Although it’s hard to imagine now, “pop” wasn’t always a dirty word, even to rockers. Today, pop is considered the antithesis of rock, but in the ’60s and ’70s, pop and rock were siblings, and pop was simply rock’s prettier sister. The Byrds, the Hollies, the post-surf Beach Boys, and of course, the Beatles, were just a few of the rock & roll bands that boosted pop’s reputation in those pre-Bieber days. The term “baroque pop” was coined to distinguish some of these more sophisticated pop bands from fluff like the Osmonds (yes, there were always boys bands, and they always sucked, except maybe the Jackson 5).
Then, of course, there were the pop solo artists, the crooners and the croakers, and the one who out-sang them all, Harry Nilsson.
Nilsson was a geeky, gawky kid with the voice of an angel. Many of us discovered him upon hearing “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a minor hit that he didn’t even write, which made a strong comeback after appearing in the 1970 movie, “Midnight Cowboy.” “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, but I don’t hear a word they’re sayin’, only the echoes of my mind…” I never saw the movie, but this beautiful song about an outsider who just wants to go where the weather suits his clothes always nearly started me bawling when I was a kid.
Nilsson had already released a couple of albums before that, one that almost nobody heard called ‘Spotlight on Nilsson’ in 1966, and then his RCA debut ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ in 1967. Critics loved ‘Pandemonium’; the public ignored it. But who needs the public when you’ve got the Beatles? Lennon and McCartney both raved about the album when they heard it and went on to become Nilsson’s lifelong friends, supporters, and drinking buddies. It helped that Nilsson had covered two Beatles songs, “She’s Leaving Home” and “You Can’t Do That”—definitely not the ones I would have chosen, but nevertheless, Nilsson did a masterful job. His version of “You Can’t Do That” was a spectacular mashup (before anybody used the word “mashup”), of 22 other Beatles songs worked into the multi-tracked vocals. The Beatles praised it, and Nilsson, to the heavens, but it would be a few more years until this relationship paid off in a big way.
Next came ‘Aerial Ballet,’ which featured the aforementioned “Everybody’s Talkin’” and also “One,” which was later made famous by Three Dog Night. In those days Nilsson could make a young girl cry just by singing the phone book, but he also wrote some of the most upbeat, catchy tunes of all time, including “Daddy’s Song,” a peppy little 1920s-style ditty about a boy being abandoned by his father. (The song was later performed by the Monkees’ Davy Jones in the band’s experimental film “Head” with Frank Zappa, as “the critic,” pronouncing it “pretty white.”)
One of the songs that did not make it on ‘Aerial Ballet’ was “Girlfriend,” which was later re-titled “Best Friend” and was used, with altered lyrics, as the theme song for an insipid ’70s TV show called “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” Whether or not you’ve had the misfortune to see the show, you’ve no doubt heard the song, as it’s since been featured in several more recent sitcoms, whenever there’s a playful “buddy” scene (“People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…”). “Girlfriend” does appear as a bonus track on the album’s re-release. The original version is one of Nilsson’s best songs.
The album ‘Harry’ followed and was the first Nilsson LP to hit the charts, spurred on by the Top-40 single, “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City.” I thought the song was treacly soft-rock bullshit (though I probably wouldn’t have used those words when I was nine years old), so it made sense that it was picked for the hit. Nilsson then recorded an album of Randy Newman covers, which I’ve still never heard, but which garnered raves from critics and Newman himself.
And then, there was “The Point.” It was released in 1971 as an ABC “Movie of the Week.” I saw it when I was 11 and thought it was the most soul-wrenchingly brilliant cartoon movie ever made. As an adult, it doesn’t strike me as quite the masterpiece I once thought, but it is an engaging film, and Nilsson’s soundtrack holds up on its own, featuring the lovable “Me and My Arrow.” Someone recently told me that song was about heroin, but I still prefer to interpret it as an innocent love song from a boy to his dog.
None of this could have prepared us for the mighty ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ album of 1971. The song “Without You,” a Badfinger cover and candidate for Saddest Song in the World, featured Nilsson’s gorgeous multi-octave voice, and earned him a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Male. My personal favorite of the bunch was and is “Jump into the Fire,” which removed any doubt that Nilsson could rock. He also achieved the near-impossible feat of shrieking melodically. And is that the catchiest bass line of all time or what!
But the standout, Nilsson’s crowning achievement would have to be “Coconut.” I defy you to get this song out of your head now that I’ve mentioned it. It crosses cultural boundaries, lifts blighted spirits, makes paraplegics get up and do the mambo. And who else would be genius enough to rhyme “coconut” with “woke him up”? Seriously, even in Seattle’s grouchiest grunge era, when fans normally showed their appreciation by crossing their arms and scowling, you could put this song on the turntable at any party and watch the entire crowd go into collective spazz-out mode, dancing their asses off.
Poor Harry. It was all downhill from there. How could it not be? The follow-up, ‘Son of Schmilsson,’ wasn’t half bad, covering the entire emotional/intellectual spectrum from tragedy to absurdity, sometimes in a single song, as in the country-western send-up “Joy.” And who could forget that sensitive, heartfelt breakup song, “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“so fuck you”)? But though the album did feature George and Ringo and contained the hit “Spaceman,” it was on the whole a little out-there for the record buyers of 1972. Nilsson never did give much of a shit about satisfying his record label, and RCA was getting a bit nervous.
And this is where Nilsson starts losing it. After releasing an album of pop standards with a full orchestra (‘A Little Schmilsson in the Night,’ 1973), he took some time off to hang with his buddy John Lennon during the ex-Beatle’s famed “Lost Weekend” days. Reportedly, much stoned and drunken mayhem ensued. They trashed people’s houses. They threw bottles out of 30-foot high motel windows. They heckled the Smothers Brothers. Hee hee hee! Worst of all, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord. The resulting ‘Pussy Cats’ album is largely a mess, with a few charming moments. Nilsson’s once mighty voice was shot. RCA wasn’t amused and considered dropping Nilsson from their contract until Lennon stepped in and hinted he and Ringo Starr might be interested in signing with the label, but only if they kept Nilsson.
Some say Nilsson never got the magic back. I’m ashamed to confess that I have no opinion, having heard very little of his later work. You can hear about a lot about his breakdown moments on the documentary “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him),” a somewhat sensationalistic “Behind the Music”-style doc, which nonetheless provides a very entertaining overview of Nilsson’s career. He released several more albums for RCA, culminating in 1977’s ‘Knilssonn,’ said to be Nilsson’s favorite. Unfortunately, its release coincided with the death of his labelmate Elvis Presley, and RCA put everything except the Elvis catalog on the back burner. ‘Knilssonn,’ and Nilsson, fizzled.
He never stopped making music though, recording songs for various movies and TV shows, including the soundtrack for the movie “Popeye.” His last appearance was in 1992 when he appeared with Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band. He sang “Without You,” but he couldn’t hit those amazing high notes anymore. That job was farmed out to Todd Rundgren.
After decades of musical genius and drunken revelry, Nilsson died of heart failure in January 1994. He was 52.
Happy birthday, Harry, wherever you may still exist. You sang your balls off for us, and we’ll always miss you.
Recommended Nilsson albums:
‘Aerial Pandemonium Ballet’ RCA, 1971. If you’re too cheap to buy ‘Aerial Ballet’ and ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ separately, these two brilliant early albums, originally released in ’66 and ’67, were remixed by Nilsson himself and released as one.
“The Point” animated movie and soundtrack album, 1971, RCA.
‘Nilsson Schmilsson (obviously), 1971, RCA
‘Son of Schmilsson’ 1972, RCA