I liked Harry Nilsson from the first time I heard one of his songs. This would have been about 1968, when the Monkees covered Cuddly Toy. I just didn't know that the song was one of his. I must have been very deep in my own teenage fog, because it wasn't until February 1972, that Nilsson showed up on my sonar again, this time with a massive worldwide hit, Without You.
Music biz success? Well, 'no feast without a tragedy' as some German philosopher probably said. The man who wrote Nilsson's mega-hit was Pete Ham of the British band, Badfinger, who died by suicide three years later. He was 27 years old. The chief reason for his suicide was money troubles caused by his manager running off with the royalties for Without You. In 1983 Tom Evans, Ham's bandmate also killed himself, reportedly over the still prevailing dispute. These were two young men who should never have had money problems. The old music biz saying is. "Where there's a hit, there's a writ." This, however, was something far darker, which would become part of a melancholy counterpoint to Nilsson's life.
In the wake of worldwide success, Harry, whose work often brought him to London, purchased a 2-bedroom flat in Curzon Place, on the edge of Mayfair. While away in the US, he sometimes lent the flat out to music business friends. It was here that 'Mama' Cass Elliott died of a heart attack in 1974. By a strange and terrible coincidence, only four years later, in 1978, the drummer Keith Moon also died there, of an accidental overdose. Fame, wealth and youth, all experienced together, will generally comprise a cocktail far headier than anything that can be ordered in bar. No stranger to the good old-fashioned lost weekend, Harry Nilsson's card was marked early on in his career. A seasoned raver, he hung out with the best –and the worst -- of the Sixties wrecking crew. Almost as a matter of course, within a short few years of his breakthrough, his chickens came home to roost. But the real sledgehammer blow was the assassination in 1980 of his great friend and champion, John Lennon. The thing about Harry Nilsson is that people, his friends, his fans and everyone who met him, loved him. His was an enormous talent. Unfortunately, self- destruction, that groupie to greatness, seemed always to be waiting in the wings for him.
I caught up with Nilsson's music again in early 1978, when, quite by chance, a song came on the radio. It was I Never Thought I’d Get This Lonely. I couldn't quibble with the timing. I’d just split up with my girlfriend and, not having a gig that particular weekend, I was cleaning a kitchen: more for my own absolution than out of any real necessity. This was one of those songs where I just stopped what I was doing and listened.
As the song faded out to its madcap end, there was an appropriate pause before the DJ Terry Wogan said, "And that… was Harry Nilsson, from his last album." First thing the following Monday, I went into a record shop and asked the counter-assistant. "May I order Harry Nilsson's latest album please? " Bear in mind, that in those cash-strapped days, I didn't usually rush out and do things like that.
For the following two months, Knnillssonn was almost the only thing on my turntable. It became the soundtrack for my heartsore, mixed-up young life. Never mind I Never Thought I'd Get This Lonely, the song which had first drawn me in, the piece-de-resistance here was the album's opener, All I Think About Is You. So far as I'm concerned it's one of those songs which should have been Number 1 all over the known universe for an unspecified number of months.
Knnillssonn was Harry's final album in his RCA contract. What an exit. They should never have let him go. It featured opulent strings, English boy choristers and Harry's incredible vocal stylings, which can swoop from slapstick to pathos, within the course of a few bars. Just like abandoned young boyfriends, in fact. Recorded in London, smack-bang in the middle of the Punk revolution, Knnillssonn was released in July 1977. Because of its fashion-defying production values, it would have struggled for media attention under any circumstances. But what really did for it, was that RCA's best boy, Elvis Presley, died in mid August, pretty much burying poor Harry's album right in the middle of its own promotional window.
Knnillssonn isn't just my favourite Harry Nilsson album. While writing this piece I discovered that it was Harry Nilsson's favourite Harry Nilsson album, too. Thus it was, that during the Punk Rock putsch, while the influencers and commissars of Big Important London were ordering us all to learn their new musical manifesto, I was listening mostly to Nilsson.
About a year later, at some small-but-sozzled party in a country cottage where I happened to have washed-up one night, someone put a record on. The lights went down and these drunk-stoned alternative types, rather incongruously, began to smooch to it. It was Great American Songbook material: Makin' Whoopee and It Had To Be You – stuff like that. Beautifully arranged, playfully sung, it was perfect. "Who is this?" I asked one of smoochers. It was Harry Nilsson's A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. Released in July 1973, it became my second favourite Harry Nilsson album. He performed these classics seamlessly, naturally and with a refreshing sense of fun.
More importantly he'd beaten the whole of rock royalty to the punch: Sir Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Robbie Williams --even Brian Ferry. Eventually, whether from songwriter's block, or some hitherto unspoken affection, they'd all end up having a drink on The Great American Songbook. In 1973, when the rock music press was at the height of its own self-importance, it must have taken a particularly well-entrenched nonchalance for Nilsson to release an album of brown-varnished standards, with no fear of being laughed out of town because of it.
For me, both as a fellow song-writer and rusted-up romantic, Harry Nilsson remains one of those artistes where, if ever I come to any sort of an impasse with something I'm working on, I'll still sometimes ask myself, "What might Nilsson have done here?" And, at a time in my life when, I'm only just teaching myself the rudiments of how to arrange strings, that is about the best compliment I can pay him. .............................................................................................. This piece was written for Neil Watson's book "Harry and Me" https://neilwatson.co.uk/harry-and-me