The trouble with Harry Nilsson was worsening. It was his voice. One of pop music’s most precious gifts, his three-and-a-half-octave range, was escaping the singer-songwriter. Where once there were angelic rays of falsetto, now came rasps and gasps. Nilsson simply could not sound like Nilsson.
He awoke on the morning of April 2, 1974, in a rented Santa Monica villa that had been built for Louis B. Mayer and was later owned by the Rat Pack actor Peter Lawford. It was the same home that Lawford had rented to his brothers-in-law Robert and John F. Kennedy more than a decade earlier, the getaway bungalow to which they had allegedly smuggled Marilyn Monroe for secret trysts. But for Nilsson, it was a frat pad and an artist’s sanctuary. Sleeping beside him among the empty bottles of brandy and a cocaine-streaked coffee table was John Lennon, his friend and the producer of Nilsson’s in-progress album, Pussy Cats. The two spent the morning as they had several others during their time in L.A.: hungover, laughing, trying desperately to remember who said what to whom the night before.
The pair returned to the studio that afternoon, but a new song wasn’t coming together as they’d hoped. According to the new biography Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, distractions and disruptions were common during these sessions. It had already been quite a week. The pair of friends had begun production on Pussy Cats, then known as Strange Pussies, in late March, and the drinks were flowing from the first afternoon. Five days in, they sat zonked out in front of a mixing board. Nilsson, once a pudgy-faced Brooklyn kid with a choirboy voice, had grown out his blond hair and mangy beard. As was typical when he gained weight, he’d begun to bloat. Earlier in the week, they were visited by Lennon’s former bandmate Paul McCartney, who was accompanied by Stevie Wonder, when a recording session broke out.1 This was normal stuff in L.A.’s anarchic ’70s music scene. Luminaries colliding, impromptu sessions turned coke binges turned creative confabs. Just a week earlier, the whole gang collaborated on Mick Jagger’s solo song “Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup).” Though that song wasn’t released for 34 years, its creation was offhanded and easy. But on this day in early April, it wasn’t so easy for Nilsson.
This is considered the first studio meeting of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo since the Beatles had split in 1970. The sessions were recorded with the four, along with a murderers’ row of sidemen, including the Who’s bombastic drummer, Keith Moon, percussionist Jim Keltner, German guitarist Klaus Voormann, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and guitarist Danny “Kooch” Kortchmar. A bootleg of that night, the notorious A Toot and a Snore in ’74, is available to the crafty — its title comes from an offhand moment captured during the session when Lennon offers Stevie Wonder a “toot” of cocaine.
Finally free of the crowd for a spell, Nilsson sat down on a Tuesday afternoon to record the vocals for a new original called “The Flying Saucer Song.” But he found that he couldn’t crack the upper reaches of his register. “The Flying Saucer Song” is a typically Nilssonian composition in that it’s completely atypical of anything he’d recorded before it — it concerns three drunk men (all voiced by Nilsson) in a bar recounting the spotting of an unidentified flying object. The song was supposed to feature the playful, boyish tone that Nilsson had put to effect on so many songs before. Only he sounded like a chain-smoking coyote. After several takes, with the band waiting patiently, he gave up on the song. It didn’t make the cut on Pussy Cats.2 Nilsson’s vocal cords, his currency and his identity, were hemorrhaging. Bleeding, from their base. He’d been singing through the pain for a week in an effort to impress Lennon, his hero and friend. In the process, he nearly lost everything.
He recorded the song twice more, for 1975’s Duit on Mon Dei and 1976’s Sandman. He never quite got it right, though you can hear all three now.
In the weeks leading up to that moment, Nilsson and Lennon had made a mess of Los Angeles. This was during the period known as Lennon’s Lost Weekend, the 18 months he spent apart from Yoko Ono, when he decamped to L.A. with her former personal assistant May Pang. In March ’74, Nilsson and Lennon were tossed from a Smothers Brothers3 performance at the Troubadour after Lennon, smashed on a conveyor belt of Brandy Alexanders, grew unruly. When they were ejected onto Santa Monica Boulevard, Lennon reportedly punched a photographer named Brenda Mary Perkins as she attempted to snap a Polaroid of the inebriated singer. On another night, well past 3 a.m., Lennon reportedly told Nilsson, “I’d love to get some girls and some acid and fuck ’em.” Nilsson called a female friend straightaway, who just happened to have a fresh batch of acid and a girlfriend on the way over. The two met up with the women and drank and dropped LSD and screwed for two days straight. Nearing the end of their gluttonous tear, Nilsson shouted, “I can’t take any more pleasure, John! … It’s gotta stop!” He later called it Lennon’s real “lost weekend.”
They were acquainted before this.
In the years before the Lost Weekend and before Pussy Cats, Nilsson established himself as a kind of pop culture Zelig, a figure who was around greatness or creating it on his own, landing in shocking good fortune only to squander it over and again. His drinking is legendary; he soaked himself with the best of rock’s worst drunks. He also possessed one of the purest voices of his generation, and was often described as the most gifted white male singer of his time. It’s hard to overstate its dramatic, breathtaking quality, and at its best, his songwriting. His is a career that feels both forgotten and deeply embedded in modern pop. He sang standards and rock and jazz and winding conceptual songs and tiny little kids’ tunes and commercial jingles. He wrote, voiced, and spearheaded an animated film starring Dustin Hoffman. He played Dracula in a movie. He soundtracked a sitcom and nearly fought Jackie Gleason in a nightclub. He was “the Beatle across the water.” He tore up London bars with Ringo Starr and Keith Moon. He invented the remix album.4 He also invented the mash-up.5 He dropped acid with Timothy Leary. He sang of moonbeams and fire and coconuts and puppies. He was a prodigious songwriter whose two biggest hits were covers. He made his father’s abandonment the centerpiece of his songwriting, and yet rarely acknowledged its importance publicly. He performed live in concert in his prime exactly zero times. He lobbied for a songwriter named Randy Newman and is responsible for the career of Three Dog Night. He composed scores for Otto Preminger and Robert Altman. He wrote a musical about the Wright brothers. He had no. 1 albums and pop smashes and disastrous failures. He won Grammys. He was hilarious, and such a sad man. His voice can be heard as Jon Voight gets off that bus in New York City in Midnight Cowboy. He sang “You’re breaking my heart, so fuck you” on the follow-up single to his masterpiece breakthrough. He was married three times and had seven kids. He snorted heroin and hitchhiked across America. He was a renaissance man and a get-along guy. A carouser and a crusader. He failed well and succeeded poorly. He did everything before most, and nothing in moderation. His songwriting career began about 50 years ago. It almost ended 40 years ago. He died nearly 20 years ago. But his songs — and that voice — go on and on and on.
For Nilsson fanatics, and I am one, this is a momentous time. The stories of the Pussy Cats sessions and dozens of others across his life are recounted by British author and journalist Alyn Shipton in Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. It’s the first book to focus on the ’70s star, and while Shipton’s approach to such a manic and inspired life is sometimes stiff and often clinical — there are definitely too many critical harmonic breakdowns in Nilsson — it is the most comprehensive thing ever written about him. Along with the book, Nilsson’s longtime recording home has released the 17-disc The RCA Records Collection. Boxed sets, by their nature, are unwieldy and unnecessary. You shouldn’t buy them. That being said, you should buy this. It features 14 of the 16 albums Nilsson recorded for the label, along with three discs of unreleased, unheard, and unearthed extras.6 The first “Sessions” set opens with his big break. In 1966 Nilsson, then a struggling songwriter and operator of early computer technology at a Los Angeles bank, played eight songs on an acoustic guitar for the Monkees. The group tabbed Nilsson’s “Cuddly Toy” for their next album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., and heartthrob lead Davy Jones would sing it. That album would go to no. 1 and the song became a hit. According to Shipton’s book, after the demo session with the gobsmacked Monkees, the group’s publisher, Lester Sill, called Nilsson. “You can quit the bank,” he said. Thus began the career of a singer and songwriter that stayed weird and scaled the heights of pop fame. The following is a cultural road map through his music and tumultuous life.
You Can’t Do That (1967-1970)
On August 13, his final album, the previously out-of-print Flash Harry, will be issued on CD by Varese Records. You can get his first album, the slapdash but useful-for-completists compilation Spotlight on Nilsson: The Early Tower Masters, here.
Nilsson’s first album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, is the doorway into a hall of mirrors. It’s named for the circus act in Ray Bradbury’s haunting book Something Wicked This Way Comes. Nilsson, who adored Bradbury, had hoped to use that title for the album, itself plucked from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but Bradbury never returned his letter.7 So he settled for an allusion on an album ripe with them. His version of “Cuddly Toy” appeared here, just one month after the Monkees’.8 At the start of it you can hear Nilsson say “OK, Mr. Mix” to his engineer to cue the song. Nilsson always wanted you to know he was recording. His albums are a one-way dialogue with the audience; an in-joke. Twenty-seven years later, when Aimee Mann covered Nilsson’s song “One” for the tribute album For the Love of Harry, producer Jon Brion snatched the “OK, Mr. Mix” bit and spliced it before Mann’s rendition.9
One year later, Jones’s rendition of Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” can been seen and heard in Head, the Monkees’ experimental art-pop movie written by Jack Nicholson, who also oversaw production of the soundtrack.
That version is now best known as the song that soundtracks the opening title sequence of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It isn’t the last time Nilsson’s touch would appear in a PTA film.
But even more knowing than the self-aware studio patter is “You Can’t Do That.” In theory, it’s a cover of the Beatles’ 1964 song, but with its cascading overdubs and interwoven lyrics from other Beatles songs, Nilsson creates what I’ll call the first mash-up. It’s a pastiche of at least 14 different songs (some say 22), from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Day Tripper,” “Paperback Writer” to “Strawberry Fields Forever.”10 It’s a fascinating track, blending phrases of melody and lyrics, and it’s all over in just 140 seconds. But there’s something fanboyish about “You Can’t Do That.” It’s a cry for attention, which, of course, it got.
Nilsson also covered the wrenching “She’s Leaving Home” on Pandemonium.
Some reports say it was Nilsson’s heartbreaking autobiographical song “1941” that put him on the radar of the Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, who was a rarity himself: a flack with actual credibility. But most believe it was “You Can’t Do That” that did it. Either way, Taylor became a cheerleader and advocate for Nilsson in the press, to his contacts at radio, and especially to his clients, the Fab Four. During a press conference in ’67, the band was asked about their favorite American artists. “Nilsson’s my favorite group,” Lennon said. McCartney echoed the statement. Nilsson would ultimately befriend the four Beatles, each in a different way. He and Lennon were cutups; he and Ringo were lifelong drinking buddies; he and Harrison shared a kind rapport; with McCartney, his connection was professional.11
Nilsson wrote “The Puppy Song,” which fans of You’ve Got Mail will recognize, for Mary Hopkin. Hopkin was a discovery of Paul’s and the first signee to the Beatles’ newly launched Apple Records. Nilsson later recorded his own version of “The Puppy Song” for his Harry album; it’s quintessentially Harry — sweet, childlike, a little creepy. “Dreams are nothing more than wishes and a wish is just a dream you wish to come true,” goes the mesmerizing opening line.
Though the Beatles’ endorsement created an aura of anticipation and curiosity around Nilsson, it wasn’t quite a career kick-start.12 He recorded his second album, Aerial Ballet, in ’68. It isn’t the referential bonanza of his debut, but there are clever little tributes. One of Nilsson’s publishers at RCA, a man named Richland, is the titular figure in “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song.” The song isn’t about him; he just liked the song best when he heard the album, and was immortalized for it. “Little Cowboy,” a Roy Rogers–esque number written by Nilsson’s mom, a hard-drinking wannabe star named Bette, appears here.13
An RCA-funded billboard on Sunset Boulevard confused passersby. It read Nilsson is hear.
It showed up later on the TV series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, for which Nilsson wrote the occasional song. The show was about a 6-year-old and his widower dad, who was his best pal. (Ah, the goofy joys of ’60s TV show premises.) Nilsson also wrote the theme song, “Best Friend,” natch. It’s a modified version of “Girlfriend,” which he’d written while working at the bank. The original can be found in the boxed set, too.
The original version of “One” appeared on Aerial Ballet, too, one year before the L.A. trio Three Dog Night oversang it into history, cementing a standby for lonely drunks and melodramatic karaoke enthusiasts. Unlike 3DN’s wailing version, Nilsson’s is a little tango, accompanied by a violin and an organ; the song, notably, is about smoking a joint, not being sad and alone. Nilsson’s songs to this point were produced by in-house RCA man Rick Jarrard and arranged by the ingenious George Tipton. Tipton always draped Nilsson’s voice in ornate orchestration; he’s the secret genius in the early years.
But Aerial Ballet‘s legacy is unlike anything else they made together: “Everybody’s Talkin'” is Nilsson rising. A true breakthrough. But its origin is unassuming. One night while Jarrard and Tipton were playing records by other artists on RCA’s roster, Nilsson heard a sad country dirge by a folk singer from Ohio named Fred Neil. Nilsson liked the song and decided, on a whim, to record it. It’s a real sore thumb on his second album, a countrified psychodrama — “Everybody’s talkin’ at me, I can’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind,” he sings, before collapsing into those crushing waaah / wah wah wah wah waaahs. Few sang nonsensical melodic mortar like Nilsson.
When director John Schlesinger went hunting for a theme song to his film Midnight Cowboy, he enlisted artists like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Nilsson. Dylan turned in “Lay Lady Lay,” but it was late. Mitchell’s “Midnight Cowboy” didn’t make the cut either. But Nilsson did. While editing, Schlesinger used “Everybody’s Talkin'” as a stand-in for the song that would open his movie. Nilsson had seen a few reels to get a sense of what to write, theming the lyrics to visions of Joe Buck’s travels to New York. But by the time Nilsson turned in “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City,” Schlesinger had decided that the more abstract “Everybody’s Talkin'” was more appropriate. It was a bittersweet thing; his original song had been passed over for a cover, but it would also become a hugely popular song in an iconic, Oscar-winning movie. No one remembers Fred Neil, or who wrote that song. But we all know Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
During the making of Aerial Ballet, a fading titan called Nilsson to Hollywood. He was asked to record the music and songs for a new comedy to be directed by Otto Preminger. That movie, Skidoo, is one of the worst ever made. I have watched it three times, trying with all hope to find genius. Nothing can save it. Not Jackie Gleason dropping acid in prison. Not Carol Channing as his psychotic wife. Not Groucho Marx hamming it up as God. Not a garbage-can ballet. Not even a nude hippie body-painting sing-along. It is a dreadful movie. But it does feature a revolutionary score by Nilsson, who occasionally sings about the action as it’s happening, including the memorable “The Cast and Crew,” seen above, in which Nilsson cleverly sings the movie’s credits. The studio actually used this as a marketing tool. It did not succeed. It was Preminger’s first and last comedy. But not Nilsson’s last soundtrack.
By 1969, Nilsson began to form a real relationship with the Beatles, one by one. Squired by Taylor, he met George Harrison upon invitation to his famed home on Blue Jay Way in the Hollywood Hills. Nilsson played him the rough cut of Aerial Ballet; they smoked some weed and hit it off. Calls from John and Paul followed shortly thereafter. Ringo was the toughest to crack for Nilsson. That he went on to become his truest partner — best man at his wedding, a movie costar, his sauced companion, a goof-off Grammy copresenter, and lifelong collaborator — is the strangest outcome. In short order, Taylor had dubbed Nilsson “the American Beatle.”
His third album, Harry, came next. It’s a fine record, if unambitious. But Nilsson does reveal a talismanic ear for melodic greatness; that he rarely prospered from it is the curse of his career. He covered “Mr. Bojangles,” which would become a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a year later.14 But it’s another cover on Harry that is the most important: “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” is the first time Nilsson engaged with a song written by Randy Newman.
He also recorded a version of the Beatles’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” one of their most delicate songs.
A year later, he would devote his next album to 10 songs written by Newman. Nilsson Sings Newman is a devastating connection of song and voice, humor and anguish. The bookish, brilliant Newman was an established songwriter whose strangled-cow voice hadn’t allowed for solo stardom yet. Nilsson recording a whole album of his work certified him in a way.15 Nilsson Sings Newman was far from a smash; it’s a classic diversion, an emblem of taste and boosterism. But what taste! Many of the songs feature only Newman on piano sitting beside Nilsson singing, his tenor at its peak. (If you want a good cry, try “Living Without You.”) Though these four years proved the busiest and most productive of his career, they’re essentially a warm-up to ’71, which is plainly one of the coolest years any rock star ever had.
Jump Into the Fire (1971)
Four months after Nilsson Sings Newman, Newman would release 12 Songs, the album that would confirm his singer-songwriter stardom. Now, he’s the guy who writes all the Pixar songs and also the songs about how full of shit America is. Every album he made in the ’70s is a classic.
In ’71, Nilsson had finally scraped together enough capital to launch a passion project called The Point! Sometime in the late ’60s, Nilsson was turned on to LSD by his neighbor, the psychedelic godhead Timothy Leary, while he was living in the Hollywood Hills. One night in 1970, he dropped a tab, wandered into the woods, and conjured the story of The Point! It’s about a boy and his dog, who live in a town in which every resident has a point on their head. The boy, named Oblio, does not. His is round. He wears a pointed hat to blend in, though his attempts are for naught and he is banished. The Point! is a bizarre fable about morality and friendship and the price of fitting in. It was animated by Fred Wolf, best known for the 1967 Academy Award–winning short, The Box, and also, well, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It was narrated by Dustin Hoffman, who supplied his voice gratis.16 It aired in prime time on ABC as a “Sunday Movie of the Week.”17 Millions of people watched it. Hazy and weird, but sweet, it looks and sounds like one long, good trip. The Point! has become a cult object over the years; the version available on DVD features narration by Ringo Starr. There is also a version narrated by Alan Thicke. Last year, The Simpsons paid tribute by featuring the album’s biggest hit, “Me and My Arrow,” in an episode in December.18
Shipton’s story about what Nilsson had to do to get a meeting with an ABC executive is wonderful.
I’m fairly certain I first came across the song when I heard the 2002 Blackalicious song “Blazing Arrow,” which samples Nilsson. This is embarrassing for me.
I rewatched The Point! recently and almost fell off my couch when I heard “Life Line” again. (You can hear it above.) It’s a song wedged into the middle of an album supporting a forgotten cartoon about a boy with a round head and it is a crushing existential cry into the night. Nilsson could do that. His best moments feel hidden; he’s an artist worth interrogating and obsessing over. Questing for the nuggets is an essential part of being a Nilsson fan.
Even in a time of social unrest and boundary-busting art, Nilsson was a pioneer of discontent. In 1971, after Pandemonium and Aerial Ballet failed to satisfy him, he spliced the two albums together to create a mega-mix. He shuffled the order of songs, used rerecorded versions, and futzed with his vision. No one really knows why he did this, but in the process he essentially invented the remix album.19 His discontent extended to the shepherds who executed his vision. He was always changing producers. Nilsson pinged around concepts, styles, and modes of creativity by way of producer. He met his match in ’71 with Richard Perry, a self-styled guru of musical stardom who predated super-producers like Rick Rubin and Mutt Lange. Perry, a hip Brooklyn Jew with sproings of curly hair and a stammer, made a star of Tiny Tim (!) and revitalized Barbra Streisand’s (!!) singing career before linking with Nilsson.20 Perry was the David Fincher of his day, favoring upward of 50 takes on songs, focusing on precision and execution. He hungered for the perfect cut, and the right balance on an album. It’s probably not an overstatement to call him a genius of record-making. Nilsson, also a genius but a mess, needed him. Together, they made a lasting thing called Nilsson Schmilsson.
There are five songs sung by Nilsson in Italian on APB in the The RCA Records Collection — the gentle “Sleep Late, My Lady Friend” sounds even more enchanting en Italiano.
Today, Perry dates Jane Fonda. He hasn’t lost his touch with difficult stars.
And unlike so much of his output to that point, no one had to go searching for Nilsson Schmilsson. Perry and Harry wanted it that way. They recorded an album that was both as big and unashamedly reaching as any of the decade and also as small and interior. Shipton writes of a scattershot session; Nilsson had only fragments of songs that Perry coddled and coaxed him into fleshing out. Sipping brandy and lying on his back conjuring lyrics, Nilsson struggled with the album creatively. “Without You,” the hyper-dramatic (some might say maudlin) Badfinger cover that again transformed Nilsson’s career, is a highlight. It’s also the Nilsson song that your mom probably likes best.
On Schmilsson, he is everywhere, from “Early in the Morning” to “The Moonbeam Song,” launching into the sprightly opener “Gotta Get Up” and four songs later “Down” to the bottom, to the bottom of a hole.21 Schmilsson is a difficult album to write about because it’s been written about so often and so well — it’s often identified as the perfect statement of ’70s album ambition. It rocks, rolls, moans, and collapses, only to rise up again. It’s loose and tight. It’s the album I turn to when I’m crushed by the world, because it lets you wallow and it lets you jump into the fire of pain. It also has “Coconut,” which is the ideal American novelty song. It tells a story, it’s funny, and it’s remarkably hummable to this day. Tarantino fans may recognize it as the “lime in the coconut” AM oddball that plays on “K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies” over the credits, after Nice Guy Eddie, Joe, and Mr. White complete their three-way Mexican standoff in Reservoir Dogs.22
The notion of down was a recurring motif for Nilsson. The word appears in nine different song titles over the years. He was always falling into some pit.
Nilsson had a nice run as a soundtrack staple in classic ’90s movies: that moment when Goodfellas flips and becomes about ’80s Ray Liotta and cocaine-induced helicopter panic? That moment happens to the tune of Nilsson’s rollicking “Jump Into the Fire.”
I prefer to think of it as the song that three Harry Nilssons perform in gorilla suits on this 1972 BBC special. That special, which aired shortly after the release of Schmilsson, is notable: Nilsson almost never performed live, after he was embarrassed by a pre-fame ’60s concert with an old songwriting partner. After much haranguing, a BBC executive convinced him to participate in this live series for the network. Nilsson, instead, crafted a meta-performance, a commentary on his disdain for going live. Alone on a soundstage — amid canned applause, sight gags, cutaway reaction shots, and an animated interlude — Nilsson performs in triplicate, then as the gorillas, and finally beautifully by himself. It’s a wondrous and strange special that predates Christopher Guest movies, MTV’s Unplugged, Ali G, Hologram 2Pac, and nearly every other extraconceptual pop performance. Nilsson didn’t necessarily think this was genius stuff; he was just a scamp with stage fright.23
Thanks for the Memory (1972-1974)
You can watch the special here and here.
By this point, Nilsson was drunker than ever. He’d grown close to Starr while recording Schmilsson in London, and began carousing with the Beatles’ drummer, Keith Moon, T. Rex’s Marc Bolan, and Graham Chapman of Monty Python. That time period, with Nilsson defiant and always with a cocktail in hand, sums up the way he followed Schmilsson. Perry couldn’t quite wrangle him this time and the result, Son of Schmilsson, is one of the gutsiest, meanest star projects ever. (If you thought Yeezus was aggressive and sexist, Son of Schmilsson is not your jam.) Alternating between heartsick ballads like “Remember (Christmas)” and the ferocious “Take 54” — a knowing knock on Perry’s recording rigor — it is schizophrenic, anticommercial, and bracing. The reeling first single, “You’re Breakin’ My Heart,” features a lovely shout-out of “fuck you” in the chorus, presumably aimed at his ex Sandi, who’d recently left him. A never-officially-released documentary, Did Somebody Drop His Mouse, was made during the making of the album. With Nilsson narrating, there are spellbinding little moments. The making of “I’d Rather Be Dead,” in particular, is hilarious: Nilsson and Perry recruited dozens of senior citizens, got them blitzed on sherry, and had them sing the reprise of the song: “Oh I’d rather be dead / than wet my bed.”24
Around this time, Nilsson also filmed the movie Son of Dracula alongside Ringo Starr. Nilsson, who isn’t terrible in it, is Dracula. It’s nearly unwatchable. No one saw it and critics savaged it. You can see for yourself here.
If Son of Schmilsson was a thumb in the eye of pop stardom, then A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was a haymaker to the jaw. The 1973 album is a collection of immaculately sung American standards. In 1973. With Perry firmly against the idea, his old friend Taylor produced it instead. But it’s the arranger Gordon Jenkins, best known for his work with Sinatra, who wrests the pristine sound out of Nilsson on songs like “It Had to Be You” and “Makin’ Whoopee!” It’s hard to know if Nilsson thought this was a smart career move. Still, four decades before Rod Stewart and Michael Bublé were blowing down Irving Berlin compositions to great success, Nilsson was there. A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was a surprise success and it’s typically brave. But it is a dull and staid listen. To reconnect with his wild side, Nilsson linked up with Lennon.
In 1974, John Lennon was in a bad way. After he lost a copyright lawsuit to Chuck Berry, as compensation he was forced to record a few songs from Berry’s publisher’s songbook. Using this situation as an opportunity to create a rock classics album, he recruited the legendary producer Phil Spector and traveled to L.A. to record what would become 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll. During the sessions, Nilsson started hanging around the studio. Spector brandished a gun in the studio one night, Lennon began his descent into a sloshed hellscape, and Nilsson got to share a vocal booth with Cher (who chipped in on backup). On another night, Nilsson watched as Carly Simon laid down the final track for “You’re So Vain,” while Mick Jagger provided backing vocals. The Gumpian quality of Nilsson’s life is eerie.
In the summer of ’74, Pussy Cats was born, sort of. Nilsson’s voice flamed out, as did the album. But it has gained an interesting reputation among superfans and critics.25 Some love it, hearing Nilsson’s fragile instrument torn to shreds as he rambles through Bob Dylan and Jimmy Cliff covers and cockeyed originals like “Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga.” Some think it’s amateurish trash. I’ve always liked this threadbare and warm sweater of a record; you can practically hear Lennon and Nilsson getting blasted behind the mixing board. But it’s best not heard in the context of everything before it. Pussy Cats changed Nilsson’s career irrevocably. It’s more fun to read about than to hear. Shortly after its release, his partnership with Lennon allowed Nilsson the opportunity to negotiate a new $5 million contract with RCA. But he never released a project as interesting or with as much interest.
In 2006, the Walkmen recorded the album in full. It’s a strange tribute, largely because lead singer Hamilton Leithauser’s leather-lunged voice is the au courant standard of indie warblers; Nilsson got there the hard way.
After Lennon decamped to New York with May Pang to finish Rock ‘n’ Roll, Nilsson began his next album just a month after completing Pussy Cats. As he neared completion, he got a devastating phone call: Mama Cass Elliot, the big and bodacious former member of the Mamas and the Papas, had died in his flat. She was crashing there for a two-week run at the Palladium. One night, she went to bed with a ham sandwich and a glass of milk. The apocryphal story has Elliot choking to death on the sandwich. In fact, she died of natural causes, at 32 years old. Zelig strikes again.
Epilogue: I Yam What I Yam (1975-1980)
The final third of Nilsson’s career is a small tragedy. He found peace at home after he’d met a 19-year-old Irish waitress named Una in New York in 1973. Una would become his third and final wife, and they’d have six children. Even though Pussy Cats ravaged his voice, he never stopped recording. He tried to sober up, too. But he never scored another hit as he grappled with both issues. The steel drum–tinged Duit on Mon Dei and Sandman, on which he worked with Van Dyke Parks, Dr. John, and others, are not great works. They need to be scoured for little treasures. 1976’s That’s The Way It Is is a mostly negligible covers collection. His last album for RCA, 1977’s Knnillssonn, was meant to be a true comeback. His pipes had come as close as they would to that quaking brilliance. (At the outset of “Goin’ Down” he does some kind of yodel that is impossible to replicate. Listen and try it. I dare you.) And his songwriting was focused and as clever as ever, too. (Check out “Who Done It?”) Unfortunately, the week that Knnillssonn was released, some guy named Elvis Presley died. RCA, the label home of both artists, turned its attention to commemorating Elvis’s career. That was it for Knnillssonn and Nilsson. He released one more album, the jaunty Flash Harry, in 1980. His recording career was effectively over by the end of the ’70s. But not his ability to imprint culture.
Nilsson returned his attention to Hollywood for a spell in the ’80s, writing a few screenplays with Dr. Strangelove writer and satirical madman Terry Southern. They even got a movie made starring Whoopi Goldberg about an actress and her telephone. It’s called The Telephone. Rip Torn directed it. (I wish I’d been on the set of this movie.) Nilsson’s lasting contribution to movie culture is probably Robert Altman’s ill-conceived live-action 1980 musical Popeye. Shot in a perilous coastal village in Malta and under constant duress, the movie’s production is the stuff of ruined careers. It was also Robin Williams’s first starring role, and one of Robert Evans’s last mega-productions. Nilsson, who wrote the music and lyrics, was one of the only stable presences. And for his music alone, it’s a worthwhile watch. Check out the small beauty of Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl as she sings “He Needs Me.”26 The songs from the movie are appropriately spinach-y for Popeye, but the true genius is floating on the Internet. The Popeye Demos, a badly recorded session of Nilsson singing all the songs, is the real treat. “Din’ We,” meant for the town drunk Bill Barnacle, never made it into the movie, but it’s preserved on The Popeye Demos; there’s something perfect about Nilsson singing with that drunken slur. It’s Barnacle’s song, but it’s Harry’s too. A lament to a life unfinished, from a lost soul. Nilsson died in 1994, unexpectedly.
Paul Thomas Anderson understood its power. He used the song to score the dramatic union of Adam Sandler’s and Emily Watson’s characters in 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love.
His music is everywhere still, in covers by every kind of artist, from Macy Gray to Neko Case, Mariah Carey to Iggy Pop, the Walkmen to the Baha Men. The songs are big and strange and indelible. They’re also messy and quiet and crushing. A lot like Harry.