Editor's Note: Mark Jack has been holed up in Berkeley for the past four months, undertaking much more noble pursuits than giving away his precious, insightful thoughts to all of you for free. However, when I asked him to write something about Nilsson, he said, "Domino, you'd have to chop off my arms and strap me down to the throne from 'Game of Thrones' to keep me from writing about NILSSON! I love that 'Thrones' show. I really do!"
Of course, I'm kidding. As a favor to me (and after a lot of pleading), Mark Jack took some of his precious time to convey his thoughts on Harry Nilsson as a singer over the progression his career. I sent him some choice tracks and video clips via priority mail and, once he received the package in foggy Berkeley, Mark's beautiful brain did the rest.
Throughout much of Harry Nilsson’s work, runs a strain of almost crazed naivete. It is present in the melodies, the production, his weird scat singing, and even in his general manner of presenting himself, his haircuts and smile. The pop perfection of his songs does not bely some essential sadness, however—some deeper feeling as we might expect from a “brilliant” artist a la the romantic, sturm und drang mentality to which we still cling. Rather, Nilsson’s use of the pop form is an overuse. In the sweetness of his vocals we hear something, perhaps, crazed. It is too good, too sweetly sung. It approaches pathos.
I claim no particular knowledge of Harry Nilsson, whether of his biography or his music. I am certainly not unfamiliar with his work, but Matt has sent me list of videos which I’d like to respond to in an almost strictly formalist manner, and as such, all other considerations I will leave to others. I think these selections from throughout his career, reveal Nilsson’s deep attachment to irony as an almost overexploitation of form.
"Good Old Desk" (from Aerial Ballet performed on Playboy After Dark, 1968)*
[View the video here:http://fortheloveofharry.blogspot.com/2010/03/video-live-on-playboy-after-dark-1969_08.html]
In the first video, the setting itself hovers at the border of self-parodic and problematically self-assured. I have always hesitated over how to read the early years of Playboy where an essentially misogynistic culture combined with a semi-critical critique of society/politics and an interest in avant-garde art. Just because some decent work was published in Playboy does not, however, discount it’s essential function as a purveyor of the worst of Western culture; and it’s attachment to “high” culture perhaps makes it even worse. But that is a discussion for another time. The contrived ease of the setting is perfectly pushed to its limits with no easy sense of self-critique. Hefner’s initial request for a song is almost a joke, claiming that he is “office oriented.” The music is piped in from nowhere and Nilsson begins his love song to his desk, chatting in between, making jokes. I think we might see a similar occurrence in the bureaucratic gallows humour of Kafka, though we too often don’t get the joke of Kafka’s overserious characters and the impersonal machinations under to which they constantly succumb. So much the worse for us. Nilsson’s excusing his scat singing as adlib—a common strategy for nervous performers is to suggest that something is merely improvised so as to undercut any criticism—points to a less secure exploitation of the light pop form of which he would grow to become master. Already the songs are perfect, even the credit roll song he sings a bit of at the end of the clip, but his admission that the “Good Old Desk” is an anagram of God, gets such a strange reception form Hefner who, rather than confronting the pathos of turning an anagram of God into a love song to an office desk, merely talks about how other artists, such as the Beatles, have used this songwriting strategy. This shows that perhaps Nilsson is still trying to be too consciously ironic rather than approaching irony as over-exploitation. Nilsson remains jokey and nervously carefree throughout. He is as yet uncommitted to the over-exploitation of his chosen form.
(*Editor's Note: Watch this entire video. It is an amazing time capsule/I wish television shows still operated like one big, chill, suave hangout—minus the misogyny. Plus, you get a fantastic performance of the song "Together.")
"I'll Be Home" (From Nilsson Sings Newman, 1970)
For such a brilliant songwriter, it is worth considering that one of Nilsson’s greatest moments of fame came from his singing the theme song to Midnight Cowboy, “Everybody’s Talkin’” by Fred Neil. He has such a gorgeous voice that Nilsson could do little else than own the song, once again contributing his flourishes in the form of his trombone mimicking scat. “I’ll Be Home,” a Randy Newman penned song from an entire album of Newman written, Nilsson sung songs, is less well known, but reflects Nilsson’s ability to approach any song with a similar seriousness. The production is sparser than much of Nilsson’s other work, and it appears to be more straightforward, less ironic. His layered, backing vocals, however serve to reassert that this is a pop song and, as such, contains all the cliches, and in the over-performance of these cliches we actually see their power. The sensitive, heartfelt lead vocal hovers just above alternating, layered backing vocals of ghostly humming and a Paul Mccartney-esque impression of a soul singer, in the ridiculous delivery of “”whoa yes he will” after the refrain “I’ll be home,” which effectively combines three approaches to pop sentimentality in one song: whispered earnestness, heavenly choruses, and singular, passionate delivery. What is particularly laudatory about Nilsson in this song is his ability to combine these approaches solely through his vocals and to do so while resisting the slide merley into pastiche.
"Gotta Get Up" (From Nilsson Schmilsson performed on Nilsson on the BBC, 1971)
This beautiful song, with its almost ragtime interludes is nearly oppressive with its chorus which almost makes me hyperventilate when I hear it. The piano playing is an insistent 4/4, and the vocals, “Gotta get up/Gotta get out/Gotta get home...” are frantic, delivered in his unavoidable beautiful voice, but almost at a monotone. This reminds us of the first example cited above, and the bureaucratic gallows humour a la Kafka. Though here it is combined with the first inkling of a Harry Nilsson staple, nostalgia. Many of his songs evince a nostalgia that is unconnected to his age or actual cultural milieu. It is the nostalgia of his parents’ generation. The verses tell a story of naive youth, dancing “till a quarter to ten.” In the video he is, I believe, only thirty, with his banking/bureaucratic career well behind him and much of his partying still ahead of him, yet he enacts the classic, nostalgic movement of never-grow-old youth confronting the strictures of adult demands. The last piano run is excessive and leaves the listener with little consolation save the parodic, soft last notes which resolve the song. Clearly, despite the beauty of the song and its performance there is no real comfort to be sought in these songs, unless it is the comfort of empathy, which must be understood sometimes as merely two people feeling similarly bad.
"Don't Forget Me" (From Pussy Cats, 1973)
Here we find Harry Nilsson beginning to come out on the other side of pop sentimentality. Lyrics like, “And when you’re older/And full of cancer/It doesn’t matter now/Come on get happy” are nearly sobbed. I almost can’t say anything about these lyrics. His voice is cracking and less pristine than in his prior songs. He has pushed so much saccharine pathos into his vocal delivery that he here begins to show the violence of such an approach. This song is heartbreaking, and we suddenly find ourselves with scant recourse to ironic detachment. It contains it’s own critique and holds it there as a contradiction that moves the song forward.
"How to Write a Song" (From Sandman, 1975)
Ok, so he was also a bit of an idiotic asshole.