Everybody's Still Talkin' About Harry Nilsson
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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