This is it, this is the trouble with Harry. He was too bloody brilliant for his own good. You can’t immediately see it, but this is a great illustration of the duality between Harry Nilsson the serious artiste and Harry Nilsson the big silly self-sabotaging goofball. First of all, Harry had the voice of an angel and the ability to write songs like this one, which sounds like an old standard that somehow never made it onto the soundtrack of Casablanca. But this song is not from Casablanca; it’s from an album cheekily titled Son of Schmilsson, and later, the soundtrack of a Dracula movie directed by noted Hollywood visionary and film icon Ringo Starr. And therein lies the trouble with Harry: besides his notorious alcoholism, he was undone by his own inability to take himself seriously. If he could just keep writing and singing beauties like this, he would have had a career of solid gold. But he wanted to costar (co-Starr?) in Son of Dracula with Ringo, he wanted to record an old folks’ choir singing a novelty song about bed-wetting, he wanted to have a screaming contest with John Lennon that ruptured his vocal chords, and eventually, he wanted to retire from music entirely. Which, ok, that last part you can’t blame him for: he quit drinking, raised a lovely family, became involved in political activism and seemed pretty happy about it. But so many of his career choices were just so foot-shootingly misguided, you feel aggravated on his behalf, angry at him for being one of those people who sabotage their own best potential.
Harry Nilsson was inspired to write this song after getting a busy signal on a phone call. For those of you too young to remember busy signals, yes, it’s absolutely enough to throw you into an existential funk. A busy signal is the sound of rejection and unwantedness. There’s nothing like a late night busy signal from a loved one to make you dwell on how essentially solitary and inconsequential your existence is. You may even, like Harry, begin to imagine the mathematical equations of your loneliness, and arrive at the conclusion that all sums are divided by one, and you will always be the 1 divided against all the others. Math makes everything more depressing.
A Harry Nilsson/John Lennon collaboration. Now, one would expect that, given the talents involved, a Nilsson/Lennon/Ringo Starr/Keith Moon/Bobby Keys/etc (for those were but a few of the names involved in the production of Pussy Cats) supergroup would produce an album of unforgettable, chart-busting brilliance. Unfortunately, that did not happen. The plain truth is, everyone was just too blackout drunk to bring their A-game, and what resulted was essentially a novelty record, a footnote to a not-terribly-flattering chapter in the John Lennon story. Which is not to say there wasn’t any outstanding material. Nilsson was capable of delivering the goods even from the bottom of a shot glass. The achy ballad Don’t Forget Me and a cover of Pomus and Shuman’s Save the Last Dance for Me showcase both his writing and interpretive abilities. But there was too much filler, too many songs that didn’t quite earn the grade (who the hell needed drunken bacchanal of a Subterranean Homesick Blues?) Without a full serving of really top notch material, the album was all too easily overshadowed by its juicy backstory. Who even needs a record when you have all those stories of Nilsson and Lennon getting shithoused and hijinxed all over Los Angeles? Still, it’s a rarity worth seeking out.
Heeeere’s Harry! Nilsson, that is. Seen here with Keith Moon, partaking in the partying that would kill them both (some quicker than others.) A quick internet rundown shows that Harry’s partying ways are very much remembered, to the detriment of anything else he ever did. Granted, it looks like he had some crazy good times, and he did outlive a lot of his cronies, at least by a few years. On the other hand, it’s not a real healthy habit that we have of glamorizing the kind of self-destructive behavior that leads to the grave. If Harry Nilsson had spent less time floating down a Mississippi of alcohol, we’d have more of his music to enjoy. Inadvertently, in his quest to let the good times roll, Nilsson lowered his own stock as an artist. Let’s remember that, in spite of himself, Harry Nilsson was one of the greats at his peak. Nilsson Schmilsson is a classic album, the kind of classic album every man, woman and child should make a point of owning. Nilsson was a musician of wide range who could dabble in whatever style he desired, but he had a notable affinity for romantic standards. In fact, he was one of the first rock artists to incorporate the standards into his repertoire. Covering the great American songbook is so de rigueur nowadays even freakin’ Bob Dylan has caved and done it, but Harry Nilsson was the first to blaze down that path, back when no self-respecting rock star would touch that schmaltz with a ten foot mic stand. Besides doing covers, Nilsson was also very good at emulating the classic formula, and as this song demonstrates, he did it with his own irreverent, witty spin. The combination of silly humor and sentimental heart was one of Nilsson’s greatest charms.
“I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to point. I thought, “Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it.” – Harry Nilsson
Thus a children’s fable was born, as many of them are, from the ruminations of a man high on acid. That little moment of inspiration grew into an album, an animated movie and a stage musical. I haven’t seen the latter two, though judging from clips, Nilsson’s soundtrack music far outstrips the quality of the animation. Luckily, Nilsson’s melodic talents were well suited to writing songs for children, and the album of The Point!, complete with the singer’s own narration, is quite pleasant. It’s far from Nilsson’s most masterful work, but by the standards of children’s entertainment, it’s rather appealing and not too overly cutesy.
Unfortunately, this Harry Nilsson track is not on YouTube, whether because of copyright issues or because nobody cares about poor Harry anymore. Luckily though, there’s this cover of it by The Walkmen, which sounds almost exactly like the original. The Walkmen actually covered Pussy Cats in its entirety. An ambitious project indeed, and although I’ve never heard it, if it captures the aura of drunken bacchanalia and bleary-eyed depression as well they did with this song, it can’t be too bad. I wouldn’t exactly crown Pussy Cats a classic, but I don’t recommend writing it off as a novelty either. It’s one of those very odd, fitfully brilliant things that can grow out of weird circumstances. It’s not all great, but could you pull off even that much greatness in between murdering your liver with John Lennon every night?
Don’t be too shocked, but this is a drinking song. A drinking song by Harry Nilsson. That paragon of all things virtuous. Stunner, I know. Nilsson may not have drank himself into the grave as swiftly and directly as some others, but it sure didn’t help either his health or his career. In fact, his partying ways tend to overshadow his actual work, at least in some people’s minds. Which is a tragedy. No one should be missing out on Nilsson. But Nilsson the drunk and crazy guy and Nilsson the funny, romantic, gifted singer-songwriter should not be separated. Not to go into a debate whether the lifestyle helped the art more than it hurt it, or the other way around – that’s a circular debate, as no one can make that judgement call. The relationship between creativity and destructiveness is complex and poorly understood. We simply have no way of knowing if, in some parallel universe, a healthy and sober Harry Nilsson is enjoying the legendary status of a widely adored million dollar earning hit machine, while in ours drunk Harry languishes in cult obscurity. At least, if it did nothing else, Nilsson’s love for the juice has made him a kind of lovable patron saint of tough hangovers. He’s the everyman alcoholic forever woozily shuffling about in his dressing gown by the light of a half open refrigerator.