Friday, February 17, 2012

Fables of the Reconstruction: Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson made me weird. He got to me at a very young age and scrambled my little brains with his lovely, twisted songs. It started with Nilsson Schmilsson. I was three years old when that record came out, and my parents owned a copy. I loved “Coconut” because it’s so silly. It goes: “She put de lime in de coconut, she drink 'em bot' up” over and over, with an ever widening cast of funny voices chiming in. By the end I’d always be a giggling mess on the floor. The song seemed even funnier knowing that it came from the guy on the cover of the album, dressed in a bathrobe, his bed hair going every which way. I liked the other songs, too; Nilsson’s melodies were irresistible to my kiddie ears, and even then I could appreciate the beauty of his voice, especially on the slower tunes like “Moonbeam Song” and “Without You,” which was constantly on the radio back then. I remember my stepdad singing “Gotta Get Up” to me when I was slow to move in the morning. It’s a record that captures a sweet, happy and innocent moment in my life.
My weirdification came a year or so later, when my parents bought me Nilsson’s follow-up to his blockbuster, Son of Schmilsson, along with my first record player, which was shaped like a ladybug. To this day I have no idea why they got it for me. I’ve even gone so far as to ask my mom, and she can’t recall, can’t even remember the record itself. Whatever the reason, they bought a decidedly adult album and gave it to a four-year-old. Side one begins with an anguished cry to a groupie (“I sang my balls off for you baby!”) and ends with a bitter break-up song (“You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you!”). In between there’s a visitation by a ghost, a lovely song about memories, a country spoof and a meta love song that implores the person it’s written for to listen to it on the radio, all of which completely fucked with my head. At that age, I had only the simplest, most straightforward understanding of the world. I had no concept of irony or sarcasm or parody. So when I heard Nilsson sing “turn on your record player, listen to my song,” I took it at face value and I felt confused: How can the person turn on the record player if it’s already on? Or if it’s not already on, how would they know to turn it on, since they wouldn’t be able to turn on the song? It sounds simple now, but this was a serious puzzle to me at the time. And that’s a relatively uncomplicated passage on the album. Consider being four and hearing this:

Now, if you haven't got an answer, you'd never have a question
And if you never had a question, then you'd never have a problem
But if you never had a problem, well everyone would be happy
But if everyone was happy, there'd never be a love song

Allmusic calls it “an incredibly schizoid album … just about the weirdest record to reach number 12 and go gold.” Musically, it’s all over the place, from hard-edged rock to the softest love songs to country to a full-orchestra ode to “the most beautiful world in the world” to a choir of old people singing “I’d rather be dead than wet my bed.” Midway through side two, Nilsson sings the beginning of one of the pretty songs from side one and then belches loudly and the band breaks into a hot rock riff and there’s the sound of applause. I had no idea how records were made, so I thought there was an audience that had been quiet through the recording of all the other songs, but when the band started rocking out, they simply couldn’t contain themselves. And at this ignorant, highly impressive age, I listened to the record continuously. I studied it, learned from it, mutated with it. Some of the lessons weren’t contained in the record’s grooves. Like when I was cranking the “you’re breaking my heart so fuck you” song, my stepdad barged into my room and angrily told me to turn it off. Hurt, I said, “But you bought it for me. And you and mom cuss at each other all the time.” - and thus an early introduction to grown-up hypocrisy.
Over the years, I let Son of Schmilsson drift away, and I all but forgot about it as I continued along the weird trajectory it sent me on. But luckily I remembered it when I decided to get a record player, and I resolved to make it the first record in my reconstructed collection. I found a used copy for four bucks. It holds up well after all these years. True, it’s schizoid, but it’s all tied together by Nilsson’s voice, easily one of the best white singers of all time, and by the amazing musicianship and solid production. Some of the best session players in the business helped make the record – Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins, Lowell George, Peter Frampton. And Nilsson’s song writing is top-notch, if incredibly odd. I’ve watched the Harry Nilsson documentary and I’ve heard all his friends talk about how Son of Schmilsson was a let-down after Nilsson Schmilsson, which everyone seems to think is his best. Son was the beginning of the end for him, they say, a crazy dive off of the peak of his career. In terms of popularity and Grammies, that’s probably true. But is that really what rock and roll’s about? Not for me. My rock life has been about flipping the bird and belching at normalcy. Nilsson taught me that.

No comments: