The first thing I knew about Harry Nilsson was the power-ballad Without You. Then I found out that he sung that song Coconut – the end-credits music to Reservoir Dogs. I found both those songs were on the record Nilsson Schmilsson – a record that I thought was worth buying for the title and album cover (especially for the bargain price of $1). It also has the gem Jump Into The Fire. (As I said in the link just above, it might be the greatest $1 record I own).
I bought a Greatest Hits compilation to fill in some blanks and started finding out all sorts of things about Nilsson. His name came up. Often. He knocked around with Ringo and John Lennon. He sang a whole album of Randy Newman songs (I love that album!)
Nilsson started to figure pretty big in my life. He was already dead. He died in 1994. I seemed to really hook into Nilsson, started unwrapping the riddle, the following year. That’s purely coincidental – I bought the $1 copy of Nilsson Schmilsson when I first went record-shopping in Wellington. I was new to the city, fairly new to record-buying. I’d remembered Without You and Coconut – they were on the same album, it was a bargain. From there a mini-obsession started.
I’ve checked out other albums – I love The Point and A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. I still love the Nilsson Sings Newman album (which might have more to do with a full blown Randy Newman obsession) but there are still albums in the Nilsson canon that I need to be introduced to. I’ve recently gathered up a few more…
Then there is the film Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?
The documentary was made in 2006 and released in 2010.
I’d recommend this movie to fanatics and neophytes – that’s how it should be with a great music documentary; those that don’t know anything about the artist, or know the name and the big hits only should feel as comfortable and interested watching a great music film as the hardcore fans, collectors and completists. Actually that’s true of documentary across any subject – it’s hard to strike that balance but I want to be turned on to a subject (or further turned on to it) I don’t want to watch something I already know. I don’t want to just see the boxes ticked. There’s no point in chronicling the life only. You have to see (as much as you can) behind the life. You have to be able to peek around the corners.
With the Nilsson documentary we get the overview of his music – this wonderful songwriter who was also an amazing song-stylist. Nilsson achieved as a songwriter for hire, as a covers artist and as a singer/songwriter. He didn’t fit quite in any one category. He was Brill Building and The Beatles, he was the guy that created tribute albums to other eras, that chose songs because he loved them – long before that was just a sad marketing fad.
Nilsson also did it his way. He wasn’t a live performer. He was almost exclusively a studio artist – in an era where live music was so often the catalyst for success in pop music.
He was also damaged. There is the human story. The fragile artist. The self-destructive type. The guy with the golden voice who left it to become hoarse from booze and drugs, from parties that crossed time-zones, that carried on into the following week.
There are apocryphal stories, lost weekends, spent dreams and there are some of the best pop songs you could ever want to hear. There is a sadness to the way it all ended.
The documentary gives you all of this – and more. And has a cast of legends to tell their part in the story and their version of events; offering insight and wisdom, sharing in celebrations and sadness.
There are also the family members, Nilsson’s wife and children. They all have stunning eyes. A gift to the kids from both their mother and their father.
I like the idea of everybody talkin’ about Harry Nilsson. He is one of the leftfield legends in my musical world; a forlorn hero.
Postscript: Here are some more gems from Nilsson: Me And My Arrow, One, 1941, Cuddly Toy, The Moonbeam Song, Vine St, City Life, Love Story, Always, Makin’ Whoopee, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, I’d Rather Be Dead, Gotta Get Up, Mournin’ Glory Story, The Puppy Song, You’re Breaking My Heart, Pretty Soon There’ll Be Nothing Left For Everybody.
And the tribute album, For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson is possibly a good place to start. Aimee Mann’s version of Nilsson’s song One was later used in the movie Magnolia.