Harry Nilsson

harry nilssonQuick -- who wrote the theme song, Best Friend, for the TV show Courtship of Eddie’s Father? How about the theme for Midnight Cowboy? Do you have any idea how many films have used songs written by Harry Nilsson? It’s a long list -- from All That Jazz (Perfect Day), Goodfellas (Jump Into the Fire), and Forest Gump (Everybody’s Talking), to Casino (Without You), You’ve Got Mail (I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City), and the Ice Storm (Coconut) -- everbody loves Harry Nilsson.

Well, they love his music anyway. From those who knew him, they describe a personality who could be a perfectly nice guy one minute and a raving lunatic bastard the next. Still, if you look at his discography you can see it’s loaded with memorable songs -- One, Me And My Arrow, The Moonbeam Song, Lifeline, Spaceman, Remember. Besides being an amazing songwriter, Nilsson had the velvet lined voice to go with imaginative lyrics.

So who is/was Harry Nilsson? (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?). That’s actually the title of a documentary about him that features interviews with Robin Williams, Yoko Ono, Randy Newman and others who worked with him, and it sheds a lot more light on an artist whose time here was too brief.

What I remember most about his songs is that in an era when most artists and groups were singing about surfer girls and love gone bad, Nilsson was writing the kind of poetic verses featured in Everybody’s Talking:

Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind.
People stopping staring,
I can't see their faces,
Only the shadows of their eyes.

And much later, Nilsson released one of my all time harry nilssonfavorite songs, You’re Breaking My Heart, in which the lyrics went over to the blue side, and I don’t mean the color:

You're breakin' my heart
You're tearing it apart so fuck you

All I want to do is have a good time now I'm blue
You won't boogaloo...

There were so many times in his career when Nilsson should have broken out as a bigger mainstream act, but the combination of his ornery disposition, hatred for the overtly commercial, and penchant for substance abuse all seemed to get the better of him. His association with John Lennon meant a lot to him, and upon Lennon’s death Nilsson devoted much of his last days to raising money to help end handgun violence. He died of heart failure in 1994, but left behind an extraordinary body of work that other songwriters and singers can only admire for its virtuosity.

Jay Harrison is a graphic designer and writer whose work can be seen at DesignConcept. He's written a mystery novel, which therefore makes him a pre-published author.

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