If you’re a fan of singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, it probably means you love Harry Nilsson. If you belong to a younger demographic of Nilsson enthusiasts, it might also mean you romanticize your fandom as some sort of secret knowledge of higher things (I know I do).
This is one perplexing aspect of Nilsson’s legacy: it’s hard to say how well-known and appreciated he is. Most famous for his covers of “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You,” he won multiple Grammys, had hit songs, was a favorite of the Beatles (and has been referred to as “the American Beatle”), collaborated and caroused with John Lennon, built lasting friendships with Ringo Starr, Micky Dolenz, and other famous types, and has been celebrated as one of the finest vocalists, melodicists, and songwriters in pop music history. He clearly was no fringe player, and his influence still reverberates.
Yet he never became a household name, in part due to a defiant streak that often seemed aimed at self-sabotage. He spurned the pop star obligation to tour and perform live; he sometimes did “specials” instead. He recorded too many covers albums. He riddled potential hits with jokes and crude language. He always seemed to be working on oddball film projects. He “retired” prior to turning 40. In short, he forged his own path.
For that, Nilsson may not have achieved the popularity and commercial success that he deserved, but he did leave behind a legacy of supreme artistic integrity. It’s one of numerous reasons why Nilsson fans don’t simply like or admire him. They adore him.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nilsson’s death at age 52 from heart failure (the hard living caught up to him in the end), which presents an opportunity to evangelize about this brilliant, pioneering, oh-so-himself artist. Below are ten Nilsson songs you should like.
The list is a mix of obscurities, deep cuts, lesser-known “greatest hits,” and personal favorites. It wasn’t easy to construct because of the wide-ranging nature of Nilsson’s work. His sensibilities were all over the map. But I did try to hit the most important styles and phases of his career without leaning on his best-known tunes. As the songs demonstrate, Nilsson was an American original.
For more on Nilsson, I recommend this Grantland retrospective, this A.V. Club guide, John Scheinfeld’s well-made documentary, “Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)?,” and Alyn Shipton’s matter-of-fact but thorough biography, “Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter.”
“Please Mr. Music Man” (“Nilsson ’62: The Debut Sessions”)
Here’s Nilsson before he was “Nilsson!” Cut in 1962 and not released for many years, the vocal track demo for Audie Murphy and Scott Turner’s “Please Mr. Music Man” was Nilsson’s first professional recording. It elevates a standard C&W-style lament into something flush with wounded beauty. From day one, that full, expressive, three-and-a-half octave voice was the star of the show.
“1941” (“Pandemonium Shadow Show”)
“1941” is quintessential ‘60s Nilsson: the ornate arrangement, the quirky scat singing, the sadness wrapped in colorful whimsy, the stunningly natural quality of the vocal. It tells the story of a circus runaway who was abandoned by his father and later ditched his own son. Sadly, Nilsson lived out both of these roles in real life, but he did go on to become a devoted family man with his third wife, Una O’Keeffe, and their six (!) children.
“Together” (“Aerial Ballet”)
Listen to “Together,” and you’ll understand why Nilsson earned stylistic comparisons to the Beatles. The horns and strings scream “Revolver,” while the melody rolls off Nilsson’s tongue with an ease and refinement that’s pure McCartney. Just over two minutes long and yet covering a lot of ground, “Together” is also a model of efficient songwriting––another Beatles hallmark. It’s not uncommon to encounter the argument that Lennon plus McCartney equaled Nilsson.
“Vine Street” (“Nilsson Sings Newman”)
Or better yet, just listen to all of “Nilsson Sings Newman,” Nilsson’s lovely tribute to singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who at the time had only put out one record and was a relative unknown. Nilsson’s voice and use of overdubs combine to bring a dimension of warmth and beauty to Newman’s often-gruff (but terrific!) originals. The project was an exceedingly generous show of respect from a more established artist to an up-and-comer.
“Down” (“Nilsson Schmilsson”)
“Nilsson Schmilsson” is much more than the emotional pyrotechnics of “Without You,” the comic eccentricity of “Coconut,” and the sheer rock ‘n’ roll coolness of “Jump into the Fire.” In fact, depending on the day, I might endorse the rowdy piano blues number “Down” as the album’s top moment. It features another force-of-nature vocal from Nilsson––his voice essentially functions as an instrument here – and a horn section that is so vigorous, so sweaty, so ‘70s. It’s a total barn burner, up there among Nilsson’s hardest-hitting tracks.
“Take 54” (“Son of Schmilsson”)
Speaking of vigorous, sweaty, and the ‘70s, it doesn’t get much better than Bobby Keys’ sax solo on “Take 54,” the rockin’ opening cut on “Son of Schmilsson.” For that matter, it doesn’t get much better than “Take 54” period. “I sang my b-lls off for you, baby,” exclaims Nilsson as he mischievously recounts an episode of in-studio lust.
While I concede that “Nilsson Schmilsson” is the “better” of the two Richard Perry-produced records (i.e., it’s more disciplined and coherent), “Son” has more personality and bravado without skimping on superb tunes. As exemplified with “Take 54,” it’s where Nilsson’s songwriting talents and indulgent impulses were most productively in harmony.
“Joy” (“Son of Schmilsson”)
If you want more proof of how wonderfully personality-driven “Son of Schmilsson” is, look no further than “Joy,” Nilsson’s deadpan parody of a Sad Country Song. Descriptions won’t do justice to the way he dryly talks through the verses and emphasizes words like “sad,” “happy,” and even “now” (seriously, it’s the greatest “now” in music history).
That’s not to mention his salty synopsis of this failed romance (“Things went good, things went bad…good, bad, good, bad, good, bad”) or the silliness of the rhymes. Not only was Nilsson an extraordinary singer and a uniquely gifted songwriter, he was also hilarious.
“Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” (“Pussy Cats”)
Produced by John Lennon during his legendary “Lost Weekend,” “Pussy Cats” sounds every bit like the creation of two brilliant artists suffering from too many nights spent on the town and under the table. It’s a riveting mess: labored, emotionally strained, almost always on the verge of collapse.
“Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga” is one exception. With its hazy, sun-kissed, happily buzzed vibes, it’s a little hideaway, an escape from the madness. Whatever the song is actually about doesn’t matter because it goes down so easily and refreshingly. Even Nilsson’s damaged voice (the result of a ruptured vocal cord) hits just the right spot.
“Daylight Has Caught Me” (“…That’s the Way It Is”)
The rest of Nilsson’s ‘70s output isn’t as substandard as the conventional wisdom suggests (both “Duit on Mon Dei” and “Knnillssonn” are winners), but locating the gems does at times require patience. “Daylight Has Caught Me” is a case in point. It’s buried on “…That’s the Way It Is” underneath a cluster of so-so cover songs, but man is it a jam!
Co-written by Dr. John, it’s a piano and horns-driven blast of addictive energy that doesn’t let up. It sounds like a classic Elton John romp but drunk, thanks to Nilsson’s deliciously ragged and slurred vocal. As he shouts out “D-mn d-mn the daylight!” like it’s his personal motto, you can be forgiven for wanting to join the party.
“All I Think About Is You” (“Knnillssonn”)
No song or album or moment could ever be said to convey the essence of Nilsson as an individual. He had too many modes, too many layers. Nonetheless, the promotional video for “All I Think About Is You” is Nilssonian in the extreme. The song itself is angelically lush and gorgeous, a delicate meeting point of beauty and sadness. It’s basically the anti-“Without You” for its lack of histrionics.
Meanwhile, in keeping with the “Knnillssonn” artwork, the video features a creepily four-eyed Nilsson singing, raising his eyebrows, and even sucking his thumb. Why the bizarre incongruity, the wondrous artistry and the zaniness side by side? The simplest answer: “Just Harry being Harry,” a phrase that surely has been uttered countless times about this remarkable man.
Ten bonus tracks: “Without Her,” “River Deep – Mountain High,” “Don’t Leave Me,” “Me and My Arrow,” “The Moonbeam Song,” “The Lottery Song,” “Many Rivers to Cross,” “Don’t Forget Me,” “Kojak Columbo,” “Good for God.”