Harry Nilsson was one of the greatest American vocalists to ever have lived, a stylistic chameleon who could make you split your sides or who could break your heart, sometimes in the space of one line or even inside the same note. He was a favorite artist of all four Beatles, a writer of hits for other acts including Three Dog Night, an occasional actor, a family man, and finally, a truly tragic figure. He may have not been entirely forgotten by the time of his death in 1994 at the too-early age of 52, but his greatest success was two decades behind him by then and despite having penned an impressive list of impressive songs, he hadn’t recorded an album in something like 14 years and hadn’t had a hit in even longer.
No matter that his song “Coconut” appeared in Reservoir Dogs, or that The Walkmen recreated his 1974 John Lennon-produced effort Pussy Cats in its entirety 22 years after it first appeared, or that John Scheinfeld made an excellent documentary about him, titled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), not enough people know his music or his name. This biography from Alyn Shipton, the first on Nilsson, and a new box set of the artist’s RCA albums (really the bulk of his recorded output) may remedy that.
What makes Shipton’s book essential reading is not just his enthusiasm for the subject, which is evident on each page, but his honesty, as well. No one can talk about Nilsson without talking about his failures: He sabotaged his career through drugs and drink and an unwillingness to become the hit machine he so clearly could have been; he damaged his voice not only through substance abuse but also in an attempt to impress Lennon; although his own father abandoned him as a child he could not avoid doing the same with his eldest son. That said, there’s no way you can do anything but love Nilsson, maybe even because of those failures. He was, by all accounts, warm, generous, funny, brilliant, and a guy who had a heart large enough to match his outsized personality. His rich, avuncular voice could make you laugh not only when he sang, but also when he spoke, and his singing could help heal even the deepest wounds.
That’s all here, in these pages, of course, as Shipton follows Nilsson from his impoverished youth in Brooklyn, where he was raised, more or less, by his alcoholic mother and members of his extended family, to his time as a banker (he had a gift for numbers and was at the forefront of computerized banking, despite not having a high school diploma), to his success as a Grammy-winning recording artist and beyond. Shipton relies on interviews with friends and family, including Nilsson’s children and third wife Una, to tell the story, but also on his own sensitive and well-tuned ears as he gives us detailed analysis of Nilsson’s recorded output, including some music that has not been available to a wide commercial audience.
It’s impossible not to keep turning the pages as you read about young Harry’s adventures in making his way out West from New York after his aunt and uncle expelled him from their home once he’d been fired from his job as a caddy, or the way in which he worked in the studio with producer Richard Perry, who oversaw the unapologetically rock-oriented 1971 classic Nilsson Schmilsson (which many consider his finest hour) and its flawed but fun successor Son of Schmilsson (1972). There are, of course, also his moments with The Beatles. He would become close friends with both Lennon and Ringo Starr and get to know George Harrison quite well. His relationship with Paul McCartney never blossomed into anything all that remarkable, although he did write “The Puppy Song” for songstress Mary Hopkin who Macca had signed to the Apple label. (Sir Paul also produced her 1969 album Postcard, which features Nilsson’s composition.)
Given that Nilsson’s commercial stature is considerably less than that of his famous friends’ it might be easy for Shipton to let them dominate the pages on which they appear (the detailed accounts of the 18 months that Harry and Lennon spent running in close circles together in Los Angeles, for instance) but instead they remain exactly what they were to Nilsson, an important influence, a group of people who he admired and respected but who also clearly admired and respected him. (You might argue that his early material and range made him one of the few true peers The Beatles had in terms of creativity in their latter years. You could also make the argument that he and McCartney especially were cut from the same creative cloth. But both are arguments for a different time.)
The supporting cast is nice but the star remains the most interesting character throughout Shipton’s narrative, becoming more complex and arguably more interesting as his creative output goes into decline. Nilsson never really recovered from the carousing he and Lennon did in Los Angeles, some of which seriously damaged the former’s reputation; his latter albums, including Duit On Mon Dei (1975 and initially titled God’s Greatest Hits) and Sandman (1976) were sometimes chaotic affairs and lacked the direction that previous producers such as Perry had given him. By the time he showed signs of artistic recovery, with 1977’s Knnillssonn, it was too late. Hopes of that record showing strong were dashed when, within a month of its release, labelmate Elvis Presley died, sending RCA into a mood to celebrate The King and shortly thereafter Nilsson was released from his contract.
He issued two more records, 1980’s Flash Harry (produced by Steve Cropper, it was not issued in the US, though that will be remedied this year) and the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s 1980 film Popeye. Nilsson spent his final decade contributing occasional tunes to films, including friend Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King, campaigning to ban hand guns, raising his growing family, and trying to make a name for himself in the film industry, working extensively with legendary writer Terry Southern. He even, on at least one occasion, tried his hand at sobriety.
The final years were especially hard for the once great voice. A business associate embezzled millions from him, resulting in bankruptcy; ill health prevented him from doing significant work, including proposed live dates, which would have been his first since the mid-‘60s. His sudden death in 1994 may have spared him many more years of suffering, though his legacy was about to climb with the release of a two-CD retrospective, a tribute record, and, of course, his past recordings reemerging on CD, something he would have probably loved to have seen.
There is a great deal more than sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll in the pages of Shipton’s book, though, and plenty more than the usual rise and fall of a great talent. There’s humor, warmth, friendship, kindness, love, and wisdom, all the things that Nilsson himself included in his songs. Shipton captures those while delivering a sometimes lovely but always honest portrait of a man who left the planet far too soon and whose presence is deeply missed. Remarkably, for a story of this scope there’s neither a moment or word wasted, nor is there seemingly any stone unturned. Bravo to Shipton for not only giving us the first Nilsson biography but, really, the only one we ever may need.
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