|Continued From: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 5)
In late 1972, Ringo Starr, who was by then a close pal of Nilsson, invited him to
play the title role in a campy horror movie that Starr would produce,
Son of Dracula. When the film came out, most assumed that Starr got the idea
from Nilsson's vampirish album cover for Son of Schmilsson, but the truth was even spookier:
Starr got the idea for the film before he even saw Nilsson's album.
Since Nilsson was doing most of his recording in London, and since so many of his friends were
there, he bought a flat on Curzon Place, in fashionable Mayfair. Throughout the '70s, the
flat served him well, but more than once, when he lent it out to friends, it became the
site of tragedy. Mama Cass died in his bed there, in July of 1974. Four years
later, legendary Who drummer and close Nilsson pal Keith Moon died
there as well, in the same bed. Fortunately for Nilsson, Pete Townshend was kind
enough to buy the place from him after Moon's death, so that Nilsson would never have to
see the flat, or the bed, again.
Although Nilsson claimed not to believe in jinxes, he told Goldmine that his
London flat had bad vibes from the start. "It was just a typical London flat, but it
was in a great neighborhood. It was across from the Playboy Club, diagonally. From one
balcony you could read the time from Big Ben, and from the other balcony you could watch the
bunnies go up and down.
"Robin Cruikshank was Ringo's partner at the time, and he did interior decorations,
furniture and stuff. I said to Robin, 'Just do whatever kind of decorating you want to
do with it. I'll sign a blank check, you fill it in. Have you ever had a dream design
you wanted to do? Use this place, 'cause I'm only going to be using it six months
out of the year.' So I came back to London six months later and it was all done.
There was a ribbon on the door there to welcome me, they had fresh fruit in
the fridge. I looked around and I said, 'This is incredible.' This flat
had felt wallpaper ... bright, royal blue with yellow, red and green felt stripes.
It was like, 'Wow! Where am I?' It was all steel, chrome and glass. Everything
was purchased for the space.
"I went to check out the bathroom, and there was a beautiful glass tub with a design of
scenery of trees and bushes cut in. But then there were two sinks and two mirrors. I looked
into one and there was a picture of an apple tree, and the other one was a hangman's noose.
I called Ringo and said, 'I don't think this is too funny. Do you mind?' He said, 'What?' I said,
'The hangman's noose in the bathroom.' He said, 'What? Hold on a second ... Joan, have someone
go over to Harry's place and put up something else ... Don't worry, Harry, I didn't even know
about it. Robin must have done it.' So I said, 'Thanks,' and he sent over a nice apple tree
mirror to take its place. But ever since that day something struck me. It's like whistling in
the graveyard, but ... then, when Mama Cass died, it was, like, wow. Then when
Keith Moon died ... Those phone calls (notifying me) were devastating,
In March 1973, while planning got underway for Son of Dracula, Nilsson
recorded an album as different from Son of Schmilsson as champagne is from
Ripple: A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night. As with the transitions from Harry
to Nilsson Sings Newman, he once again followed a hit album with one that was a labor of
love. It started when Nilsson approached his friend Derek Taylor about doing an
album of standards. Taylor suggested bringing in arranger Gordon Jenkins, a living
legend best known for his work with Frank Sinatra. With Taylor producing and a
26-piece orchestra backing, Nilsson recorded the songs which he had always loved,
from Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson's "Makin' Whoopee!" to
Bob Cole and Rosamond Johnson's "Lazy Moon". The latter song
was Nilsson's favorite of the album, as it had been sung previously by his idol
Oliver Hardy. (In fact, the album's cover featured Nilsson reprising the
thumb-as-lighter gag from the Laurel and Hardy classic Way Out West).
Even for those who knew Nilsson's earlier albums, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was a
stunner. It succeeded on a multitude of fronts: as a document of the best music of a
bygone era, as a work of art (of Jenkins's witty-yet-delicate arrangements), and, perhaps
most importantly in to listeners, as the ultimate makeout album. The first album of
Nilsson's to contain no vocal harmonies, it let his voice stand alone as an instrument worthy
of interpreting the work of Tin Pan Alley's greatest writers. Derek Taylor, in his
liner notes, reiterated his claim that Nilsson was "the best contemporary singer in the world."
The album's greatness dared listeners to disagree.
Released in the summer of 1973, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night only managed to make it to
#46 during its 17-week U.S. chart run. It fared better in the U.K., where it made #20.
RCA released one single, "As Time Goes By", which crawled up to #86 on
the Hot 100. Today, in light of such successful albums of the '80s and '90s as
Linda Ronstadt's What's New, Annie Lennox's
Diva and the Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack
(which popularized Jimmy Durante's version of "As Time Goes By"), it is
obvious that Nilsson was ahead of this time.
Son of Dracula disappeared as soon as it saw daylight in the summer of 1974.
The soundtrack, featuring Nilsson songs and dialogue from the film, fared slightly better,
reaching #160 and spinning off a Top 40 single, "Daybreak". The song would be the
last hit of Nilsson's lifetime.
Around the beginning of 1974, Nilsson renewed his friendship with John Lennon,
who was in Los Angeles, California, recording with Phil Spector for what would become the
album Rock And Roll. Lennon had recently separated from Yoko Ono
and taken up with May Pang, and the period of drinking and debauchery that ensued
became known as his "lost weekend."
The most famous incident from this period was that notorious night at the Troubadour,
a L.A. club which was packed with celebrities and fans there to see the
Smothers Brothers comeback. Among those celebrities were Lennon and Nilsson, and
they were too drunk to care about who the audience was there to see. They were dying
to be noticed; Lennon even sported a tampon on his head. What they did and said has
been described elsewhere and is largely unprintable here (for example, Lennon told
a Smothers Brother to intercourse a bovine creature). The upshot, which made headlines
worldwide, was that the man with a tampon for a hat and the man with the voice that
was like Modess, "soft as a fleecy cloud," were ejected from the premises.
Nilsson later complained to Rolling Stone, "that incident ruined my reputation
for 10 years. Get one Beatle drunk and look what happens!" Even in his last
interview, he was defensive: "It still haunts me. People think I'm an asshole and a
mean guy. They still think I'm a rowdy bum from the '70s who happened to get drunk with
John Lennon, that's all. I drank because they did. I just introduced
John and Ringo to Brandy Alexanders, that was my problem.
"(My association with) John Lennon hurt me a lot, with the bad press. But on the
other hand, I owe John everything. I had signed an agreement with RCA for
a new, $5 million contract and they had reneged on it; the new president didn't sign it. I had
been saying, "The contract's binding. We'll take you to fucking court, man.' And the president
had said, 'It's not binding here.' And there was this question of jurisdiction and all that
stuff, and I was prepared for a fight.
"I said to John, 'I just got $5 million, and they took it away from me, like that.' He said,
'Ah, they're all fuckers, Harry. They're all fuckers." He said, "Just go down and tell the
guy he's a fucker.'
"So I went down to RCA. We'd been up all night long and it was now 10 in the morning.
Both still drunk, with shades, hats, dark jackets. The secretary said, 'Mr. Glancy, uh,
Harry Nilsson and John Lennon are here to see you, sir.'
"What?' Boom! Door opens immediately. We walk in. There we are, you know? In every
office, heads are turning to look at us. He said to John, 'Hi! How are you doing, sir? Would
you like a cigar?' John said, 'No, thanks. I'd take a brandy.' So we had a brandy, and John
said, 'Look, it's about Harry. You know, you've only ever had two artists on your label:
Elvis and Harry. He told me what you're paying him. Look, for that money, I'll
sign it. You've got an artist! Pay the two dollars!" "Pay the two dollars' was like saying,
pay the parking ticket, rather than fight City Hall. He said, 'I'll sign with you, for
that kind of money.'
"When the guy heard that, his mind went 'Bing!' Dollar signs! So he said, 'Well, we'll have to
get the contracts together.' I said, 'No, no. They're on the 10th floor. They're in Legal.
Ask Dick Etlinger, in Business Affairs. He's the guy.' So he calls up and
says, 'Do you have the Nilsson contract? Could you bring it up here?' Because he didn't want
to look like an asshole in front of John.
"They brought up the contract. I said, 'All you have to do is affix your signature where it says
"President." Just write your name on it.' He said, 'Okay,' and he did it, right in front of
John. John made me $5 million that minute. I looked at John for a minute and I almost cried.
Then I said, 'I'd like four copies.' I gave one to John, one to me, one in the hotel safe, and
I sent one out to California. An that's how I got to be a multimillionaire. Thank you very much,
Lennon decided to produce Nilsson's next album, and Nilsson, not surprisingly, was all for it.
The result was the underrated Pussy Cats, released in August 1974. (RCA
rejected Lennon and Nilsson's original title, Strange Pussies.) Listening to
tracks such as the Jimmy Cliff cover, "Many Rivers to Cross", it is easy to
understand why so many fans were cross, for Nilsson literally lost his voice during the
recording sessions. Although one of his vocal cords was ruptured and bleeding, Nilsson refused to
let on just how much pain he was in, fearing that John would stop the sessions. As a result,
the album's booze-drenched, gut-wrenched feel is closer to that of the post-punk efforts of the
Replacements or Alex Chilton than it is to anything else by Nilsson. It
reached #60 on the Top 200, aided no doubt by the prominent placing of Lennon's name on the
Continued: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 7)