Monday, February 27, 2012

The American Beatle

"Nilsson is the best contemporary soloist in the world. He is It. He is the something else The Beatles are. He is The One." - Derek Taylor

You are standing in what used to be South Dakota. You stare at a beautiful mountain vista rising up out of the forest and plain. As you take in the natural perfection, a voice from Heaven says, "You think this is special? You should have seen it with the giant heads carved into it."

I discovered Harry Nilsson just last week so forgive me if I wax a bit rhapsodic. I mean, I guess I knew Nilsson but I didn't KNOW Nilsson. He holds a unique place in pop history. He's not a one-hit wonder although most people know him from "Without You" or "One". He's not a maverick underground unknown who has a catalog that gains steam over time, eventually becoming an accepted part of the retroactive zeitgeist (i.e. Tom Waits).

Today? I feel born again, waking up to a new world, one where Nilsson has emerged. Was I holding him at arm's length before this? Did I blink and miss him? Did I change? Why Nilsson? Why now? How could I have ever lived without him? And what the hell happened? Why is this the saddest story in American pop history?

Perhaps Nilsson knew all along that one day he would lose his gift. Perhaps that is why he so unflinchingly followed his muse. Perhaps he knew the expiration date on his genius would precede his own death. Perhaps that's why he raced to destroy himself before his magic evaporated. But it didn't work. He survived. And spent the last fifteen years of his life a mere mortal.

Derek Taylor's words above were not merely coughed up in order to serve as liner notes on Nilsson's 1968 album "Aerial Ballet". No, Taylor introduced Nilsson's music to John, Paul, George and Ringo. They then famously touted him as their favorite American artist at the press conference announcing the formation of Apple.

The image that comes to my mind of what happened next is of Nilsson donning a motorcycle helmet emblazoned with the Stars and Stripes and then being shot out of a cannon across the next 15 years of the American landscape. He is simultaneously a perfect success story and a tragic failure. He has faded from memory. His biggest hits were the least representative of his particular brand of genius, as great as they are.

Let's back up a second and look at a fraction of what he did.

Doesn't it seem as if "you put the lime in the coconut you drink it right up" is a song passed down since before the dawn of time? Nilsson WROTE it. It's a god damn cave painting. Oh, the theme song to "Midnight Cowboy"? That's Nilsson the interpreter singing someone else. Randy Newman's winning Oscars with Pixar? Nilsson recorded an entire album of Randy Newman songs before anybody knew who the hell he was. 1970 for pete's sake.

Children's album with animated TV show? Check. Crooning standards with the London Philharmonic for a BBC Special? Check. Blood on the microphone rock and roll debauched screaming with John Lennon? Check. Oh man, you gotta tell it all at once and it's impossible.

England has a couple of thousand years on us so I guess they cultivated four of them. We're young over here in the States. We got one. The loneliest number.

I will be writing about Nilsson forever.