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Harry Nilsson Biography
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One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 7)

Continued From: One Last Touch of Nilsson (Part 6)

By the time of Nilsson's next album, 1975's Duit on Mon Dei, Nilsson's voice had returned, although it occasionally took him some effort to bypass its rough edges, Nilsson's original title for the album, which RCA rejected at the last minute, was the tongue-in-cheek God's Greatest Hits. Duit on Mon Dei, and the album that followed, Sandman (1976), seemed as though they were part of the trilogy that started with Pussy Cats. Unfortunately, as far as the public was concerned, any similarity between the three was purely coincidental. Neither album broke the upper half of the Top 200. Nilsson was justifiably angry, as he told Goldmine, "I'm getting pissed off because three of my best albums ... Duit on Mon Dei, Sandman, and Pussy Cats ... got totally overlooked. And yet there are songs on there that I wish I wrote. Well, I did!"

Nilsson's next album, ...That's the Way It Is (1976), was his most blatantly commercial effort to date, composed mainly of covers of oldies and newies. It seemed a little strained, but still had some classic Nilsson moments, particularly his version of Randy Newman's "Sail Away". The album fared poorly, reaching #158 during six weeks on the Top 200, but Nilsson had a major success that year in the British stage production of The Point! Starring the Monkees' Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, The Point! ran at London's Mermaid Theatre and was well received, spawning an original cast album.

The 1977 album Knnillssonn (pronounced "Nilsson") was Nilsson's last for RCA and, in his opinion, his best. All-original, it was his most consistent rock album since Nilsson Schmilsson. By this point, Nilsson's happy marriage to his third wife, Una, had caused him to cut down on the partying. As a result, Knnillssonn is extremely well-thought out, from its Agatha Christie-influenced "Who Done It?" (no relation to "Ten Little Indians") to Nilsson's most beautiful love song in years, "All I Think About is You".

When Knnillssonn came out, RCA assured Nilsson that it would receive the kind of heavy promotion befitting such a hit worthy album. That was in July. The next month, Elvis Presley died. Another label might have been able to promote a current artist's album and milk a dead superstar's catalog at the same time. Unfortunately, RCA was not another label. Knnillssonn did do better than all Nilsson's other records since Pussy Cats, reaching #108 on a 10-week chart stay, but that was not good enough for Nilsson, who began looking for a way out of his contract.

January 1978 saw RCA release the soundtrack to the Gene Wilder film The World's Greatest Lover, featuring the Nilsson vocal "Ain't It Kinda Wonderful". A few months later, someone at the label, unbeknownst to Nilsson, decided to fill in the gap between the artist's albums. The resulting compilation, Greatest Hits, was a factor in Nilsson's decision to leave the label.

When Goldmine brought up Greatest Hits, handing Nilsson the album's cover, he could not contain his fury. "Look at this. This is RCA for you," he said. The front cover photograph is the back of a man, presumably Nilsson, looking at his reflection in the mirror. The back cover is the same man's face, holding the mirror so that it covers nearly all his features. "That's not me." Nilsson fumed. "Now, do you think RCA has got any fucking soul whatsoever, when they do shit like this? I begged them in the very beginning, "Don't ever put out a best-of album until I'm dead or I'm off the label.' And, no, they sneak this out and don't tell me about it, and hire a guy to look like me, and then they took and old picture of me and reversed it and put it in the mirror. How about that for trash?" Ironically, Greatest Hits was Nilsson's last Top 200 album, hitting #140 in a five-week chart stay.

Although Nilsson did not release any records in 1979 (perhaps because he was working out his release from RCA), he was busy working with old friend Perry Botkin on a new musical, Zapata! The show opened the following year at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, but failed to move on to Broadway. Nineteen seventy-nine also saw director Robert Altman commission Nilsson to write the songs for the movie Popeye. The soundtrack, released in December 1980, featured the film's stars, rather than Nilsson himself, singing Nilsson's tunes. Nilsson did record his own demos of the songs, tapes of which reportedly exist.

In 1980, Nilsson signed to Mercury Records and released one album, Flash Harry, which was available in Europe and Japan but not in the United States. His only album released under the full name "Harry Nilsson," it is his rarest work and also his least appreciated. Although Flash Harry had its merits, it left reasonable doubt as to whether Nilsson could still successfully stretch his talent to album's length.

The fact was that Nilsson, after Flash Harry, was no longer interested in making albums anyway. Rock 'n' roll would always be a part of his life, but his family needed him and he wanted to, in the words of his friend Ringo's album title, "stop and smell the roses." Thus began one of the most active rock "retirements" since David Bowie called it quits.

The death of Nilsson's beloved friend John Lennon inspired him to, for the first time in his career, use his celebrity to draw attention to a cause. He not only joined the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, but became its most active and prominent spokesman. He used every available platform to broadcast the message of gun control, from Beatle fan conventions to the halls of Congress. In his last interview, he spoke passionately about the cause. "The world is full of fear," he noted. "I wasn't aware of how much fear there was, until this last couple of years ... that the world is on the brink of chaos. Every human being at any given moment can go mad. And that's one of the reasons we've got to get rid of the handguns. I think that the President should write an executive order declaring a national state of emergency ... 24,000 handgun deaths every year ... and actually, physically, ban handguns. Give everybody six months to turn them in. When they do they get a tax credit. The remaining handguns are to be collected ... all registered guns, period.

"Now, that will leave only the bad guys with the guns, but now we will know who to identify. You have the right to self-defense, but you don't have the right to carry arms if you're not in the militia. The Second Amendment says, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state" - well, we have that. It's called the National Guard, established in 1912. So if you want a gun, join the National Guard and you'll get to shoot their guns. Another alternative is, if you have a gun then you must keep it at the gun store and only use it for target range shooting."

In the early '80s, Nilsson, after loving movies all his life, ventured into the production field. He formed Hawkeye Entertainment with legendary writer Terry Southern (Candy), and they had moderate success with several projects, most notably the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle The Telephone. On the musical front, although he was officially "retired," he could no more avoid musical involvement than Elizabeth Taylor could avoid marital involvement. Among his many projects, he helped write and produce songs on Ringo Starr's album Stop and Smell the Roses and himself recorded songs for compilation albums and soundtracks.

As the '90s rolled around, Nilsson began to seriously consider making a new album. The idea came from necessity, as all of Nilsson's RCA money had been stolen by an unscrupulous financial adviser (who was convicted and sent to prison). By that time, along with wife Una, he had six children at home, plus he had an independent son from his previous marriage. In addition he was diagnosed with diabetes and related ailments, and became increasingly aware of his own mortality.

An unwelcome turning point occurred on Valentine's Day, 1993, when Nilsson suffered a massive heart attack. After he survived miraculously, he started writing and recording in earnest, hoping for a hit that would secure his family's financial future. He also lobbied RCA to release a three-disc compilation of his work. Nilsson took the time to sequence the projected discs, and came up with a fitting title: Personal Best.

Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology
Personal Best: The Harry Nilsson Anthology
At the time of the Goldmine interview, RCA was insistent upon a two-disc set, and was not receptive to Nilsson's track sequence or his title. The label's seeming indifference to Nilsson's wishes hurt him deeply. "They don't understand," he said, sounding pained. "I only have three albums left in me, period. This is the twilight of my career. I have one shot left. That's to do this album I'm doing ... and two more, hopefully ... and this (three-disc) compilation to explain who I am to the listening public, because they've never put it all together. This is my opportunity to put it all together, the way I sequenced it. My list. Schindler's list. And I'm telling you, it breaks my heart, and it's already 20 percent dead, okay? It's breaking my heart, to have to go through this nonsense. I went through this when I was a boy, I went through this when I was a man, with RCA doing things like that. Just once, I would like them just to bend. One time. One time!"

A few days after the interview, this writer spoke with Nilsson by telephone, for the last time. Nilsson said that he had decided not to fight RCA's wishes for a two-disc set, and he was working on trimming down his proposed three-disc track sequence to make up for the change. He hoped that the label would accept his new sequence, and the Personal Best moniker. He sounded less bitter and more upbeat, speaking enthusiastically of the autobiography which he started. Two days later, on January 15, 1994, after completing the vocal tracks for a new album, he died of a heart attack.

Nilsson told Goldmine that he would like to be remembered for his best lyrics, such as these which he quoted from Sandman's "The Flying Saucer Song":

"Late last night, in search of light, I watched a ball of fire streak across the midnight sky. I watched it glow, then grow, then shrink, then sink into the silhouette of morning. As I watched it die, I said, 'Hey, I've got a lot in common with that light.' That's right. I'm alive with the fire of my life, which streaks across my span of time and is seen by those who lift their eyes in search of light to help them though the long, dark night."
The flying saucer image combines themes which were central to Nilsson's life and music: light, love and hope, bordered by darkness, loneliness and the scythe of time. From Nilsson's heady superstar days, to his years of devoted fatherhood, he did everything with the fervent intensity of a man who lived every day as though it were his last. It was this man who, in January 1972, during the height of his fame, told Newsweek, "I do believe that most men live lives of quiet desperation. For despair, optimism is the only practical solution. Hope is practical. Because eliminate that and it's pretty scary. Hope at least gives you the option of living."

The author wishes to thank Una Nilsson, Andrea Sheridan, Shane Faubert, Jonathan Scott, Martin A. Miller, Bruce Dumes and the Internet newsgroup "alt.rock-n-roll.oldies" for assistance.

Copyright © 1996 Krause Publications Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of Goldmine magazine and the author.

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