Thursday, April 11, 2013

I'll Be Home, Cowboy: Nilsson, Walker, Newman

After years and years of dwindling interest in music, 2011/2012 brought a double whammy of melodic obsession. First I discovered Harry Nilsson through the documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson?" which is still on Netflix and you should see if at all possible.

I spent the next few months buying used cheap versions of his albums, reading all about him, and generally freaking out that I hadn't really even known who he WAS before. His career seems unthinkable when you examine it for even a split second and if you listed everything he did and everything that happened to him, you would think he lived to be 150 years old.

Nilsson inadvertently led me to Scott Walker. Here's how that happened.

I was having trouble watching narrative film. I had been spending most of my time either listening to or reading about Harry Nilsson. But I was too tired to read and it was too late to play my guitar. I had a mini realization. Hey, I liked that documentary about Nilsson. Maybe there's another cool music doc about someone I don't know much about.

The Walker doc had been on Netflix for a short while and I'd noted it in passing without giving it too much thought. The name rang zero bells. At least with Nilsson I knew the NAME even if I had no idea what songs he'd sung or written. With Walker it was a complete blank.

I watched it and obviously it had a large effect on me or you wouldn't be reading this.

However, it took me several months before I realized there was more of a connection between Nilsson and Walker than just ME watching the documentaries in quick succession.

While delving into everything Nilsson, I bought his landmark 1969 album "Nilsson Sings Newman". Nilsson had shot to prominence a short time earlier when The Beatles had named him their "favorite American band", which is hilarious when you think of it. So what does Nilsson do with this megaphone he's got pointed at a giant audience? He decides to sing an entire album worth of Randy Newman songs.

To put this into some kind of perspective, this would be like Adele deciding right now to record an album of MY songs.

The resulting album was not a giant success. It seemed out of step with the times which were getting louder and more rock and roll than ever before. This album was as far from that as you can get. Newman plays the piano, Nilsson sings. That's it. No jams, no psychedelica, no extended drum solos, nothing trippy. Were you to sit a family around the piano in 1903 (like the song on the album imagines), and have them sing all these tunes, they would hardly seem out of place.

What's all this got to do with Scott Walker, you ask? Well, after his career had been torpedoed and he was coerced into abandoning his songwriting, occasionally Walker seemed to put his foot down and demand a level of quality in the song choices. Granted, he sang some terrible songs. But mixed in with the dreck are some gems.

Two of these gems are songs taken from the Nilsson/Newman collaboration.

Clearly Scott Walker had heard it. So forty years before I would become obsessed with these two artists almost simultaneously, they were already connected.

The two Randy Newman songs that the Nilsson and Walker catalogs share are "I'll Be Home" and "Cowboy".

I love both versions and am including all four here for you to enjoy.

Nilsson "I'll Be Home"
Nilsson "Cowboy"
Scott Walker "I'll Be Home" (Skip to 11:25 of this link)
Scott Walker "Cowboy"

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