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Documentary, book and box set help to fuel a Harry Nilsson renaissance

"Nilsson: The Life Of A Singer-Songwriter," "Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him" and "The RCA Albums Collection" revisit his legacy.

By Mike Greenblatt

Finally, Harry Nilsson [1941-1994] gets his overdue elevation into the pantheon of great pop artists.

The back cover of Alyn Shipton’s meticulously researched biography, "Nilsson: The Life Of A Singer-Songwriter" (Oxford University Press), has quotes from the University of Liverpool’s Dave Laing (“lost genius of American music”), filmmaker Terry Gilliam (“lyrical Icarus who flew too close to the blazing sun”), composer Jimmy Webb (“troubled and problematic”), Yoko Ono (“beautiful voice, soft and velvety, uniquely original”) and Ringo Starr (“Harry Nilsson was my best friend”).


Harry Edward Nilsson comes daringly and thrillingly alive within these pages, as he does on Sony Legacy’s "Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection," a 17-CD box of rarities, complete albums, alternate tracks and movie music that shimmers with his stunning vocal pyrotechnics — oftentimes double- and triple- and quadruple-tracked like a one-man Beatles or Beach Boys — that shows this one-of-a-kind artist to be possibly the most unique music individual ever. His music ran the gamut from the sublime to the totally ridiculous…and he changed the lives of everyone who had the luck to have known him.

The renaissance actually started in 2010 with the release of the feature film documentary
"Who Is Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him."


The book starts with Nilsson’s mother telling him that his father died in the war, thus inflicting a deep wound on him when he realized his father had simply abandoned him. From Brooklyn to Los Angeles and back to Long Island, he had the kind of childhood Charles Dickens would have relished writing about. Bette Nilsson was an alcoholic petty criminal who, by the time Nilsson hitchhiked across the country to be with his mom again (who had left him in the care of others), she was already in jail and his sister was in protective custody.

Yet this was a young man who loved Laurel & Hardy, Ray Charles, Lenny Bruce, strumming his ukulele, and playing shortstop for his high school baseball team (where he competed against future Boston Red Sox Hall Of Fame outfielder Carl Yastrzemski).

In Cali, he ushered at the Paramount and learned more about music from the live acts the venue hosts. He bailed his mother out of trouble when one of her creditors — whom she tried to scam with a bad $60 check — came a’ callin’. Borrowing her car, he went into a liquor store, used his pointed finger inside his pocket as a gun, robbed the store of $60, gave it to his mom, and got away with it. Smart and quick-thinking, he lied on an application for a job at a bank (he had never graduated high school) yet got the job, and rose through the ranks to command one of the first computer banking systems [1962-1967] — all while writing songs at night.

He wrote songs with Phil Spector in 1964, signed a publishing deal to write for other artists, got a reputation around town as a hotshot L.A. songwriter when The Monkees recorded his “Cuddly Toy,” and got signed as a recording artist by RCA. He quit the bank, wrote the music for Otto Preminger’s "Skidoo" film, and palled around with the movie's star, Jackie Gleason, who loved the brash kid.


Beatle publicist Derek Taylor heard Nilsson's debut album, freaked out, bought 25 copies, and distributed them to all of his friends — including John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. John called Nilsson on the telephone in the middle of the night to tell him how much he loves the album; Paul called him the next night. The Beatles wound up sending Nilsson a round-trip airplane ticket to London, where he spent a night alone with each Beatle and went into the studio to watch them record "The White Album." Lennon gave Nilsson the fur jacket he wore on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour; Paul asked him to write a song for Mary Hopkin, and Harry went into a room and wrote the words “Dreams are nothing more than wishes and a wish is just a dream you wish to come true. “The Puppy Song,” vintage Nilsson, appears on his "Harry," his third album.

Nilsson returned from his Beatle visitation a changed man. He fired his producer, thinking he can now manage it all himself. He recorded, for his fourth disc, an entire hardly-commercial album of songs by unknown songwriter Randy Newman ("Nilsson Sings Newman"). Three Dog Night turned “One” into a major hit.

Things started to get wild when Nilsson began hanging around with Keith Moon of The Who, Mama Cass (both of whom died at separate times in the same London flat), Lennon (who spent the majority of his 18-month “lost weekend” with Nilsson, lowlighted by getting thrown out of a Smothers Brothers nightclub show for constantly disrupting their act), as well as Starr, Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees, singer-songwriter Van Dyke Parks, Turtle Howard Kaylan, Monty Python’s Eric Idle (who invited Nilsson onstage during the troupe's Broadway run only to have Nilsson fall off the stage, into the orchestra pit, and break his wrist). Dolenz’s wife hated it when Nilsson showed up at the door, as she knew he was going to drag her husband out for wild, drug-and-drink-fueled, 72-hour adventures where one could wake up anywhere — if they even fell asleep in the first placel.

RCA was poised to drop Nilsson until he barged into the offices of the corporate hierarchy with John Lennon himself; instead, NIlsson is handed a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract on the spot. He promptly proceeded to bite the hand that fed him by ignoring the corporate suits and listening instead to his inner muse, recording all sorts of crazy material. Studio sessions became parties with a fully-stocked bar, sumptuous buffet and cocaine by the pound — all paid for by Nilsson. A typical Nilsson session with Dr. John, Danny Kortchmar, Jim Keltner, Starr, Parks and whoever else happened to be in town would start at 7; by 10, not a note would have been played. He befriended LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, and Nilsson's dark side emerged. Gone is the choirboy of the first three albums. Rock-star excess rules, and Nilsson does not handle success well. Soon, he’s up to a bottle of brandy a day.

Harry Nilsson publicity photo

The book gets down and dirty about the excess. But it also gets musical. With each new album, astute critical assessment still makes the music take precedence. Harry has his biggest album with "Nilsson Schmilsson," but he refused to stay on formula in future projects, because that’s Harry. He could have been a much bigger star, but he demanded obscurity by traversing totally non-commercial backroads and albums that never again caught that original spark of the first three. He invited an army of senior citizens from an old folks' home into the recording studio for what should have been his superstar follow-up to "Nilsson Schmilsson," "Son Of Schmilsson." He got the elderly folks sloshed on brandy and had them sing, “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” And you’re not going to get much radio airplay with a song that says, “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so f**k you” as the follow-up single to his No. 1 in America cover of Badfinger's “Without You.” (People also know him from his other famous cover of Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talkin’,” used in the film "Midnight Cowboy.")

Nilsson's choice to record a standards album with Frank Sinatra’s arranger Gordon Jenkins proved to be ahead of its time — and 10 times better than all the artists who have attempted that since (00 times better than Rod Stewart’s five volumes of such). He continued to record idiosyncratic albums, each of which contains nuggets of pure genius that one must sift through the eccentricity to find.

When Lennon arrived to produce him on "Pussy Cats," Nilsson loses his voice after Lennon demands that he scream for as long as loud as he can. Though Nilsson later gets his voice back, it’s forever changed.

Nilsson branched out by doing the music for Robert Altman’s "Popeye" and the theme song for TV’s "The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father," and writing a musical ("Zapata") and the beautiful animated children’s movie "The Point," which was brought to the British stage and resulted in a gorgeous soundtrack.

Then, John Lennon was murdered, and NIlsson basically quit music to throw himself headlong into an anti-gun campaign. After he cleaned up, he remarked, “I knew there were two 10 o’clocks, but didn’t realize how nice the early one is.”

Things went downhill from there. Nilsson's health problems escalated. RCA paid him millions just to go away. His trusted financial advisor embezzled all his money, which left Nilsson broke, with a family of seven to support.|

“Small royalty checks arrived from RCA and his publishers, but these were usually dwarfed by the sheer cost of the bankruptcy proceedings themselves. The shock of sudden bankruptcy, however, tipped Nilsson from indifferent health into becoming a seriously ill man," Shipton wrote. "He became clinically depressed, but in 1991/1992, he also suffered increasingly from restricted movement caused by neuropathy, developed a painful hiatal hernia, was diagnosed with blood clots in his legs, and, more seriously, his lungs (which threatened fatal strokes or heart attacks), as well as developing full-blown diabetes."

By the fall of 1992, Nilsson had been rushed into the intensive care unit at the hospital three times — twice for blood clots and once for suspected rectal cancer. He felt suicidal, at times just wanting to hide under the bed covers, “hoping that somebody will cover one of my old songs” and suffering wakeful nights and “crying jags.”

Nilsson The RCA Albums Collection

There are those who say Harry Nilsson died at 52 because his heart simply gave out from too much cocaine. Van Dyke Parks thinks Nilsson died because of what RCA did to him, paying him to not sing anymore. Lee Blackman thinks NIlsson died because of the strain of the embezzlement. Whatever the case, the tragic end to Nilsson’s story is tempered by the joyous work he left behind.

"The RCA Albums Collection" — all 17 CDs—with so much brilliance never before released, is a fitting epitaph to a legacy that will never be matched. True artistry always changes. Harry’s eclectic, eccentric, funny-as-all-hell, wistful, whimsical, childlike brilliance will be listened to by people 100 years from now. He’s still alive, really. GM