Culture

His soaring talent, maverick ways and damaging lifestyle ensured Harry Nilsson kept everybody talkin’. By Tim Freedman.

Wild about ’70s music icon Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson … before his vocal cords gave out, his voice was a full-throated marvel.
Credit: Getty Images

Harry Nilsson was a mercurial songwriter and a sublime singer, famously described by Lennon and McCartney in a 1968 press conference as their “favourite American group”. The opening credits of Midnight Cowboy, where he sings “Everybody’s Talkin’”, secured his place in our cultural history. The purity of his soaring vocal in “Without You”, which won the Grammy for best pop vocal performance in 1972, would have made him a household name today if classic radio back-announced songs. When he raises his voice an octave halfway through the first chorus, he gives the listener the type of thrill that sets them wandering over the musical terrain for life searching for its equal.

However, these two songs were cover versions. It is his own songwriting that is the revelation on the 17-album box set of his work RCA has released and which I listened to while reading Alyn Shipton’s fine biography, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.

Nilsson had a mathematical brain – he could tell someone the day of the week they were born just from hearing their birth date. His early lyrics are full of intricate patterns and word play, with inner rhymes and clever elision of lines, titles with numbers (“1941”, “One”) and themes until then unbroached. When matched with a melodic sense from the Everly Brothers strained through the Beatles, he produced frequent gems.

Nilsson was still working at a bank when he was asked to play his songs for the Monkees, who were just starting to rebel against their puppet masters. We get five songs from that session here. In his unadorned version of “Cuddly Toy”, the cruel attitude to the dumped girl (“You’re not the only choo choo train that was left out in the rain/ The day after Santa came”) is still obvious through the childlike tone, and not entirely camouflaged as in the music hall confection that would be a hit for the Monkees and let Nilsson quit his job at the computer.

These early albums have his gorgeous voice front and centre. When he approaches the top range of his chest voice, falsetto tones pour in and nearly take over. Further up the register, beyond the shoals where most singers long ago faltered, Nilsson’s voice is still a full-throated marvel. The orchestral backings give fine service to the songs and have a lightness of touch that shows how closely his arranger was listening to George Martin.

The huge 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson was produced by Richard Perry, the last person Nilsson deferred to in the studio, and a man known for putting the band through up to 70 takes in search of the perfect feel. From there it was a crazy downhill ride. Nilsson managed to lose his audience over the ’70s, as his output lurched from the charmingly unclassifiable to the inconsistent.

Much has been made of Nilsson’s refusal to play concerts. Shyness, bad teeth and the loss of his top register were all factors, but there is also the more fortunate fact that he simply didn’t need to. The mother of most live tours is the unpaid invoice, and until the end of his life Harry could pay his bills without the gigs. Nilsson would say that he had John Lennon to thank for this. When the record company was showing reluctance to re-sign him in 1974, Lennon and Nilsson pulled an all-nighter and fronted the RCA headquarters where Lennon intimated that he himself might consider signing after his present deal with Apple Records expired. The executive inked the contract immediately, giving Nilsson half a million dollars for each of the eight albums he was to deliver from 1974. (RCA later paid $3 million to get out of the deal.)

The backing vocals on Ringo Starr’s 1973 hit “You’re Sixteen …” are the last example of the undamaged voice, multi-tracked to perfection, like a one-man Beach Boys. Soon after, he blew out his voice trying to match producer Lennon’s rock’n’roll vocals on the Pussy Cats album. But his voice was not all that gave out.

Too much of the latter albums are full of songs that sound like they were great ideas at the time of their conception, but were tough to pull off with a hangover. Such is the curse, I suppose, of the charming wastrel bouncing around LA with a bag of cocaine in his top pocket, boistering for two days at a time with Ringo, Jimmy Webb and the chaps from Monty Python, and arriving at the studio with half a million on the way and some scribbled notes on a coaster. When he keeps his voice low, as in the velvet perfection of “All I Think About Is You” from 1977, the trip is all worthwhile. However, focusing your ears on his voice during these albums rarely ends well, like watching the pole in a high-jump competition.

But it makes for a good book. Alyn Shipton is a jazz musician who has written biographies of Cab Calloway and Dizzy Gillespie, and despite the riches of racy material, he has the resources to keep his focus on the music. I was reminded of Jimmy McDonough’s 2002 biography Shakey, with its forensic yet readable account of Neil Young’s repertoire. Sure I want to hear about Nilsson trying to sober up with Keith Moon by shuffling from movie session to movie session over a weekend only to end up destroying a nightclub opening, but I also want a couple of footnotes to calm my incredulity.

Listening to these 17 albums, tracing them through the pages of Shipton’s book, I felt the thrill of a private tour at a gallery with the world expert who delights at recounting the artist’s wicked foibles. I enjoyed a dialogue with the perfect companion, bedside and voluble, sharing our thoughts about the moment we were first moved by a work of art.

I don’t know why we can’t buy music books with the music a convenient click away. I’m reliably informed that someone recently worked out how to store my family photographs in a mountain in Utah. It can’t be long before book publishers can work out how to talk to music publishers and give us musical biographies with access to the actual music. It will be a welcome hybrid. When the rights owners do the work for me, I’ll gladly pay them. In the meantime, you’ll have to buy both.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Wild about Harry". Subscribe here.

Tim Freedman
is a musician and one of The Saturday Paper’s music critics.