Editor's Note: Many of you that read this blog may or may not know who Harry Nilsson is. In 2010, a documentary called "Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?" shed some light onto Nilsson's legacy, but he still remains a bit of a mystery or under-appreciated talent—and by all means, the only way to describe him was talented. However, he was also self-destructive and his music could be very twee, cloying, obscure and at times completely absurd. He had the gift of an angelic voice that could basically do anything he wanted it to do, as well as a surreal ability to craft catchy melodies that seemed as though they had been around forever. This week we are going to attempt to capture a variety of perspectives on Harry Nilsson. Some of them will be overwhelmingly positive, some will be negative and others will be objective and further removed from the man and his music. The goal is to provide all of you readers with a full scale of information with which to form your own opinion and level of appreciation or distaste (or complete lack of care) for one of the greatest American songwriters.
Today, we begin with a conversation between myself and frequent blog contributor (and leader of the New York based band The Sanctuaries) David Stern. David is probably one of the biggest and most well-versed Nilsson fans on the planet and his love of the music is what eventually led me to becoming a Nilsson devotee as well.
DOMINO: Alright, David, I want to thank you for agreeing to have this exchange with me about Nilsson— although I know that this isn’t exactly like pulling teeth for you. Let’s dive right into it. You are obviously the reason that I have come to love and appreciate Nilsson so much. However, it took me a little while. I remember that I first heard of Nilsson during our senior year at Skidmore when the Walkmen released a cover of the entire album Pussycats. I loved their version covering Harry’s version of “Many Rivers to Cross” and then when I heard Nilsson’s original (with the John Lennon production) I was blown away. However, I kind of stalled out there, just appreciating a few tracks from that album as well as Nilsson’s reputation as a legendary partier as part of John Lennon’s Lost Weekend year. Meanwhile, you were really getting deep into it. Do I have that right? Or when was it that you first started becoming Nilsson’s number one fan (besides Lennon or Ringo)? And why?
STERN: Thanks, Matt. I think the first time I ever made a conscious effort to get into Nilsson—that is, try to grok him fully instead of just throwing on a song here or there—was toward the end of our sophomore year (so middle of 2005) but, in the spirit of Nilsson, my recollection is a bit fuzzy. The ‘why’ is somewhat easier to answer. It’s only once in a blue moon that a musician or band will come along and you will get or agree with everything they have to say right off the bat. I think of my first Big Star, Sparklehorse, or Robyn Hitchcock listens here. However, it’s more rare and, to an extent, lucky that you see a lot of yourself in that artist. Not to get too sensi, but that’s sort of my experience with Nilsson. He has sad ways to say funny things and funny ways to say sad things and that way of thinking is very much in line with my perspective. Pussy Cats has maybe the quintessential Nilsson line in “Don’t Forget Me”. He sings maudlinly about his ex, “I’ll miss you when I’m lonely/ I’ll miss the alimony, too.” What the hell took you so long?
DOMINO: See, I knew you would start us off on the right foot. I can’t really say what took me so long. Maybe part of it was that you had the market cornered on Nilsson fandom for the end of college and for much of our early 20’s that I didn’t want to step on your territory. Maybe I just had to realize that the likes of Todd Rundgren and other lesser 70’s piano-based songsmiths had their own merits, but that they didn’t have the extreme sense of humor or otherworldly (when he really wanted to be) songwriting skills that Nilsson seemed to effortlessly possess. However, over the last year or so I have slowly fallen in love with almost all of Nilsson’s catalog.
But, yes, I really want to talk about “Don’t Forget Me.” That has to be one of the top four or five saddest songs of all time, but also the most beautiful. I even like the lines before the alimony ones, “In the summer/by the poolside/while the fireflies are all around you.” I mean, those are just simple images and mixed with that devastating melody it tells you everything you need to know. Add that to the fact that Nilsson had broken his vocal chords while making the album, hid the fact from Lennon, was partying way too much and you really feel his fear of being forgotten. It really is one of the best overlooked studio performances of all time.
My question for you is, as the true Nilsson expert, is that Lost Weekend/Pussy Cats era Nilsson the one that most of the public knows if they know him at all?
STERN: Definitely not. Because my parents’ friends know that I’m “into music” they always ask, “who are some of your favorites?” After I mention Nilsson they usually respond with (a) “the ‘Lime in the Coconut’” (b) “the Midnight Cowboy theme song” (c) “the if livin’ is without you’ guy?” (To clarify, this sentiment is not exclusive to my parents’ friends, a very specific audience.) It’s ironic that despite his prolificity he didn’t even write two of the three songs he is known best for. But I’d say that Nilsson is that third kind of case where people know of his greatness but point only to a handful of songs to structure their identification of him. The first kind of case would be more like the Beatles where they have so many different identities and people are aware of all of them. And the second case being a band like the Grateful Dead where, outside of their devout fanbase, they are mostly identified with a specific era of their history (Workingman’s Dead/American Beauty, of course). But if there would be one and only one “Nilsson-era” or album to pick, it would have to be Nilsson Schmilsson, an iconic album which seems to infiltrate the record collections of even the most casual listener.
And you even talk about how Nilsson blew out his voice for the Pussy Cats sessions, but he is remembered as this great pop crooner. Plus, how can that be Nilsson’s most identifiable period if most people (I assume) don’t even know that Lennon produced an album of his (which happens to be this specific one)? Is your personal image of him tied to PC?
DOMINO: All good points. No, my image of him is definitely not tied to Pussy Cats, but I feel like the whole idea of the Lennon Lost Weekend is such a romantic/classic rock n’ roll vision that people might just know him for living in a house with Lennon, Ringo and Keith Moon and drinking Brandy Alexanders and egging John to shove a Tampon up his nose and start a fight with the Smothers Brothers. I mean, what kind of self-destructive person (whether they are a music appreciator or not) wouldn’t want to attach that type of image to a specific songwriter?
Sticking to this era (I guess you’d call it mid-to-late era Nilsson), after Nilsson blew out his vocal chords and recorded the coked-up mess/masterpiece that is Pussy Cats, he sort of went off the deep end for the rest of his recording career, right? I sort of get a little lost around Sandman, which came out in 1975 I think. I mean, it has “How to Write a Song” on it, which is one of the zaniest, funniest rockers of all time, but at that point Nilsson is just totally in this insular songwriting world where the jokes are really only funny to him and then I guess some absurdist assholes like you and I.
What put him over the edge? Was it just the drugs? Was it something more? Did he have an “ultimate sadness” like Ernest Hemingway? (That quote comes from a blurb from The Cleveland Plain Dealer on my copy of A Movable Feast).
STERN: I think you’re right about self-destructive music listeners but that’s Lennon’s story. And in Lennon’s story I’m pretty sure Nilsson is a faceless drunk.
Nilsson definitely had an “ultimate sadness” but I’m not sure that it had anything to do with his—what looks to be a—resolve to write songs that were more parodic in nature. Good album sales eluded him since Son of Schmilsson (it went gold), his friends were dying (Keith Moon, Janis Joplin), and he didn’t need money to have the fun he was having. Maybe he figured nobody was listening anyway? Maybe the divorce he was going through during Son of Schmilsson sent him overboard (“You’re breakin’ my heart/ You’re tearing it apart, so fuck you” from “You’re Breakin’ My Heart”... genius)? This is all speculation, of course, but it does make you wonder. He goes from writing some of the most heartfelt and clever pop music to doing mostly covers to writing, as you put it, zany albums. All that I can say is that artists have a tendency to get into comfort zones (Adam Sandler).
But he also didn’t go entirely off the deep end. After Duit On Mon Dei and Sandman, which are definitely bonkers, he did try to come back with another album of mostly covers (more contemporary than A Little Touch of Schmilson in the Night), an album of original material (the first since his voice healed), and another album of mostly covers.
Anyway, couldn’t you point to “How To Write A Song” as being late-era magic that other once-great musicians never had (Dylan, Springsteen, etc.)?
DOMINO: Oh, absolutely. I think “How to Write A Song” is in the Top 10 of Funniest Rock Songs of All-Time. Even though the lyrics are absolutely absurd, there is still something very true about a line like “Well if you want to write a song place your guitar upon your knee/If you write it on piano...DON’T DO THAT!” or “Let’s assume you’re just an asshole/And there’s nothing in your brain/It might help if you remember/These helpful little hints.” Actually, that just prompted me to look up the lyrics to “How to Write A Song” and I started cracking up, but they are actually very smart and useful.
Look, the Sandman era for Nilsson wasn’t truly his late-era like Springsteen has been in since The Ghost of Tom Joad or Dylan has been in since...well, since a long time, but I see what you are saying. Nilsson definitely had a better sense of humor than the Boss and was probably neck and neck with Dylan and Lennon as far as wit goes. Plus, Nilsson was not nearly as self-serious as either the Boss and Dylan progressively became.
I just find his later career truly fascinating. He seemed to retreat further and further into himself and into pet projects, which eventually led to him writing nearly all the music for the Popeye movie with Robin Williams (he wrote almost all of it right?). Maybe he’d had it with the entire music business? He’d started out writing songs for the Monkees and other people; then Lennon famously declared (with a little backing from McCartney) that he was the Beatles’ favorite artist, which is about the best PR anyone could ever get at any point in history; then he records a masterpiece by introducing the world to Randy Newman’s songs on Nilsson sings Newman; then makes his own cartoon movie/concept album; then he hits his commercial peak with the Schmilsson records (the fact that his most popular records have titles that make fun of/downplay his name is another truly amazing part of his legacy); then he parties on Pussy Cats, loses his voice, bottoms out on Sandman and Duit On Mon Dei and then kind of disappears until he’s doing POPEYE! I mean, he sort of did do it all. It’s such a fascinating trajectory, especially since everyone loved him/was afraid of him as a partier. The Nilsson documentary that came out a year or two ago wasn’t so great, but the reactions of Mickey Dolenz and Jimmy Webb when they would talk about Harry showing up to go on a drinking binge were kind of priceless. It seemed like they were still afraid that it could happen!
So, I mean, I guess what I want your take on is that, based on Nilsson’s later days, is there some kind of cautionary tale there? I can’t remember how exactly that Nilsson documentary ended, but I feel like they did the standard cut-and-dry story of an artist who wasted his talent. But from your perspective, is it really that simple?
And, don’t worry, we’re going to jump back and cover the good days so you can wax poetic on some of your favorite tracks.
STERN: I guess in my opinion it is and isn’t that simple. There is a run in Nilsson’s discography of nine brilliant albums from ‘67 to ‘74 (he had his diamonds in the rough too like the aforementioned “How To Write A Song”). That’s as many albums as Led Zeppelin had in total and three of theirs are Presence, In Through the Out Door, and Coda (not to say that any of those suck necessarily, but come on). So did he waste his talent? With that kind of quality output it’s hard to argue that side.
At the same time, why should that efficacy peter out? What people seem to know about Nilsson’s personal life and attitude suggest that he just stopped caring and I think that’s why he is viewed as somewhat of a waste of talent. It also makes sense how you could assign that analysis to someone with a golden voice who BLEW IT OUT RIGHT BEFORE RECORDING WITH JOHN FUCKING LENNON. But honestly, would Pussy Cats have been as good without Nilsson’s shot voice? Think of the desperation. Think of that voice crack in “Old Forgotten Soldier”. Think of how that element represents exactly what the lyrics are saying: things used to be better.
You know I’ve always loved Pussy Cats, but it isn’t until now that I’m realizing the significance and weight of it. I’ve always viewed it as somewhat of a varied album; it’s uneven, a lot of the songs are covers, and, of course, there’s that whole voice thing. But now it’s hard not to view it as Nilsson’s Tonight’s the Night.
DOMINO: Now that’s the kind of connection and insight I was looking for! I think Pussy Cats can absolutely be put in the same category as Tonight’s the Night. It’s not obviously at the same level of masterpiece that Tonight’s the Night is in Neil Young’s catalog but it does represent a lot of the same things: things used to be better (like you said), people are dying or dead, the singer is living in a way that can’t be kept up and overall things are just messy.
Pussy Cats is a strange (read: pretty great) album and Nilsson’s later years were definitely very odd and idiosyncratic to say the least. However, I think we should jump back from the dark days of the late-70’s and take a look at the earlier years. And we’re going to do that in Part 2, which will run on the blog on Friday, where you and I will discuss our favorite Nilsson tracks, the amazing things he could do with his voice, Nilsson Sings Newman as a masterpiece that no one knows about, and you’ll explain the essence of what Nilsson did that made him so great.
I know you and I are up for it. And, like Nilsson, who gives a fuck if anyone else is.