Graded on a Curve: Harry Nilsson,
Nilsson Schmilsson

Remembering Harry Nilsson, born yesterday in 1941.Ed.

Harry Nilsson is one of the rock’n’roll’s stranger paradoxes; a songwriter of real genius, and one of rock’s great interpreters of other people’s songs, his gradual descent into round-the-clock consumption of Brandy Alexanders transformed him into the bawdy lush responsible for such dubious tunes as “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” (“You’re breakin’ my heart/You’re tearing it apart/So fuck you”) and “I’d Rather Be Dead” (“I’d rather be dead/I’d rather be dead/I’d rather be dead/Than wet my bed.”)

Nilsson established his critical reputation with such early classics of pop baroque as 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show and 1968’s Aerial Ballet, and his groundbreaking interpretative showcase, 1970’s Nilsson Sings Newman. He achieved his popular breakthrough with 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, an amazing collection of originals and covers, and won critical praise for that same year’s soundtrack to the ABC animated film, The Point, which spawned the hit “Me and My Arrow.”

However, by 1972’s Son of Schmilsson and 1973’s A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (a selection of pop standards), Nilsson’s magic touch was fading in direct proportion to his consumption of alcohol. His definitive fall from pop grace came during his notorious connection with John Lennon during the latter’s 1975 LA Lost Weekend, with its tragicomic episode at the Troubadour, Lennon’s destruction of Lou Adler’s bedroom, and Nilsson’s hurling a bottle through a hotel window.

Their non-stop boozing and carousing culminated in the wasted, Lennon-produced fiasco that was 1974’s Pussy Cats, which included such mediocrities as the Lennon-flavored take on Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” a truly insipid cover of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and a sub-par “Save the Last Dance for Me” (Nilsson ruptured a vocal chord during the sessions, and hid the fact from Lennon; as a result, his normally lovely vocals were very rough). Indeed, the only song I find listenable is the truly raucous cover of “Rock Around the Clock,” which features (remarkably enough) Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and Jim Keltner on drums, as well as Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and Bobby Keys on sax.

Nilsson recovered his voice, but never quite recovered his critical or popular mojo, and Nilsson Schmilsson remains his best album of the seventies, and contains three of his biggest hits. Fans of his twee early work or Nilsson Sings Newman may disagree, but I consider Nilsson Schmilsson his masterpiece. It opens with “Gotta Get Up,” a fast-paced piano ditty that, in typical alcoholic fashion isn’t about having to get out of bed, but having to get home “before the morning comes.” It features some interesting horn and accordion work by Jim Price and Henry Krein respectively, but its highlight is Nilsson’s vocal, which is smooth, urgent, and nostalgic for wilder times: “There was a time when we could dance until a quarter to ten/We never thought it would end then/We never thought it would end/We used to carry on and drink and do the rock’n’roll/We never thought we would get older/We never thought we’d grow cold/But now…”

It’s a catchy number, as is follow-up “Driving Along,” which opens with some nice rhythm guitar by Klaus Voormann and one very catchy Nilsson vocal: “Driving along/You can see all the people/Who seem to have nothing to say to each other/Each day they grow farther and farther away from each other.” Then the tempo picks up and Nilsson, voice smooth as silk, sings, “Driving along at 57,000 miles an hour/Look at those people standing on the petal of a flower,” which is followed by a kickass guitar solo. The song ends with the tempo picking up, and Nilsson singing (to the accompaniment of some great handclaps), “They seem to say nothing/They seem to go nowhere/They seem to go farther/They seem to go nowhere/They seem to go farther/And farther and farther/And farther and farther… “

The stripped-down and bluesy Leo Jordan cover “Early in the Morning” features a simple Nilsson organ riff and Nilsson repeating it’s “early in the morning/And I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues.” One bad scene follows another; he goes to get something to eat, and the waitress says, “Harry, you sure look beeeeaaaaat.” The song’s climax occurs when Nilsson repeats “Early in the morning” nine times and follows that with, “And I ain’t got nothing but the” repeatedly before he finally gets out that “blues.” The sleepy and simple “The Moonbeam Song” utilizes a quiet acoustic guitars by Voormann and John Uribe and is exquisitely lovely, what with Nilsson singing in his smoothest voice, “Have you ever watched a moonbeam?/As it slid across your windowpane” and going on in this vein, until the second verse when he’s joined by some very smooth backing vocalists. It’s a marvelous little song, and ends in a miniature string fadeout. I love it.

“Down,” which has a Lennonesque feel to it, is a funky and hard-driving number, and features piano and big horns by Jim Price and Bobby Keys, the guitar of Chris Spedding, as well as some mildly distorted Nilsson vocals a la Johnny Beatle. Nilsson opens the song by singing, “Well you gotta have soap to wash your sins away/You gotta have hope, it’s the price you gotta pay/You gotta give love or love will walk away/You gotta stay loose, it’s the only way to stay,” then spends the remainder of the song singing increasingly funky and urgent variations of “Down, you got me goin’, goin’ round you got me goin’/Down, down, down, down, down, down.” And “Goin’ down to the bottom of a hole, goin’ down/I’m goin’ down to the bottom, to the bottom of a hole goin’ down.” Until the song ends in a repetition of horns and some guitars.

Everybody knows “Without You,” the Pete Ham and Tom Evans (of Badfinger) song that Nilsson made his own, and I don’t have much to say about it except the piano (by, here’s a great trivia question, Gary “Dream Weaver” Wright) and strings are lovely, but not half as exquisite as Nilsson’s vocals, which go from a soft croon to a crescendo in an LA second, and which carry 16 times their weight in sorrow. It’s not my favorite Nilsson song but it’s most likely Nilsson’s most awe-inspiring vocal performance, and he certainly deserved the 1972 Grammy he won for it.

“Coconut” is more my speed, an increasingly frantic calypso novelty tune that opens with simple guitar, adds percussion by Jim Gordon, and features Nilsson repeating, “She put the lime in the coconut/She drank ‘em all up.” The result is a bellyache, so she calls the doctor, and Nilsson plays the doctor to a T, singing in a deep voice, “Now let me get this straight/Put the lime in the coconut/You drank ‘em all up/Put the lime in the coconut/You drank ‘em all up/Put the lime in the coconut/You put the lime in the coconut/You called your doctor, you woke him up.” The song works on repetition, and on the backing vocals that creep into the tune, and on the steadily increasing tempo, until by the end Nilsson is crying, “Ooooh!” and “Doctor!!” and “If you call me in the morning I’ll tell you what to do.”

Nilsson’s cover of the 1956 Shirley and Lee smash “Let the Good Times Roll” is an equally fun song, featuring a rollicking piano by Nilsson, organ by Wright, and guitar by Spedding. Nilsson sings, “Come on baby let the good times roll,” and “Come on baby let’s lock the door/Come on baby let’s rock some more/Come on baby let the good times roll/Roll all night long,” followed by some mellow Spedding guitar and an easy-going but effective Nilsson harmonica solo. Towards the end Nilsson’s vocals grow increasingly frenetic, until at the end he’s simply repeating, “Roll on, roll on, roll on, roll on…”

“Jump Into the Fire” is my all-time fave Nilsson song, a herky-jerky rock’n’roll masterpiece that worked so well as a metaphor for cocaine paranoia in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. And on the LP we all luck out and get the long (7:00) version, which opens with a fantastic throbbing bass line by Herbie Flowers and John Uribe lead guitar riff, after which Jim Gordon’s drums come in and Nilsson sings, his voice redolent with echo, “You can climb a mountain/You can swim a sea/You can jump into the fire/But you’ll never be free.” His vocals grow increasingly urgent, and he practically shouts, “We can make each other happy/We can make each other happy/We can make each other happy/Yowwl!” after which Uribe plays one badass guitar solo.

Then the tempo picks up, Gordon kicks out an impressive groove on drums, and Uribe plays a repetitive riff as Nilsson cries, “Woo hooa hoooa hoooa/Whaaaaaa wooo hoo ahh.” At which point the guitar gives way to a sudden frenetic drum tattoo by Gordon (an undiagnosed schizophrenic who later killed his mother) that goes on and on, joined by Flowers on bass and then Uribe on guitar, who picks back up on the melody (and is joined by a tambourine) and proceeds to jam until the song fades out. It’s one fantastically rhythmic and frantic number, perfect for getting smashed on camping trips and leaping over the campfire. Or for doing a whole shitload of cocaine to and getting really, really paranoid, and I’m talking “Are those helicopters up there after me?” paranoid.

Album closer “I’ll Never Leave You” is a slow, piano- and strings-driven number, and while it left me cold for the longest time, it has really tugged on my heartstrings since my divorce. Nilsson sings, “Some nights I go to sleep without you/The river’s far too deep without youuuuah/ I can’t make it alone/I need you by my side.” Then the strings enter big and lugubrious, and Nilsson repeats the first verse. A short piano and strings instrumental passage ensues, after which the melody changes, and Nilsson (joined by some backing vocalists, whom I suspect are Harry Nilsson) sings, “I’ll never leave you alone/I’ll never leave just a memory/I’ll never leave you alone in the garden/Where nothing grows/I love you so much, baby.” He then croons some nonsense syllables to the accompaniment of the piano until the song ends.

Nilsson sobered up at the end of his life, and while it would be purest conjecture to wonder what he might have bequeathed us had alcohol not ruled his life for so long, I’m the King of Conjecture and I’m going to go out on a limb and say he would have given us many, many additional great songs. But nobody will ever know. All we can know for certain is that “Coconut,” “Jump Into the Fire,” “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “Without You,” and “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” are enough marvelous tunes for anybody, and that he wrote plenty more great songs beside. We were lucky to have him.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would gladly jump into the fire for “Jump Into the Fire” and “Coconut” alone. Throw in that he played a key role in John Lennon making a colossal ass of himself, and what more could you ask of a man? Every time I think of those infamous words, “Yeah, you’re John Lennon with a Kotex on your head” I laugh and say to myself I guess the Lord must be in New York City. Or rather the Troubadour in LA. Wherever, I’m certain the good Lord and Harry Nilsson are drinking Brandy Alexanders and laughing.


This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.

  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text