“That’s Harry Nilsson?” I had flipped on John Scheinfeld’s documentary “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?” and my wife was suddenly confronted not by that voice — angelic, inventive and octave-hopping — but by the image of the brandy-soaked slosh of a man behind it. Sorry, honey, that’s Harry.
I can’t blame Carlene for assuming that the man behind those quirky, charming songs about puppies, railroads, and old desks as well as the top-10 smashes “Everybody’s Talkin’ ” and “Without You” would resemble the voice. Were that the case, he would look more like a choirboy than the Unabomber. Carlene hasn’t read about “The Lost Weekend,” when Nilsson and John Lennon were famously thrown out of a Smothers Brothers gig, and she has better things to do (I don’t) than scour YouTube for depressing clips of late-era Nilsson croaking his way through Beatles covers at fan conventions. She fell asleep a few minutes into the Harry doc, which was just as good. Better to remember Nilsson through the music.
That’s easy to do with Sony Legacy’s just released “The RCA Albums Collection,” a 17-disc set covering 1967 to 1977, or the bulk of the material Nilsson released. The box is also an important way to reestablish the man, a studio master who won two Grammys, created the made-for-TV children’s movie “The Point,” was once known as the fifth Beatle, and wrote some of the most cinematic songs in pop music. Forget “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which was actually a Fred Neil song Nilsson covered famously when it became the theme to “Midnight Cowboy.” Watch how perfectly Martin Scorsese uses “Jump Into the Fire” in “GoodFellas” or Paul Thomas Anderson plants “He Needs Me” for “Punch-Drunk Love.” That’s just a start.
Mention Harry Nilsson in a crowded room of anybody born after, say, Jimmy Carter’s presidency and you’ll generally get blank stares. This might be how the alternakids will feel around 2021 when they mention Elliott Smith or even Kurt Cobain to their tweenage nephew.
And that’s why the RCA box is such a perfect tool. We can even recast Harry, the great tragedy, as Harry, the inspired creator, releaser of 18 albums, movie producer, and gun control advocate. We don’t even have to mention the annoying novelty hit, “Coconut.”
By the strange luck of timing, this month also brings another vital tool in telling the Nilsson story, a just-released biography by Alyn Shipton, “Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.” It’s an amazing tale, charting his rise from childhood misery to the epicenter of the music biz, from robbing a liquor store to cavorting with Lennon, Keith Moon, and Ringo Starr. To the outside world, Nilsson disappeared over the last two decades of his life, never released a proper album after his 40th birthday, and died at just 52 in 1994.
“His life has a Dickensian depth,” longtime friend and collaborator Van Dyke Parks told me over the phone, “when you think of the kid who had to steal fruit from somebody’s yard to feed his mother and sister, and then to go to the $5 million deal or whatever it was, was incalculable.”
He wrote songs about that life, beautiful ballads in the case of “1941” (“. . . in 1941, the happy father had a son. / And in 1944, the father walked right out the door . . .”) and angry, sarcastic and even profane kiss-offs when the mood struck. His response to his divorce, “You’re Breaking My Heart,” drove his producer, Richard Perry, crazy because of its language. The expletive Nilsson planted in the chorus meant the song wasn’t going to get on the radio.
Shipton’s book explains a lot and goes into more detail than Scheinfeld’s documentary. We learn that if the sparest melody could swell into a waltz meant for the high wire, perhaps it’s because the Nilsson family once performed a circus act. As a boy, Nilsson lost his virginity to a girl in the big top.
This was just one episode in a life that started hard. There was no flirting with college degrees like generational peers Neil Diamond and Carole King. Instead, Nilsson held up that liquor store to pay off his mother’s debt. He dropped out of high school and, after lying about earning his diploma, began working in a bank. He was so good and so proficient working with newly introduced computers that he remained at the bank, even after they discovered his résumé-fudge and even after he started recording.
Of the three discs of alternative tracks in the RCA box, the first is the most revealing. You can understand what it might have felt like, circa 1967, when the baby-faced bank worker arrived at arranger Perry Botkin Jr.’s office on Vine Street and auditioned. Continued...