Obscure Grooves #15: Harry Nilsson

Truth be told, Harry Nilsson isn't obscure.... but he's much more obscure than he should be.  Sure, longtime fans of music know him instantly, but your average bloke has never heard of him.  A lot of that has to do with his own self-destructive nature. Undoubtedly, a youth spent in poverty, literally robbing stores and eating dog food, and without a father figure, had repercussions later in life... and ultimately on his legacy

In the beginning, he worked at a bank until he got one of his songs picked up by The Monkees ("Cuddly Toy"). He quit his job and produced one of the best albums of the decade, prompting none other than The Beatles to publicly name him their favorite recording artist.  Fame was instant.

The problem was, Harry had a big time death wish, and began drinking and doing drugs round the clock.  And he would follow up each of his successes with questionable choices.  For instance, after "Everybody's Talkin'" (the theme from Midnight Cowboy), he followed it up with an entire album of Randy Newman covers. WTH?

Then, he goes and makes his next project a 90 minute TV cartoon special, called The Point.  Granted, it was a cool idea, and had great music.... but career-wise, perhaps not the best choice. "My Arrow" from this special is one of my favorites...

Nilsson Schmilsson was a highly successful album in 1971, and won him further critical acclaim.  This was his shining moment, the warm up act to a bright future and rock & roll legend status.... but it was not meant to be.  Nilsson followed it up with a horribly put together album he recorded whilst coked up and drunk, then an entire album of standards!  Are you kidding?

Sinatra and Cole Porter are great, but is this something you'd do while riding the crest of success? IMHO Harry Nilsson has perhaps the greatest singing voice in pop music history, so I'm glad he did it - A Touch of Schmilsson in the Night is incredible.  But it didn't exactly do wonders for his career.

It gets worse.  In 1974, he teams up with John Lennon and the two enable each other into a drug fueled haze.  The result: an album full of incomprehensible screaming, and Nilsson's great gift, his voice, was ruined.

Next, he takes things even further and makes a low budget horror movie with Ringo Starr called Son of Dracula.  It was another legacy killing mistake, but you can still see the talent underneath.  "Daybreak" is one of my favorite songs ever.

The rest of the story reads like your typical VH1 Behind the Music. He damages his body so badly, he dies an early death. But not before his accountant robs him blind and his record company literally pays him to not record with them.  Fortunately, his last few years were with his loving wife and he was able to regain some of his fortune via soundtracks for Popeye and The Fisher King.

So, with so many mistakes and missed opportunities, why does he deserve a favorable legacy? Because, at times, Nilsson's work is pure genius.... his status with The Beatles was well earned.  His voice was incredible, and he was one of the most melodic songwriters I've ever heard - only Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson stand above him.

"But beyond the melody and voice was remarkable depth.  He could be silly (i.e. "Coconut") but also an incredible word-smith.  The Three Dog Night hit song "One" was penned by Nilsson, and "1941" is possibly the best autobiographical song ever recorded.  But you often have to look past the surface to get to the meat of the song.  I'll leave you with "Good Old Desk", which seems silly and trite, until you realize the Good Old Desk is really G-O-D, and the song takes on new meaning.

A genius songwriter and an incredible singer, but also one self destructive son-of-a-gun.  In the end, it caught up with him.  But I think time will be kind to Nilsson, and his brief but shining time in the spotlight will still be listened to and talked about for many years to come.


  1. From one of my favorites, "Joy":

    The other day, I met a girl named Joy
    She said, "Roy, I'm going to make you my Joy Boy"
    Well, she took me for a ride, sort of a joy ride
    Now every time I think of Joy, I get all weird inside

  2. That echoes my feelings about Harry Nilsson perfectly. Cat was deeply warped.

    I'm the only person I've ever known who actually owns a copy of "A Touch of Schmilsson" - great album, but not something that's going to advance his career.

  3. Does anyone remember when "Me and My Arrow" was used for the Plymouth Arrow commercials? A favorite song of Harry's: :"Jump into the Fire."
    Such a great talent but like many burned out way too young.

  4. Nilsson appears as a prison guard in the cult movie "Skiddoo." The final scene in the film features a prison break by several crooks while the entire prison staff is doused with LSD. Nilsson hadn't tried it for himself yet and didn't know what being high on it was like, so he just acted drunk. I guess he took care of that inexperience real quick, didn't he?

  5. My first awareness of Nilsson was from watching The Courtship of Eddie's Father as a kid. I loved how he wrote mini-songs which served not just as incidental music, but actually explained the plot. In the middle of the show, you'd get something like, "Eddie's got a problem and he don't know what to do..." Very clever for a sitcom.

  6. I love his early albums like "Pandemonium" and "Harry"... killer voice, and the most unexpected compositional turns. The "Cuddly Toy" track you mentioned is one of my favorites-- talk about a way to turn a song that should have just been kind of bubblegum number on that kind of a melody, with those kind of lyrics....just bravo, Nilsson. I loved the doc that just came out about him, too. Great post!

  7. Completely agree. Nilsson had me as a lifelong fan when I, as a 13 year old, I picked up a copy of Son of Schmilsson and there was a song on it that had a chorus of "You're breaking my heart, you're tearing it apart, so f*** you!"

  8. Great tribute to Harry, Gilligan ! We were playing his LP's on Jan. 2 for our annual Hangover Party. A Little Bit of Schmillson In the Night is perfect any time of day, whether you're polishing a Jydsk Møbelvaerk teak sofa, making hummus, or knitting a sweater vest.
    Sandman, on the other hand, requires some choice indoles and alkaloids in order to sit through both sides.