Thursday, June 14, 2007

Well, In 1941 The Happy Father Had A Son...

I've actually met a few people in my time who said they didn't like Harry Nilsson's music. In those cases, the excuse is that they don't like the kind of old timey music Nilsson used as his inspiration, that sort of Tin Pan Alley feel that made his stuff stand out. I can always understand if a genre doesn't appeal to you, but you can still respect certain artists that work within that genre. I generally can't stand hip-hop, but I like some of the things that I've heard from DMX; his stuff sometimes has the feel of a rock song and his voice is generally quite strong. I used to hate country music, but I've discovered that a lot of the old country classics of Lorette Lynn and George Jones have grown on me. No matter what your dislikes are, there's always a little room to find something you like. I'm sure that those who don't like Nilsson (or claim to) will certainly find one or two of his songs to appreciate. And with that, the floodgates might open to a full-blown musical love affair, which is what I hope happens to those unfortunate non-Nilsson fans I've met because they sure could use it.

My point is, who doesn't like Harry Nilsson? Saying you don't like Nilsson is like saying you don't like The Beatles. It simply doesn't make any fucking sense. Musical geniuses like him don't come around very often and they don't often stay musical geniuses, so you've got to savor them while they're around. Nilsson isn't around anymore, unfortunately, but his music remains timeless as only the best songs do. He stayed away from the musical trends of his day and did his own thing; although he was one of the most prominent musicians of the late 60s, his music doesn't sound like what you would define 60s music to be. There's no psychadelia or Dylanesqe folk influence, it was truly its own thing. OK, I suppose you can hear a bit of the Brill Building/Spector style (and perhaps a touch of Motown) in Nilsson, but it's not all that apparent. And even when he covered something, which he did often they became Nilsson songs by the time they were over. Not many people knew that "Everybody's Talkin'" and "Without You" were covers, while Nilsson Sings Newman is one of my all-time favorite albums, even though I find the original Randy Newman versions not as impressive. Nilsson covered a lot of stuff, highlighting another one of his strengths, his generosity to other artists. The guy knew a great song when he heard one and when he covered it, he did so in part so he could share that song with the rest of us.

Still, if Nilsson was nothing more than a cover band we probably wouldn't be talking about him. The guy could literally write anything; a kid's song like "The Puppy Song", a jaded romance like "Together", an all-out rocker like "Jump Into The Fire", when the guy was on you could forget about all the others. His music had a playfulness about it, a joy of living to songs like "Girlfriend" (also known as "Best Friend" from THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER TV show) and a wonderful sarcastic wit in "You're Breaking My Heart" and "Spaceman". But what really set him apart was the melancholy material, songs like "1941", "Daddy's Song" (one of the most upbeat sad songs I can think of) and "One" that made no one really wrote or recorded a song about heartbreak who felt it like Nilsson did. On top of that, he was always trying new things, such as "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night", an album of standards (long before such a thing became in vogue), the animated kid's special "The Point" and his delightful score for "Ziggy's Gift". There's also his much-derided score to Altman's POPEYE, which is actually full of one great song after another, from "I Yam What I Yam" to "He Needs Me", which Paul Thomas Anderson was nice enough to bring back into the spotlight in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE. And let's not forget his work on Preminger's SKIDOO, where he sings the film's credits. Yeah, this guy was an original.

On top of all that, there are all these stories of how he was a warm and loving human being, the many friends he had and how he continued to work the night shift in a bank even as his career was starting to take off. Yes, his drinking was severe and it ultimately did him in, but wouldn't you give a small fortune to travel back in time to the night he and John Lennon got kicked out of the Troubadour? (Nilsson story I once heard: Nilsson died the day before the big L.A. earthquake of 1994, and an aftershock hit during his funeral. Once it was done, George Harrison is said to have uttered, "I guess John and Harry just got reunited in heaven".) Harry Nilsson would have been 66 tomorrow and even though he left us too soon, he left us with a lot. In truth, he left us with a little bit extra, as his final album, which he finished laying the vocal tracks down for the night before he died, remains unreleased. Someday we'll all hear it and maybe, one hopes, it will match the high standards to which most of us judge Nilsson's music. It's a really nice thought and I hope that it comes true some day. Until then, I've got plenty of Nilsson to listen to to keep me company.

1 comment:

The Shamus said...

Marvelous post. Always happy to see somebody remembering Harry. One of my favorite Harry "songs" is that brilliant 30-second filler where he whispers in alternating voices to fill out a side of a cassette re-release. Only Nilsson would have thought of that.