Archive for the ‘Paul Williams’ Tag

Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) (2010)   2 comments

Harry Nilsson was “a big bunny with sharp teeth.”
-Paul Williams

Recently, the good folks at the See Hear Podcast (Maurice Bursztynski, Bernard Stickwell, and Tim Merrill) invited me as a guest on their show. We talked about the 2010 biopic, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)

Not gonna lie here. I love Nilsson’s voice and it chokes me up just thinking about “Without You”, but other than that and a few stray bits of information, I didn’t know much about him. Basically, Nilsson was a smart kid from a poor family in Brooklyn, who traveled west to make his way in show biz. Unlike many others who have done the same thing. Nilsson had some actual talent, and someone noticed.


Early Nilsson albums had a decent amount of studio backing, it seems.

When he first arrived in California, Nilsson and a friend made a few bucks singing Everly Brothers tunes. They amended the songs to fit their vocal ranges and lyrical choices and realized they were writing songs. That was it. Harry worked at the Paramount Theatre in LA as a manager until he began working in a bank to keep him in writing paper and beer. He would work work the swing shift at the bank, go to a bar and drink write all night, get up in the morning and flog his songs to recording studios, then go back to work at the bank. Rinse, repeat—for 7 years.

When one of his songs, “Cuddly Toy”, caught the attention of Monkees singer, Davey Jones, and Jones recorded it, Nilsson quit the bank and became a full-time musician.

This is when the film goes the typical ‘innocent young man makes good and is corrupted by the vile, capitalist music industry’ route, but since it seems to be at least partly true, it’s hard to complain.


Ringo, Harry, and Keith Moon (teetotalers)

Nilsson made a gang of studio albums that seemed to have little to do with musical trends and much to do with his clever way with words, his melodic talent, and his angelic voice. I listened to Nilsson Schmilsson, A Little Touch of Schmillson in the Night, and Nilsson Sings Newman for the podcast, but, spurred on by host, Maurice Bursztynski’s recommendations during the podcast, I also listened to earlier albums, Harry and Pandemonium Shadow Show, which are full of all the witty, musical touches Nilsson was famous for. They’re both also fighting neck and neck to be my favorite Nilsson album. Nilsson got the name for the album from the carnival sideshow in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. That’s the name, Pandemonium Shadow Show, not Harry. Harry was his name. I figured I’d clear that up.


Pandemonium Shadow Show album cover

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) does the talking head thing pretty well. Musicians like Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, Paul Williams, Brian Wilson, Randy Newman, and Mickey Dolenz all weigh in on their admiration of, love for, and frustration with Nilsson. A prolific songwriter and arranger, Nilsson recorded albums, made TV specials, and contributed or wrote entirely, the soundtracks for films including Midnight Cowboy, The Point, Son of Dracula, and Goodfellas. He wrote and recorded his own songs, covered others’, and wrote songs for other bands to record. Literate, quirky, and romantic, Nilsson’s songs are about love, childhood, heartbreak, dogs, and everything in between.

Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?) is a survey course in Harry Nilsson. It doesn’t dig too deeply, but uncovers enough to pique the interest if, like me, you admired the songs and knew little of the man. If you’re a Nilsson aficionado, you might not get a lot from this film. I did get a lot from it. I didn’t know John Lennon and Paul McCartney both listed Harry Nilsson as their favorite musician. I didn’t know he was Ringo Starr’s best friend and the two served as best man for each other. Unfortunately, Starr does not appear in this film. Apparently, he was still saddened by Nilsson’s tragic death in 1994, at the age of 52, and found it too difficult to talk about.


Fanboys

Harry Nilsson burst on the scene in the late 60s, made some lovely albums, and partied way too hard with the usual suspects. Robin Williams is on this bio too. I feel like he hung out at the Chateau Marmont for about 26 years waiting for someone to pull out some coke. Anyway, Nilsson made pretty music, did too many drugs, smoked and drank too much, and redeemed himself later in life. He met a pretty, Irish woman, made lots of babies, and relished his family.


Harry with third wife, Una

It’s too bad that once he had his shit together, he had to die. It’s like his life was subject to Hayes office motion picture rules and after his early carrying-on, they just couldn’t let him live happily ever after.


John Lennon, Anne Murray, Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, and Mickey Dolenz

I recommend this film if you want to learn more about the 70s music scene, fashion for people who don’t have day jobs, or about Harry Nilsson’s sweet, melodic music.

Here’s the link to the See Hear Podcast: Harry Nilsson episode. Thank you, Maurice Bursztynski, Bernard Stickwell, and Tim Merrill for inviting me on your show and for the lovely, literate, and friendly conversation.

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