Reviews

Alyn Shipton's 'Nilsson' Is a Perfect Portrait of an Imperfect Man

Image from the cover of Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973)

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, and maybe the only one we'll ever need.


Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 368 pages
Author: Alyn Shipton
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-07
Amazon

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.

10

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.