The first of two postings on Harry Nilsson–one of the great singers, songwriters, performers, and debauchees of our time.
Tune in next week for the second instalment.
If you don’t know Harry Nilsson’s music, both as a composer and as a performer, you’re in good company; but you’re missing something rare and fine. John called him his favorite American artist. Paul called him his favorite American group. Jimmy Webb called him the best singer of the generation. Randy Newman compared his melodic talent to that of McCartney, Schuman and Elton John.
Ironically, neither of singer-songwriter Nilsson’s two biggest hits were originals – his beautiful reading of Fred Neil’s beautiful ‘Everybody’s Talking’ and his overblown performance of the Badfinger faux operatic kitsch anthem ‘Without You’.
But they’re not The Point (that was a pun – it’s the name and central metaphor of a full-length children’s cartoon for which he wrote the lovely, whimsical score). The point is that from 1967 Harry Nilsson (he went by his surname only in the beginning) created some of the finest music of the finest era – “Pandemonium Shadow Show”, “Ariel Ballet”, “Harry” and “Nilsson Sings Newman”, and then two more valued by many people other than myself, “Nilsson Schmillson” and “Son of Schmilsson”.
Nilsson then embarked on the fast track to self-destruction till his death at 53. But that’s a different story, one beautifully told in the wonderful 2010 documentary “Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” by John Schienfeld. Today we’re going to focus on the first step of Nilsson’s career – his almost unknown first album “Pandemonium Shadow Show” and its mythological reception.
Harry Nilsson (1941–1994) grew up with no father – he skipped out when the boy was four, as Nilsson would do to his own son. His mother was an alcoholic. He lived with an uncle till 15, when he set out on his own. These events are related (pun intended) in the song ‘1941’. Here it is in the album version, and here’s the wrenching live version from the 1971 BBC ‘concert’.
Listen to that latter version and think about it for a moment. The song is very much of its time (1967), and timeless. It has a gravitas rarely heard then (we’re talking 1967, a year before the first albums by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Randy Newman), yet it reeks of 1920’s music hall beer (the album version more so). Listen to his voice – three and a half octaves, pure and controlled and expressive. As Al Kooper said, he has a voice like a trapeze artist – he goes flying through the air with the greatest of ease, defying gravity, calm and fearless. You hold your breath; there’s no net. Will he grab the bar? But it’s not virtuosity for its own sake. It’s the detached third-person voice of the singer/composer expressing his unflinching understanding that his abandonment as a son was repeated in his own failure as a father.
But that’s just one of Nilsson’s many personae. In the beginning of 1967 Nilsson was working nights managing a bank data base (he lied on his application, saying he’d finished high school), writing and pitching songs during the day. An old friend, Chip Douglas, was producing The Monkees. I had heard all the publicity about them, but I didn’t know what they looked like… So I sang seven, eight or nine songs, and Michael Nesmith said, ‘Man, where the fuck did you come from? You just sat down there and blew our minds like that. We’ve been looking for songs, and you just sat down and played an album for us. Shit! Goddammit!’ He threw something on the floor. And he went and got Micky Dolenz and he said to him, ‘Would you listen to this man? Listen to that!’ Micky gave a surprised laugh, and Davy Jones started laughing over one song, and it was like the three of them were just out of their tree. Only Peter Tork couldn’t give a shit.
The Monkees recorded ‘Cuddly Toy’, and Nilsson quit the bank. The super-cuddly Davy Jones sang the tune with utter innocence, including the lyric ‘You’re not the only cherry delight that was left in the night and gave up without a fight.’ When asked if the song wasn’t really describing a gang bang, Nilsson laughed guiltily. “Well, it crossed my mind.” Here’s ‘Cuddly Toy’ from “Pandemonium Shadow Show”.
For our Song of The Week, I had a heck of a time choosing between my two favorite songs on the album, both beautiful love songs impeccably sung to stunningly minimalist arrangements. The one that missed the cruel cut is ‘Sleep Late My Lady Friend’, most of which employs a string bass, cello, hand percussion, and one gravity-defying, undoctored voice. It’s worth listening to over and over. Legend has it that when John Lennon first heard the album he played it consecutively for 36 hours. But we’ll get to that story in just a moment.
Our SoTW is one I’m pleased as punch to be sharing with you, ‘Without Her’, not to be confused with the bombastic ‘Without You’, but the gentle, perfectly understated Nilsson original. The much better known version is from Blood, Sweat and Tears’ great first album “Child is Father to the Man”, with Al Kooper leading the bossa nova interpretation. It’s pleasant enough. But listen to Nilsson sing it accompanied only by electric bass and cello, later joined by a flute and then an acoustic guitar. Tell me this isn’t a gem, a neglected masterpiece. I dare you.
But the legendary cut from the album is called ‘You Can’t Do That’. Yes, the Beatles song. The concept has become popular, but when this was recorded – one week after the release of “Sgt Pepper” – Nilsson was pretty much inventing both multi-multi-tracking of vocals (one critic complained that the backing singers went uncredited) and the mashup. In late 1967 The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor was in Los Angeles and heard ‘1941’ on the radio. He bought an entire box of copies of “Pandemonium Shadow Show” and sent it to England.
Nilsson, from “Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)”: One day at five in the morning I got this phone call and there was this voice long-distance, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” “It’s John.” “John who?” “John Lennon.” “Is this really John?” “Yeah, I just wanted to say you’re fantastic man, we listened to you all weekend, you’re great, great, great. Fantastic” The following Monday I got a phone call from Paul. “How are you? Just calling to say you’re fantastic. You’re really great. We really love what you did and all that stuff. Derek played it for us. Hope to see you soon.” Clunk. The next Monday morning I got up, combed my hair, five o’clock in the morning, waiting for a call from Ringo. There was no call. But he ended up being the best man at our wedding, so that’s ok.
There’s more to the story. It wasn’t long before Nilsson became best friends with both Ringo and John. At the wedding, Nilsson was so stoned on cocaine that Ringo had to help him put the ring on the bride’s finger. In the film, the Smothers Brothers laughingly describe their comeback performance and how their buddies John and Harry were thrown out of the club for disorderly behavior. Theirs was, in the words of one intimate, ‘a friendship made in hell’. But that’s another story.
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