Friday Song: Harry Nilsson, WITHOUT HER (1967)

When he died in 1994 at the age of 52, Harry Nilsson left behind several versions of himself.

There was the almost spookily pure-voiced singer of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ (written by Fred Neil) for the film Midnight Cowboy; or the fringe figure who appears in documentaries about as the Beatles’ favourite American band; or the misfit, swimming against every musical tide throughout his career; or the poster-boy for 1970s excess and self-destructiveness in the company of Keith Moon and John Lennon.

None of that, so precious to pop historians, really matters. It is the songs that count. That’s why Nilsson is re-discovered every five years or so as another director gives his or her film a lift by including one of his songs, and another generation of listeners ask themselves, ‘Who is this and why isn’t he a household name?’

Even at the peak of his career, Harry Nilsson seemed destined to be one of music’s nearly men, more talented than those who were incomparably better known and richer than he was. The quirks of musical fashion are partly to blame, as was his own uncompromising character, his habit of tapping into  whatever tradition (old time pop, music hall, jazz, easy listening that appealed to him at the time).

And, just to ensure that he is never quite centre-stage in the musical history of the late 20th century, he rarely, if ever, performed on stage. A 1971 BBC film by Stanley Dorfman, now on YouTube, is as near as we can get to seeing him play. The film was also revealing, perhaps unwittingly, of Nilsson’s own self-image.  There’s a running joke about the audience falling asleep or walking out. Technicians hold their noses as they listen to him play. The film ends with a custard pie being slammed into his face.

‘They were simple people really  – all great authors are,’ Ford Madox Ford said about Joseph Conrad and Hart Crane. I believe that was true of Harry Nilsson. it was not that he was perversely bucking the trend; it just didn’t occur to him to trim the music he wrote and played to fit the fashion of the moment. He wrote and llayed what he felt.

I love his songs. The best of them have the rare capacity to bring joy and sadness in one song. His melodic lines are so simple that songwriters will listen to them and shake their heads and ask themselves, ‘How does something so simple and apparently obvious sound so original and different?’

His ‘Coconut’ must be the best one chord song ever written. Then there are catchy songs like ‘Gotta Get Up’, bittersweet story songs  like ‘1941’. He can capture a mood with the simple, powerful words and an irresistible tune, like ‘Remember’, of which this is the entire lyric:

‘Long ago, far away
Life was clear, close your eyes

Remember is a place from long ago
Remember filled with everything you know
Remember when you’re sad and feelin’ down
Remember turn around

Remember life is just a memory
Remember close your eyes and you can see
Remember think of all that life can be

Dream, love is only in a dream, remember
Remember life is never as it seems. Dream

Long ago, far away
Life was clear, close your eyes.’

And there’s variety in his work, too. I loved his covers of old classics on A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night , caught by the BBC again and on YouTube. HIS CD of Randy Newman songs works less well – his voice is too sweet for old Randy’s sourness – but is still worth listening to.

The uplifting, rather sad story of his career and downfall (in which John Lennon plays a small, malign part) is captured in John Scheinfeld’s long, admiring 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)

A shorter insight by Jackson Braider is on YouTube and there’s a good piece summarising his life and why it matters in Vice.

Harry Nilsson’s Friday Song ‘Without Her’ is pretty much a perfect lost love song. The lyrics are, again, deceptively simple, as is the tune.

‘I spend the night in a chair
Thinking she’ll be there
But she never comes
And then I wake up
And wipe the sleep from my eyes
And I rise
To face another day
Without her.’

The song was first released, with an unfashionably spare arrangement, in 1967, and was performed by Nilsson, as Tim Seagirt,  in the 1969 film The Ghost & Mrs Muir (at 12’08 in this clip)

Here he is, playing ‘Without Her’ at the BBC is 1971. What strange, wonderful man –  and what a song…