In 1972 there were a lot of songs about space. People were still excited about the American space program, and artists couldn’t get enough of space travel’s boundless metaphorical possibilities. There was Elton John’s Rocket Man, and David Bowie’s entire Ziggy Stardust persona. Harry Nilsson didn’t do anything particularly different with the theme, although his rendition of the lonely cosmonaut is more on the comical side. Nilsson was no stranger to delivering a performance of heartbreaking tenderness. When he was in feelsy mode, he could make listeners melt down in tears. But he also had an irreverent streak that sometimes outweighed all rational concerns, and when someone expected full seriousness, Nilsson would instead deliver silliness. His silly take on the trendy hot theme of ’72 became a hit anyway, despite being written for shits and giggles.
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.