7

162: The Everly Brothers, ‘Crying in the Rain’

Posted by jeff on Apr 24, 2019 in Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

The Everly Brothers – ‘Crying in the Rain’

Rain

The people of our little country are even more diverse than the climates. I have friends here from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, no exaggeration. But variegated as the terrain and the folk are, we all share one common concern—the water level of that pond. The pond is fed by the Jordan River and some less illustrious streams, but it mostly depends on rainfall. But we’ve had seven years of drought, and the water level has been dropping dangerously. We’re a people who like to drink water and bathe, and even wash our cars and water our lawns on occasion. Well, the government put a stop to that (watering lawns, not drinking and bathing—yet).

Rain usually falls here only in the winter (December–March), and the entire population has been hoping and/or praying for a lot of it. Because, as I said, we like to drink and bathe and flush the toilet, and we have no other source. Lots of our neighbors have a surplus, but they would rather see us dry up than sell us any. So we root for the skies. Go, God!

Ayalon Highway, January 2013

Three weeks ago we had a veritable rainstorm here (in local terms), an entire week of propitious precipitation. The trains closed down, poor neighborhoods flooded, the main artery in the main city was blocked. The country was paralyzed. And everyone celebrated. Because we really do like our water, and we have nowhere to get it other than from God and the desalinization plants that are being built. (God’s prices are much better.) A driver caught in The Jam as interviewed on the news:

”How long have you been stuck here?”
“Three hours.” (Looks at his watch.) “Three and a half.”
“You must be pretty upset.”
(Grinning, raising his eyes to the sky) “Are you kidding? This is great! A few days a year like this, who cares? We need it. Let it rain!!”

More rain

There was a holiday mood throughout the country, a celebration of rain, a groundswell of appreciation for God’s beneficence. National elections were taking place, and no one gave a hoot. The rising level of The Sea was the lead headline, the elections below the fold. And now this week, another round. The media are full of National Pond Water Level graphs and Annual Rainfall tables.

Which brings us to the music. Rain and soppy songs, how well they go together. Our challenge for Song of The Week is to find The Quintessential Rain Song. No, not ‘Singing in the Rain’, dummy. A Rain Song is all about melancholy, a downcast  heart, soggy shoes, sloppy self-indulgent adolescent depression. Yeah, I know, there’s a myriad number of ways to feel about rain and an equal number of songs. I’m talking about the essence of that wet stuff. You can feel any way you want, going in. Love, national pride, it don’t matter. “Snap out of it” just doesn’t work. The essence of rain is grey and the blues.

So in my quest for the grail of The Perfect Rain Song, I ran a search on my music directory and came up with over 500 hits, and another bunch from my analog grey-matter data base.

‘Train’ doesn’t count (strangely I found no songs about a train in the rain). Neither do ‘Rainbow’ songs (a plethora). Knock out all the happy ones, from ‘Singing in the Rain’ to ‘Bus Stop’ to John Sebastian’s ‘Rain on the Roof’ (oh, I love that song so much) to ‘Soon It’s Gonna Rain’ from The Fantasticks.

Right off the bat, I see a couple of great songs about rain that really aren’t Rain Songs – most prominently Buddy Holly’s ‘Raining in My Heart’ (“The weatherman says ‘Clear today’”) and The Beatles’ monolithic ‘Rain’. Out go the Dead’s ‘Box of Rain’, ‘MacArthur Park’, the Rolling Stones’ salacious ‘Rain Fall Down’.

Two masterpieces get dropped because they’re too serious (I hope you’re grasping the logic of the criteria): Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (see SoTW 85), and ‘Fire and Rain’.

Regretfully, we also have to reject Peter Paul & Mary’s surprisingly dark (and very funny), ‘It’s Raining’. Oh, yeah, a nursery rhyme: ‘Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home – your house is on fire, and your children, they will burn.’

Dylan a priori lacks the soppy, soggy sentimentality, so out with such gems as ‘Buckets of Rain’, ‘It’s a Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, ‘Rainy Day Women’, ‘Percy’s Song’ (and its folk source ‘The Dreadful Wind and Rain’).

We’re even going to veto one of the most exquisitely painful songs we know, James Taylor’s ‘Rainy Day Man’ because it’s just too good. The Rain Song is about depression, not about existential angst. Here’s the perfect version from his first (Apple, 1968) album, here’s the revisit from “Flag” (1979), here from a bootleg performance with Joni Mitchell circa 1971. Here’s a fine 1971 video to chill you on a warm day.

I’m sure by now you understand that a real Rain Song has to be about clouds and eyes and crying and tears. So here it comes, the finalists in our unreality competition for the mantle of The Quintessential Rain Song

#7 – ‘Cry Like a Rainy Day‘, Etta James. A bit slick for my tastes, from a distinctly unslick singer.

#6 – ‘Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain’, Willy Nelson. Yeah, it’s a nice song. It meets all the prerequisites. But there are those where the heart is more fully saturated.

#5 – ‘Cry Like a Rainstorm’, sung by Linda Ronstadt, written by Eric Kaz. Lots of violins, and she can really hit those high notes.

#4 – ‘It Might As Well Rain Until September’, 1962, young Carole King’s first solo release, back when she was churning out Brill Building hits. You can read all about it in its very own Song of The Week.

#3 – ‘Early Morning Rain’, written by Gordon Lightfoot, as performed by Peter Paul & Mary. One of my very favorite emotionally sodden songs. It also had its own Song of The Week.

#2 – ‘Raindrops’ by Dee Clark, a one-hit wonder from 1961. I was in the 8th grade, miserable, in the rainy Midwest, and I sure shed a lot of tears to this one. Check out the power soul wailing at the fade. Dee spent the last years of his short life in a welfare hotel in Toccoa, Georgia, impoverished and paralyzed by a stroke. So what was I doing, a Jewish boy, crying in the suburbs?

The envelope, please. Ladies and Gentlemen, the ultimate song of unrequited love and waterlogged self-pity:

#1 – ‘Crying in the Rain’, the Everly Brothers, music by Carole King, lyrics by Howard Greenfield.

Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield

Carole King’s corpus needs no elaboration. Howie grew up in Brighton Beach, in the same building with Neil Sedaka. He co-wrote such Brill Building gems as ‘Breaking Up Is Hard to Do’, ’Oh! Carol’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Calendar Girl’, ‘Little Devil’, and ‘Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen’ for Neil; ‘Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool’ and ‘Breakin’ in a Brand New Broken Heart’ (Connie Francis); ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’(The Captain & Tennille); ‘Venus In Blue Jeans’ (Jimmy Clanton); and ‘Foolish Little Girl’ (the Shirelles)., not to mention the theme songs to Bewitched, The Flying Nun and Hazel.

Don and Phil Everly, of course, are charter members of the pantheon of rock and roll. Their career split into two – recording for Cadence Records in 1957-1959 songs written by husband-and-wife team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant (‘Bye Bye Love’, ‘Wake Up Little Susie,’ ‘All I Have to Do Is Dream’–SoTW 186, ‘Bird Dog’ and ‘Problems’), and then songs from a variety of sources in 1960-1962 for Warner Brothers (‘Cathy’s Clown’, ‘So Sad‘, ‘Walk Right Back’, ‘Crying In The Rain’, ‘That’s Old Fashioned’, and ‘When Will I Be Loved’. My, my, what a body of work. You can read all about them in their own dedicated SoTW here.

Not even a duo such as Art Garfunkel and James Taylor could match the Everly’s performance. And that’s saying something, because James has been known to rival them at their own game (here’s the Everly’s ‘Devoted to You’; here’s the treatment by James and then-wife Carly Simon).

Pretty as a picture postcard

But no one can beat the Everly Brothers. Simon and Garfunkel admitted to striving to be Everly ver. 2.0. The first time I heard a Beatles song (‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’) on the radio, sometime in late 1963, way before their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, I said to myself, “What’s the big deal? They sound like the Everly Brothers with a heavier beat.” Neil Young, inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, said that every musical group he belonged to had tried and failed to copy the Everly Brothers’ harmonies.

‘Crying in the Rain’ the perfect soggy, squishy rain song. It’s a pretty perfect song for any season. You just put the needle down on that 45 with the big hole, it brings its own weather system. All the heartache, all the sogginess, all the rain mixed with all the tears. I think we could even declare it as a genre unto itself: ‘Crying In The Rain Songs’. And here’s the best of the bunch.

I’ll never let you see
The way my broken heart is hurting me
I’ve got my pride and I know how to hide
All my sorrow and pain
I’ll do my crying in the rain

If I wait for cloudy skies
You won’t know the rain from the tears in my eyes
You’ll never know that I still love you so
Though the heartaches remain
I’ll do my crying in the rain

Rain drops falling from heaven
Could never wash away my misery
But since we’re not together
I look for stormy weather
To hide these tears I hope you’ll never see

Some day when my crying’s done
I’m gonna wear a smile and walk in the sun
I may be a fool but till then darling you’ll
Never see me complain
I’ll do my crying in the rain

I’ll do my crying in the rain
I’ll do my crying in the rain

 

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:

002: Buddy Holly, ‘Learning the Game’
076: Roy Orbison, ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’
125: Bee Gees, ‘Holiday’

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13

132: James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

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

James Taylor, ‘Enough To Be On Your Way’

This week was the twelfth anniversary of my only sister’s death, at 62, from lung cancer. She was a denizen of Marlboro country all those years, and succumbed to statistics. Madie was five years older than me, and I loved her dearly. Never, not once in our entire lives, did we fight. Not when we were kids, not when we were adults. As youngsters, we had the age and sex differences to keep us apart, and a mutual enemy to keep us together. As adults, there was a literal ocean between us. From 21, when I left the US, for almost 30 years, I saw her only a few times for a few days each. We would talk on the phone for a short time a couple of times a year, and exchange only sporadic aerograms.

She never came here to visit me in the life I made for myself. For many years it was logistically and financially impractical, and then she got sick. But I understand that she really didn’t want to come, so strongly did she resent my having moved to “the other side of the world”. She loved me simply and deeply and purely, as I did her. She wanted me near her on occasion, in the hard times, in the good times, as she went through her life. But I had removed myself, and she never overcame the resentment of that fact.

Then our folks started getting old, finances and costs changed, and I began visiting every year or two. We’d usually meet in Florida for the best part of a week, without spouses, just the organic family of dinosaurs. She and I would hide out on our parents’ veranda. She’d smoke her Marlboros, and we’d open our hearts to each other.

It was only  long after she’d passed away that I came to understand how she missed me, because that’s how I still miss her. She was the one person to whom I could open up completely unguardedly – one quarter stranger on a plane, one quarter twin personality, one half unadulterated love. Life goes on, with all its blessings and curses, with all its joys and disappointments, with all its tribulations and trials. There’s so much I want to share with that one person in the world through whose veins flowed the same blood as mine. Madie’s absence is a gaping void in my soul.

There’s a song that I associate with my sister’s death. That statement demands some justification. My love for my sister is bigger than any pop song. I don’t equate the depth of my love for her, or my sadness over her absence with dropping a quarter in a juke box. But there’s no denying that that which comes through the car radio is the soundtrack of our lives, as surely as the violinists in a Hollywood tearjerker manipulate our heartstrings. A pop song is just a pop song, and a life is a life. But in our real lives, the two are intertwined, each person with his own background accompaniment.

James Taylor is a few months older than me. I’ve been listening to him closely and attentively since we were 21. James was the second of five children of Trude and Ike Taylor. Ike was a patrician and a closet lush, dean of the Chapel Hill medical school who ran away on an expedition to Antarctica to stay drunk and avoid the real world. Alex Taylor was the firstborn of the five rebellious children, filling the role of convention-breaker and thus drawing the heaviest flack. James moved more comfortably into the role of singer-substance abuser after Alex had broken all the curfews. Alex named his firstborn after brother James, and James in turn wrote the swaddling nephew a lullaby called ‘Sweet Baby James’.  Alex himself was an unsuccessful singer, an accomplished drinker, rough and gruff and unsettled and loveable. In 1993, he died after sinking into a booze-induced coma.

L to R: Hugh, Livingston, Kate, James, Alex Taylor

Here’s a wonderful clip of that “fucked-up family“, the five Taylors singing James’ great song ‘Shower the People’. “Shower the people you love with love.” Boy, triter and truer words were never spoken.

‘Enough To Be On Your Way’ is James’ lament for his brother. “My brother Alex died in ’93 on (not for) my birthday. We all went down to Florida to say goodbye. The day after we flew home (the day after his cremation) a giant mother hurricane followed us north through the Carolina’s; trashing everything in its path and finally raining record rains on Martha’s Vineyard (home). In Paris, a year later I changed his character to a hippie chick named Alice and the location to Santa Fe; but my soulful older brother is still all over this song like a cheap suit.”


The sun shines on this funeral the same as on a birth
The way it shines on everything that happens here on Earth.
It rolls across the western sky and back into the sea
And spends the day’s last rays upon this fucked-up family.
So long old pal.

The last time I saw Alice she was leaving Santa Fe
With a bunch of round-eyed Buddhists in a killer Chevrolet.
Said they turned her out of Texas, yeah, she burned ’em down back home.
Now she’s wild with expectation on the edge of the unknown.

James Taylor: “The idea is of somebody who can’t get home, who can’t find home late in their lives. As you get older- and I’m pushing 50—you grasp that the loneliness of the human condition stems from a wholeness from which we seem separated. Consensus, just the sense of connection with other people, feels so great, and it motivates an awful lot of what we do. The more successful or thwarted you are as an isolated individual, the more you need reconnection.”

Oh it’s enough to be on your way
It’s enough just to cover ground
It’s enough to be moving on
Home, build it behind your eyes
Carry it in your heart
Safe among your own

They brought her back on a Friday night, same day I was born.
We sent her up the smoke stack and back into the storm.
She blew up over the San Juan mountains and spent herself at last.
The threat of heavy weather, that was what she knew the best.

It woke me up on a Sunday an hour before the sun.
It had me watching the headlights out on highway 591
‘Til I stepped into my trousers, ‘til I pulled my big boots on.
I walked out on the Mesa and I stumbled on this song.

James, Alex, Sweet Baby James, Kate Taylor

James made a rare slip in taste in a creating a video in which he portrays the details of this song literally—the old lover Alice (played by Barbara Hershey), the Moonies, the Chevy, the mesa—you get it all, premasticated and spoon-fed. I watched it once, and I’m sorry I did. The only thing it’s good for is to deplete the magic from a magical song. I’m not going to give you the link for it. Go find it yourself if you must.

James says the song is about striving for reconnection. Well, even that’s pinning it down too much for me. Those so-beautiful, so evocative lines – “Oh it’s enough to be on your way/It’s enough just to cover ground/It’s enough to be moving on.”–what do they evoke? Lots of sadness, lots of love, lots of regret, a very strong desire to find some reconciliation with the pain of the loss. I’d rather not parse it. The song is best left with its magic.  I’m best left with my love and my longing.

My  grandchildren are all good siblings, but they’re normal kids. When I see them squabble over whose turn it is to clear the table, say harsh words to each other, raise their voices in anger, I feel a physical pain in my gut. That most treasured gift of a sibling. Who can appreciate how precious it is?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

046: James Taylor, “Never Die Young”

056: James Taylor, ‘Secret O’ Life’

112: James Taylor, ‘Yesterday’

291: James Taylor, ‘Valentine’s Day’

136: James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – ‘Wonderful World’

205: James Taylor, ‘Something’s Wrong’

139: The Swingle Singers, ‘On the 4th of July’ (James Taylor)

 

 

 

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4

040: Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd’ (Live in Toronto 1952)

Posted by jeff on Apr 2, 2019 in Jazz, Song Of the week

The Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd St’ (Live in Toronto, 1952)

Lennie Tristano, 1965 ©Robert Polillo

We arrested-adolescence baby boomers (see “High Fidelity” et al) take the Desert Island issue seriously.  Some people might choose music they associate with landmark events in their lives. Not I, said Jeff. Music’s too important to confuse it with life. My conundrum would be of a different sort – to go for the music I most esteem, or that which I listen to most, or that which I most enjoy. The first would include “John Wesley Harding”, for example, which I esteem greatly but listen to rarely. The second would include the Renaissance liturgical music I listen to as background music to sleep on the train, but I’m guessing I wouldn’t have that issue on a desert island. What do I do about The Beatles? I rarely actually bother to play their music anymore – I just press a button in my cerebral jukebox and let it run through my synapses.

One cut I’d surely like to spend the rest of my life with is ‘317 East 32nd’ by the Lennie Tristano quintet from their album “Live in Toronto 1952”.

Lennie Tristano’s music never fails to transport me. It’s pure and abstract and riveting. It’s like watching an imagined river, a mental act of divine creation. It transcends life. It never gets bogged down in the messiness of human intercourse. It’s beyond what one Danish prince called ‘the whips and scorns of time’.

Lennie Tristano (1919–78) is no household name, and I understand why. Not many people ‘get’ his music, because there’s nothing to ‘get’. It’s an abstract. Like watching mathematical patterns unfold. So what? Well, I’ll tell you so what:

Ice Also Burns.

Way back in SoTW 027 I wrote about Tristano and an even more obscure cut, ‘Wow’ live from 1949. I can’t improve on what I said there: Tristano forced his rhythm section to serve as a metronome, providing a regular, mechanical pulse. Remarkably, such creative musicians as bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach were Tristano supporters. Because on top of that pulse, he would reorganize the bar, displace the metric system, create a disjointed and constantly surprising world. You can count tick-tick-tick without problems, but try one-two-three-four and at some point you’ll find yourself in a world of temporal relativity. It’s a shame Tristano never invited Einstein to sit in on violin. He would have felt very much at home, I think.

Max Kaminsky, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano

From left: Max Kaminsky, Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano

Eunmi Shim wrote in her musical biography of Tristano:  Mingus and Max Roach were quite enamoured of Tristano’s approach, which restricted the rhythmic contribution of bass and drums quite severely. [But] they approved of such consciously articulated developments as that of emasculating the rhythm section in order to free the front line. Mingus said, “Indiviuals can swing alone like Bird, and groups can swing collectively like Tristano’s”.

Tristano is often presented as the antithesis of the great Charlie Parker. Where Bird was the ultimate pour-it-out faster-than-the-ear-can-hear no-holds-barred improviser, Tristano was a proponent of strict discipline. He trained his students to take responsibility for every single note. The gut vs. the mind. But Bird and Tristano had great respect for each other. One Sunday Bird drove out to Tristano’s house on Long Island, where they recorded two cuts – ‘All of Me’ and ‘I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me’. That’s the great Kenny Clarke tapping on the phonebook!

Mingus is the source of another famous tale about how dislikable Tristano could be: “Woody Herman, who’s supposed to be a very nice guy and a funny one, came over to Lennie. He asked Tristano if he were really blind. ‘Yes,’ Lennie said, ‘I can’t see anything.’…’Good,’ said Woody. ‘Good, you motherfucker. I’m glad you can’t see!’…I knew Lennie; I knew how destructive he could be. And I asked him, ‘But what did you do to get that guy so hurt and angry?”

Irascible, perhaps, but Tristano left a legacy. Two great saxophonists were his best-known disciples, Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, both of whom we’ve written about at length. On this version of ‘317 East 32nd,Konitz (alto sax) plays the first solo, Tristano (piano) the second, Marsh (tenor sax) the third.

The song, like many Tristano ‘originals’ is a reworking of a standard, this time ‘Out Of Nowhere’. Here’s a version by  Ella Fitzgerald for comparison. And here are a few more versions of ‘317 East 32nd’ for your listening edification:

Quartet with Konitz, Sing Song Room, 1955

Quintet with Konitz and Marsh, Half Note 1964

Konitz and Alan Broadbent (piano), 2000

Marsh and Red Mitchell (bass), 1987

Here are some more sterling cuts from the 1952 Toronto concert by the Tristano Quintet with Konitz and Marsh: ‘Lennie’s Pennies‘, ”You Go to My Head‘, ‘April‘ and ‘Sound-Lee

And here’s a 40-minute solo concert of Tristano in Copenhagen, in a video I recently discovered: Copenhagen concert

They’re all great. But it’s the ‘317 East 32nd’ from Toronto that I’m taking with me to Bali Hai. I’m going to sip on coconut milk and watch the waves and escape into the very pure beauty of this cut. It’s perfect music.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

027: Lennie Tristano, ‘Wow’
037: Lee Konitz, ‘Alone Together’ (w. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau)
134: Lee Konitz, ‘Duende’
153: Pete Christlieb & Warne Marsh, ‘Magna-Tism’

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1

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…

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

108: Michael McDonald/Luciana Souza, ‘I Can Let Go Now’
085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’ (First Album)
156: Nilsson, ‘Without Her’

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