Sunday, November 10, 2013

Overdosed On Pleasure: The Book of Nilsson

Biography Schmiography
"Neither of us could stop laughing, and finally I said, 'I can't take any more pleasure, John. I can't take any more pleasure. Stop! It's gotta stop!'" That's John as in Lennon, of course, being yelled at by Harry Nilsson in one of the haunting episodes in Alyn Shipton's fine - and necessary - new biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. Nilsson and Lennon were in the midst of their famous "lost weekend" and were in the second continuous day of dropping acid and getting up to no good with two young women. This outrageous escapade began when Lennon said to Nilsson, "I'd love to get some girls and some acid and fuck'em," and Nilsson responded by saying he could get it done with one phone call. And he did.

Something about the gluttony described in that story, which Shipton gleaned from Nilsson's unfinished autobiography (a major source of information in the book), resonates with many of the themes in Harry's life and music. Even from his first album proper, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson was loading on piles of horns, strings, carnival barkers - everything AND the kitchen sink seemed to be the operating principle - enough that even when he's at his best you might find yourself saying "Stop! It's gotta stop." But he was so unique that you'll go back for more in fairly short order.

One doesn't need to be a psychologist (or even a pop-psychologist) to figure that Nilsson's need for surfeit, and ability to provide it, came from the gaping emotional wound left behind when his father abandoned him, an act compounded by his mother's lies about why he had gone. The final blow came when Harry later learned that for part of his childhood his father was nearby and was uninterested in seeing his son. Shipton deals with Nilsson's early life with brisk efficiency in the first chapter which ends as he is recording his earliest demos in 1962. By then he had a respectable job in a bank, showing an early aptitude for the computers that financial institutions were adopting at the time. However, he had already lived a couple of lifetimes at that point: born in Brooklyn, he criss-crossed the country both with his mother and sister and without, played high school baseball with Carl Yastrzemski, knocked over a liquor store to put food on his mother's table - practically the only thing he didn't do for his first 17 years was make music.

Even after he started it still took several years for his career to take off, but when it did it was obvious that a serious talent had arrived. From the beginning, RCA marketed him as "The True One," and even before his smash hit Nilsson Schmilsson album (his seventh for RCA) he had attracted the attention, and eventual friendship, of all four Beatles, had songs covered by everyone from Astrud Gilberto to Glen Campbell, worked on prestige projects such as John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (winning a Grammy for Everybody's Talkin') and Otto Preminger's Skidoo, and created a nationally televised animated special called The Point. By any lights, he was in the midst of an extremely interesting and richly musical mid-level career. "Mid-level" because, despite all his successes, RCA was not really making back their investment on his albums.

Enter Richard Perry, one of a swinging new breed of record producer, with whom Nilsson decided it was time to "' some rock and roll and get down." The resulting concoction was Nilsson Schmillson, an album I have dubbed "the white Thriller," both for its quantity of hit songs and its variety of material, which offers something for everybody - and every radio format. It went gold in a matter of months, earned him another Grammy, and has stood the test of time as one of the most enduring classics of the 1970's. The million-selling status of Nilsson Schmilsson may be unique in the annals of rock when you consider that it was achieved without any touring or live performances to speak of. However, it also sowed the seeds for Nilsson's personal and professional destruction, a transition which was stunningly rapid and which Shipton delineates in detailed reportage, with rueful affection but no judgement or sensationalism.

It's hard to imagine the deep feeling of worthlessness that must have fueled Harry's descent into a life of monstrous excess. Since he was joined in his descent by such fellow travelers as Lennon, Ringo, and Keith Moon, there is some entertainment value in the wild tales but it can make for painful reading when you consider the cost to Nilsson's music. Fortunately, Shipton is clear-eyed in his assessment of the patchy years that followed Nilsson Schmillson. The casual listener will likely be unaware of at least five of the seven albums (not including the somewhat bizarre soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye) Harry made from 1972 to 1980 - his last album wasn't even released in the U.S. But each one has something to offer and, with Shipton's guidance, I've assembled some of the tracks worthy of reconsideration in a Spotify playlist called Later, Harry. If you want to go all in, The RCA Albums Collection has everything he recorded for the label including many rarities and unreleased material.

One of the most remarkable parts of this remarkable story is Nilsson's third marriage to Una O'Keefe, who he met by chance in NYC when she was a nineteen-year-old on a student visa from Ireland and waitressing at Rumpelmayer's. After waiting for her to finish college, they married and went on to have five children. She stuck with him to the end, and it gives the reader comfort to know there was someone who cared for him unconditionally. Like Una, we have to accept the good Nilsson and the bad, and Shipton's book, along with the must-see documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, gives us the definitive take on an American original. So, put the lime in the coconut and read it all up.

P.S. Part of the fun of reading the book is running to YouTube to confirm that some of the crazy stories are really true, like the tale of the $5,000 TV commercial:


  1. His collection is complete. Thank you Harry.

  2. Carla DC9:09 AM

    Thank you for your commentary on Harry Nilsson. It's true, you have to take the good with the bad. Hey, no one's perfect. He was molded by his life experiences and what a life he lived! Best of all, he was loved by so many friends! He was kind and generous and very talented. Can't help but love him.

    1. Thanks for reading & I agree completely!

  3. It's been awhile since I visited this blogspot, but the rediscovery was was the subject matter. You have a deft touch for seeing the forest and the trees.#LetsputHarryintheHall

    1. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments!

  4. Harry's music is what God plays to one in heaven...