Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 20th July 2014

NILSSONPhoto via Aquarium Drunkard.

NILSSON : The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton
(Oxford University Press) (hdbk, 345 pp)

Review by Andy Childs.

In a desperate attempt to attribute even the smallest degree of topicality to this review I can tell you that, at Eric Idle’s behest, a very refreshed Harry Nilsson once appeared onstage as a lumberjack in the original 1976 Monty Python stage show in New York (now somewhat embarrassingly being revived of course). When he fell off the stage and into the audience as the curtain came down and broke his wrist it did little to dispel the intense irritation of the other Python members who, according to Idle “were very disciplined and did not approve of larking about”. So much for anarchic comedy.

Impromptu public appearances aside, Harry Nilsson, or just plain Nilsson, was once a famous name in pop music. Feted and befriended by The Beatles and The Monkees, admired and respected by the likes of Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks and Mama Cass, and bibulous associate of Keith Moon, Nilsson enjoyed a career as a songwriter and recording artist that was tempestuous, rewarding, singular, tortured and, as a result, truncated. He had a worldwide No.1 hit single in 1971 with Without You preceded two years earlier by Everybody’s Talkin’, better known as the title tune to the film Midnight Cowboy. But ironically, for an artist who predominantly earned his bread, butter and booze money as a songwriter, Nilsson wrote neither of these two songs. There are, however, a great many very fine songs that he did pen but which remained frustratingly under-exposed and under-valued, partly as a result of the usual moronic record company politics and partly because Nilsson never once played a proper live concert and refused to be diverted from his own heroic, uncompromising artistic vision. His story, as told in Alyn Shipton’s exemplary biography, is immensely entertaining and not a little heart-rending and mind-boggling. The anecdotal narrative is briskly and sensitively dealt with and without encumbering us with numbing song-by-song analysis Mr.Shipton incisively highlights those elements of Nilsson’s work that deserve renewed attention and that reinforce his contention that Nilsson left “a legacy that stands proudly as one of the most individual and creative collections of work in the second half of the twentieth century”.

Born in Brooklyn on June 15 1941 Harry Nilsson endured a poor, fractured and itinerant adolescence. His father deserted the family before Harry was a year old, his mother was an alcoholic and petty criminal, and he relied on his grandparents and uncle for any stability in his youth. And even though the strength of character that later ensured his creative integrity saw Nilsson overcome these dire circumstances he never really came to terms with the loss of his father. As Mr.Shipton makes clear, this lack of paternal influence emerges time and again as a very powerful emotional impetus in many of Harry’s best songs. Ending up in California in his mid-teens after an incident-packed hike across country in search of his wayward mother, Harry, academically bright and already a serious movie buff, discovered his talent for music and slowly nurtured his singing and songwriting skills whilst working in movie theatres and then, believe it or not, as head computer operator in a bank! He held down this disciplined and responsible position for seven years and at the same time led a separate life as a budding songwriter, composing during the night and hawking his songs to various music publishers during his lunch break. Demos and promises of covers and record contracts were made and eventually Nilsson took the plunge, quit the security of the bank and signed publishing and record deals. The draft was dodged and influential relationships with The Monkees and Rick Jarrard of RCA were forged. But arguably it was his rapport with Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor that had the most momentous impact on his career. Taylor, impressed with Nilsson’s debut album for RCA – Pandemonium Shadow Show – played it to The Beatles who promptly told the U.S. media that Nilsson was their favourite group. They even tried to poach Harry away from RCA and would have probably done so had Brian Epstein’s demise not scuppered negotiations. Nevertheless a strong working and carousing bond developed between Nilsson and John Lennon and Ringo in particular that opened doors and ensured a degree of notoriety. Taylor was also the catalyst for his next big break when he played Harry’s version of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’ to film director John Schlesinger who was then looking for a theme song for Midnight Cowboy. Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Nilsson himself all had songs especially written for the film turned down in favour of Fred Neil’s song and it was Nilsson’s rich, expressive vocal performance that captured attention and alerted the world to the emergence of a superb singing talent. Practically all of the many people that Mr.Shipton has talked to in preparation for this book attest to Nilsson’s brilliance as a singer and express dismay that this gift was for the most part under-appreciated and then abused beyond the point of recovery. But Everybody’s Talkin’ sold over a million copies and earned Nilsson a Grammy in 1969 for Best Male Contemporary Vocal Performance.

The late 60s and early 70s were good years for Nilsson creatively even as his personal life was in turmoil and his alcohol and drug intake escalated. He released nine albums in a six year spell of fertile activity including The Point, which subsequently became a film and a stage musical, and, one of my favourite albums – Nilsson Sings Newman – which did much to raise the profile of the then unknown Newman. He had his other hit single – the definitive version of the Badfinger song Without You and he also began a life-long commitment to working regularly on scoring music and writing songs for a succession of TV and film projects. During those years he also spent a lot of time in London, added backing vocals to Carly Simon’s hit You’re So Vain, married his third wife Una, ruined his voice during demented and physically damaging recording and boozing sessions with John Lennon, and suffered the shock of having Cass Elliott die in his London flat while he was in the U.S. – the exact same flat that Keith Moon expired in four years later. By the late 70s Nilsson is back in L.A and his career is on the slide at roughly the same ratio as his reputation as a relentless party animal is growing. There are frequent references in the book to ‘the Harry ride’ when he would turn up at a friend’s house for a late afternoon “lunch” that would finally conclude about a week later in another part of town. As Jimmy Webb recounts : ‘It was fun. It’s just that you never knew when you were going to be coming home, when you left the house. That was the down side. You’d say, “Hi honey, I’m going out with Harry”, and my wife would go “Oh no! When are you coming home?”’

Nilsson’s hedonistic lifestyle took a left turn however in December 1980 when his friend, idol and fellow hell-raiser John Lennon was murdered in New York City. Perhaps subconsciously in need of a renewed sense of purpose in his life, Nilsson proceeded to put his own career on hold in the early 80s and devoted himself wholeheartedly to campaigning for handgun control. Slowly though the music and film projects reasserted themselves in his life although nothing he did henceforth could be deemed a success. Plagued still by drink and drug addiction, a collaboration with the writer Terry Southern – Hawkeye Entertainment, ended in financial ruin and whilst somehow maintaining a happy and stable marriage and family life, Nilsson became prone to depression and physical illness. In February 1993 he suffered a heart attack and died peacefully in his sleep less than a year later, aged just 52. Mr.Shipton makes a good case for the artistic merits of more of Nilsson’s post-70s output than I would but in a relatively short span of time Harry managed to achieve more than most of his contemporaries. He made nearly twenty albums, two or three of which are truly great and half of which are very good. He wrote songs specifically for as many films and TV shows and his songs were used on countless others. And besides the extrovert, roistering Nilsson with the dark moods and uncompromising attitude who didn’t handle success very well there was the gentler, caring, romantic Harry who everyone loved and who everyone who knew him still misses.

If your curiosity has been aroused there are of course the usual selection of youtube clips and there is an excellent film called Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him) that complements this book well. If you need an introduction to his records there are several cheap ‘Best Of’ options but if you can track it down though I would recommend the compilation called Personal Best which Nilsson put together himself in the last years of his life.

Who Is Harry Nilsson is showing in the UK tonight at 6:30pm on the Sky Arts channel.