“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.
“So he started singing one of those early tunes,” Botkin told Shipton, “and I thought, ‘Oh my God! This is unbelievable.”
Some songs were used by others (“Cuddly Toy” by the Monkees; “This Could Be the Night” by Phil Spector) and others landed on his first record. That day, Botkin signed Nilsson to a $25 a week deal and gave him a key to the building.
What I most appreciate about the RCA box is how it helps reassess the second chapter of the Nilsson story, the so-called collapse of his career.
The accepted legend is rooted in the moment Nilsson, chumming around with Lennon, agrees to let the former Beatle produce his new album. During the spring of 1974, as they’re recording “Pussy Cats,” they’re also partying hard. Nilsson blows out his incredible voice and that’s the end. What’s more, during this whole mess, John marches into RCA and quickly negotiates a new, $5 million deal for Nilsson. He thinks he’s doing his pal a big favor and yes, Nilsson, does get rich. But he also is saddled with the pressure that comes from being such a high-priced talent. He croaks his way through a few more forgotten records and is then cut loose, never to record much again.
That’s a nice, tidy story, but the RCA box reveals something else. For me, it’s surprising how quickly Nilsson’s voice returned. His post-“Pussy Cats” record, “Duit on Mon Dei,” didn’t deserve to sink into obscurity. Just listen to “Salmon Falls,” an inventive allegory that, like much of the album, is defined musically by steel drums.
“I look really to ‘Salmon Falls’ as an exemplar to the whole thing he was, musically and humanistically and poetically,” says Parks, who worked on the album. “He took that song into an isolation booth for Take 1 as he connected the tissue. Telegraphing a thought into his occupational agenda like an archer. And amazingly, he came up with one of his most beautifully tender songs.”
For me, Nilsson’s cover of George Harrison’s “That Is All,” which opens his 1976 album, “. . . That’s the Way It Is,” reveals the same voice that graced his late ’60s work. The questions about the later-period Nilsson should not have been about the voice but chart struggles. He couldn’t crack the top 100, not even with 1977’s “Knnillsson,” which is bookended by two of his most beautiful songs, “All I Think About Is You” and “Perfect Day.”
“He loved Knillsson,” Lee Blackman, Nilsson’s longtime lawyer and friend, told me in a phone interview. “He thought it was perhaps the best album he ever made. His voice was terrific. The tragedy there was soon after the album was released, Elvis died. Elvis was also a big RCA artist. When Elvis died, RCA went into full Elvis mode, and Harry felt they abandoned him.”
I’m not sure that’s true. Or maybe it is. It certainly doesn’t matter now.
What does matter is that these products, the documentary, book, and box set, are creating buzz around Nilsson. The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman wrote about his favorite, lesser-known Nilsson songs. Boston’s James Parker, in Slate, wrote of Nilsson as the product of combining the “whimsical facility of Paul and the howling and perversity of John.”
And I’m left with the words of Parks. I asked him whether his friend’s life was indeed a great tragedy or actually a grand adventure cut too short. Parks seemed to tell me the answer was both. “It takes a will of iron for me not to be condemnatory at the neglect he suffered in an industry he had fed.” The reality, Parks said, is that Nilsson lived a good life.
“What is the flash the sailors see before the sun? It was a bright moment. His life was bright and beautiful. He had made it beautiful that way.”