157: Nilsson, ‘One’

Posted by jeff on Mar 27, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Nilsson – One

Harry NilssonNilsson, Part II. If the story of last week’s SoTW was Harry Nilsson’s meteoric rise and his storybook embrace by the Beatles, this week it’s his seismic collapse and tragic self-destruction.

Let’s try to impose some chronology on this very chaotic life. When we saw Harry last week, he’d made his 1967 debut album, “Pandemonium Shadow Show”. Then he had his big hit song ‘Everybody’s Talking’ from “Midnight Cowboy”. Then in 1968 and 1969 his two best albums, “Ariel Ballet” and “Harry”. Then in 1970 a critically successful co0mmercially flop album of covers of a weird, unknown young songwriter, “Nilsson Sings Newman”.

Then he went to England, began to hang out with the recently ex-Beatled John Lennon, and in the words of his best friends, “he changed”. He fired his producer by telegram and never saw him again. He became what one friend called “a big bunny with sharp teeth.”

He refused to perform live, refused to tour, thereby dooming his career to very limited success.

Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr

Nilsson with percussionist buddies Keith Moon (center), Ringo (right)

For the rest of the 1970s he embarked on a career of self-destructive carousing that sucked into its vortex such luminaries as John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Robin Williams and Mickey Dolenz. As each one recalls laughingly, you’d be living your life innocently, out of the blue would come “The Harry Call”, and you’d wake up three days later in a whorehouse in Albuquerque with no recollection of how you got there. During this time Nilsson recorded three relatively successful but artistically spotty albums, “Nilsson Schmilsson”, “Son of Schmilsson”, and “A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night”.

John Lennon, Harry Nilsson

John and Harry inhaling air

John called his 18-month separation from Yoko his “Lost Weekend”, with Harry his chief partner in crime. Nightclub high points include being ejected for heckling their buddies The Smothers Brothers and John fighting with a waitress with a used sanitary napkin tied to his forehead. Then Harry and John moved the debauchery into the studio and recorded “Pussy Cats” during which they had a screaming contest. According to witnesses, there was blood on the microphones.

According to their wives (Una and Yoko), their friendship had a lot to do with the fact that both were abandoned by their fathers as young children and then later by their dysfunctional mothers. On his 1967 album, Harry described in his song ‘1941’ the father’s leaving, and then imagined the son growing up and in 1964 abandoning his own son in the same way. In 1969, Harry married, had a son, and “walked right out the door”.

Una Nilsson

Una before Harry

But he was a man of infinite contradictions. One Sunday night in the mid 70s, he walked into an ice cream parlor in Manhattan drunk on brandy, and saw Una, a 19-year old Irish exchange student. He looked at her, said, “You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Will you marry me?” She did, they had six children, and he remained a devoted family man for the rest of his short life.

Nilsson gorillas, Coconut, BBC

Inner Nilsson x 3

When John was murdered in 1980, Nilsson devoted years to anti-firearm activism, but his musical career was effectively finished. He lost all his money to his manager, and died at 53. But he did leave a rich if erratic musical legacy. I need to pick a Song of The Week, and I confess I’m having trouble. There are many fine ones from 1968-71, but not one encompasses his frazzled life or fragmented discography.

Perhaps Nilsson’s finest moment is the improvised half-hour BBC studio ‘concert’ he made in 1972 (Part 1 and Part 2). Having been assured he could do it without a real audience, he went into the studio with a piano and guitar and made it up as he went along, just as he did his life. Songs of great seriousness merge into the ludicrous. Check out the non-transition from last week’s SoTW ‘Without Her’ to him multitracking ‘Coconut’, portraying three very funny gorillas. No transition: the sublime, naked vulnerable Harry brutally juxtaposed with the hokey, jokey Nilsson. Just like his life.  On the one hand, it has the seriousness of a bunch of stoned 16-year olds goofing around with cameras and instruments. On the other, check out how he creates a unifying theme of the audience not applauding to systematically undercut his own seriousness. But I need to pick one song.

Nilsson family

Family man Harry

We could pick one of the many fine songs from “Harry”, of which there are many. Such as ‘Open Your Window’, a marvel of a jazz qua pop vocal virtuosity. Or ‘Rainmaker’, a folk myth he wrote himself, a song which wouldn’t have been out of place on an early album by The Band (that’s about the highest praise I can give). Or ‘Mr Bojangles’, his lovely cover of the beautiful Jerry Jeff Walker song ‘Mr Bojangles’ (covered by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sammy Davis and Robbie Williams, among many others). Nilsson’s cover was the first and by far the best.

Or ‘The Puppy Song’, a whimsical treatise on innocence and reality, on the way the world is and the way you’d like it to be: “Dreams are nothing more than wishes, and a wish is just a dream you wish to come true.” Or we could pick ‘I Guess the Lord Must Live in New York City’, the song he composed as a theme for “Midnight Cowboy.” His song was rejected, as was Randy Newman’s ‘Cowboy’ (here in the original version from Randy’s first album, here Nilsson’s version from “Nilsson Sings Newman”). There are stories that both Bob Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ and an unnamed song by Joni Mitchell also lost out to ‘Everybody’s Talking’.

Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson

Newman, Nilsson

Or we could pick a song from “Nilsson Sings Newman”, Stereo Review’s 1970 album of the year, piano by Randy himself. It was probably the worst career choice Nilsson could have made at that point, recording an album of covers of a thoroughly unknown rival jazz/pop singer-songwriter, one even quirkier and with less mass appeal than Harry himself. Five of the ten songs are from Randy’s virtually unknown first album, a beloved and esteemed Desert Island pick of mine. In my mind, it’s a work of genius, incomparably original. Randy sings oblique, ironic, passionate songs with a growl that makes Dylan sound like Ella Fitzgerald, backed by a full orchestra filled with magic and muscle and mirth unlike any popular music. On the Nilsson album we get the same piano (by Newman) sans orchestra, and Harry’s unadulterated, angelic vocals. The irony has disappeared. Unless you listen to the songs and think about them. I prefer the original to the sweeter Nilsson versions, but they’re themselves so fine that they diminish the original not a whit. Check out Nilsson’s monumental ‘Love Story’ (vs Randy’s) or ‘Living Without You’ (vs Randy’s masterpiece, or the less-successful cover by wonderful, wonderful Luciana Souza). Or the indelible ‘Dayton, Ohio 1903’ (Nilsson’s, Randy’s). The irony is there; but you need a nuclear microscope to find it.

Or ‘Vine Street’, Newman’s depiction of The Day and The Music and The Girl and Everything. It begins with an imagined clip from a recording some friends made when they were young, then segues into ‘Vine Street’ itself: “That was me, third guitar. I wonder where the others are.” Someone who knows music and knows me once said that this in his mind this is the song that most conjures me in his mind. Randy never put it on a studio album, but here’s a demo version. Here’s the first recording of it, by the immortal Van Dyke Parks from his first album “Song Cycle”, Randy on piano. And here’s the version from “Nilsson Sings Newman“. I’m sure glad I don’t have to decide which of the three I like best.

Nilsson BBCBut we’re going to go for “Ariel Ballet”, Nilsson’s most satisfying album. It starts off with ‘Good Old Desk’ (“My old desk does an arabesque in the morning when I first arrive”), his paean to his desk, industriousness and routine. Al (“Al Kooper is God”) Kooper said, “I’m sure he influenced the Beatles as much as the Beatles influenced him.” ‘Good Old Desk’ testifies to that amply.

By the same token, we could pick as SoTW the lilting, perfectly constructed and performed bossa nova ‘The Wailing of the Willow’. Or his take on Beatles-fame, Nilsson-obscurity, and their fans growing old in ‘Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song’. Or, we have to admit, ‘Everybody’s Talking’. Really, almost any cut on this consistently fine album from this tragically inconsistent genius.

But we have to pick one, so let’s go with ‘One’ of Nilsson’s most famous songs due to a pretty silly cover version by Three Dog Night.  Know how he wrote it? He dialed the phone, got a busy tone, and while standing there listening wrote the song. Cello, bass, harpsichord, flute. Oh yes, and a busy signal. This isn’t the only song he’s written with a lot of word twists on a central theme. Check out ‘Joy’, for example. But this is the ‘One’ we all know and love and remember. Ladies and gentlemen, a not completely wasted genius of our era, Mr Harry Nilsson.

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do 
Two can be as bad as one, it’s the loneliest number since the number one

No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know.
Yes, it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know.

Because one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do
One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know

It’s just no good anymore since you went away
Now I spend my time just making rhymes of yesterday

One is the number divided by two…

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108: Michael McDonald/Luciana Souza, ‘I Can Let Go Now’
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156: Nilsson, ‘Without Her’


140: Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

Posted by jeff on Jan 10, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

Randy Newman, ‘Sail Away’

All right, sports fans and music lovers! Here’s the SoTW you’ve all been waiting for! I know tensions have been running high (my inbox has been completely clogged with queries for weeks now), waiting to see the results of our First Annual Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman’s First Three Albums (FASSSRNFTA, or SSSRN for short). So without further adieu, Ladies and Gentleman, the–

Just before we start, why Randy’s first three albums? Primarily, because I make the SSSRN rules, and I see the first three studio albums as the core of his career, the songs that you have to look at twice before you get them. Or more.

  1. “More Than a New Discovery” – one of the unappreciated gems of the rock idiom. Brilliant, hilarious, utterly serious satire, stunning songs, composition, orchestral arrangements. He actually has a lot to say about life (Utah politicians, retirement in Florida and Deus Absconditis). A modern masterpiece.
  2. “12 Songs” – kick-ass band, sterling production, dealing more directly in the marginal (a guy who gets off doing it to the fires he sets, a gent calling a girl whose number he found on the wall of a telephone booth, the universality of humankind, even including chinks).
  3. “Sail Away” – a mixed bag of great individual songs, with topics ranging from A Boy and His Bear to the Wright Brothers to Eminent Domain.

The fourth album “Good Old Boys” revolves around Redneck-bashing, which may be fun, but it’s not exactly revelatory material. The fifth album, “Little Criminals” has some gems (‘Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Albert Einstein in American’) but is already dumbing down the acerbicity (‘Short People’) because Rand was apparently feeling lonely at the top.

The 2012 Strangest Setting in a Song from Randy Newman awards:

This photo was an insert in “12 Songs”. I’ve loved it dearly all these many years; it was quite innovative for the day. I’m assuming it’s Randy and his family. Unfortunately I had to crop it a little. The grain is in the original. Click to see it full-size.

3rd Place – ‘Lucinda’ (“12 Songs”). I don’t have words for it. Randy has the words for it:

We met one summer evening
As the sun was going down.
She was lying on the beach
In her graduation gown.
She was wrapped up in a blanket
(I could tell she knew her way around),
And as I lay down beside her
You know she never made a sound.
On down the beach came the beach-cleaning man,
Scoopin’ up the papers and flattening down the sand.
“Lucinda, Lucinda, Lucinda – we’ve got to run away
That big white truck is closin’ in, and we’ll get wounded if we stay”

 2nd Place – ‘Davy the Fat Boy’, in which our narrator inherits freakishly fat Davy from his trusting parents, and promptly turns him into a carnival freak-show exhibit (“What do he weigh, folks? Win a teddy bear for the girlfriend!”)

1st Place – Oh, the tension. The envelope, please. And the winner is: ‘Sail Away’, title tune of the third. In which the head honcho on a slave ship gives his wards a motivational chat about the New World awaiting them:

In America you’ll get food to eat.
You won’t have to run through the jungle scuffing up your feet.
You’ll just sing about Jesus and drink wine all day –
It’s great to be an American. 

Admittedly, you don’t find a plethora of pop songs on this theme. It sure ain’t ‘I saw you kissing Judy in the back seat of your Chevy’ grist.

Ain’t no lions or tigers, ain’t no mamba snake,
Just the sweet watermelon and the buckwheat cake
Ev’rybody is as happy as a man can be–
Climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me. 

Ah, those mamba snakes. No wonder they’re happy to be setting out on this all-expenses-paid vacation.

Sail away, sail away
We will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay 

And indeed, Randy proved quite the prophet, foreseeing by centuries the domestic tranquility engendered by this humanitarian exodus:

In America every man is free to take care of his home and his family.
You’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree–
You’re all gonna be an American. 

So congrats, Randy, on winning the prize. Of course, you win the prize every year, because it’s the SSSRN competition. But still. You’re our man.


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053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
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085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)

Posted by jeff on Jan 4, 2017 in Rock, Song Of the week

Randy Newman has had a really sterling career–20 nominations for Academy Awards and 15 for Grammies. Over the last 20 years he’s focused on composing for films and performing live, but before that he was primarily a singer-songwriter, with a string of nine albums from 1968 to 1988, some of them merely fine, some of them greatgreatgreat. I imagine he makes an awful lot of money writing scores for movies such as all three Toy Stories (in 2007, he became a Disney Legend – I’m not sure what that is, but it probably impresses a lot of people), and I’m not really in a position to diss them because I’ve never seen them.

The Randy Newman I’m so fond of is someone wholly other than the guy in the tux up there on the stage. In fact, as his career has developed, his stature and success have consistently grown – as is befitting, because he’s a really talented guy, and he deserves it. I’m pretty sure that there’s almost no one else in the world who views his career like I do, in absolute inverse relation to his success. But I’d like to tell you about the Randy Newman I most admire.

1966, I’m working summers in a Pepsi Cola factory during college. Factory work, good pay for a kid. Got the paycheck on Friday (around $80, if I remember correctly), and drove out to some Kmart-type faceless chain warehouse which for some bizarre bureaucratic reason stocked all the new record releases. So I’d go through the copious racks as methodically as an archaeologist, as focused as a brain surgeon, every Friday, and come home with three or four new albums, $2.99 a shot.

One of them was Judi Collins’ album “In My Life”, in which a pretty unimaginative folk songstress covered some really exciting new music: Richard Farina’s ‘Hard Loving Loser’, Dylan’s ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, Donavan’s ‘Sunny Goodge Street’, The Beatles ‘In My Life’ (a remarkably correct reading of the song which I discussed in SoTW 053, and especially ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ by someone named Randy Newman. It was the first time I’d heard his name, but the song knocked me out, and it was a name I watched out for. So when his first appeared in the netherstacks of Whatever-Mart, I was probably the first–maybe the only–person in the Midwest to buy it.

“Something New Under the Sun” Original Cover

Here’s the story I didn’t know at the time. Randy was born in 1943 and raised in LA, son of a local doctor and a mother from New Orleans (both locales would be formative in his musical landscape). Two of his uncles, Alfred and Lionel, were among the most successful Hollywood composers of the 1940s and 1950s. From the age of 17 he was writing pop songs recorded with a modicum of success by Gene Pitney, Jerry Butler, Jackie DeShannon, The O’Jays, Irma Thomas and especially Alan Price, formerly the organist of The Animals (yes, the guy who played on ‘House of the Rising Sun’). Price was an early (and fine) singer-songwriter, who recorded many Newman songs before anyone else, including Randy himself.

Randy’s boyhood friend Lenny Waronker got a job at Warner Brothers records as a producer. He brought in his friends pop/avant garde arranger/composer/pianist Van Dyke Parks, Leon Russell, and Newman. Randy was studying music at UCLA, but it seems that Waronker called and said: “Listen Rand, the record business is booming, the bigshots around here are going crazy looking for talent. They’ll throw a bundle at anyone with long hair and a guitar. Forget school, come over here, I’ll sign you to the Reprise subsidiary, we’ll make an album. Whatever you want. Van Dyke and I will produce it. Complete artistic freedom. No limits on budget! Spend whatever you want!! The best studio musicians in town, whoever you want. Bring in a whole goddam orchestra, for all I care.”

“Something New Under the Sun” Rerelease Cover

And that’s what they did. They made an album called either “Randy Newman” or “Randy Newman Creates Something New Under the Sun.”

It was originally released in 1968 with a blue cover and sold numerous dozens of copies. It was such a flop that Warner Brothers announced that anyone who bought it could trade it in for a different album from their catalog. A couple of years later, after he developed a small following, they rereleased it with a brown cover. This time it actually sold several hundred copies. It was so far under the radar that even the critics missed it. The album was out of print for 15 years, when it was released as a CD in 1985. It remains almost unheard of even today, even among those who should know better.

Despite the fact that a number of the songs on “Randy Newman” have been covered by many major artists, and despite the fact that Randy continues to perform songs from it in concert, the album languishes in absolute obscurity.

I’ll tell you what I think of the album. I think it ranks with “The Band”, “Astral Weeks”, “John Wesley Harding”, “Rubber Soul”, “Pet Sounds”, “Eli & the 13th Confession” as one of the greatest works of art to arise from the ‘rock’ idiom.

It’s hard to think of it as having roots in rock, because there’s only one song that has anything like a rock backbeat. There’s a large, lush orchestra playing charts of such intelligence and beauty and complexity that it’s mindbending to think that this is the freshman work of a 25-year old. All his award-winning Hollywood scores down the road blanche in comparison.

But even more prominent here is his piano, and his voice, and his ‘songs’. They’re so much more than songs. They’re vignettes of the Newman world – irony, satire that cuts to the very bone, obscure Everymen living lives of quiet desperation; pain, grimaces, regret, angst, compassion, and more pain.

Take for example ‘Davy, The Fat Boy‘. Before they die, Davy’s parents entrust their freakishly fat son to the care of the narrator, ‘the only friend he ever will have’ – who promptly puts him on exhibit in a carnival freak show, to make a few quarters out of the deal.

The song is Art in its conception–melody, chord structure, scoring–George Gershwin being serious for once. The piano is somewhere between Fats Domino and Aaron Copland. The voice is Tom Waits from Beverly Hills.

Or his post-Nietzschean theology, ‘I Think He’s Hiding‘:

Come on, Big Boy, come and save us.
Come and look at what we’ve done with what You gave us.
Now I’ve heard it said that our Big Boy’s dead, but I think he’s hiding.

But you have to hear the Neapolitan guitars with the raunchy slo-mo sliding bass and the out-of-tune nightmarish honky-tonk piano to get The Picture.

Or ‘The Beehive State‘, a thoroughly convincing paean to lobbyists for the Department of Tourism of the great state of Utah. You don’t believe me? Go listen to it.

There’s nary a song among the eleven that isn’t a masterpiece, and it’s causing me palpable anguish to present just one, and that one out of context. In 10 of the 11 songs–indeed, for virtually the entirety of his singer-songwriter career– Randy is acerbic, oblique, ironic, and funny. He doesn’t pull your leg. He amputates it.

Only in this one song does he play it straight. No indirection known. No wicked twinkle in the eye. He looks at you straight-faced and naked, and paints the bleakest, grayest, most desolate aural landscape you’ve ever heard.

The song is of course ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today‘.

There are many live versions of Randy Newman performing the song. It’s been covered by Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, Peggy Lee, UB40, Joe Cocker, Norah Jones, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Cleo Laine, Lyle Lovett, Peter Gabriel, Natalie Cole, Cass Eliot, and Bette Midler. That’s one very impressive list of singers, isn’t it? But to tell you the truth, I can’t even be bothered to go listen to their versions. It’s inconceivable to me that there could be a treatment more honest, direct, intense, precise, exhaustive, more harrowing than the original.

Broken windows, empty hallways,

Pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.


Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,

With frozen smiles to chase love away.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.


Lonely, lonely.

Tin can at my feet,

Think I’ll kick it down the street.

That’s the way to treat a friend.


Bright before me the signs implore me:

Help the needy and show them the way.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And I think it’s going to rain today.

I hope to come back to this album someday, to introduce you to another masterpiece or two from it. In the meantime, I couldn’t recommend more highly that you listen to the entire album here, or even better, run out and buy as many copies as you can. Give them to your friends, to your enemies, put one under your pillow, one in your safety deposit box and one in a time capsule. This album really is, without hyperbole, something new under the sun.

A reader was kind enough to send me a knockout article by David Kamp in Vanity Fair. It covers much of the same ground, but much more extensively, with oodles of background tales. Mucho recommended.

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