Saturday 23 October 2010
Dylan Jones: 'You may remember Harry Nilsson as the man who led John Lennon astray during a lost LA weekend'
For many, Harry Nilsson will always be known as the singer/songwriter whose two biggest hits were written by other people ("Without You" was penned by Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans, while Fred Neil wrote "Everybody's Talkin'"). Others may remember him as the man who led John Lennon astray during his protracted lost weekend in LA in the early Seventies – when Lennon hit the city like a truck crashing into a distillery.
For others, though, Nilsson remains one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation, responsible for a string of mild-mannered classics such as "Me and My Arrow", "Without Her", "Coconut", "One", "Cuddly Toy" and "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" (originally written for Midnight Cowboy). He signed to RCA Victor in 1966, releasing his debut album Pandemonium Shadow Show a year later. The Beatles' press officer fell in love with it, and bought an entire box of copies to share with friends – including the Beatles. Having spent a marathon 36 hours listening to it, John Lennon called him to offer his congratulations, while Paul McCartney called a few days later, offering the same. At the time, Nilsson said he was disappointed not to get any calls from George or Ringo. Nilsson could be as blunt as he could be sentimental, as one of his famous lyrics attests: "You're breaking my heart/ You're tearing it apart/ So fuck you".
Nilsson was the subject of a fascinating 2006 documentary, Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? produced by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. Screened at various film festivals, the movie was subsequently re-edited using previously unseen footage. It was released last month in selected US cinemas, and is released next week on DVD. I saw the film a few weeks ago, and it perfectly captured not only Nilsson's ability to condense the macro into the micro, but also his ability to rise above adversity. Even if he usually did this with a glass in his hand.
"I do believe that most men live lives of quiet desperation," he once said. "For despair, optimism is the only practical solution. Hope is practical. Because eliminate that and it's pretty scary. Hope at least gives you the option of living."
Dylan Jones is the editor of 'GQ'
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