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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Who the F**k is Harry Nilsson

"When you mention Harry Nilsson people either love him or look with a blank expression - who?' So says Mickey Dolenz at the start of the documentary movie, Who is Harry Nilsson which comes from the same team who brought us last year's, John Lennon V the USA.

I must admit I sort of knew of Nilsson - well I knew the mega hits, Everybody's Talking and Without You and I knew he had been a drinking and hell-raising buddy of John Lennon, but other than that zilch. However since catching the documentary, which is now available on Netflix, I found myself so interested in checking out more that I picked up six Nilsson albums this past week. The reason I checked out the documentary was because I heard Nilsson's version of the Beatles, You Can't Do That in the Breakfast with the Beatles radio show. Nilsson does something clever with this song - not only does he give us a pretty good reading of the song but he also manages to reference 20 other Beatle lyrics in the backing vocals. It was this song,  Beatle nut that I am, that drove me towards Nilsson.

The documentary is brilliant - it shows us a man born into terrible poverty who has an incredible talent - an awesome vocal range, but this boy grows into a man who is never going to toe the line. He frustrates his producers and record company by refusing to play it safe. His early albums did OK but it was the 1971 effort, Nilsson Schmillson that  went into the stratosphere. There were three hit singles from the album, Without You, Let the Good Times Roll and the insanely catchy The Coconut Song. The record company wanted a follow up that would follow the same pattern but Nilsson delivered Son of Schmillson which was an altogether stranger record - one track, I'd Rather be Dead has a chorus provided by a bunch of old age pensioners singing, I'd rather be dead than wet my bed. And another song went, you're breaking my heart, you're tearing it apart so fuck you. Can you imagine the executives faces? They had seen Harry give them a worldwide smash with his reading of Without You and now he's putting the phrase, Fuck You onto a major release but not only that he's belting out a tune with a group of old foggies from a retirement home in the UK.

Nilsson also refused to tour which was unheard of at the time - even The Beatles had to go through years of hard touring to achieve success, and yet Nilsson became a major artist without ever touring. Harry seemed to do everything different. The documentary covers the infamous antics of Nilsson's lost weekend with John Lennon - actually an eighteenth month period in which Lennon separated from Yoko Ono would often hit the bars and clubs and drink and drug themselves into senselessness.They were famously thrown out of a Smothers Brothers show at the Troubadour club in Hollywood. Both Nilsson and Lennon were acting like complete dicks, but we've always known Lennon had a wild side and by the sound of it Nilsson did too.
Lennon and Harry
"John Lennon and Harry Nilsson - a friendship made in Hell!"

Ultimately the documentary charts a tragic course of missed opportunities and a death at an absurdly young age - a death that was mostly self inflicted by a lifestyle of drink and drugs, but that was Harry and he couldn't be anyone else. And, I suppose, he did ultimately get his wish and manage to get out of it before he wet the bed.

"He committed suicide," one of the talking heads in the documentary points out. 'It might have taken him twenty years but he killed himself." Eric Idle provides the theory that Harry didn't think he deserves his massive success and became an alcoholic in order to cope. While Mickey Dolenz said Harry moved at five hundred miles an hour until he simply stopped - dead.

It's well worth checking out the documentary especially if, like me, you move onto discover some of the great music - Harry gives us a great reading of the Beatles She's Leaving Home on his album, Pandemonium Shadow Show and then on Harry gives us a direct sequel in the song Mournin' Glory. Other Beatle songs covered include a great reading of Mother Nature's Son. There may be more but I've only got the six Nilsson albums so I'm not sure - I can't be arsed to Google the track listings of the albums I've not yet got. I will be getting more though - I love Nilssson Schmilsson, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Ariel Ballet and Harry. A Touch of Schmillson in the Night, not so much, but Son of Schmillson is growing on me.

Anyway the next time someone asks who is Harry Nilsson, I'll say he was that guy who.....

and remember you putt-da lime in de-cocount


Davieboy said...

I find it amazing that you consistently write about the things I love. Everybody's gotta love Harry, as you've discovered. The man was truly an individual and the world lost some colour when he passed.
You need to listen to "The Point" at least once every 3 months for your sanity's sake - the world will seem to make more sense.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I've just ordered The Point - I should get it by Tuesday and will review it here.

Davieboy said...

Just watched this great documentary. Wow,blown away! Fab stuff.
Was happy to see that Harry found an angel in his final years, the lovely Oona, and managed to produce a lovely family.
He will be missed by as all. Thanks for recommending.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Yeah I especially liked the story of hos Harry proposed - he was certainly a unique individual.