What If I’m Late: Nilsson Schmilsson at 50
In 1971, Harry Nilsson let the good times roll and made his greatest album
There was a moment when it seemed like Harry Nilsson was primed to become a pop chart fixture for years to come thanks to Nilsson Schmilsson, which turned 50 this month.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Nilsson came into the sessions with respect from critics and peers — both a writer’s writer and a singer’s singer.
There were signs that wider commercial success was possible. His cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a guide track for “Midnight Cowboy”, became a re-released hit single after producers had opted to stay with it rather than use songs submitted by Nilsson, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Three Dog Night had turned his song “One” into their first big hit.
Nilsson approached Richard Perry to produce. Perry was still relatively early in a production career that would result in 17 gold and 13 platinum albums, the first of the latter being Barbra Streisand’s Stoney End, which Perry was finishing producing.
That album — Streisand’s successful shift to contemporary pop — found her singing material from Laura Nyro, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot and, yes, Harry Nilsson (namely “Maybe” from his 1969 album Harry).
Perry, knowing how good Nilsson was a writer, was interested, but on one condition. He insisted on having the final say in the studio. Nilsson, wanting greater commercial success, agreed.
A number of top studio musicians of the day were brought in. Perry was exacting, willing to go for numerous takes, and then more numerous takes after that, to get the sound he wanted. His job on Nilsson Schmilsson was basically to be a Harry Nilsson wrangler, dealing with the various Harrys — the calm, ready one, the eccentric one, the one that was struggling to come up with songs.
Predictably, the two eventually reached a point of disagreement where Perry suggested they go elsewhere to hash it out.
So, they went to high tea at the Dorchester Hotel. Finally, Perry basically reminded Nilsson, “Remember, you DID say I could have creative control.”
“Well, I lied,” Nilsson responded.
According to Perry in the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?), the discussion ended there, because they both realized they’d talked long enough that they were late for the next recording session. They grabbed a taxi. Nilsson went into the booth upon arrival and, in his first take, sang the final vocal used on the cover of “Without You.”
VIDEO: Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?) film trailer
The song, more melancholy and downbeat, though still emotional, in its original form by Badfinger the year before, was pure widescreen melodrama. Nilsson’s critical rep had been garnered by his voice as much as his writing (see that “Everybody’s Talkin'” cover where he completely makes it his own all the way through with those worldless, swooping wordless woahs).
In technical terms, Nilsson sings his ass of on “Without You” — wringing out the last bit of pain — while the strings and horns, arranged by longtime Elton John collaborator Paul Buckmaster, match the emotions.
Both shamelessly over-the-top and a deserved smash, it became the album’s centerpiece.
It was the first of the album’s three hits — his only No. 1 — and a Grammy winner for best male vocal performance.
There was no way to keep Nilsson’s idiosyncracy completely reined in, but Perry helped him have a hit with it. “Coconut” is a chorus-free (but not possibly illegal substance-free) trip to the Caribbean (or at least the version in Nilsson’s head), a novelty song that opens with a finger-picked guitar and proceeds to plant itself into the listeners, complete with the changing of voices (at Perry’s suggestion to sing different parts in character). It will work its way into your brain.
The third hit — “Jump Into the Fire” is a rare Nilsson foray into more full-on rock. Built around Herbie Flowers’ bass and the drumming of Jim Gordon (whose own internal demons would later prove to be exponentially darker and more tragic than Nilsson’s), the song is an expression of pleading anguish.
VIDEO: Goodfellas helicopter scene featuring Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into The Fire”
Nilsson goes full bore on the vocals again, this time with more echo. A lot more echo.
Past the midway point, as Gordon continues his drum solo, Flowers jumps back in, detuning his bass as he plays. He did it as joke, thinking the section would be faded out in the final edit. It stayed and helped the distinctive track be an FM radio hit as well.
The song’s atmosphere of desperation translated beyond the romantic. Years later, it would be recognized more as the musical soundtrack to Henry Hill’s cocaine-fueled paranoia as the Feds close in on him in Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas.
The three hits stood out not just because of being successful singles, but by Nilsson not going in their direction on the rest of the album.
Nilsson dials things back on more than one occasion. “The Moonbeam Song” is quiet, melodic acoustic loveliness, showing off his ability to create a gorgeous “group” by harmonizing with himself through additional tracks. It’s Tin Pan Alley on a Malibu Beach morning.
The closing “I’ll Never Leave You” is, if not quiet, more restrained than “Without You”, allowing Nilsson’s affecting vocals to grab at the heartstrings, the sound of sadness lit only by streetlight outside the window, reflecting light off a mostly consumed bottle of brandy and the glass with melting ice beside it.
It’s the sad counterpoint to the mental image of the album’s cover, where a shaggy Nilsson stands wearing a bathrobe and holding a hashpipe, looking like a character straight out of Robert Altman’s 1973 film The Long Goodbye.
The opener and first soundtrack “Gotta Get Up” is humorous soundtrack to that image, a morning after the night before flavored with, in more modern terms, wistful yearning for a pre-adulting past. It opens with insistent piano and an opening chorus hook that reminds you those McCartney comparisons weren’t all hype.
Of course, Nilsson being Nilsson, there’s a later woozy music hall verse about shore leave conjugations with a sailor before the song ends in orchestrated chaos.
If Nilsson had an intent of making his own Beatles album, “Driving Along” is its most Beatle-esque, as that adulting man is now in traffic, going nowhere, as is everyone else.
The vocals aren’t held back on the Nilsson-does-boogie-woogie “Down”, either, where Jim Price and Bobby Keys come over from the Rolling Stones’ early ’70s discography to provide the horns and Jim Keltner provides his usual serve-the-song drumming perfectly.
Nilsson reached farther back for the album’s other two covers — a version of Louis Jordan’s 1947 hit “Early in the Morning” with the Latin rhythms and bluesy piano stripped away, just Nilsson’s vocals, accompanied only by organ. Of course, it tails off without an ending, the least essential thing here.
His version of Shirley and Lee’s 1956 hit “Let the Good Times Roll” fares better, as it rolls along with a degree of boozy charm.
Nilsson Schmilsson is imperfect, but it’s imperfections are part of its charm and part of the whole package, with Nilsson, even in the more eccentric or unfinished moments, unable to hide his pop gifts. The album could have been called The Many Faces Of Restless Harry.
The album that started with the goal of turning Nilsson into a pop star, did that exact thing.
“I thought Harry could be my Beatles and he in turn, felt, I suppose, could be his George Martin,” Perry said in the 2010 documentary. “Which, I thought, we did a pretty good of accomplishing on the Nilsson Schmilsson album. That was the goal — to make as close to a Beatles-quality album as possible.”
Perry also thought of the album as a jumping off point, a warmup for what Nilsson was capable of.
Instead, Nilsson just jumped off.
Insecurities had been present since a poverty-filled childhood where his father abandoned the family when he was three (referenced in the song “1941”) and his mother was an alcoholic petty criminal (who later got sober and advised her son to avoid the pitfalls she hadn’t). They hadn’t left since he was flush with fame and more money.
Self-medication with alcohol and cocaine, which had already begun before the album’s success, would only get worse. His forays into the studio would be marked by a sort of self-sabotage as much as it would be by his skills and craft.
It started as soon as the follow-up Son of Schmilsson, which started recording while Nilsson Schmilsson’s singles were on the charts.
Nilsson’s creative impulses were seemingly designed to avoid the success he was currently having (see bringing in a choir from an old folks home to have them sing “I’d Rather Be Dead”, which is the only followed in the chorus by the words “than wet the bed.”
The most obviously commercial song on the follow-up had no chance of being a single, because the title line of breakup song
“You’re Breaking My Heart” is followed by “You’re tearin’ it apart, so fuck you.”
Nilsson quipped, “What are you supposed to say, ‘You’re breaking my heart, darnit?”
VIDEO: Harry Nilsson “You’re Breaking My Heart”
No longer able to be wrangled in the studio, Nilsson had just two more songs crack the Top 40 — “Superman” from Son of Schmillsson and “Daybreak” from the soundtrack to the no-reason-to-be-made movie Son of Dracula in 1974.
Rather than regroup after Son Of Schmilsson, he followed it up with A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, a collection of old standards performed very capably and with no desire for success.
Then came the period of Pussy Cats, which became Nilsson’s cult album. He was a mess behind the scenes, being the friendly devil on John Lennon’s willing shoulder during Lennon’s Lost Weekend period. Nilsson, singing after long nights into mornings, shredded his voice during recording sessions (seeing blood on the microphone at one point),but was afraid to tell Lennon, who he mightily wanted to impress, out of fear the album wouldn’t be finished.
He wound up in the hospital, eventually finishing the vocals for the album. The higher registers of his voice never fully recovered.
There were sparks of the old Nilsson on the albums after Nilsson Schmilsson with even the worst releases having worthy material, but they were undercut by any number of tossed-off ideas and novelty songs that didn’t quite work and snark that undercut the sincerity.
Considering Nilsson refused to perform live (after an early pre-fame gig in a duo went poorly), he didn’t have the option of tours to make money when the albums failed.
But while some of Nilsson’s misfortune was caused by his own hand, other things were not.
Nilsson’s voice recovered somewhat by the time of 1977’s Knnillssonn — his most consistent album in years, albeit one that didn’t sound a ton like what was getting airplay. Still, the consistency included a song that should have been a hit in the lovely ballad “All I Think About Is You.”
RCA, frustrated by years of Nilsson’s willful lack of commerciality, still thought the album had enough potential that and was prepared to push for it when their biggest star– Elvis Presley — died shortly after it was released.
Almost instantly, RCA shuffled its resources away from its other artists to push Presley product, including his 1977 studio album Moody Blue and on future projects to meet the Presley demand. A newly deceased King of Rock N’ Roll was a much easier sell than Nilsson, the would-be 36-year-old comeback kid.
With the expected push from the label gone, Knnillssonn tanked commercially. It would be the last album he recorded for RCA, the only label he’d been an album artist for.
VIDEO: Shelly Duvall sings “He Needs Me” in Robert Altman’s Popeye
From there, it was all but over. He worked on music for the film Popeye and another solo album — Flash Harry–in 1980. The latter, unreleased in the U.S., was the final album of his lifetime.
Bad luck turned to tragedy as well. Keith Moon, another one of Nilsson’s running buddies during the Hollywood Vampires period, had his own hard living catch up with him in 1978 when he died of an overdose of a sedative he’d been prescribed for symptoms of alcohol withdrawal while staying in Nilsson’s London apartment.
Two years after Moon was gone, Lennon would be assassinated outside his apartment in New York City.
Lennon’s murder deeply impacted Nilsson as he put more energy into gun-control advocacy than into any thought of seriously resuming his career. He worked on stage and film projects and later contributed the occasional one-off song before eventually attempting to go back to the studio to put together an album, first in the late ’80s.
Things turned worse for Nilsson in his last years. His business manager, Deborah Sims, had embezzled so much money from him that he was left with virtually nothing and creditors after him.
The hard living, with his financial troubles as accelerant, caught up with him as his health began to fail. He was diagnosed with diabetes, then later suffered a heart attack in Feburary, 1993.
After getting out of the hospital and knowing he was living on borrowed time, Nilsson he went back into the studio with producer Mark Hudson again. He completed his vocals, but died of heart disease in January, 1994 at the age of 52.
Hudson, with approval of Nilsson’s estate, put together an album from those tapes released in 2019 as Losst and Founnd, a coda to a what could have been story.
The best–or at least most fascinating–chapter in that story (there were some quite good albums earlier) remains Nilsson Schmilsson — a snapshot of when he remained unmistakably, unapologetically Harry, yet with help from the absolute right producer for the job, aimed for the big time and hit the mark.
Fifty years later, as much as his story is littered with what-ifs and whys, there is Nillsson Schmilsson to remind us of what, for a too-brief period of time, wonderfully was.
VIDEO: Harry Nilsson In Concert
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