There is a lot you can say about Harry Nilsson.
A maverick pop star, a hard-partying wild man, a deeply sensitive songwriter, a loving family man, a tortured genius, and a peerless singer, Nilsson cut his way across the music industry for a brief but legendary period in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From his early pop records like Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968) through to his chart-busting genre-spanning masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson (1971), Nilsson was the toast of a certain segment of the L.A. music scene, even if he never quite fit any obvious mold.
Quixotic and aloof, Nilsson refused to give concerts, made a virtue of wild changes in artistic direction, and (to some, anyway) appeared determined to wreck his honeyed voice by smoking, drinking, and drugging his nights away. By the mid-‘70s, Nilsson had reduced himself to a sideshow in an industry that didn’t know what to do with him. Cutting a bright white swath through the Hollywood scene in those years—Nilsson was one of John Lennon’s closest companions during this so-called “lost weekend” era—Nilsson furthered his reputation for impressive excess. But, for those closest to him, there was nothing much about this death spiral that looked like fun. This was a public suicide, a years-long self-destructive binge, the kind of story that can only end in one way. After frying his vocal chords while screaming his way through 1976’s Pussy Cats, Harry Nilsson began a rapid fade into the twilight. Still a year shy of 40, Nilsson was already an old man when he retired in 1980.
And yet. Those 12 years between his first official record in 1967 and his last album in 1979 (which was never even released in the United States) saw the emergence, flowering, and flame-out of one of the most exciting, confounding, frustrating, inventive, and influential artists of the past 60 years. John Lennon called Nilsson his “favourite group.” Master arranger Gordon Jenkins called him “the best singer alive.” No less an authority on performers than Jimmy Webb believes that Nilsson was the “best singer of his generation.” And when it comes to the mysterious genius of Nilsson’s songwriting, his peers are no less effusive. Nilsson may have been yet another shooting star across the art world, another genius with a bent for self-harm, but he was also the very real deal: a singular artist with an uncompromising vision for his craft.
Harry Nilsson died of a heart attack in 1994, so we can’t know how he feels about the rather epic 17-disc retrospective of his career to be released next month by RCA. However, we had the distinct honour of talking with one of Nilsson’s closest friends and most able collaborators, Van Dyke Parks. Parks, himself a gifted and unusual singer-songwriter (not to mention extraordinary arranger and composer) who emerged around the same time as Nilsson, has a perhaps ideal perspective on his old friend’s career and temperament. A lovely, friendly conversationalist, Parks is unafraid of venturing into the thorny question of Nilsson’s very public performance of his own private pain. Speaking to PopMatters from his home in Pasadena, California, Parks exuded warmth, a touch of sadness, and waves of genuine joy that this new collection might re-awaken the world to the oddball brilliance of Harry Nilsson ...
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Harry Nilsson took terrific risks throughout his career. But, it seemed to many at the time was thumbing his nose at the music industry. Was he afraid of commercial success, do you think? Or was he just uninterested in it after his early big hits?
Well, I don’t know why you would say that he was thumbing his nose at the music industry. I don’t think that that’s true. I think it was that Harry was not interested in performing [onstage]. And that created an impossible situation for his manager. It created an impossibility: how to promote an artist who wouldn’t go out and perform.
And you might think that that was so demanding on Harry’s part or arrogant or it might look like he was thumbing his nose at the industry or something. But I think that it’s better to say that Harry was incredibly shy. And inside of his bravado, he did not want to be seen in public. I think he probably had a fear of performing because of that.
And why was he shy? Was it because he had poor dentition, perhaps? I mean, what, why fundamentally was he so wary of the spotlight? I don’t know. But he was.
Nilsson’s art is confusing, and frustrating, too. I mean, he seems to be deeply genuine in his sentimental performances and yet he’s always soaked in a kind of ironic playfulness. Is there any way to reconcile these sides of Nilsson?
Well, I, you know I think that he appreciated the irony of his own self-imposed exile from the system. So he was not hip. Or, perhaps he was too hip for the room! But I think that he was aware that his work was artistic, and very arch. You say “sentimental,” and I don’t think that’s quite right. I think that he was honest! Which, of course, a lot of people consider [to be] a disease.
But if you look at [his album of standards] A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, if you look at the songs he wrote, you find him to be at complete ease at putting his heart on his sleeve and expressing the intimacies of the blues. I guess you would call them “lamentations,” in his case.
The guy was able to paint a picture of despair or melancholy and he did it very well, economically. He did this in very short order because the song is, of course, the ultimate authority of what a short story can do. He could do all of that in a song. I think that it was an amazing combination, to be able to deliver sentimentality and a sense of irony. But that is not to say that there was anything sarcastic about his work, as such. I would maybe look at Randy Newman in comparison, whom Harry loved. [Newman’s songs exhibit] a great degree of sarcasm. I think that the difference between the two is remarkable in that with Harry, there was nothing overbearing. Or, there was no edge in his attitude. Although he could be ... [laughs] there was bite to his bark. But I think that he preferred to depict an informed optimism.
But, even when making a complex joke, Randy Newman presented his material in a fairly straightforward way. Whereas Nilsson ... With something like Touch Of Schmilsson in the Night, you have this record of very straight standards, and yet it comes at you with this absurdly silly title. There’s something destabilizing, in other words, in the way Nilsson presented his work.
I think that’s maybe to put a cloak on. Like, that’s why he’s wearing a bathrobe on the record cover [of his bestselling record, Nilsson Schmilsson] ...
I think that that was an attempt at camouflage. But that plays against the work itself. Many times people would make record album covers and the jacket would somehow illustrate what was within. But you didn’t always get that with Harry. It’s not like he was trying to deceive but I do think that he wanted to hide. He hid in a different way, but just like Randy Newman does in his work.
You find that Randy would create songs about people that didn’t exist before he wrote them into the song. Or assume their points of view that he swears are not his own.
I think that Harry was just as equally aware of that creative opportunity of creating a persona that he adopted. So he’s not the easiest read. Nilsson was like him, that way. And I’m still trying to figure him out.
I think that’s one of the most exciting things about him as an artist, though. And, I mean, if I’m going to draw up a short list of the artists that were doing a species of what you’ve just described, a sort of destabilizing of the pop songwriting status quo, I mean, you would be on the short list for sure. Ry Cooder, maybe. Joshua Rifkin, Jimmy Webb, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson. You all wrote songs colored by nostalgia, and you seem to have been refusing a lot of what was happening in the mainstream in very creative ways.
Well, I think that’s probably a testament to their, to the durability of those songs. I would love to be in that company, of course! I think it’s safe to say there was a coterie of songwriters. Whether people were psychedelic or not, whether they railed against the status quo, or were counter-revolutionary in nature ... Harry had a kind of a singular resistance to what was going on around him. I think that he disdained the circumstances of the ‘60s. He wasn’t going along with all of that like a lemming. No acquiescence. He’s not jumping over that cliff.
You once remarked that Nilsson could be “retro without shame.” Is that what you mean by this? Was he a conservative voice?
Well, yes. I think, yeah. Guilty as charged but without contrition. No, he had no apology for being in the way with his retrospective approach. And I think that it took a lot of courage on his part not to pander to the audience and, well, to the executives. [Harry was] difficult to market at the time.
There was a great deal of subtlety in his work. And I think that that isn’t lost on, wasn’t lost on the casual observer then. But, I mean, I think that it also it’s part of the structure that keeps it upright and available and enjoyable today. It took some courage to get that kind of authorship and character in song form that it wasn’t an easy thing to merchandise at the time.
Occasionally he would step out of that and hit on something extremely merchandisable and prove himself to be something to be regarded as a commercial reality.
And the point is that he was a personable author. But ... he was unmanageable.
Unmanageable. Let’s talk a bit about his association with the party scene. I mean, you talked earlier about him needing to hide to a certain extent. Perhaps using those, the album covers and the Schmilsson persona as a kind of cloaking device. Was that the reason for the booze and drugs?
Well, yeah. I think absolutely. But, of course, alcoholism is an addiction. And it ran in his family with his mother and father. I knew his mother. I never met his father. But, yeah, that just added an extra inconvenience. They just could not put him on the road and in an arena. He was just not equipped to do that, and, yeah, his addictions were part of that. It’s a very sad story actually. And fame exacerbates the whole thing. Fame will really bring some, a raw surface all these problems for a lot of people. And it did with Harry.
You see the same thing with Brian Wilson. You see, there is a front story. The front story is the talent that is the work itself. But then we notice that there might be a back story. You might go around and find out that this front story is just a façade. That there’s something behind it. But I maintain that it’s the front story with Nilsson that deserves exposure now.
But, it’s a fact that he got so much done in the face of his addictive personality. And that’s amazing to me. Do you know that one morning after being up all night, he got up and he went down and did a promotional film [for Touch of Schmilsson in the Night]? It was directed by Stanley Dorfman. It’s a single take of the album. It is an amazing piece of work. You see him stand there for an hour, about an hour and do the, do that record of standards with [conductor] Gordon Jenkins at the podium. It’s amazing.
So, he was a high-functioning alcoholic. But, eventually it would catch up to him.
The thing was that in living the life of an addictive personality, he lost his voice. And you can hear that on his records, but in a compacted time. It was a fast decline of his vocal ability. So that was a real heartbreak for everybody who loved his voice and had fallen in love with his range. But what killed him was not an inability vocally and it wasn’t an inability to write songs. What I think it was, was that Harry suffered from something that many artists do. And that is that he went boldly forward without any regard to whether or not he was going to receive praise or condemnation.
He pushed through, no matter what?
He went right ahead. He was true to himself and he followed his own muse. He followed his madness and that took him well beyond the reach or understanding of the promotion people at the record company. And a lot of artists suffer from that. Tom Waits is one. Joni Mitchell. You see a lot of artists who just move forward so quickly and are so averse to the very idea of repeating themselves. And I think that it’s safe to say that what really brought Harry to a full stop so early in his life, when he had so much left to do. He had so much to offer. I think it was that he was inconvenient. He was inconvenient to the record company and he was uncompromising in his respect for artistic license. And that didn’t make him too popular with the corporations. So it’s sad, yes, a sad story and, ultimately I don’t think that this is something that ends happily.
Is it difficult for you to listen to those albums from the mid to late ‘70s that were colored by that precariousness as his voice is degrading, as he is coming apart?
Of course, I’m totally aware of all of the difficulties that he was undergoing at that time. It’s almost like, but the Nilsson that I loved was the Nilsson that, who celebrated, who brought youth to me. It was his celebration of youth that I’d fallen in love with. And that Harry was always available to me.
And [in the late 1970s] I was participating with a person whose work I had admired and wanted to be, I wanted to be, I guess it’s as guilty as any record promotion man, I wanted so much to see him recite ancient victories. I wanted that falsetto Harry. Yeah.
For a great many people, despite all of his fame, Nilsson is an unknown country to many people today. And this box set is ... it’s 17 disks. It’s extraordinarily exhaustive. Is there an era or even a particular record in there that you’d point to as Nilsson peak, that we can point people towards?
I think “Salmon Falls” [from 1975’s Duit On Mon Dei] is my favorite tune of Harry’s because it’s when he grew into an orchestral environment and he showed how intimate he could be. And it has such a tight focus on the human comedy, the human dilemma. And he expressed so much! It also had the quality not only to entertain but to express the most intimate regard for the supremely unimportant. [It showcased] his powers of observation.
I wish I could say that I was part of its creation. I wasn’t. It was orchestrated by Perry Botkin and decorated so neatly by Robert Greenidge on the steel drum. I think that that piece itself, that’s Harry in a nutshell: appreciating life in all of its variety and splendor.