Tuesday, May 03, 2011

...And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin About Him?) is the title of a movie, and now a DVD, by John Scheinfeld. The title is a paradox and a pun. The paradox is that Harry Nilsson is both famous and unknown (as someone says in the film, you either recognize the name right away or you have no idea who he is.) The pun refers to his most famous recording, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, a Grammy winner featured in the classic movie Midnight Cowboy.

Harry Nilsson was a musical force in the early 1970s as a singer and songwriter, though he never quite became a star. But as this DVD demonstrates, he did achieve a mythological status and musical immortality.

At one time or another I owned the first 10 of his 15 albums and I still have four: his first two from the late 60s (which brought him praise from the Beatles), his early 70s multiple-Grammy winner Nilsson Schmilsson and the notorious follow-up Son of Schmilsson. In my rock critic days I'm pretty sure I saw him at a record launch, probably for The Point. Though in the early 70s he was a phenomenon, in the mid-70s he became a notorious co-hellraiser with John Lennon and Ringo Starr. By the time a friend of mine who worked for Robert Altman’s film company played me a cassette of Nilsson’s demos for the 1980 movie Popeye, he was almost forgotten.

Even his career was a paradox. Though he did have hits that he both wrote and sang (“Spaceman,” “Jump Into the Fire,” the novelty classic “Cocoanut”) his biggest songwriting hits were sung by others (“One” by Three Dog Night) and biggest singing hits were written by others (“Everybody’s Talkin,’” “Without You”.)

Abandoned by his father, his mother had a hard time keeping the family together, and young Harry experienced real poverty. As a teen he even resorted to holding up a liquor store so the rent could be paid. By the age of 15, he was out on his own. He made his way to Los Angeles and worked his way up to assistant manager at the Paramount Theatre. When he was first becoming known, the story was simply that he “worked in a bank.” It sounded like he was some polite young teller, but in fact he was the supervisor for a data processing operation with 132 people that handled $200 million of checks a night.

He worked assidiously at making contacts as a songwriter and his talent was recognized early, though it was awhile before he got beyond jingles. His first break was selling a song to the Monkees, then one of the biggest acts in pop music. It was then that his agent told him he could quit the bank.

That first RCA album (Pandemonium Shadow Show) showcased both his songwriting and his singing. Right from the start he applied the multi-tracking techniques of the Beatles to his own voice, and became essentially the first one-person group by pioneering overdubbing. The Beatles publicist Derek Taylor heard one of his songs, bought many copies of his album and took them back to London. Soon Nilsson (he went by the one name) was getting phone calls from each of the Beatles in turn. John told a reporter that Nilsson he was his favorite American singer. Paul told the same reporter that Nilsson was his favorite American group.

His songs were deceptively mild and whimsical. But “1941” was an autobiography of his own abandonment. Still, no one was writing songs like this, and no one was singing like this either. On the DVD another famed singer and songwriter of the period, Jimmy Webb, calls him “the best singer of our generation.”

His second album Aerial Ballet contained two hits—his breakout “Everybody’s Talkin” (which didn’t become really big until Midnight Cowboy) and “One (is the loneliest number)”—a song inspired by the fatal monotone of a telephone busy signal—which became a hit for Three Dog Night.

Nilsson didn’t tour, and very seldom performed at all. His next albums were equally quixotic: the soundtrack to a children’s animated film he also wrote (The Point) and an album entirely of someone else’s songs—the then-unknown Randy Newman.

But he seemed to get back on the fast track again when he hooked up with producer Richard Perry. Their ambition was to create an album as good as the Beatles, and Perry would be his George Martin. Nilsson Schmilsson pretty much fulfilled that promise. It even had a big hit (“Without You”) written and recorded by Badfinger, a group nurtured by the Beatles ( and produced by George Harrison) who recorded for Apple. The album won several Grammys.

But his private life was troubled. A Catholic, he was torn up by his divorce, and found himself horrifically replicating his own childhood by leaving behind his young son. He was also a carouser who loved to involve his musician and show biz friends in epic benders. “He went 500 miles an hour,” said the Monkees Micky Dolenz, “till he stopped.”

His next album—Son of Schmilsson—was harder, edgier, and producer Perry didn’t like it. It ended their professional relationship. Then came the then-notorious hell-raising with Lennon (on the loose after splitting with Yoko, before they reunited) and Ringo. But in all this chaos, Harry walked into an ice cream parlor and fell in love. Strangely, she was the love of his life. They married happily and had six children.

After “Son of,” Nilsson took another unconventional turn and became probably the first rock singer to record standards of the 40s and 50s, which he did with conductor Gordon Jenkins. Even more than The Point, this was supposed to be evidence of his craziness. But it remains one of his most enduring recordings. He said that he was convinced that his voice was at a perfect point for him to do these songs, and listening to them it’s hard to argue.

Especially since he soon damaged that voice, partly through smoking and drinking, but also in trying to compete with Lennon in his scream therapy phase, leading to the uneven album Lennon produced, Pussy Cats.

When Lennon was murdered in 1980, Nilsson devoted himself to advocating for gun control. He continued to write and record, working on “Popeye” and other movie projects, and making more friends—many of whom are interviewed for this DVD, including Robin Williams, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle.

There was more drama to come, including near-bankruptcy when a manager stole virtually every penny he had. But he returned his family to financial security before he died of heart failure in 1993. He was only 52.

The great virtue of this DVD—for people who don’t know who Nilsson was, as well as Boomers who do—is the gorgeous music it presents. Just enough to interest anyone in this man’s story. (Apparently there was an earlier version of this film, expanded when more archival footage was found.)

The movie gives Nilsson’s life a particular storyline, in what it includes and how it arranges it, and what segments of what interviews it provides. It’s not entirely limiting—there’s so much to ponder that viewers can follow their own alternate storylines.

But even better, there are more interviews and more from the interviews as DVD extras. There we hear more about Nilsson’s nobility of spirit—how he helped many people financially, with little prompting. We also get some alternate takes on things.

For example, the director Scheinfeld seems to take his cue from Richard Perry when he castigates Nilsson’s “Son of Schmilson” songs as so counter-commercial as to constitute a “death-wish.” Perry had expected “a lifetime of hits” from their continuing collaboration, but is particularly sarcastic about the abrasive and offensive to the pop audience lyrics of “You’re Breaking My Heart” (“you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you...”)

But in an extra interview it’s mentioned that at Nilsson’s graveside, George Harrison said that this was his favorite Nilsson song. And so Harrison led several of the superstars in attendance in singing Nilsson to his rest with his words, “You’re breaking my heart/you’re tearing it apart/so fuck you.”

It was always one of my favorites. Harry Nilsson, his first wife said, had trouble expressing anger (which is why, she thought, he gravitated to John Lennon, who had no such trouble.) When he finally did get anger and pain into the forefront of his music, his producer turned against him. But it was authentic. No doubt he made mistakes of excess. But his artistic decisions were usually exactly right, as his recorded legacy affirms.

After seeing this DVD I think of another of his songs, and the lyric “You can jump into the fire/but you can never be free.”

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