16 February 2009

Harry Nilsson

I wanted to write about Harry Nilsson because 1) Nilsson is one of my favorite songwriters ever 2) I was a little rushed to get up today and started singing "Gotta Get Up" for a few seconds before Emily joined in.  

Much like most of today's songwriters, Nilsson never took himself too seriously and didn't stick to one or two styles of song.  Rock songs?  Check.  Ballads?  Check.  Easy listening?  Check.  Children's songs?  Check.  Country?  Check.  Free-form jazz?  Uh, ok, wouldn't go that far.  Still, where his contemporaries (The Beatles, Cat Stevens, The Turtles [I guess he liked being contemporaries with animals]) only stuck to one or two of these styles, Nilsson managed to convincingly write and record in a myriad of genres, held together by his commanding presence as a singer.  Only Randy Newman could be considered a rival, and nobody can stand that guy's voice for an entire album anyway.

Nilsson is known primarily for two movie songs- Midnight Cowboy's "Everybody's Talkin'" (later featured in Forrest Gump) and Nilsson Schmilsson's "Coconut," later featured in Reservoir Dogs.  These songs highlight just part of the genius of Nilsson.  He could do an airy, world-weary folk song (granted, he didn't write "Everybody's Talkin," but "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" serves the same purpose) just as easily as a slow, percussion-heavy calypso song about hangovers.

Some of the greatest things about Nilsson aren't his songwriting, but his modesty and humor when handling his own talent.  When Nilsson was recording with John Lennon for the Pussy Cats album, he ruptured a vocal cord and famously continued working because he didn't want Lennon to stop the sessions.  As a youngster in 1960, Nilsson recorded a few tracks for $5 a piece.  When he later became famous, the owner of the songs followed up with Nilsson as to offer proper compensation, Nilsson said he'd already been paid for the songs in 1960.  Through 1968, he handled his own phones and often gave on-the-spot interviews.  

Don't get me wrong.  Nilsson did his fair share of partying and trouble-making.  But at least he didn't go around smacking up his lady friend.

I want to share a few tracks that I especially enjoy, but I strongly urge you to dole out the $2.99 for most of his records.