I’m not one of those people who needs silence to concentrate. The opposite is true: I need sound, I need music. As I write this post I’m at Hallesches Haus, digging the commotion around me while I listen to my playlists on Spotify with my red Bowers & Wilkens earphones, a Christmas present from my husband last year and so much better than those cheap earbuds I used for years and years and years.
Depending on my mood, the music I listen to ranges from Lou Reed to Pergelosi’s Stabat Mater, Stacey Kent to a Tribe Called Quest, Bill Evans to the Ramones, Herbie Hancock to Tori Amos. But one thing is for sure: when a song by Harry Nilsson comes on, I stop what I’m doing and, for a few short seconds, only listen.
I would say I didn’t know Harry Nilsson before I discovered him last year on Spotify, but of course that’s not true. I’ve known him forever, I just never knew Harry Nilsson was Harry Nilsson. What would my childhood have been without the Muppet’s version of his song “Coconut,” which was always one of my absolute favorites?
In our early teens my sister and I played a game where we’d listen to KLOK fm, a now defunct easy listening station in the Bay Area, listening to one song for each letter of a boy’s name we had a crush on. When we got to the final song, it was the message our love was trying to send us through the airwaves.
Often we got something like America’s “A Horse with No Name” or Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay,” which we both mistakenly thought was a song about a dog lying at its master’s feet in bed. If this were the case, we’d purse our lips and say, “That can’t be right. Maybe we need to add in his middle name.” But if we got Nilsson’s “Without You,” we were more than happy.
(“Oh Matt, don’t despair. You know I’ll love you forever,” I’d think while Nilsson wailed, me stretched out dreamily across my sister’s leaky water bed.)
One of his most famous songs, “Without You” dips a little into schmaltzy sentimentality which is rare for Nilsson—although he does very occassionally skirt along the border’s edge between heartfelt and cheesy in other songs.
Nilsson’s soaring tenor sounds as much at home in tear jerker ballads as it does in playful takes on American Songbook style or upbeat rock and roll. Sometimes he combines several of these sounds in a single song, like in “How Can I Be Sure of You:”
Listening to Nilsson is like listening to the love child of Randy Newman and John Lennon, co-parented by Paul McCartney. But Nilsson came before Newman: in the early 70s, he was so inspired by Newman’s song “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear,” he devoted the entirety of his next album, Nilsson Sings Newman to Randy Newman compositions with Newman on piano. Newman was little known at this time and the album, though commercially unsuccessful, helped boost his career. Here’s one of my favorite songs on the album:
Who is Harry Nilsson? The son of Swedish circus performers who disregarded commercialisation in favor of artistic satisfaction, a man who grappled with his own demons and died too young. An artist who composed whimisical songs like “The Puppy Song:”
The rock-driven “Jump Into the Fire:”
And the smooth croon and trill of “The Moonbeam Song:”
Harry Nilsson, who can make me smile and bob my head in this cafe, not giving a damn if it maybe makes me look like a crazy person, then sing a song that makes me feel that spark of first love, that aching, unmistakable thrill of exhiliration with a dash of built-in mourning, if only for 3 minutes and 22 seconds.
RIP Harry Nilsson. You’re missed.