On the Vaudeville of Harry Nilsson
Today is Nilsson’s birthday! (1941-1994). As I am going through a major Nilsson phase at the moment so if this post does not employ lots of exclamation points, capitalization, bolds, italics and underlines, it is only because I am consciously exercising restraint.
I have always been aware of him, but it has always come in dribs and drabs. I had pieces but never the total picture. I imagine this is the case for most people, else he would be much more revered than he is today. At the moment I am thinking of him as Lennon, McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Sinatra (or some close, more youthful Sinatra approximation, say, Bobby Darin) all rolled into one. Am I losing my head? I don’t really think so. And yet I mentioned his name to a friend not too long ago and their only response was a cutting remark about “Lime in the Coconut”. Geez, you release one novelty song and you’re marked for life.
Well, almost. Not really. Nilsson enjoyed far greater success than Boris Pickett or the 1910 Fruitgum Company. He became a multiple Grammy winning millionaire with an amazing body of work under his belt. But, like I say, it’s all sort of in pieces; you don’t really begin to realize the weight of it all until you do a full inventory. I’ve had fun thinking of the order in which I became aware of the various pieces:
* Yes, “Coconut”. This hit single, in which Nilsson plays three characters and only one chord was all over the radio in 1972, and I was just the right age to appreciate it — seven. I have distinct memories of listening to this tune with my older brother, with him doing the voices, too. It is a very pleasant memory.
* “Without You”, his 1971 remake of this Beatlesque Badfinger ballad was so ubiquitous on am radio in the 1970s there is no specific memory associated with it for me. In fact, I’ve heard it so much in my life that, beautiful as it is, I really never have to hear it ever again.
* Likewise the ubiquity of “Everybody’s Talkin'”, the theme to Midnight Cowboy, although THIS one is so beautiful that I’ll never, ever, EVER tire of listening to it
* In 1976, Plymouth used Nilsson’s song “Me and My Arrow” in commercials to promote the Plymouth Arrow. I wouldn’t learn for another 20 years that the song was from Nilsson’s 1971 musical children’s movie The Point.
* I recently recovered an old memory. I was about 13 or 14 and early into a friendship with a kid who became one of my best friends for a couple of years in high school. He played the piano, and he introduced me to a bunch of his sister’s records. Sgt. Pepper was one; Bookends by Simon & Garfunkle was another. And I recently unearthed a memory of this friend playing me cuts from Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet, including “One” (which I’d long known in the hit version by Three Dog Night) and “Good Old Desk”. The latter stuck in my memory because the kid made me feel like an idiot for not knowing what the word “arabesque” meant. Such behavior is why he was only my friend for a couple of years.
* Around the same time (1980), the movie Popeye came out, with its soundtrack by Nilsson, which I loved. Here’s Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl singing Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” in the film:
* In here somewhere I became a Beatles fanatic and thus read accounts in books about Nilsson’s debauches with John Lennon, and his bad movies with Ringo
* Re-runs of The Monkees and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father were played on tv in my later high high school years. For the former he wrote the Davy Jones songs “Cuddly Toy” and “Daddy’s Song”;for the latter, he wrote the theme song.
After this, the flotsam and jetsam trickled in slowly;
* In 1990, Martin Scorsese prominently used the 1971 Nilsson song “Jump Into The Fire” in Goodfellas. Though it was a hit upon its initial release, I don’t recall hearing it, and though I liked it in Goodfellas I didn’t learn it was by Nilsson until two decades later. Somebody redubbed it in this clip so that the whole song plays out (in the film we just hear snatches):
* In 1991, I saw The Fisher King, in which sang the old standard “How About You?” over the closing credits
* Around 2007 I saw the legendary film Skiddoo for the first time, for which Nilsson wrote the soundtrack (including setting the closing credits to music, singing them as lyrics), and in which Nilsson actually acts.
This is all cool stuff, right? But it’s all kind of piecemeal. It still scans like a bunch of answers to trivia questions. But a few months ago I watched the 2006 documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) and began to get an inkling of the full scope of who he was. He was one of the most talented musical entertainers of his generation (and all of his peers, the biggest names in show business would all concede this). But the public doesn’t seem to know it.
He was the grandson of Swedish circus acrobats, raised in poverty by his single mother in Bushwick Brooklyn, and forced to leave home as a teenager. An uncle taught him to sing (and I wish I knew more about this mysterious uncle. Nilsson had an amazing “legit” voice of amazing expressiveness and subtlety. The more you listen to his records the more an appreciation sets in. You begin to hear little touches that you realize are unique because they sound very hard to do). He began to gradually experience minor success in LA in the early 60s as a songwriter, working with Phil Spector and others. He released a few unremarkable teeny-bopper and garage-sounding singles.
It was with Pandemonium Shadow Show (1966) that a line seemed to be crossed. It’s this record, and his next couple, Aerial Ballet (1968) and Harry (1969), plus odds and ends from the time, like the Skiddo and Monkees stuff that I’m really into at the moment, mixing 60s pop with Tin Pan Alley, circus and vaudeville sounds, standards, and everything you can think of. Clearly, he was influenced by the Beatles; not only are his selections generally more eclectic, but he also covers two Beatles songs, “She’s Leaving Home” and “You Can’t Do That”, but the latter one he enhances by mashing it up with snatches of countless other Beatles songs, making him about 50 years ahead of his time. Meanwhile, Lennon and McCartney were influenced by him; they both named him as their favorite artist in 1968. I think there’s stuff on the White Album that wouldn’t have happened without Nilsson’s influence…”Good Night” seems likely, for example.
Vaudeville pop is my thing, I’ve begun to dip my toes into some of Nilsson’s later stuff but I’m not that into it. Nilsson Schmilsson (1971) is supposedly his major record, for once pleasing both the critics and the public, and I suppose its better engineered or something but aside from the hit singles that came off it most of it sounds like boring 70s crap to me, far less interesting or imaginative than anything he had done before.
With Son of Schmilsson (1972) his self-destructive side begins to come out. (Actually the title of the previous record gives some indication of where his head is at). Somehow he wasn’t valuing or respecting himself, or the work, or the process, or something. I find an early hint of this in earlier song “I Said Goodbye To Me” from Aerial Ballet. The song, about suicide, perhaps verges on the maudlin, but it’s still beautiful and emotionally powerful. Self-conscious, he undercuts the sentiment with a jokey musical reference to the Ink Spots, nearly (but not quite) spoiling the tune). Spaceman, the album’s hit, is a virtual throwaway. I vaguely remember it from the time, but it didn’t leave much impression. And he out and out spoiled another potential hit “You’re Breakin’ My Heart” by including the words “fuck you”, guaranteeing that no radio station would play it. The 3rd single is “Joy” an admittedly funny country & western parody but not the sort of thing that sells records. It seems like he wasn’t taking his career very seriously.
At the same time, he gave undue respect to OTHER artists. In 1970, he recorded an entire album of Randy Newman covers, which was great for Newman, not so great for Nilsson. Following Son of Nilsson he seemed determined to prove something, by recording A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night (1973) , an album of Tin Pan Alley standards which sounds great in theory, and he is in fine voice, but the arrangements are kitschy, schmaltzy. Needless to say, no one was interested. Then he palled around with Ringo Starr, making the movie and soundtrack album Son of Dracula (1974). And as if to compensate for A Little Touch of Schmilsson which had gone too far into McCartney territory (old fashioned, sentimental), in 1975 he made Pussy Cats an album of unimaginative but loud rock covers produced by John Lennon, on which Nilsson shredded his voice.
There are several other records after this, but I confess that I have not yet checked them out (not having high hopes). Perhaps by this time next year?
In the wake of Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Nilsson spent a lot of time as a gun control activist. And — most interesting of all (to me) — he collaborated in the mid to late 80s on a series of screenplays with Terry Southern. I’ll lay dollars to donuts what they came up with is brilliant. Too brilliant for the benighted era they were then living in. In his later years, Nilsson was seriously ravaged by decades of serious drinking, drugs, smoking and overeating, which eventually brought on a heart attack at the premature age of 53.
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc