Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter By Alyn Shipton Oxford University Press, 544 pp., $27.95
While on a press tour to promote the founding of Apple Corps in 1968, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were asked to name their favorite singer. "Nilsson," they replied. When next queried as to their favorite group, the answer was the same: "Nilsson."
The man they referred to was the still mostly-unknown Harry Nilsson, a rock and pop singer-songwriter with an amazing voice and just as formidable pen who was garnering a cult status on the basis of a handful of records.
And while his life would intersect in and out with those of the Beatles (whom he hero-worshipped), it is ironic that today he's best remembered for singing two songs he didn't write: Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" from the film Midnight Cowboy and "Without You" by Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans, both of which won him Grammys. That's over his own material, which included hits for Three Dog Night ("One") and the Monkees ("Cuddly Toy").
In Shipton's exhaustive bio, he peels away the multiple fun and frustrating layers of the man in both his musical and tangled personal life. The latter no more prevalent then when his abandonment by his father manifests itself in a sad song ("1941") which then eerily predicts his own abandoning of a wife and child, before later finding happiness with a large second family.
But to try to pigeonhole the life of Harry Nilsson like other singer-songwriters of the era is an exercise in futility. After all, this was a man who was able to record and release more than a dozen solo records, but yet never notch up a single concert for a paying audience due to a crippling fear of live performances.
Nilsson also took his own muse to the sometimes detriment of a bigger commercial career.
Record an entire record of tunes by a then mostly-unknown Randy Newman? Sure. Follow up the career pinnacle Nilsson Schmilsson with an unplayable-on-radio bitter ode to his ex-wife with the lyrics "You're breakin' my heart/You're tearin' it apart/So fuck you?" Done. Record a whole album of him crooning standards from the Great American Songbook long before Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart hit gold with a similar approach? Absolutely.
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Ultimately, though, Harry Nilsson's worst enemy didn't come in the form of the music industry, his fans, or fellow musicians - it was Harry Nilsson.
A legendary drinker and drugger whose prodigious intake still managed to dwarf those of seasoned Bacchanalians like John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, and Alice Cooper, his endless carousing ended up damaging his most important gift, that angelic, high voice.
It was one that, when multitracked (as he was wont to do), enveloped listeners in a warm sonic milk bath. That each recording the instrument deteriorated into a hoarse whisper was a musical tragedy.
The man did enjoy a nice, raucous night (or week) out, though. At one famous incident, Nilsson and Lennon were ejected from L.A.'s Troubadour Club for obnoxiously heckling the Smothers Brothers during a show after imbibing far too many Brandy Alexanders (though in Shipton's retelling, it's Lennon who was mostly out of control). Nilsson also began packing on the pounds.
But things couldn't have gone well after Lennon entered the club with a sanitary napkin placed on top of his cranium. "Do you know who I am?" he asked imperiously. "Yeah," a seen-it-all waitress responded. "Some asshole with a Kotex on his head."
Shipton is detailed -- very detailed -- throughout and in particular to his dissection of Nilsson's music. And while it's manna for the diehards, more casual fans might struggle.
Still, there are plenty of interesting tidbits, some better known (both Mama Cass Elliott and Who drummer Keith Moon died in Nilsson's London apartment years apart) and not so (Nilsson got the news that his friend John Lennon had been killed while in the studio recording with...Frank Stallone).
And while Nilsson cleaned up somewhat in the '80s while leading a one-man campaign across the U.S. to reform handgun laws in the wake of Lennon's assassination, he died in 1994 at age 52 from heart failure, no doubt brought on by other health issues stemming back years.
But recently, there's been something of a Harry Nilsson revival. Spearheaded by the must-see documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), there has also been a deluxe DVD edition of his incredible 1972 animated children's parable The Point (with story concept and songs written and performed by Harry), and a massive 17-disc box set, The RCA Collection.
Shipton -- who also penned bios on Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway -- may not be a writer with a lot of flair, but his book (with plenty of quotes from the subject himself along with other interviews) will be the definitive work on the man who put the lime in the coconut. And drank it all up. All up.
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