The life of Harry Nilsson chronicled on new DVD

Published November 12, 2010

In July 2007 I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Two days after arriving I was browsing through a listings magazine when I chanced upon an item informing me that, if I had known about it, I could have attended a screening of a film entitled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? I stifled a scream of frustration. For this was a film I had known about for quite some time, and I had also read on the Internet that the producers had a hard time finding a DVD distribution deal for the film. Thus, living in Stockhom, chances were slim that I'd ever get to see this film.

I have been a Harry Nilsson fan for many years. To me, he had one of the best voices in rock and he wrote some of the most amazing songs I've ever heard. His early albums are jaw-droppingly awesome and up to the early Seventies he did little wrong.

His career was kind of strange. Although he was an excellent song writer, his biggest hits - Everybody's Talkin' and Without You - were written by other people, while other acts achieved hits with songs written by him (Three Dog Night's version of One, for instance). Just a few years into his recording career, he recorded an entire album of songs by Randy Newman - Nilsson Sings Newman, actually one of his best albums - and in 1973, a couple of years after achieving a US number one with Without You, he chose to record an album of standards, A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night. After that it was a downhill slide into alcoholism and drug abuse, and his career never regained its momentum.

The documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson? has now finally been released on DVD, and I spent the afternoon today watching it. With the help of family, friends and collaborators the film tells the full story of his life and career in a truly compelling way. It's an honest account of the good times as well as the bad, and clearly a labour of love on part of the film-makers.

I found it particularly interesting to see how the film acknowledged that what has sometimes been interpreted as self-deprecating humour was actually a matter of severe self-loathing. For me, the cracks were beginning to show as early as the 1971 Nilsson Schmilsson album (which featured the hits Without You and Coconut). Wonderful as it is, there is often something lazy and throwaway about it, so different from the meticulous care and energy that went into his earlier work. And on the following album, Son Of Schmilsson, it's quite clear that something's wrong: including a short reprise of the most beautiful song on the album, Remember (Christmas), and ending it with a loud burp, to me signals a serious lack of self-esteem rather than a sense of fun.

His best albums were made between 1967 and 1970: his voice was at its prime, he worked with a wonderful arranger - George Tipton - his vocal overdubs were inventive and adventurous, and most of the songs were outstanding. For the record, my favourite albums, as complete listening experiences are Harry (1969) and Nilsson Sings Newman (1970), but Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968) are also not to be missed. If you're a fan of melodic pop music, do yourself a favour and check out Harry Nilsson's recorded work. And if you're already a fan, make sure that you pick up a copy of the documentary - you won't regret it.

Click here to read a recent and very interesting interview with the film's writer-director, John Scheinfeld.

 

Favourite songs #2

Published November 07, 2010


There was no Favourite Songs of the Week entry last week, simply because I was basically listening to the same songs as the previous week. This past week, however, I've mainly been listening to Neil Diamond, trying to put together the perfect playlist of his songs. Perfect for me, that is.

Neil Diamond is one of those singular artists that cannot neatly be put into a specific category. Only occasionally introvertive enough to be labelled a singer/songwriter, certainly not an all-out rock artist, and somehow too left-of-centre to be a housewife favourite along the lines of an Engelbert Humperdinck, although it seems his MOR-leanings and success as a concert act often places him in that category. Lately, he's been Rick Rubin-ized and thus rehabilitated as a "credible" rock act. Be that as it may, as far as I'm concerned he has already secured a place in my personal hall of fame simply for writing The Monkee's 'I'm A Believer' and 'A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You'.

My favourites mainly come from the period on the Bang! and then UNI labels, 1966-1972. So without further ado, here are my five Neil Diamond highlights.

Solitary Man
Neil's first single for Bang! Records is a little folky, and quite simply a great example of mid-Sixties pop song writing.

Girl, You'll Be A Woman Soon
Famously re-made bu Urge Overkill for the Pulp Fiction soundtrack in 1994, but I'm afraid they can't match Neil's original version for intensity and desperation.

Shilo
This amazing song about having an imaginary friend to take you through the rough times in childhood can be heard in at least four different studio versions/mixes. I prefer the single mix which can be found in the In My Lifetime box set.

Sweet Caroline
Just a lovely pop song with an irresistible sing-a-long chorus. Nuff said.

Cracklin' Rosie
One of three US number one hits for Neil, and number one for no less than seven weeks here in Sweden. Bet you didn't know that. I don't know what else to say about this song except it's a master-class in irresistible catchiness.

Listen to four of the songs here. And hear the single version of Shilo here.

 

Favourite songs #1

Published October 22, 2010

My Top 5 favourite tracks this week are:

Thunder In My Heart by Leo Sayer
Whatever happened to this kind of pop-soul? I guess it still exists somewhere, in some shape or form, but perhaps not quite as unrestrained and jubilant as this late Seventies recording.

I'm Losing You by John Lennon
From his final album Double Fantasy (recently reissued). The album has gone through a curious series of reasessments: from not being particularly well-received upon its release, to being canonised immediately after Lennon's death, and subsequently downgraded to a series of toned-down hymns to the self-satisfied family-life of a multi-millionaire. This song, however. reminds us that everything wasn't always hunky dory in the Lennon household, and also showcases his marvellous voice.

Gotta Get Away by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent
Followers of this blog may remember that I wrote about the TV series The Persuaders a while ago. Well, in the first episode this amazing slice of British sunshine pop provides the soundtrack for Curtis and Moore's race to get to their hotel. Sadly, it doesn't seem to be easily available anywhere. You have to search the www for this one.

Golden Years by David Bowie
A favourite not only this week but every week, but perhaps even more of a favourite at the moment (see a recent blog post).

Every Time I Think Of You by The Babys
Another slice of late Seventies mainstream pop with a particularly soul-y twist to it. Totally brilliant - why is this not regarded as a classic?

An honourable mention to I Was Lucky by late Eighties Swedish duo So What
Yesterday I attended the release party for a new book about the Swedish pop mag Okej. Several artists from the Eighties (the heyday of Okej) performed at the party, out of which this was probably the least celebrated, but for me it was the highlight: singer Jesper from So What performing I Was Lucky. He looked about 10 years older rather than 20 and did the same fab dance moves as in this Youtube clip. The highlight of the party as far as I was concerned. Enjoy!

Listen to some of the other tracks here.

 

David Bowie's Station To Station

Published October 21, 2010

To the great delight of all David Bowie fans, EMI has a quite wonderful reissue program for his original studio albums. So far, they've reissued David Bowie (aka Space Oddity), Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, and, most recently, my favourite Bowie album, Station To Station. It's been reissued in, I believe, a number of different formats. I opted for the package that includes three CDs: one of the original album and two of a previously unreleased live show from the era. The package also includes three colour pictures and a booklet featuring an essay as well as a detailed timeline.

The Station To Station album - recorded during Bowie's infamous period in Los Angeles when he was so strung out on drugs that he claims not to remember a single moment from the recording sessions - captures him between the "soul boy" era of 1974/75 and the Berlin period that saw him through the end of the Seventies. I think perhaps that's why I like it so much: apart from the fact that it has no weak tracks, it's got a bit of funk and soul about it, yet with the haunting title track it's looking forward to the experimentation that would follow with Brian Eno on the following three albums. And besides, did he ever look cooler than on this performance of the hit single 'Golden Years' on Soul Train (the dancing crowd is pretty damned cool too!)?

John Cleese's mysterious divorce settlement

Published October 19, 2010

A couple of days ago, I went to the Cirkus theatre here in Stockholm to watch John Cleese on his Alimony Tour. As he bluntly informs the audience, he wouldn't be doing the tour if it wasn't for a costly divorce from his third wife, Faye Eichelberger, the terms of which seem excessively punitive. I have to admit that until I first heard about this tour earlier this year, I had no idea that Cleese had divorced his wife, nor that the terms of the divorce actually awarded her more of his money than he himself was left with. If I got this right, the gist of it was that she was awarded $20 million plus yearly payments of $1 million for seven years.

One can't help wondering: What on earth could Cleese have done that was so awful that she had to be consoled by so much money, or what did she contribute to the marriage that gave her the moral right to so much money, or what career opportunities did she give up during their time together that needed to be compensated by so much money? Curiosity got the better of me, and after a little googling I found some articles that informed me of what was apparently the main argument put forward.

According to the Daily Telegraph, "In her divorce testimony, [Faye Eichelberger] claimed Cleese was a 'world-renowned celebrity' and she was used to 'being entertained by royalty and dignitaries in castles'." This need to go on pursuing a life-style that she's become accustomed to is, as far as I've been able to find out, the only reason the judge saw fit to award her so much money.

It's not for me to pass judgment on Faye Eichelberger, even less so since I don't have all the details, but I have to wonder at this strange world we live in. Not least what a case like this says about what a marriage is supposed to be about. Only a small part passion and romance, apparently, and mostly a business arrangement wherein, if you happen to get "fired" from your "job", you are entitled to a hefty severance fee.

By the way, the show was fantastic, and although I'm sorry that John Cleese had to go on this tour for those reasons, I'm glad I got the opportunity to watch him talk at length about his life and career. It's only rarely that there's any onstage entertainment in this town that I want to take part of, but for a long-time Monty Python fan, this was a dream come true.