Icon: Harry Nilsson
Born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised in Los Angeles, Harry Edward Nelson III became Nilsson in the mid ’60s, when he began writing and performing – singing and playing piano and guitar.
He recorded for RCA, an American musical institution, long before it became BMG. The Beatles were among his early fans, and he loved the vintage sounds out of Tin Pan Alley. But he was an outsider, a renegade, a natural indie.
He established himself as a songwriter – and then did an album of all Randy Newman songs. It drew critical raves. So he followed up with a soundtrack for an animated children’s TV special. It was The Point! , and it generated the hit “Me and My Arrow.”
Although he was a witty composer and an excellent singer, he never performed in concert. And after creating an alter ego, “Schmilsson,” and enjoying a couple more hits, he produced A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a wistful collection of songs from the distant past that was just too far ahead of its time.
By 1973, his voice was shot. The ammo was the usual: drink and drugs. The evidence of the toll: Pussy Cats, a mess of an album he made with drinking and partying buddy John Lennon. But, in tackling rock oldies and taking on “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” they created a mini-chronicle of how things could be among the rock elite of those times. (Thirty-something years later, the Walkmen would cover the album, song by song.)
From his first album in 1967 until his energies dissipated a decade later, long before he died of a heart attack in 1994, Nilsson provided ample evidence, song after surprising song, that he could be nothing more or less than his own man, with his own voice, ever-changing as it was.
The Early Shows
It's easy enough to see why the Beatles were enamored of Nilsson. His debut album was a one-man show of love of the Fab Four in its Sgt. Pepper's mode. There's the circus barker, the French horns, the production values, the harkening back to the kind of music hall tunes McCartney favored ("1941"), the crafty songwriting and the strong harmonies. The topper is a deft mash-up of Beatles tunes in "You Can't... Do That." But there's also his faithful rendition of "She's Leaving Home," his classical, shades-of-"Yesterday" tune, "Without Her." His rave-up of "River Deep, Mountain High" sounds out of place. But I, for one, am glad it's there.more »
Early in his music career, around 1965, Nilsson sold three of his songs to producer Phil Spector, who cut two of them with the Ronettes. But, as a composer, he didn't have his first hit song until "One," which Three Dog Night took into the Top Ten in 1969. A year before, Nilsson included it on this follow-up to Pandemonium. It's a real sequel, another sampling of his wide, wide world of... musical influences, with a definite lean towards older sounds. Amid the pleasant period pieces, "Everybody's Talkin'," his solid reading of Fred Neil's paean to paranoia, stands out, and it shocks. It's a hit record!more »
When Harry Met Randy
With a hit record under his belt, Nilsson's voice suddenly became more firm — both his singing and writing voices. He continued to echo Tin Pan Alley, to sound unapologetically out of time (he set "Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore" in 1944, did his Jolson in "Marchin'Down Broadway" and saluted "Mr. Bojangles"), and he couldn't resist another Beatles cover (the Paulish "Mother Nature's Son"). But he also touched on contemporary concerns... in songs like "Mornin'Glory Story" and "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City," which he wrote for Midnight Cowboy, only to lose out to "Everybody's Talkin'." Both were Ratso-worthy.more »
This is a gorgeous album, a testament to Nilsson doing not what might be commercial, but what might be different — and fun. Having written all the songs for Harry, except the last track, a tune by Randy Newman ("Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear"), and for The Point!, Nilsson decided to do an entire album of another composer's tunes. He picked Newman, and the result was a masterpiece, combining Newman's... dry, sardonic, yet deeply romantic views of life with Nilsson's sweet voice and orchestral vocal harmonies — all done by Nilsson himself. Newman handled piano chores and joined critics in raving about the album. "He was such a great singer," Newman wrote, "...and he could do so many things as a vocalist that I couldn't do (like hold a note)...I have never received a greater compliment than having him do this album." It remains a gift to all music lovers.more »
Although he'd scored with "Me and My Arrow" and "Everybody's Talkin'," Nilsson wanted a standalone hit, one not tied into a movie or TV show. He wrote a stack of new tunes and enlisted, as producer, a fellow Brooklynite, Richard Perry, who, like Nilsson, leaned more towards pop than rock, and whose credits included Barbra Streisand. They struck a good balance in Nilsson Schmilsson, and were rewarded with three hit singles of... wildly varying colors: the dramatic Badfinger tune, "Without You," which hit the top of the pop charts and got him a Grammy; the novelty smash "Coconut," and the then-requisite self-indulgent, seven-minute rock workout ("Jump Into the Fire").more »
"I sang my balls off for you, bay-bay!" Harry Nilsson slurs on "Take 54," the first song on Son of Schmilsson. Maybe it's not the most genteel way to open the follow-up to an international smash. But this is Nilsson doing his best to be his worst. Eclecticism sprinkled with a dash of self-sabotage — that was the way Nilsson exorcised his demons. Son of Schmilsson, released less than nine months after... his astounding breakthrough, Nilsson Schmilsson, is an odd thing. But success never hung quite right on the haggard-looking, angel-voiced singer-songwriter; his fear of — or maybe it was disinterest in — repeating himself for the sake of commerce was profound, and so we get things like "I'd Rather Be Dead," an accordion-led shuffle that morphs into a choral number performed by a mass of elderly people. The chorus is such: "Oh I'd rather be dead/ than wet my bed."more »
Nilsson always excelled at making simple things sound poignant, and vice versa, but he could go too far. Son's first single, the boogaloo breakup song "You're Breaking My Heart," features another counterintuitive chorus, this one more scandalous than the others: "You're breaking my heart/ You're tearin' it apart/ so fuck you." Radio, for obvious reasons, refused to play the song when it was released in 1972. Nilsson — buddies with the Beatles, world-class carouser, and songwriter par excellence sitting right at the precipice of a rare stardom — flopped.
But in spite of this, and these three strange songs, the rest is, essentially, just another great, stormy, sad Nilsson record. Handled once again by Nilsson Schmilsson producer Richard Perry (Carly Simon, Diana Ross), Nilsson, emboldened by new fame and wealth, took too many chances and clashed with Perry. But he also recorded bittersweet baroque pop like "Remember Christmas," winsome orchestral suites like "Spaceman" and tiny, intimate ballads like "Turn On Your Radio," which features some delicate guitar work from Peter Frampton. "At My Front Door" opens with a reprise of "Remember Christmas" before coming to a sudden halt after Nilsson audibly burps, before transitioning into a saloon piano romp. Burping, cussing, groaning and sighing; these are the tools of a saboteur. The songs here have no connective tissue, and an intense regiment of smoke and drink had already begun to chip away at Nilsson's three-octave range during its recording. But if a meltdown was beginning, one that would culminate in the famed Lost Weekend with John Lennon wherein the two recorded the legendarily weird Pussy Cats, it hadn't quite consumed Nilsson. Not yet, at least.
The Late Shows
For those who want a compilation of Nilsson's work, there are plenty from which to choose. The only one to even consider is Personal Best. Nilsson did make the track selections, but whether or not they're the "best" is open to debate. There are two tracks from Pussy Cats, "Don't Forget Me" and "Many Rivers to Cross," when neither Nilsson nor his pal John Lennon was at his own personal best. But... the two-disk set provides all the hits and the best of his misses. It's a thorough look and listen at the astoundingly wide musical swath that Harry Edward Nelson III cut in his prolific first decade.more »