Harry Nilsson was a genius, tortured soul, and one of the best singer/songwriters this country ever produced. Nilsson was to Rock and Roll what Roger Miller was to Country. Harry Nilsson happens to also be one of my top five favorite artists, and I adore his music with a passion. It also pains me that Nilsson died in 1994, and as with most genius, we are only now fully appreciating his work. Though best known for the song “Coconut” and his recordings of “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin'”, Nilsson wasn’t a man without success in his time.
He wrote “One”, which was made famous by Three Dog Night, and his 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson was a massive chart success. In the process of eventually reaching number 3 on charts, the album spawned two top ten hits. So why is it that it’s taken so long for Harry Nilsson to receive his due? His due, by the way, in the form of the recently released 17 CD box set Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection. A massive undertaking that contains all of the albums Harry recorded for RCA from 1967-1977, and three discs of bonus material, featuring 50 never before released tracks.
Harry Nilsson was never too concerned with chart success, the more his personal relationships broke up, the more and more he became interested in following his own muse. This is not to say that Nilsson never did his own thing anyway, Nilsson’s style stayed more or less the same. A touch of humor, wit, an amazing singing voice, and lines that could make you laugh and break your heart simultaneously. A fine example being from the song “Don’t Forget Me”, written to his ex wife. “I’ll miss you when I’m lonely, I’ll miss the alimony too”. It’s beautiful and humorous, yet inside that beauty and humor lies an infinite sadness.
My path to Nilsson was one in which I stumbled upon him. I had heard “Everybody’s Talkin'”, liked it, but I had no clue who preformed it. Sometime in the mid 2000s I was driving along in my car listening to the indie station on Satellite Radio. Some band that I can not recall was playing their favorite songs, and the last tune they played was Nilsson’s “You’re Breaking My Heart”. The song, which is one of my favorites of Nilsson’s, opens with the memorable line of “You’re breaking my heart/you’re tearing it apart/so f*** you!”
I laughed, and as the rest of the angry yet funny song played on, I was enamored. I couldn’t write anything down, I just made a mental note. Flash to a year or two later, and I’m in an antique store looking at records. I pull out this odd looking album, rather well played, that had this weird Dracula theme to it, with Son of Schmilsson on the front. Looking over the back I see the name Nilsson, see the song title “You’re Breaking my Heart”, and my brain made the connection. It was a dollar well spent.
I think I wasn’t alone in having this type of discovery with Nilsson’s music, finding it kinda hard to track down, then in the coming years finding other friends my age who were fans. It definitely seemed like a moment of Nilsson awareness was well on it’s way, when in 2010 the documentary on his life Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? Came to DVD, and as of this writing is currently on Netflix (and it’s worth checking out too).
For those of us new Nilsson devotees, and those long time in love with Harry’s music, the surprise announcement earlier this year of the 17 disc box set was very much something to celebrate. Shortly before his death, Nilsson had been pursuing RCA to issue a box set of his work, the result was a mere two CD anthology called Personal Best. Yet here at last is the box set we’ve all been dreaming of. I’ve not had the chance to get my hands on it yet, but judging from what I’ve been reading on-line about the collection, it will not disappoint.
In addition to the unreleased material, the album contains both the stereo and mono mixes of Nilsson’s first two albums: Pandemonium Shadow Show, and Aerial Ballet. There’s what is arguably the first standards album recorded by a rock singer, 1974’s absolutely beautiful A Little Touch of Schmilsson in The Night, and 1977’s John Lennon produced Pussy Cats. Lennon and Nilsson famously once spent a lost weekend together carousing around Los Angeles. It was during the recording sessions for Pussy Cats that Nilsson blew out his vocal cords, though they did eventually recover.
I love Harry Nilsson. I can’t state that enough. His music is always in rotation in my life. If you’re new to his world, fire up the documentary on Netflix and get ready to discover your new favorite artist. Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection is without doubt THE major music release of the year. In an ever growing world of digital media and new music that seems to fragment us more and more, we need a gentle reminder of those who came before us, and to keep their beautiful work alive and well for future generations. The Beatles adored Harry Nilsson, it’s well known fact, and Nilsson deserves to be as much a part of the lexicon as they are.
So I envy you younger readers, you high school and college aged students. I envy the thrill you’ll feel as you listen to Nilsson Schmilsson for the first time, the way that you’ll be knocked over when you hear Harry sing “Without You” (the master of which was made in one take). The time has come for you to put the lime the coconut and drink it all up. Don’t do it for me, but do it for Harry.