Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Everybody's Talkin' About Harry Nilsson

Who is Harry Nilsson? You're probably familiar with some of his songs: “One,” which was a hit for Three Dog Night, "Best Friend" the theme from the television series The Courtship of Eddie's Father, or "Jump Into The Fire" originally recorded by Harry, but later covered by Warren Zevon. Then there are the memorable songs that Harry had hits with, which were written by others: “Without You,” the heart-wrenching ballad by Pete Ham and Tom Evans of Badfinger, and “Everybody’s Talkin,” the theme to Midnight Cowboy, penned by Fred Neil. Nilsson hung out (and worked with) The Beatles, Keith Moon and The Monkees, among others. However, fame took its toll on him. It’s an often told tale in the music business: struggling singer-songwriter makes it big and finds great success, but drug and alcohol abuse cause a spiral into a self-destructive tailspin. The artist rises out of that dark place, and then unfortunately dies much too early. In many ways, that template fits what occurred with Nilsson, but it's only part of the story: the fascinating 2010 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) gives us a well-rounded picture of the man, his music, and his all too brief life.

Nilsson came to prominence in the 60s as a singer-songwriter. His first real success came after The Monkees recorded his song “Cuddly Toy.” He released a series of beautifully produced albums (including Pandemonium Shadow Show, Harry and Nilsson Schmilsson) with songs featuring witty and incisive lyrics, and hummable melodies. Artists like The Beatles stood up and took notice, and his songs were covered by the likes of Glenn Campbell and The 5th Dimension. In fact, when asked in a late 1960s interview who their favorite American group or artist was, John and Paul both responded “Nilsson.” That mutual respect (Nilsson was a huge fan and had covered several Beatles tunes on his albums) grew into a strong friendship with the Fab Four, especially John and Ringo, which is discussed in the film. Interviews with family members, as well as other famous friends like Yoko Ono, Micky Dolenz, Eric Idle, and Randy Newman sketch a loving, thoughtful and yet realistic portrait of Nilsson. Its definitely a "warts and all" story.

Producer Richard Perry, who worked with Nilsson on some of his most successful albums, talks about his great talent, his perfectionism and his complicated personality. Perry tells a great story about the recording of the hit song “Coconut,” and how Nilsson decided on using different voices for the various characters. Nilsson's problem was that he was often his own worst enemy, and sabotaged his career with bad judgment or foolish behavior. But he also did things that later became successful trends in the business. Well before rock stars sang pop standards on a regular basis, Nilsson recorded an entire album of them entitled A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973). He also released a well-regarded album of compositions by fellow singer-songwriter Randy Newman, Nilsson Sings Newman.

Another interesting point made in the film is that Nilsson never actually toured or performed live concerts during his most successful years, but still managed to have a host of best selling albums and hit singles. He even recorded a BBC “live” concert special that had no real audience! The movie highlights some of the other projects Nilsson worked on, including the acclaimed 1971 animated film The Point, featuring a story and songs by Nilsson, including “Me & My Arrow,” the critically lambasted and little seen 1974 rock musical Son of Dracula (co-starring Nilsson's pal Ringo Starr) and his work on the songs for the Robert Altman film Popeye (1980), which is discussed by Robin Williams, one of the stars of that film. Also covered are the darker periods of Nilsson’s life, when drinking and drug use took its toll on him, professionally and personally. His partying took on legendary proportions, including taking part in John Lennon’s famous “Lost Weekend” in LA. The interviewees don’t flinch in their honesty about this aspect of his life, but through it all their love and respect for him still comes through. One of the observations made by Yoko is that Harry's younger years echoed Lennon’s in many ways, and this informed the way both men viewed the world, and how they lived. 

Nilsson managed to get healthy and found renewed happiness with his third wife Una and their children. After Lennon’s death in 1980, Nilsson spent the latter part of his life advocating gun control, and was very active in lobbying for better handgun laws, performing at Beatlefest conventions to raise money for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. He started recording again and began working on new projects. Sadly, Harry died of heart failure in January 1994. The film (written and directed by John Scheinfeld) is a comprehensive portrait of this complex, talented man, and features some wonderful performance clips and in studio footage of this amazing artist. The movie is available on DVD and for digital download on various sites. The disc version includes extended interviews and additional performances. If you are a fan of his music, or the songs and artists of the 1960s & 1970s, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) is a must see. Here's a link to the trailer for the film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SoFpvG5fb-0 and
and performances of "Everybody's Talkin" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2AzEY6ZqkuE and "Gotta Get Up" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwQa_Ot7ss8.

Please Note: If you enjoy reading my work here at Eclectic Avenue, I'm also writing for Culture Sonar, an excellent arts & entertainment website. Please check them out at www.culturesonar.com. Here are links to a couple of my recent posts, a feature about Badfinger's "Straight Up," http://www.culturesonar.com/badfinger-straight-up/, and a look at Otis Redding's "Otis Blue" http://www.culturesonar.com/otis-blue-album/. Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Very Underrated musician and lyricist.

    Documentaryvhas been sitting in my Netflix watchlist. Maybe it's time to dust it off.

    ReplyDelete