Dreams Are Nothing More Than Wishes: The Harry Nilsson Story

Nilsson is hear

In the spring of 1970, I was still a sophomore in college and, although I thought I knew what I wanted to be—a teacher (a dream destroyed by the liberal left after my graduation)—from a personal perspective I was lost. Trying desperately to find a way to fit into society, I was ridiculed and rebuffed everywhere I turned. I was strong enough in my belief that I was a worthwhile person not to let it bother me too much, but let’s face it, being a social misfit isn’t fun or comfortable. (I’m sure nowadays I would have been put on Ritalin and forced to assimilate with people I didn’t like myself.)

One afternoon, during a break between classes, I wandered over to a sort of on-campus coffeehouse with a loft. In the loft was a phonograph and a small pile of what I would best describe as Hippie-type pop records. The following year the college turned this little sanctuary, which was open to everyone and always had a mixed crowd, exclusively over to the black students on campus and they permanently barred white students from hanging out. But I digress.

There was another female student up in the loft, and she put a record on the turntable. After three short piano notes, a voice began to sing:

Dreams are nothing more than wishes
            And a wish is just a dream
            You wish would come true.

HarryIt was a high-pitched voice, very sweet in sound and completely unlike any other contemporary pop singer I had ever heard. I thought it was a woman singing…I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that it was a man. I looked at the album cover and saw a faded black-and-white photo of a freckle-faced boy with the single word, Harry, next to it. That was my introduction to Harry Nilsson. I listened to the entire album in one sitting; each song seemed as good if not better than the last. When it was finished, I felt as if there was someone—this singer-songwriter, at least—who understood what it was like to feel alienated.

Nilsson’s next album, Nilsson Sings Newman, was just as good if not better. Backed only by Randy Newman on acoustic piano, but multi-tracking his voice, Nilsson sang ten Newman songs, almost none of which became hits (even when Newman himself did them) but most of which had the same theme of trying to fit in to society. It was almost like a pop song cycle, the best songs of which were Love Story, Cowboy, I’ll Be Home, Living Without You and So Long, Dad. By this time, I was hooked. Since I wore out one vinyl pressing of the Harry album and was working on wearing out another, I broke down and bought an 8-track tape player because I was by that time working weekend jobs as a security guard while putting myself through college. Most of these jobs were night shift, after everyone in the building had gone home, and so I was able to play Harry over and over and over again until every note, every phrase was burned into my musical DNA.

From this point forward, now, I’m speaking as a fan. I discovered Nilsson’s pre-Harry albums, Pandemonium Shadow Show and Aerial Ballet, particularly loving the second of Nilsson Aerial Balletthese. By this time I had seen the film Midnight Cowboy and heard the song Everybody’s Talkin’. Still in college, I heard the music from Nilsson’s animated film The Point, which I liked less, but was still a fan. I learned, by this time, that Nilsson had started out making demo records for songwriter Scott Turner in 1962, then wrote some songs (including one for Little Richard and three for Phil Spector) through which he met and befriended publisher Perry Botkin, Jr. All through this period he worked at a bank on computers—remember, these were the days when “computer” meant something six feet high and four feet across, with huge digital tape reels on them, set aside in a dustproof room (think of the computer Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey), not something on a desk. But Nilsson had an office of his own. He sang just one live performance in tandem with another singer, was petrified and hated the experience, but Botkin was still able to promote Nilsson as a singer. He introduced him to composer-arranger George Tipton, who acted as Nilsson’s music director on his first three RCA Victor albums (including Harry). Tipton personally invested his life’s savings, $2,500, to record four songs with Nilsson which he was able to sell to Tower Records. Due to these demos, Tipton wangled a contract with RCA and history was made.

Nilsson’s only request of RCA was that he have his own office as he did at the bank. He still wouldn’t sing in live performances but in fact answered his own phone when people would call RCA and ask to speak to him. Years later, he recalled a typical conversation: “When did you play last?” “I didn’t.” “Where have you played before?” “I haven’t.” “When will you be playing next?” “I won’t.”

It seemed as if Nilsson was a quiet, sensitive man who had tapped into what it was like to be quiet and sensitive and misunderstood in American society. Certainly, that was part of his charm. His Nilsson Schmilsson album, though yielding the hit song Without You, was to me less effective than his earlier recordings (by this time he had a falling out with George Tipton, and I personally think Tipton’s replacements never quite achieved the tasteful quietude of his earlier recordings). I was less thrilled with his next release, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, even though it consisted of classic American pop songs arranged by Gordon Jenkins, not because of the songs but because of the slow, lethargic tempos he and Jenkins chose. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for what I perceived as the total meltdown of Harry Nilsson.

Apparently, the Beatles’ press officer Derek Taylor bought an entire boxful (25 albums) of Pandemonium Shadow Show and passed them around to friends, including the Beatles themselves. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney were smitten by his pure, three-octave tenor voice and sensitive delivery, but it was Lennon who personally went out to California and helped to corrupt Nilsson. The two of them smoked pot, got drunk (often) and went around from club to club heckling performers, starting bar fights and otherwise raising hell. At one point during this drunken spree, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord, and in a newspaper interview said that all of his sensitive songs were simply “bullshit.”

That was pretty much the end of my infatuation with Nilsson. Yes, I admit that it was just my own personal subjective feeling, but that’s just the way it was. And yet, I couldn’t get over the heartbreaking beauty of his second, third and fourth albums. To me, they were just something perfect and beautiful and moving.

And so I learned an important life lesson, that someone could be a wonderful artist and still be a jerk as a person. I bear no animosity towards Nilsson, but wish he simply had never made that statement to the press. Why did he feel the urge to do so? And why did he purposely wreck his voice and his career for a few momentary thrills hanging out with John Lennon? They made one LP together, Pussy Cats. It sucked. Probably the moment that really tore it for me was when he recorded the song You’re Breaking My Heart with the lyrics, “You’re breaking my heart / By keeping us apart / So f**k you!” Well, f**k you, too, Harry.

Yet I still have his early albums on CD, and I play them every so often. There’s just Nilsson gravestonesomething indefinably beautiful about them; they have a certain timeless quality. At the time they were released, Time magazine referred to that genre of music as “salon rock.” I suppose that’s as good a definition as any, but to me the “rock” element is so gentle and innocuous that it isn’t even noticeable most of the time. When Nilsson died of heart failure in 1994, not quite aged 53, it came as a bit of a shock to me, but by this time he had become much more identified with the songs Without You and Coconut in the eyes of the public. I miss that early part of you, Harry, and I wish you hadn’t deserted your principles and style. It was what made you unique.

— © Lynn René Bayley 2016

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