YOU'RE MISSING: Harry Nilsson
- Article by: Casey Stohrer
- Posted: 08/23/2012
I used to work at a little mom-and-pop music store in my hometown that sold cheap ‘60s Sears guitars and offered lessons to the neighborhood kids. The shop was owned by a guy named Ted; Ted would show up to teach in purple-striped sweat pants, a flannel shirt and flip-flops. He was a great teacher and business owner so his wardrobe mattered very little. During guitar recitals he would pass a wine bottle around to all of the parents smiling through their daughters' start-and-stop renditions of Taylor Swift songs.
He was (and is) a great guy, charismatic in his own way and all-knowing about music history and ‘60s pop and experimental music in particular. He would put the store iPod on shuffle and you never knew what weird sounds were going to harangue the old grandma waiting for her grandson to finish his piano lesson -- anything from John Cage to Randy Newman to Beethoven. But one day that song “Coconut” came on – you know -- “You put the lime in the coconut and drink 'em both up” -- and I exclaimed, “Who DOES this song?” I had heard it dozens of times before and never knew. It was one of those songs. And Ted said, “Harry Nilsson. Don't tell me you've never heard of Harry Nilsson!”
Harry Nilsson was one of the most successful pop songwriters of the ‘60s and ‘70s who hardly ever played live shows. He was a behind-the-scenes kind of guy who just happened to party hard with John Lennon quite a bit. He was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and raised by a single mom. He grew up in a poor household, so he quit school in the ninth grade and went right to work. He worked at a theater for a time, then applied to work for a bank and lied about his credentials. He worked out so well at the bank that even after they found out about his lying, they kept him on.
His early musical career included co-writing a song for Little Richard and also working with Phil Spector. In 1966 he signed with RCA Victor and released his first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show. Beatles press officer Derek Taylor hooked The Beatles up with this record. Harry and The Beatles had a mutual respect for each other’s work and soon grew to be good friends. After Harry Nilsson wrote a hit for The Monkees called “Cuddly Toy,” he figured he was making enough money as a songwriter that he could quit his job at the bank.
In his second release Aerial Ballet, Harry covered a Fred Neil song “Everybody's Talkin',” which appeared in the film Midnight Cowboy. It later won Harry his first Grammy. This album also contained the song “One” (“One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do...”), which was covered by Three Dog Night. Promoters would call him up at his office and ask him if they could book him, but he found performing live unsettling, so he always refused.
He also was involved with the animated film The Point! (Ringo, anyone?) and created the song “Me and My Arrow” specifically for the movie. Later that year, he recorded Nilsson Schmilsson, which was to become the most successful album of his career. It contained the single “Without You” (a Badfinger cover) and of course, “Coconut,” which is a whole song based on just one chord – C7. Nilsson Schmilsson - and in particular “Without You” - demonstrated Harry's multi-octave vocal range and put him in a league above the typical pop singer. He could sound downright operatic at times.
As with any artist who has a long, prolific career, there tend to be periods of depression and critical downfall. Harry Nilsson's blue period in the early ‘70s essentially just consisted of partying with John Lennon in California. John Lennon was in his own weird state at this time, what with The Beatles breaking up and being separated from Yoko Ono. So they would resort to heavy drinking and drug use, trashing hotel rooms and throwing things out of high-rise windows and that kind of thing. John and Harry recorded an album together at this time entitled Pussy Cats, which resulted in Harry rupturing a vocal cord.
He continued to work on various projects right up until his death in 1994 from heart failure. A documentary called Who Is Harry Nilsson? was released on DVD in 2010, and it is one of my favorite rock documentaries of all time. Even if you are not a huge Harry Nilsson fan, I still recommend giving it a look.
Harry Nilsson was purely a pop songwriter. He wrote about any number of subjects, both worldly and personal. I've heard Paul McCartney described as an “outward songwriter” (somebody who writes about the problems of other people) and John Lennon described as an “inward songwriter,” (somebody who writes about his own problems), and this is one of the reasons The Beatles were so successful. Harry Nilsson proved himself to be a one-man American version of The Beatles – their styles are so similar that it's no surprise they ended up hanging out together.
As for Ted, well, now I understand why he would drink wine during all these kids singing Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga songs. You probably won't hear Taylor drunkenly belting out an insanely great lyric with a Beatle anytime soon either.
Harry Nilsson - "Coconut"