The Unraveling of Nilsson

Rob Horning

The most reluctant rock star of the 1970s self-destructs in the studio in a manner that would make Alex Chilton proud, rejecting the FM pop-radio mainstream altogether.

It's hard to summarize the eclectic, unlikely career of Harry Nilsson, a prodigiously talented songwriter, singer and drinker who clung to the fringes of the mainstream while never seeming to make any compromises to prevailing taste or common sense. Not only did he have a vast vocal range, but Nilsson seemed to generate indelible melodies instinctively, and he exuded an irresistible mood -- epitomized by the iconic photo of him in his bathrobe on the cover of his biggest album, Nilsson Schmilsson -- a gentle kind of detatched irony that seemed entirely free of cynicism. His songs were covered by everyone from Three Dog Night ("One") to the Monkees ("Cuddly Toy") to the Yardbirds ("Ten Little Indians") to Barbra Streisand ("Maybe"), but his own biggest hits were covers -- Badfinger's "Without You" and Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'", the theme song for the gay-gigolo film Midnight Cowboy.

Nilsson supplied the music to Otto Preminger's risible drug-culture comedy Skidoo (a film in which Jackie Gleason trips on acid and Groucho Marx plays God), setting the entire closing credit roll to music, and provided the theme song for the sentimental sitcom The Courtship of Eddie's Father ("People let me tell you ‘bout my best friend....") Inspired by an LSD trip of his own, he conceived of The Point, a deadpan children's story (though its message is probably more poignant for wayward adults), which he set to music producing some of his most transcendent songs -- "Me and My Arrow", "Think About Your Troubles", "Are You Sleeping?"

Early on he earned the patronage of the Beatles, who declared him one of their favorite artists after his first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, a diverse set of wry, baroque pop tunes and Tin Pan Alley pastiches (and Beatles covers); later he'd round out the 1970s as one of Lennon's more notorious drinking buddies on the lost weekend, cutting the album Pussycats with him, a Chiltonesque self-destruct-o-rama on which you can hear his vocal cords shredding. He rarely performed in public, never toured, but would make strange appearances on TV, doing such things as perform "Coconut" in a gorilla costume. All in all, it's a recipe that makes for a towering cult figure, perfectly suited to the romantic archetype of the artist as an enigmatic genius, someone it's easy to become obsessed with.

If you take that bait, you'll want to bypass Everybody's Talkin', an adequate 14-song collection that brings together all his chart hits but gives little sense of Nilsson's range and eccentricities. The songs are uniformly excellent, but reducing Nilsson to just these few is to denature him, to give an entirely false picture of his essence. Half the songs are from his commercial pinnacle in the early 1970s, leaving his gentler 1960s style and his Randy Newman fixation (which won him a Grammy in 1970, for Nilsson Sings Newman) inadequately represented. Also the anarchic, perverse side of his nature doesn't quite come across; "Coconut", a hangover cure set to music, hints at it, but the rest of the disc emphasizes his penchant for melancholy balladry, as in "The Moonbeam Song" and "Remember (Christmas)". If a career overview is what you are after, better to plunk down the extra money for the 1995 double-disc retrospective Personal Best.

If you want a view of Nilsson at his most idiosyncratic, though, Son of Schmilsson is not a bad place to begin. At first glance, and as its title suggests, it seems to be a reprise of the formula Nilsson Schmilsson used to achieve a commercial breakthrough. The same producer, Richard Perry, was in charge, and another all-star cast of musicians (Ringo Starr, George Harrison, Peter Frampton, Klaus Voormann, Nicky Hopkins, Chris Spedding, Bobby Keys) was gathered together for the sessions. Paul Buckmaster was again brought in for an arrangement, this time for "Spaceman", a neglected entry in the "Space Oddity"/"Rocket Man" school of songwriting about astronautical ennui.

Despite all the same trappings, however, Son of Schmilsson is nothing like the carbon-copy sequel that must have been anticipated, mainly because Nilsson's songwriting at this point had reach its indulgent apex -- or nadir, depending on how you take to couplets like "You're breaking my heart, you're tearing me apart, so fuck you" (from "You're Breaking My Heart") or "I sang my balls off for you baby, I almost broke the microphone" (from "Take 54"). Even when the songs weren't vulgar, they were still potentially offensive, as in the choir of elderly people Nilsson employs to sing "I'd rather be dead than wet my bed". Often the record verges dangerously close to being an alienating in-joke on its audience, the folks who propelled this strange record to the top 20 in America, who presumably were expecting another collection of radio-friendly rock hits in the manner of "Jump in the Fire" and soaring ballads like "Without You".

But what saves the album, and makes it perhaps even more durable that its predecessor, is Nilsson's emotional directness, which makes it pretty clear he's not out to laugh at anyone, except perhaps for himself, and that what lies behind his wriggly oddity is a valiant effort to be something other than predictable product, despite the record-label pressures to take such a course and the ego-stroking blandishments that it might have afforded. Instead, he turns the rock-star ego and turns it inside-out, writing songs to depict just how craven and needy celebrities can be behind the façade.

In "Take 54" he pleads for a groupie's attention, revealing the underlying dialectic in that relation, while "Turn on Your Radio" depicts the dilemma of becoming insignificant in comparison with one's own work and "The Lottery Song" suggests the meaningless randomness of success and the naïve, humble dreams that are lost if one achieves actual fame. "Ambush" rejects the solace of music, viewing instead as something that reveals you to your enemies. "Spaceman" carries the lonely-rock-star theme to its logical conclusion, with the singer finding himself helplessly in orbit, alienated from everyone by his own aspirations.

At the center of the album, "You're Breakin' My Heart," seems like a joke song, but Nilsson's toying with the censors masks a deeper cynicism. With its blunt refrain and its undecorated lyrics, it appears to reject the whole songwriting project of using metaphor to express and transform emotional pain. Instead, there is just exhaustion with the whole aesthetic process as well as the process of falling in love; the song makes it clear without melodrama that neither are worth the effort.

But the album has lighter moments: "Joy" is a country-western pastiche that seems like a loving parody of Lee Hazlewood, and "The Most Beautiful World in the World" is sufficiently strange and affirming to make sport with death and possibly the apocalypse. The bonus tracks include an alternate take of "Take 54", two piano ballads, "What's You Sign?" and Jimmy Webb's "Canpo de Encino", and a semi-improvised jam based around "I'd Rather Be Dead", an unlisted extra appended to "Daybreak" that meanders through pre-war pop styles and makes for suitable preparation for Nilsson's subsequent album, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a collection of standards from what's called the Great American Songbook.

Other artists -- Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Carly Simon -- have since made this turn away from contemporary music to show tunes, usually signaling their post-pop-career pretensions. But in 1973, Nilsson, against the wishes of practically everyone, was entering terra incognita, without any feasible expectation of commercial success, indulging instead the nostalgic strain that had always colored his records. And while the more-recent standards albums are tinged with Starbucks-friendly lite-jazz trappings, Nilsson eschewed jazz all together, hiring conductor Gordon Jenkins -- Sinatra's arranger for the ponderous Where Are You? and September of My Years albums among others -- to provide lush, intricate string-heavy orchestrations that proceed at a glacial pace. Often these overwhelm Nilsson himself, who demonstrates his fine vocal range but shows little ability to wring fresh emotion from these over-familiar chestnuts: "It Had to Be You", "You Made Me Love You", "As Time Goes By", "Always". Plus the tempos are uniformly plodding, and all the songs are linked together into one seamless slog of sameness that seems to dare you not to fall asleep.

Still, it's admirable how straight Nilsson plays this, without smirking or pandering, without resorting to the kind of histrionics that took him to number one with "Without You". It seems far away from any extra-musical calculation. It's a late-night record, as the title implies, and if it settles into the background, it nevertheless soothes subliminally. Though his public persona became more chaotic, and his notoriety began to cloud perceptions of his abilities, this record stands as near-final testimony of the quiet calm he was capable of conveying in his work.


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Photo courtesy of Matador Records

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