Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Nilsson Week: Why I Hate Harry Nilsson

Nilsson week continues as Erik Lilleby (@ErikLittleBee) explains why he hates Harry. 


Editor's Note: As many of you who read this blog know, Erik Lilleby is one of my best friends. And, because he is one of my best friends, there is nothing I like more than to piss him off by talking about something that I like a lot, but which I know he hates. This happens all the time with Harry Nilsson.

So, in the spirit of Nilsson week and covering every perspective possible, I reached out to Erik so that he could air his grievances with the music and image of Harry Nilsson.

A lot of people have been asking me, “Erik, why do you hate Harry Nilsson?” Wait, that’s not true. I actually only tell people why I hate him when a certain two friends of mine (read: Stern and Domino) play his music.  Not many people even know who Harry Nilsson is anymore. Oh, so he wrote, “Lime in the Coconut”?* Go fuck yourself.

(*Editor's Note: The official name of the track is just "Coconut.")

There is a special part of me reserved for hating Harry Nilsson.  It’s strong, malignant, and sustained over time.  I can’t say where it originated.  I’ve forgotten a lot of my reasons for liking or hating the music I do, but I’m listening back to some of Nilsson’s songs now because Domino and Stern maintain that he was one of the greatest songwriters ever.  (Also because Domino begged me to get on here and give my two cents. He’s desperate. It’s pathetic.) So, I did some Nilsson research—that is to say I YouTubed him—to reassess my feelings about his music. After much thought, I still hate the guy’s stuff.  I respect Nilsson as a person, but not his music. His songs seem to combine everything I hate about the 70’s: a soft, over-harmonized pop jingle with sad, poetic lyrics that might play in some movie about the Seventies. Boogie Nights I want to say.

(Google: No)

I assert that Harry Nilsson’s music has lived on to be popular with some of my generation because of movie soundtracks set in that late-60’s, early-70’s time period).  You can’t have a movie about the 70’s** without a Harry Nilsson song for the sad, drugged-out montage; or a guy screaming, “if living is without you,” while speeding in a Trans-Am.

(**Editor’s Note: Or the 80’s, as Scorsese showed us.)

Either way, the guy was a manic freak, guilefully ruing his laughable life as a meager-faced, singer-songwriter of a decade stunted yet enthralled by his kind.  It’s an ironic love and a nostalgia for the sad sentiments of strange lost childhoods; the 60’s become the 70’s and the thirtyish flower-child has to deal with the fallout of a new, classic “lost generation”; the post-Vietnam Americans—mostly all our parents.  Why P.T. Anderson didn’t use Nilsson for Boogie Nights, I’ll never know.  The whole persona portrayed through Nilsson’s music is like a minstrel, an Irish limmericist; a dual buffoon and soothsayer, casually doling out tinctures of profundity.  I may sound full of shit, but I know you catch my drift.  He’s hiding deep sadness with happy music. However, is a “sad clown” duality just an easy pass to genius?

His voice is super smooth and laid-back, coy and boyish, and for one more adjective: complacent. You know he’s lost in his thoughts—there are songs about how he woke up and wrote a song; about his desk, or about how he drove his car. Nilsson probably wrote all sort of snappy tunes while taking a piss or making his tea (actually, shit, there is one song about that) or every god damn little minute of the day.  It was probably funny for him to see people so entertained by his silly poetic wordplay, his off-handed, top of the brain shit.  I picture him in a supermarket looking at celery, whistling to himself and humming up lyrics in lazy phonetic gibberish.  And some other guy, who doesn’t know him, sees only someone he hates, a person more exuberantly extolling something for his celery, some impossible melody and joke that no one else will get.
Nilsson is his own person and musician outside of my image of him.  He exists in music history and I have to get over my inability to like him.  How can a person put so many thoughtful lyrics in so uplifting a melody?  He does have great arrangements and a substantial sound on his studio production.  YouTube “Good Old Desk Playboy performance”—the songs have a lot going on.

Finally, I want to use a word (or compound word) that many people use when describing 70’s music—overproduced. I can't help it, but whenever I think of Nilsson I think over overproduction. Whether it was Nilsson himself or the sways of the time for massive studio achievement, his stuff is very polished; shiny and sparkling clean from great new machines made for remixing and mastering the sound. All of the 70’s studio technology ruined the bareness that is essential to any record. With a lot of 70’s songs like Nilsson’s, there’s no more live sound, it’s all contained in electric wires and perfected microphones. There was no more of the spare, tight 4-track recordings. With Nilsson, you feel the space for fifty overdubs.
Maybe it wasn’t his fault, but I’m going to blame him nonetheless. 


  1. I love Harry Nilsson's music. I sort of pity those who don't.

  2. This is an entertaining piece about the genius of Harry Nilsson. He produced 14 freaking albums for RCA and they are -all different- unlike many artists who write the same stuff over and over. So yeah, I pity this Blog write like anonymous does, but I enjoyed reading this nonetheless.

  3. We had to have a little variety in Nilsson Week--not just unabashed love. I'm glad you good enjoy reading it. I think Erik's a pretty funny guy.

  4. I'm a musician and music lover. I have liked Nilsson since I was a kid in the early 70s. But this is music, not religion, and Erik's irreverent and hilarious entry made me laugh at my own sentimentalism, for which I am unapologetic. Thanks for a great alternative look at the guy who today I came across in my vinyl collection.

  5. Richard Perry might have been responsible for some of the over-production. The '70s was the zenith of whiny male solo artists ("Sometimes When We Touch," anyone?) but Harry was never that shallow, even when his lyrics were about moonbeams on a fence. I think he could have done "The Celery Song" wistfully, wittily, memorably.