Paul McCartney and John Lennon described him as the Beatles’ “favorite group,” he won Grammy awards, wrote and recorded hit songs, and yet no figure in popular music is as much of a paradox, or as underrated, as Harry Nilsson. Until now.
In this first ever full-length biography, Alyn Shipton traces Nilsson’s life from his Brooklyn childhood to his Los Angeles adolescence and his gradual emergence as a uniquely talented singer-songwriter. With interviews from friends, family, and associates, and material drawn from an unfinished autobiography, Shipton probes beneath the enigma to discover the real Harry Nilsson.
Nate Sloan: What was your relationship to the music of Harry Nilsson before you began this book, and as a corollary to that, what made you decide that Nilsson was worthy of a full-length biography?
Alyn Shipton: Okay so I think like everybody else in the world, the two Nilsson songs that I knew were “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin“. They’d impinged on my consciousness…they were in the charts. We heard them and they became part of the backdrop to life just like many of the other songs of that era, whether The Beatles or The Beach Boys or whoever. Those two songs I knew about and in 2002, I was commissioned by the BBC to make a biographical series about Richard Perry, the producer.
AS: I’d met Richard, funnily enough through the McHugh family [Shipton chronicled the life of songwriter Jimmy McHugh in his book “I Feel a Song Coming On”, Illinois UP, 2009]. I didn’t really know too much about what he did. I researched him for the series and then went to L.A. and spent I suppose about four or five days talking to Richard about his life and his work. That’s when I started really taking notice of Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmillson and that got very interesting…I said, you know, the thing that’s really interested me most in all the music that we’ve talked about has been Nilsson because where can I go and find more out about this extraordinary voice and he said, “You can’t.”
NS: What was the research process like for this book? Because the level of detail in the anecdotes that you include are pretty amazing, and very enlightening. I’m curious where you came up with those.
AS: I used the same method that I’ve used a lot for my books. There’s always a lot of mulling around in books and discographies and other things, so I tried to create a backdrop of reasonably concrete facts. Against which I can then start to interview everybody. For example, I wouldn’t walk into an interview with Perry Botkin without knowing quite a lot about what else he’s done as well as just what he’d done with Harry. As a result, most of the people I talked to, and in many cases met several times or e-mailed over a long period of time, including Van Dyke Parks, for instance, became an e-mail buddy. We were swapping emails quite a long way through the process so that when we actually met we sort of felt we knew each other. That helped enormously with trying to get inside the relationships that many of these musicians and others had with Harry.
NS: The cast of characters in this book is pretty extraordinary from beginning to end. I’m curious if you were surprised by any of the collaborators that Nilsson worked with during his career.
AS: Well I suppose I was surprised that after a certain point when he’d taken up a serious hobby of drinking and drug-taking people continued to work with him. I think that the man, the genius, this intangible quality that Harry had that comes across in some of the music — that clearly was there with him as a person.
I knew from Dawn Eden that there had been a draft autobiography of Harry’s, because she mentions it in the liner notes to Personal Best and used quotes from it. What surprised me when I actually made contact with the estate and then got to know John Schienfeld [director of LSL Production’s Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking about Him?] was that there were not one, but two draft autobiographies. There was one that only ever existed on tape which John had had transcribed for the film, so that was fantastically useful.
NS: Is this the first book on a rock subject that you’ve written?
AS: It’s the first full-length book. I’ve had a lot of contributions to part-works and magazines, and other things on areas of rock and blues and soul, so it’s not alien territory.
NS: You didn’t need to familiarize yourself with rock history and the context in which Nilsson was operating. That was already something you knew.
AS: Having grown up with it, it’s in my psyche. You couldn’t evade the pop music of the sixties and the seventies if that was the era in which you were growing up. Every dance, every disco, every nightclub, you’d hear this music all the time.
NS: I’d like to talk more about Nilsson’s beginnings because these were sections of the book that, for someone familiar with his major albums, were so unexpected. Your pages on his early childhood feel like they could be a movie, or Bildungsroman. Did you know that Nilsson had this sort of picaresque childhood growing up, or was that a surprise to you?
AS: Well, funnily enough, I did discover it very early on because there had been a BBC radio series about him. When I made the Richard Perry series I decided that I had to try and get hold of this and have a look at it, a listen to it rather. Having heard that, one of the interviewees in it was Van Dyke Parks and he’s one of the few people who’d been back to Brooklyn with Harry to see where he’d grown up. Van Dyke’s account of that, in the BBC radio series. It’s heart rending. Van Dyke really couldn’t believe what Harry had come out from in his description of that. And then there were others of Harry’s friends that I encountered later, like Jimmy Webb, who’d also been to see the site of the Brooklyn family and all that. I mean it was, you’re right, it does read like something out of a novel, I mean it could have been invented by Victor Hugo.
NS: I read the first part of this massive Beatles biography, Tune In.
AS: Yes, is that the Lewisohn thing?
NS: Yes, exactly. Something that really struck me in reading Nilsson is that there seem to be many parallels between Nilsson’s childhood and John Lennon’s. In that they both had absentee fathers, mothers who were both incredibly bright and vivacious and also unreliable and infrequently unable to care for their children. I wonder, could that play a role in this, in what you describe as the instant friendship between Lennon and Nilsson when they meet?
AS: Well, of course, there was a fly on the wall for their first conversation because actually, as you’ll remember from that passage, he describes Yoko curled up at Lennon’s feet as they talked through the night. I would love to have been there and heard that conversation because I bet this stuff came out. I know it did with Ringo. I mean I know that, because actually it was a side comment of Ringo’s that led me to discover that Harry’s father had not been a Seabee. He said, “No he was in the Merchant Marines, like me,” and that led me to do some more work. Then I talked to Gary Nilsson, who’s Nilsson’s half brother. He said, “No, Dad was just a regular seaman, he wasn’t a Seabee.” This opened up a whole thing, this other process of discovering the extended family.
NS: The stylistic shifts from one Nilsson album to the next can be extremely abrupt, starting with “Pandemonium Shadow Show.” How can you account for these wild divergences of sound?
AS: I think Harry got bored easily. Plus…he didn’t want to be typecast as that singer who did “Everybody’s Talkin” or “Without you.” Even though “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” is kind of a clone of “Everybody’s Talkin”, there are very few examples in Nilsson’s work of him going back and retracing steps through things he’s done before. Even in those early albums, there’s such a breadth of stuff. On the Harry album, you’ve got beautifully crafted musical songs, and you’ve got really quite new, unusual structures. Both Perry Botkin and Van Dyke said to me that one of the things they loved about Harry is that he didn’t like the thirty two bar conventional popular song structure, so he just didn’t use it. “Nobody Cares About the Railroads Anymore” is one of the very few early Nilsson songs that has a conventional Tin Pan Alley structure. Most of them are quite different. The things that people like The Monkees and Three Dog Night loved about Harry’s songs were the things that made them unlike anybody else’s. He’s writing uneven lines.
NS: A song like “Think About Your Troubles” from The Point — which has a very circuitous form and, as you said, doesn’t go to the places that you’d expect — makes me wonder if he was informed by other musical theater composers; Stephen Sondheim, for instance?
AS: Harry always wanted to write musical shows. I think I wrote about the fact that his idea of “Orville and Wilbur: The Musical” goes way back to the beginning, and a lot of the ideas in that surface in The Point. It was his idea that Orville Wright would have a dog and that he would find his way through the path of life with this dog and so it becomes “Me and My Arrow”. There are ideas from those early shows that he didn’t finish and didn’t produce that then find their way into the later work.
NS: Despite the musical diversity we were just talking about, you do find some convincing threads in Nilsson in terms of his composition. One being his, what you might call an obsession, with numbers and their appearance in and structuring of many of his songs.
AS: Harry clearly had this lifelong ability in and sympathy for number games. Including being able to tell you what day you were born if you gave him your date of birth. If you’d say, “you know I was born on 24th November 1953,” [he’d say] “that was a Tuesday.” I mean, that quickly.
NS: Really? Wow.
AS: He’d be right. Always.
NS: That’s wild.
AS: He also used numerological tricks. Things like every letter in the alphabet has a numerical value. His son’s name had a numerical value and that leads to him being named Nine.
NS: Lyrically he’s also very enticed by the idea of double meaning, whether it’s in the song “Cuddly Toy,” which I was amazed to find became a hit for The Monkees that was received very innocently by listeners. Your analysis of the first line of “One” totally blew my mind (“One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do”). Because of that phrasing, you don’t expect the verb “do” at the end of that phrase. You expect that you’ll ever have or know or be.
AS: Yeah, but it’s to do with “doing a number” [i.e. rolling a joint].
NS: I never would have made that connection, and yet I think it’s that surprising verb that really makes the song so indelible at the same time.
AS: It switches it later on, so it’s quite fun because it’s not always “do” in every verse.
NS: Right, then it’s “know” later, I think.
NS: His sense of humor is something that I feel might separate him from a lot of other rock stars of his era. Where did that come from? The playfulness and cheekiness?
AS: I think it’s partly the Irishness of growing up in a family where everybody has to talk and there’s this, what I call the craic going round the table, which is just this Irish thing of everybody competing. One of the things that will happen in those types of conversations is outrageous puns.
NS: I’m curious what you think about Nilsson’s reputation and particularly his place in the canon of rock music or pop music. He seems to be at once the singer or author of a number of iconic songs and yet doesn’t seem to have a firm place in the pantheon of musicians from this late-60s, early-70s moment.
AS: I think that’s probably exactly what I’d have said if you hadn’t said it. When I started working on the book and I mentioned to people, the standard response was “Harry who?”
Because I think he’s probably one of the unknowns… Or, had been, before this book and the RCA collected edition of seventeen CDS. That Nilsson box set has also done a massive amount to bring his music back into the spotlight, and the fact that we were able to coordinate the publication of the two so they appeared at the same time was great. Because it did actually mean that people could read the book and immediately go to the musical sources and hear what I was going on about. Whereas had I written the book and that music had remained unavailable it would have been extremely difficult for people to have recognized whether I was making valid claims for him as an artist. I think there’s an essential dichotomy in Nilsson and I mention it in the introduction and I guess I think I come back to it at the end of the book, which is:
Was he foremost a songwriter who caught the spirit of the age and performed his own songs distinctively but in some cases not as well as other people?
Or was he a great singer, as Richard Perry says, one of the finest white male voices on the planet? Who sadly didn’t leave the same impression with the public in his own songs as he did with those two songs by Fred Neil [Everybody’s Talking at Me] and Badfinger [Without You]. It’s a real knife edge.
That’s why the subtitle of the book became “the life of a singer-songwriter,” because it’s that balance, singer or songwriter.
We’ve put a hyphen in there but actually there could be a space or even an oblique. What was he? Was he a singer, was he a songwriter? Of course he was both, but in some ways his greatest successes in the songwriting field were always due to somebody else performing the work.
NS: If perhaps he’d been more solidly one or the either it would have been easier to identify his legacy.
AS: Yeah, I mean if he’d have been a Randy Newman I think so.
NS: Was his reluctance to perform maybe another element of his uncertain status as in the rock canon?
AS: The people who knew him best tended to say Harry had two things that wanted to do. He wanted to walk around unrecognized. He’d seen on that very first visit to London what happened to John Lennon and the other Beatles that he was hanging out with. That they couldn’t go anywhere and be private individuals and he didn’t want that to happen to him. By not appearing in public, by not being a familiar face, and by changing his appearance dramatically from one album to the next he could live his life, initially in Hollywood, and then in Bel Air, and then later on in London, and then in New York State, without anybody really knowing who he was. He managed to be an anonymous rock star who was still selling millions of albums and that’s an extraordinary feat. I think it’s more to do with that and less to do with this kind of sense of who he is. I think Nilsson always knew who he was. It’s that the rest of the world didn’t necessarily recognize him.
Alyn Shipton is an award-winning author and broadcaster, who has written on jazz for over twenty years for The Times in London, and is a presenter/producer of jazz programmes for BBC Radio. He was Consultant Editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, and has a lifelong interest in oral history, including editing the memoirs of Danny Barker, Doc Cheatham and George Shearing.
Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter won the 2014 ARSC Award for best research in pop music and an ASCAP Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Award in November 2014, which was accepted on Alyn’s behalf by Kief O Nilsson.
Nate Sloan is currently a PhD candidate at Stanford University and a Geballe Dissertation Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, writing a dissertation on nightclubs in Harlem during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nate teaches music history, jazz history and music theory at the California Jazz Conservatory by day Nate co-hosts the music podcast Switched on Pop by night.
Nate is one-half of the guerrilla vaudeville act The Gideon and Hubcap Show (the Hubcap half), which performs exclusively in living rooms. He has written music and lyrics for two original musicals and scored the award-winning short documentary SLOMO, in addition to playing piano and banjo in local jazz and bluegrass outfits.