Remembering Harry Nilsson for the First Time: Best of 2012 Part III

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As part of ToM’s Best of 2012 our contributors reflect on books, movies, music, and other pop culture stand-by’s that they discovered this year, no matter when their source of inspiration originated.  That’s right, it’s a vaguely “objet trouvé” Best of 2012.   Art historians everywhere are recoiling.  For Part I click here and Part II – here.

The main source of my fogyish inability to keep up with the current crop of bands is that there always seems to be a new genius to discover in the history of pop, rock, and jazz. My “new” find this year (really late to the party, I know) is someone who has lurked on the edges of my musical consciousness forever but never quite fully arrived: Harry Nilsson, the so-called Fifth Beatle, who had arguably the finest male voice in ‘60s pop, and was a shockingly versatile songwriter and musical persona to boot.

Nilsson is best known for three songs: one that he didn’t write but made famous (“Everybody’s Talkin’” from Midnight Cowboy); one he wrote that was made famous by another group (Three Dog Night’s “One”); and one of the most curious pop hits ever (“Coconut,” which had a renaissance in Reservoir Dogs). If you’ve listened to classic-rock radio in the last 20 years, you know all of these songs but might not know they came from the same artist.

The charms of Nilsson’s catalog are deep and various though. A native of working-class Bushwick whose mother was a minor vaudeville songsmith, his songs offer a collage of 1940s popular culture, shabby dreamers, and nostalgic melodies. What Paul McCartney did for British music hall, Nilsson did for Brooklyn sawdust sailor bars.

The elusiveness of Nilsson’s reputation is due to a couple of factors. Except for television specials, he never performed live. In an era when artists made millions from stadium tours, he preferred to emulate his pals the Beatles and remain a studio artist. More so, I think it was Nilsson’s willfully experimental streak, which led him to move from style to style effortlessly without losing his whimsical muse. From early L.A. chamber pop of considerable charm and precision, to glam rock of a high order, to a Ringo Starr-directed vampire movie, Harry Nilsson lacked Elton John or Bowie’s killer instinct for stardom and legacy. But like Lou Reed or Ray Davies, he left a deeply original trail of hits (and a few misses) before his untimely death in 1994.

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The recent documentary Who is Harry Nilsson? offers a poignant introduction to his story with a lot of great footage and interviews. Plus Youtube is full of treats, trust me. Just a couple:

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