Harry Nilsson died twenty years ago today.
15 January 2014
Before I woke up on the morning of January 15, 1994, I had the most vivid dream. In this dream, Harry Nilsson was standing right in front of me. His heart was melting and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My own heart leapt into my throat when I learned later that day Nilsson had died of heart failure. My dream completely spooked me out.
I would be spooked out again 48 hours later when an earthquake hit Los Angeles that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale. My Dad had arrived in L.A. the previous evening for a visit to his eldest sister. Fortunately, he was not the worse for wear. Interestingly, shortly after his arrival Dad asked my aunt, “When earthquakes occur what time of the day do they usually take place?” “About 6 a.m.,” my aunt replied. So sure enough when the earthquake happened Dad awoke and said, “Oh, it must be 6 a.m.” He then promptly went back to sleep.
While my father was in bed during the L.A. earthquake, Nilsson was being laid to rest. Apparently he wasn’t going gently. As Alyn Shipton wrote in his 2013 biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, “More than one mourner at the graveside joked that the earthquake and its aftershocks were the consequence of Nilsson getting to heaven and finding the bars closed.” To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, “When God turns a singer loose on the world, the earth trembles.”
All things considered, it is amazing that Nilsson lived for as long as he did given the copious amounts of cigarettes, cocaine, and cognac he consumed. As Eric Idle of Monty Python fame noted in the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), “He spent most of his life in pursuit of a good time and he caught it and it caught him in the end.”
Although the documentary and the biography as well as last year’s re-release of his entire RCA catalogue have helped Nilsson remain in the recesses of public consciousness, his inconspicuous consumption was such that he is best remembered by some as John Lennon’s drinking buddy who got him thrown out of the Troubadour after they heckled the Smothers Brothers in the midst of Lennon’s “Lost Weekend.” To the extent, Nilsson is remembered for his music it is for songs he didn’t write namely “Everybody’s Talkin” (Fred Neil) and “Without You” (Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger).
But the people who do remember Nilsson’s music know why the Beatles considered him their favorite artist. Songs like the autobiographical “1941,” the now politically incorrect “Ten Little Indians” and his interpretation of Beatles songs like “You Can’t Do That” and “She’s Leaving Home” from his Pandemonium Shadow Show album caught the ears of the Fab Four with his incisive lyrics, clever arrangements, and his three and a half octave range.)
Nilsson recorded some of the most original albums of the second half of the 20th century.Nilsson Sings Newman, The Point! and A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night were ahead of their time and remain so to this day. Recording an album of Randy Newman songs might not seem like a daring thing to do, but it was in 1970 when Newman was relatively unknown. Nilsson’s interpretation of songs like “Vine Street,” “I’ll Be Home,” and “Cowboy” with a little help from Newman on piano would give Newman’s recording career the kick start it needed.
On the surface, The Point! appears to be a children’s album. But that would miss the point. Nilsson tells the story about the land of Point where everyone and everything has a point; everyone that is except for a little boy named Oblio. Because of his condition, Oblio and his dog Arrow are banished to The Pointless Forest. Songs like “Me and My Arrow,” “Think About Your Troubles,” and “Life Line” help tell the story. The Point! was subsequently adapted into an animated film which over the years has been narrated by the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Ringo Starr, and Robin Thicke’s Dad.
Standards albums are, well, standard fare these days. But in 1973 the idea of a rock star recording an album of standards was square. Richard Perry, who had produced the hit albums Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, wanted no part of a standards album. Derek Taylor, the man who introduced The Beatles to Nilsson, had no such reservations. Nilsson and Taylor recruited arranger Gordon Jenkins who had worked with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. The result was A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night which included songs such as “It Had to Be You,” Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” and “As Time Goes By.”
I must confess that I didn’t always get Nilsson’s musical sensibilities. When I first heard A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night nearly 30 years ago, I was so put off by it that I demanded that my mother turn it off. She acquiesced. But as soon as I turned off I felt badly. I had acted like a teenaged brat and had struck a sour note.
In the years that followed, my ears opened and matured. Nilsson was an acquired taste, but I grew to appreciate the sheer variety of his music and I am glad to say I was able to appreciate his work while he was still alive and have shared that enthusiasm with others.
Occasionally, this enthusiasm has been reciprocated albeit sometimes reluctantly. The year after Nilsson’s death a tribute album titled For the Love of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson was released. Canadian folk singer Ron Sexsmith contributed with “Good Old Desk” to For the Love of Harry.
When I saw Sexsmith perform at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa back in 1999, he told the audience he would play requests. I immediately requested “Good Old Desk.” Sexsmith replied that it had to be song he wrote. But I wouldn’t let it go. Eventually, Sexsmith gave in and played the song. It soon became apparent why he was so reluctant to play “Good Old Desk.” He went blank in the middle of the second verse. Fortunately, I was there to save him when I shouted, “Such a comfort to know.” Sexsmith finished the song and there was much joy and merriment. So for several years after that night, every time I would see Ron Sexsmith in concert I would request “Good Old Desk.” He did not forget the lyrics again.
A few years back, the Toronto based indie band The Golden Dogs (which at one time included my younger brother Micah) played “Me and My Arrow” when I attended a couple of their gigs in Boston. I also remember a young musician dedicating “Mournin’ Glory Story” to me during an open mike night at Club Passim in Cambridge. Had I not embraced the music of Nilsson then none of these stories would have come to pass and I would be the poorer for it.
Twenty years have now passed since the earth trembled and lost of a touch of Schmilsson. I will continue to do my part to turn Harry Nilsson’s music loose on the world.