Obituary: Harry Nilsson
Monday 17 January 1994
HARRY NILSSON's position in popular music extended far beyond the chart placings of his many successful songs. For a core group of the elite and exceptional of the Sixties and Seventies, Nilsson was a teacher, almost a guru; they were enlightened by the approach of a pure artist of pop, a seminal
'He was a great mind, and had a very illuminating brightness about him. He knew how to look, how to learn, and how to laugh, and how to put a wonderful tune together which you could whistle,' said Ray Cooper, the record producer and percussionist, a friend of Nilsson's for over 20 years.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison all benefited from his understanding of the subtleties of vocal phrasing. Nilsson, who was at first known only by his surname, was brought to their attention by Derek Taylor, the Beatles' publicist; Taylor had moved to California and was so impressed by The Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967), Nilsson's first album for RCA, that he described him as 'the best contemporary soloist in the world'.
Soon after, at the press conference to announce the formation of Apple Records, Lennon and McCartney both named Nilsson as their favourite singer: they had apparently listened to Pandemonium Shadow for 34 hours on acid by a lake. Nilsson's songs did not require drugs to render them palatable, however. 'When I heard 'Without Her' - not to be confused with 'Without You' - from that album,' the composer Michael Kamen said, 'it was the first pop song for me that was a legitimate composition, with an extraordinary aria. His writing was complex and deeply personal and not always easy.'
Lyrically, Nilsson's work was equally complex. 'His and Randy Newman's songs sit side-by-side. They have a similar irony, humour and edge,' according to the film director Terry Gilliam, who first got to know him when Nilsson and the Monty Python troupe discovered they had a shared outlook on life.
In 1967, however, Nilsson still had a day job in the computer centre of a Los Angeles bank. But then he received phone calls on successive Mondays from first Lennon and then McCartney complimenting him on his first album. 'All of a sudden I was the fab blond Beatle from the USA and a man of mystique,' he remembered later. Invited to fly to England to attend the recording of The White Album, he went to the offices of Apple and found office-workers wearing badges saying 'NILSSON IS HERE'. 'Part of my paranoia told me that this was all a joke,' he remembered modestly.
Born Harry Nelson III, in Brooklyn, New York City, in 1941, he ran away from home at the age of 15 and hitch-hiked to Los Angeles. For Don Kirshner, the music publisher who later created the Monkees, he became a songwriter whose work was recorded by, among others Herb Alpert, Three Dog Night, the Yardbirds, and the Ronettes.
But despite such unparalleled acclaim, The Pandemonium Shadow Show sold badly. However, the Beatles connection bore fruit, in the form of Nilsson's first hit, 'Without You', written by Badfinger, a group signed to Apple. Meanwhile, his second album, Aerial Ballet, contained 'Everybody's Talking', used as the theme for the Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy, and stayed in the Top 10 for much of 1969. It was ironic that this celebrated singer- songwriter should have come to public attention via material written by other artists.
However, his biggest commercial success came with the single 'Without You', a No 1 record in both Britain and the US, taken from the equally successful album Nilsson Schmilsson. Amongst his close musician friends he counted the Beatles, and Keith Moon of the Who, and he spent much time in London, where he owned a house. At the time he only too readily took to a life of excessive drinking and drug- taking. 'But you must remember,' Ray Cooper says, 'that everyone around him was behaving like that in those days.'
Lennon produced Nilsson's Pussy Cats album in 1974, a year which Nilsson spent in a state of constant revelry, acting the part of close friend when Lennon and Yoko Ono temporarily split up. (He once said of Lennon, 'I really fell in love with him: I knew he was all those things that you wanted somebody to be.') The climax of that archetypal 'lost weekend' was when he arrived at the Troubador night- club in Los Angeles with Lennon who was wearing a sanitary towel on his head. 'That one incident ruined my reputation for 10 years,' he said. 'Get one Beatle drunk and look what happens.'
Two years later, however, Nilsson married the Dublin-born Oona O'Keefe, whom he had met in New York when he was 19, at Los Angeles airport. They had six children.
In 1980 Nilsson wrote the soundtrack for Robert Altman's film Popeye. His vividly drawn songs of inarticulacy, however, reputedly lost some of their impact when tampered with by the director. But he was to suffer a far greater tragedy at the end of that year. When Lennon was gunned down, Nilsson was one of a dozen signatories of an advertisement in Daily Variety, the American show business trade paper, calling for 'all people who loved John Lennon' to pledge to never again 'vote for any political candidate who does not support federal control of handguns and ammunition'. All proceeds of the track 'Zip A Dee Doo Dah', on the 1988 Disney tribute album Stay Awake, produced by Hal Willner, were donated to the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.
Nilsson never really craved public adulation. In fact, he disdained the ways and fashions of the music business. He never performed live - advisedly perhaps: joining the Monty Python team onstage in New York for a rendition of 'The Lumberjack Song', he fell off the stage into the audience, and vanished; it was only two days later the Pythons discovered that he had broken an arm and been taken to hospital.
Perhaps unexpectedly, considering that he was secretly a sensitive soul, Nilsson's body eventually rebelled against the intake of stimulants it had been obliged to endure. Discovering he was suffering from diabetes, he gave up drinking - although not before his vocal cords had begun to suffer. Ironically, it was that rasp in his voice that made Terry Gilliam decide he was perfect to sing the standard 'I Love New York in June', in the final sequence of the movie The Fisher King (1991). Earlier Nilsson songs have also recently been featured on the soundtracks of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1991).
'He'd built this amazing house in Bel Air,' Gilliam recalled, 'full of vast, huge space. But on the very lowest level, tucked away in a corner, was this tiny room like a monk's cell, with just a tape-recorder and something to write with. I thought that was wonderful - he knew that to work he needed nothing.'
Eighteen months ago, Nilsson found himself impoverished. 'He told me he went to bed a multi-millionaire and woke up with dollars 300,' Gilliam said. Allegations were made that the loss was the responsibility of Nilsson's financial manager. A year ago Nilsson suffered a heart attack, brought on by the strain of dealing with sudden bankruptcy. But by the end of last year he seemed almost to have recovered, and two days before his death he had completed a new album.
'The essence of this man was very, very good,' Ray Cooper said. 'He really was a good man who dearly loved his wife and kids.'
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