The latest in a series of documentaries I’ve watched about countercultural and/or eccentric artists (one that has also included Francis Bacon, David Berman, Daniel Johnston, R. Crumb, and that will soon include Darger) was Who is Harry Nilsson? As difficult artistic asshole geniuses go, it turns out Harry was of the more redeemable variety.
Since “Without You” captured my attention as an elementary school kid listening to parentally acceptable adult contemporary radio and with no siblings to miseducate me, Nilsson has always just been there. I should note that the influences from that period of my life – which also included Orbison, Leo Sayer, the Bee Gees, the Carpenters, ABBA, Bette Midler, Streisand – never became something I rebelled against, but formed the foundation upon which my increasingly alternative tastes were built. From that contingent I learned pop sensibility, evocative orchestration, and, perhaps most importantly, how to interpret/inhabit a song text. I remember that skill being sorely lacking in many a young TV talent show contestant, much to the frustration of coaches and judges.
I’d long had the sense that I might belong to the same musical bloodline as Nilsson, even if indirectly, and I’m sure this impression was reinforced by passing mentions of him in the same sentences as Rufus Wainwright or Father John Misty. So I tried a handful of times over the years to delve into his deep catalogue, always somehow failing. Thankfully, the documentary, as one would hope, served as a “best of”, exposing me to his most noteworthy songs in a meaningful context.
Surprisingly – or maybe not at all – I found myself gravitating most toward the material that made his producer and record company queasy: the Son of Schmilsson album. Set aside for the moment the fact that what was viewed as offputting by the mainstream then now feels tame. There’s something fascinating about an artist, full of self-loathing/feelings of unworthiness but for whom success came almost too easily, being driven to a sort of nihilism: the urge to see what he can get away with, or simply just the urge to destroy.
I’d be remiss, though, to chalk all his contrariness up to self-destruction. I think at times, as with his choice to record an album of old standards at a seemingly inopportune moment, he wasn’t so much jerking chains as following an internal compass indifferent to trends and commercialism.
The thing I sensed about Nilsson all along – the thing that riveted me as a kid when “Without You” came on the air and the thing that made me try all these years to get more into him than came naturally to me – was that the darkness was very there, under the prettiness. As stated in the documentary, Nilsson was sweet, but sour. In that way, at least (our shared vaudevillian inclinations are a topic for another day), we are branches of the same family tree.