Thursday, October 27, 2011

"Nilsson's my favorite group"

It's a shame that more people aren't familiar with Harry Nilsson. You could also say it's something of a surprise. I mean, how is it that the singer-songwriter whom John Lennon once publicly deemed his favorite artist often seems lost to history? How did the vocal talent behind "Without You" (one of pop's enduring love songs), "One," and "Everybody's Talkin'" become more of an historical footnote than an easy reference point? Maybe he was too quirky or too much of a renegade. Maybe his refusal to perform live - born of extreme insecurity - played a role. Or maybe he didn't deliver the goods for long enough.

Whatever the reason, it's unfortunate, because any fan of pop music who hasn't experienced the thrill and the charm and the beauty and the pain of Nilsson's voice - to say nothing of his singular songwriting prowess - has been deprived. While it was in working order, he could do anything with his voice. It's comparable to Roy Orbison's, and that's a rare statement.

All of this is on my mind because I recently watched Who is Harry Nilsson... (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), a documentary directed by John Scheinfeld (who was also responsible for The U.S. vs. John Lennon). It's a terrific film, conventional in terms of its style and technique but full of warmth, humor, sadness and music for the ages. And for fans of The Beatles, there's much to enjoy in how often the Fabs make an appearance in Nilsson's story.

Here's a summary of what the film had to say:

Nilsson claimed to dislike The Beatles initially because he felt they had beaten him to the punch in a creative sense. He eventually relented, coming to the conclusion that they were the only band that mattered. Later, The Beatles returned the favor. At a press conference, John responded to a question about the influence of other acts by saying: "Nilsson's my favorite group." This professional respect eventually spawned close friendships between Nilsson and John as well as Ringo. Nilsson and John doubtlessly spotted much of themselves in each other, as both were abandoned by parents as children; both fought insecurity and deep-seated anger for much of their lives; and both saw their first marriages result in divorce and the neglect of young children. The most notorious overlap between their individual narratives came in 1973 and 1974 when Nilsson was a co-debauchee in John's year-plus, binge-fueled separation from Yoko known as his "Lost Weekend." It was during this period that the two made Pussy Cats. In the process of recording the album, Nilsson did permanent damage to his voice, the result of playful one-upmanship between him and John over who could belt out the more ragged, gritty vocal. That's the kind of bond they shared, "a friendship made in hell," according to one colleague of Nilsson's, but a friendship all the same. After John was murdered, Nilsson was distraught and became heavily involved in anti-hand gun activism. Though, as close as those two were, Nilsson and Ringo nurtured a deeper friendship. They recorded together, made silly films, and Ringo even fulfilled best man duties when Nilsson married his second wife.

My favorite Beatles-related story actually comes from Nilsson's funeral in 1994. George Harrison was in attendance and at one point started talking about Nilsson's music. He pegged "You're Breakin' My Heart" as his favorite song. According to another attendee, this inspired George and others to perform an a-capella rendition of the song - complete with its frank, ear-catching punch line - right next to Nilsson's grave. It was a moment perfectly suited to its honoree: sad, salty and sweet.

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