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For the love of Harry Nilsson

« Nearly everyone had some outlandish, wild and crazy adventure with Harry to share… Through it all what became abundantly clear was how much Harry was loved – for everything he was… and everything he wasn’t. »

John Scheinfeld in regards to his documentary : Who is Harry Nilsson (and why is Everybody Talkin’ about him) 

1. Covers as an art

It isn’t rare for a musician to gain fame thanks to a brilliant version of a song he hasn’t written. Soft Cell with « Tainted Love », Blondie with « Hanging on the Telephone », Cindy Lauper with « Girls Just Wanna Have Fun » and Joan Jett with « I Love Rock n’ Roll » all rose to the top of the charts by revealing the hidden potential in the songs of others, effortlessly transforming « fine tracks » into hits. Numerous artists have achieved this prowess once in their lives, but only one was able to do it twice.

Harry Nilsson’s fame is built on the backs of two songs he hasn’t written.  His two biggest hits, « Everybody’s Talkin’ » and « Without You », were composed respectively by Fred Neil and Badfinger. Such a pity! some will cry, in reference to the exceptional quality of his own compositions. Genius! others will claim, in duly admiration for Nilsson’s flair for allowing these primarily unassuming songs to come into themselves. When it came to covers, Harry Nilsson was indeed a genius: he had a unique ability to know in which direction a song should have been taken.

The case of “Without You” is without doubt the most famous, but also the most exemplary: only a few days after having heard it one evening at a party, he recorded his piano-voice version in one go. Badfinger’s original was already a good song, but it hadn’t quite fully bloomed, what with the piling on of power pop tics and the mimicking of Lennon in the chorus (it is said that when Nilsson and his acolytes had wanted to find the song to rework it, they were so convinced it was Lennon’s that they’d started by peeling through the entire Beatles catalogue). Nilsson – unlike other Beatle followers, freed himself of their characteristic esthetic obsession with compression: instead of trying to equalize the intensity throughout the different parts of the song, he reconstructed it into one sweeping crescendo; calming the verse but outlandishly exaggerating the lyricism of the chorus. And if the performance flirts at times with the grotesque, the effect remains prodigious: by playing with the difference in dynamics and thus liberating himself of the cumbersome weight of Beatles-influence in the song, Nilsson managed to make, in the words of McCartney himself  – cue irony – “the killer song of all time”.

And yet, after having recorded the demo, Nilsson started to denigrate the track. The more time went by, the more its faults would seem to him apparent: he found it silly, couldn’t stand the lyrics in certain stanzas. He even refused to record it in group, said to his producer that if he was set on it, he would have to resort to putting the demo on the disc, but he himself would no longer touch it. Nevertheless, the idea had been born and after having capitulated at his producer’s insistence, he needed but one take to record the exceptional vocal performance we all know today, and propel the song to the summit of the charts for over a month.

Nilsson’s discography overflows with covers of this quality and we could multiply the examples at will: speak for example of the extraordinary albums Nilsson sings Newman or A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, dedicated respectively to Randy Newman’s repertoire and that of the big American classics of the 20th century; evoke his decadent and grandiose versions of “Many Rivers to Cross” or “Save the Last Dance For Me” on the ethylic Pussy Cats, which so fascinated the Walkmen. But let’s pause instead on a more obscure example: the cover of “Campo de Encino” by Jimmy Webb, which is found as a bonus in the re-edition of Son of Schmilsson.

This song describes the caricaturized, affluent life of Jimmy Webb during the early 70s at his hacienda in Los Angeles – divided between his sessions of new age therapy, poolside barbecue, sports cars, vegan diets, prolific sex and artistic cynicism. The version proposed by Jimmy Webb is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, distanced. Harry Nilsson’s, by contrast, has a somewhat hallucinogenic quality. His vocal variations color the melody with an Italian reminiscence, as if it were a recollected opera piece. His tormenting alternation, between the two C major and C major 9 chords, all along the verse casts the description in the grizzly tints of a waking dream. The song stops being a sociological chronicling of a successful artist’s biography, detailing like a menu the elements of his quotidian life, and instead invokes the delirious haloed fantasy of someone imagining this pop star life. It is rare for an interpretation to change so drastically the meaning of a song.

The public will remember Nilsson for his uncommon artistic prowess for covers, often at the expense of his own personal work that remains relatively unknown. Did Fortune play a dirty trick on Nilsson? Forever sentencing him to songs that were not his? In truth, Fortune had little to do with it in this case: a good number of his collaborators and people in his circle would speak with bitterness of his tendency towards dispersion, to jump perpetually from one project to another, from one disc of covers to another, never taking his own career too seriously. “I don’t think you ever conducted your career in a conventional manner,” a journalist pointed out to him near the end of his life, “there were no Harry Nilsson concert tours for example, or even promotional appearances that I’m aware of. What was the thinking behind that Harry?” And Nilsson response: “Well, there was not much thinking behind that (…). I sort of played with my career rather than take it very seriously. That was a mistake I think”.  

2. “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all” (The Pointed Man, in The Point)

The life of great artists – those that precisely « took their career seriously » – can leave us with the impression of something inhuman. When we close their biographies, it’s with mixed feelings of admiration and terror at these men who’d been capable of such utter dedication to their art. As if all they’d had to do was marry a direction, a written destiny of sorts, capable with its inherent movement of eradicating the obstacles and hesitations upon which stumble ordinary men. The names Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan prior to his motorcycle accident, Marvin Gaye or Tim Buckley come to mind. When we read in the latter’s biography the poignant testimony of his neglected ex-wife, or of his son, Jeff, abandoned at birth, it’s with a heartfelt feeling of pity. As if all the love they’d offered to this husband, to this father, had been futile in deviating, however slightly, the tragic and fascinating trajectory of the artistic visionary. Tim Buckley sang better of love than many, but he never could accept the way by which love is formed and risked in the lives of most men: the couple, the family life.

Harry Nilsson, Radio Interview, June 14th 1992 :

« It’s just an idea I had one night, I think I was in some kind of weirdness. I realized that everything seemed to have a point, a physical point : the trees, the leaves, the bushes, and so forth – and also a philosophical point if you see what I mean. I thought, what if there was a place where everyone had a point and, born in that place, a boy who didn’t have one. »

This citation reveals by way of anecdote the genesis of The Point, the children’s cartoon Nilsson envisioned in 1971. And it is tempting to read into this portrait of a « pointless child » born into a universe of things ordered with points, an avatar of Nilsson’s position in the world of art. Every time the paths of destiny drew a direction before him, he would purposefully tangle them to futility; refusing to perform any concerts after his first album; firing abruptly Richard Perry, the producer of his gold record Nilsson Schmilsson – despite Perry’s desire to achieve even greater success; recording in quick succession a botched album full of “joke” songs (Sound of Schmilsson) and one covering American classics (A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night)– to the great despair of his record label who foresaw, and rightly, the project’s commercial failure off the bat. At the very end of this splendid album – the one Nilsson was most attached to and which was home to some of his most beautiful vocal performances – we hear him beckon to his assistant: « Chris ? Can I have some scotch, some water, some matches and some heroin please ? ». This kind of witticism, come to conclude a moment of great emotional intensity, could sum up on its own this man’s style.

His inconsistence drove him to tragic events, such as his Pussy Cats recording sessions with Lennon where, due to binge drinking and games of « who can scream loudest, longest » he managed to destroy his vocal cords once and for all (it is said that there was blood on the microphone the day Nilsson had to be taken to the emergency room). But as a whole, Nilsson’s life was not tragic. From beginning to end there was something fundamentally normal about it. Keith Moon and Mama Cass both tragically died while sleeping in Nilsson’s bed, but Nilsson himself passed away peacefully in it, surrounded by his wife, his kids and his synthesizer. On this synthesizer he played songs for his son’s birthday or covers of Yoko Ono, his old friend.

Through his concessions to the normalcy of existence, with what that implies of dispersion and triviality, Harry Nilsson no doubt lost sight of the sublime pop star career his extraordinary talent as a singer predestined him for; but was granted in exchange the unshakeable love of his kith and kin, and the surprising tendency of his audience to see him not just as a musician, but also as a friend. Pointing to the fact that perhaps, when it comes to artists, we love them all the more for their reluctance to believe that Art trumps all.

Translated by Natasha Naayem