang, it was Nilsson who instigated trouble but always escaped to let others take the blame. “Harry was a wonderful perpetrator, an agent provocateur,” remembers percussionist Ray Cooper. Lennon and Nilsson were ejected from the club, and though it was the former Beatle who got most of the ink in the tabloids, Nilsson’s reputation took a hit from which it might have recovered if he had been producing some other kind of hits, but his well had gone dry.

“In the End, Only Creditors Talked to Nilsson,” was the headline of a Los Angeles Times article about the singer’s troubled final years published in the year of his death. A business manager had made off with his savings, leaving him bankrupt. Years of drinking, drugging, and chain smoking had caught up with him, and he was now suffering from diabetes. Other than some chest pains, he was apparently unaware of the massive heart attack he had in 1993. A second heart attack on January 15, 1994 ended his life at the relatively youthful age of 52. Appearing on an HBO Comic Relief telethon that night, Dustin Hoffman, star of Midnight Cowboy and the original narrator of the animated film, The Point, which Nilsson had created for ABC’s Movie of the Week in 1971, broke the news to the audience and praised him as a “great artist.”

Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him may not rescue Nilsson from the obscurity to which he had been consigned long before his death, but it succeeds in rehabilitating his reputation for those who do remember him, but only vaguely, as the guy who sang that song in Midnight Cowboy and gave free rein to his emotions when belting out “Without You.” He was so much more than the guy in whose bed Mama Cass and Keith Moon died, and tore up the town with John Lennon, which, he told Rolling Stone, “still haunts me. People think I’m an asshole and a mean guy.” As the film proves, he could be an asshole at times (though there’s little to suggest he was mean), but he was also a great artist deserving of more kudos than he has received.

See the trailer HERE.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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