My childhood was peppered with Nilsson songs, but I wasn’t aware of it until much later. The first song that I ever learned the words to was his theme from “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” You must remember it – “people, let me tell you ’bout my bes’ friend.” So bouncy and memorable, I thought everyone knew it.
And this was before the Monkees introduced me to Harry’s music via “Cuddly Toy.” And “One” by the Three Dog Night wasn’t part of my musical vocabulary at this point, either.
In the early 70’s, tunes from Harry’s Nilsson Schmilsson played from my red, orb-shaped AM radio. My youngest aunts, my younger sister and I would run around the backyard singing the lyrics from “Coconut” (you put de lime in de coconut an’ drink ’em all up), and I would do my best Harry from the top of our lemon tree. I think I was in the middle of “Without You” when I fell from the tree and bit off a quarter of my tongue. Painful memory, actually.
Later, through the advent of what was then known as “subscription television” (aka SelecTV), I got to view the movie “Popeye.” I watched it several times, and yes. The movie wasn’t that great. But the songs were catchy and singable, especially my fave, “Sweet Peas’s Lullaby.” This, along with others in the film, were written by Harry. I also got to see “Midnight Cowboy” for the first time, and of course, there’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” being sung by Nilsson. Plus, there was a racy teen movie that used “You’re Breaking My Heart” as the opening song!
At some point, I bought a compilation called Television’s Greatest Hits so I could have “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” After repeated listens, I bought a “best of” Nilsson. The tunes flooded my brain and suddenly I was back in the early 70s, running around in the backyard. I fell in love with the original tunes on the CD, and went off in search of more Nilsson.
Enter Clover Club Larry, one of the most devoted students of music and vinyl ever. Larry loaned me Nilsson Schmilsson, Son of Schmilsson, and Aerial Ballet, which changed the way I heard “pop” music. With great orchestrations by George Tipton, Aerial Ballet totally went against the grain of what one might have heard in 1968. It was far from “heavy.” There were no wild guitar solos here. The magic of each song was carried by Harry’s vocal and songwriting abilities, as well as those arrangements. “Daddy’s Song,” “Mr, Richland’s Favorite Song,” “Bath,” and “Don’t Leave Me” sent me on a writing jag, hellbent to write something with meaning. Ultimately, I ended up writing “Down,” which I consider to be my first “real” piece of writing.
“Nilsson Schmilsson” was pure pop. Sure, it had “Without You” and “Coconut.” It even contained “Jump In The Fire.” What really got my ear were songs like “Gotta Get Up,” and my personal fave “Driving Along.” Each seemed so musically simple, and the words were simply genius. My musical heart was in love this Nilsson music.
Then, it happened – on January 17, 1994, my part of southern California was rocked by a devastating 6.7 magnitude earthquake. I remember being shaken awake and thinking, “another one? Jeez.” Seconds later, I was wide awake and watching 20 years of collecting records come to an abrupt end – 80 percent of my musical history was gone. After the shaking stopped, my family gathered to make sure all was safe. Just before the dawn, I hopped on my 12-speed to ride the neighborhoods to make sure everyone we cared about was fine. Of course, I had my trusty Walkman and a homemade cassette featuring Harry.
I clicked over to the radio for any news I could get on the quake. And that’s when I heard it. It was announced that Harry had suffered a major heart attack and had passed away. Heartbroken I rode my bike as hard as I could, until I could no longer see through the tears. Once I stopped, I hopped off the 12-speed and paced the cracked pavement. People were running and screaming, but I didn’t see or hear any of it. I was wrapped up in my own major disaster. I didn’t believe it – “we lost Harry?”
It was hard for days after – the structural damage to the family house, the loss of my record collection, work and school being cancelled for days after. None of it mattered. My only thought was “he’s gone. He lived right here in L.A., and I never got the chance to find him and tell him how much he meant to me.” When you’re young, you have all the time in the world to think about the dreams you want to reach. When the time comes and goes, it’s gone. And to this day, I still kick myself for not trying to find the man.
But while I have air in my lungs, and thoughts in my head, I just want to say this. Thank you, Harry – for the soundtrack of my youthful folly; for the music that made dealing with my “father issues” a lot easier; for the simple melodies and words that made music so much fun from the beginning. Your music allowed me to stretch and learn. Your songs made me fell that I could express myself verbally as well as musically. If not for you, music just wouldn’t be as fun as it has been for me.
So much more Nilsson music has entered my vocabulary in the years since his death, and more than every once in a while I’ll listen and think, “how in the hell did you DO that, Harry?” His influence in Poppermost music is vast – whenever you hear “Isabella Vina” and “Momma B.” you can bet that I was doing “my best Harry” . . . except I’ve stopped falling out of trees.
Cheers and a toast to you, Harry.