Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Most movies I watch these days go in one eye and out the other, an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours even if tomorrow I don't remember much about it. Some movies stick with me though, and the documentary "Who is Harry Nilsson (and why is everybody talking about him?) is one of them.

Probably all I knew about Harry Nilsson before I saw this movie was "Everybody's Talking at Me" the theme song from Midnight Cowboy and his beautiful "Without You" and the novelty hit "Coconut" (as in "You put de lime in the coconut"). If I'd thought a little harder I might've remembered that he sang "Best Friend" the theme song of a sitcom I watched as a kid called "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." Oh, and he and John Lennon got kicked out of a nightclub for heckling the Smothers Brothers.
But now I know this guy was a true musical genius. John Lennon and Paul McCartney both said that their favorite American band was Harry Nilsson, and I think it's because he had as much talent as four very talented guys. He could write complex, witty lyrics or get right to the heart of the listener with a few perfectly-chosen words. His gift for melody was equally prodigious, and his voice was angelic and powerful.

He had something else inside him though, something that compelled him to sabotage first his career, then his talent and finally to destroy himself. Right after Nilsson Schmilsson became a huge hit, Harry split with his producer and made sure that all the tracks on he next album were too raunchy ("You're breaking my heart, you're tearing it apart, so fuck you" which Harry actually wanted to be the first single, probably because he knew there was no way the radio was going to play it) or too uncommercial to sell. He got his wish, Son Of Schmilsson was a flop, and he set to destroying his vocal instrument with drugs and alcohol and nioctine -- it's physically painful watch this guy smoke two cigarettes at a time. By the time he got together to record with John Lennon, these two seemed to be having a contest as to who could blow out their larynx first. Nilsson bragged to a friend that there was actual blood on the microphones.
What's even sadder is that by the time he meets the love of his life, the events he'd set into motion were unstoppable and he died at age 53.
And I just can't figure out why he wanted to do that.
If you can write and sing like this:

I mean, damn, isn't that a reason to live?