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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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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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’


156: Nilsson, ‘Without Her’

Posted by jeff on Mar 20, 2019 in Rock, Song Of the week

The first of two postings on Harry Nilsson–one of the great singers, songwriters, performers, and debauchees of our time.
Tune in next week for the second instalment.

Nilsson – ‘Without Her’

Nilsson – ‘Sleep Late, My Lady Friend’

Nilsson – ‘1941’

Nilsson – ‘Cuddly Toy’

Nilsson – ‘You Can’t Do That’

If you don’t know Harry Nilsson’s music, both as a composer and as a performer, you’re in good company; but you’re missing something rare and fine. John called him his favorite American artist. Paul called him his favorite American group. Jimmy Webb called him the best singer of the generation. Randy Newman compared his melodic talent to that of McCartney, Schuman and Elton John.

Ironically, neither of singer-songwriter Nilsson’s two biggest hits were originals – his beautiful reading of Fred Neil’s beautiful ‘Everybody’s Talking’ and his overblown performance of the Badfinger faux operatic kitsch anthem ‘Without You’.

But they’re not The Point (that was a pun – it’s the name and central metaphor of a full-length children’s cartoon for which he wrote the lovely, whimsical score). The point is that from 1967 Harry Nilsson (he went by his surname only in the beginning) created some of the finest music of the finest era – “Pandemonium Shadow Show”, “Ariel Ballet”, “Harry” and “Nilsson Sings Newman”, and then two more valued by many people other than myself, “Nilsson Schmillson” and “Son of Schmilsson”.

Nilsson then embarked on the fast track to self-destruction till his death at 53. But that’s a different story, one beautifully told in the wonderful 2010 documentary “Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)” by John Schienfeld. Today we’re going to focus on the first step of Nilsson’s career – his almost unknown first album “Pandemonium Shadow Show” and its mythological reception.

Harry Nilsson (1941–1994) grew up with no father – he skipped out when the boy was four, as Nilsson would do to his own son. His mother was an alcoholic. He lived with an uncle till 15, when he set out on his own. These events are related (pun intended) in the song ‘1941’. Here it is in the album version, and here’s the wrenching live version from the 1971 BBC ‘concert’.

Listen to that latter version and think about it for a moment. The song is very much of its time (1967), and timeless. It has a gravitas rarely heard then (we’re talking 1967, a year before the first albums by Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Randy Newman), yet it reeks of 1920’s music hall beer (the album version more so). Listen to his voice – three and a half octaves, pure and controlled and expressive.  As Al Kooper said, he has a voice like a trapeze artist – he goes flying through the air with the greatest of ease, defying gravity, calm and fearless. You hold your breath; there’s no net. Will he grab the bar? But it’s not virtuosity for its own sake. It’s the detached third-person voice of the singer/composer expressing his unflinching understanding that his abandonment as a son was repeated in his own failure as a father.

But that’s just one of Nilsson’s many personae. In the beginning of 1967 Nilsson was working nights managing a bank data base (he lied on his application, saying he’d finished high school), writing and pitching songs during the day. An old friend, Chip Douglas, was producing The Monkees. I had heard all the publicity about them, but I didn’t know what they looked like… So I sang seven, eight or nine songs, and Michael Nesmith said, ‘Man, where the fuck did you come from? You just sat down there and blew our minds like that. We’ve been looking for songs, and you just sat down and played an album for us. Shit! Goddammit!’ He threw something on the floor. And he went and got Micky Dolenz and he said to him, ‘Would you listen to this man? Listen to that!’ Micky gave a surprised laugh, and Davy Jones started laughing over one song, and it was like the three of them were just out of their tree. Only Peter Tork couldn’t give a shit.

The Monkees recorded ‘Cuddly Toy’, and Nilsson quit the bank. The super-cuddly Davy Jones sang the tune with utter innocence, including the lyric ‘You’re not the only cherry delight that was left in the night and gave up without a fight.’ When asked if the song wasn’t really describing a gang bang, Nilsson laughed guiltily. “Well, it crossed my mind.” Here’s ‘Cuddly Toy’ from “Pandemonium Shadow Show”.

For our Song of The Week, I had a heck of a time choosing between my two favorite songs on the album, both beautiful love songs impeccably sung to stunningly minimalist arrangements. The one that missed the cruel cut is ‘Sleep Late My Lady Friend’, most of which employs a string bass, cello, hand percussion, and one gravity-defying, undoctored voice. It’s worth listening to over and over. Legend has it that when John Lennon first heard the album he played it consecutively for 36 hours. But we’ll get to that story in just a moment.

Our SoTW is one I’m pleased as punch to be sharing with you, ‘Without Her’, not to be confused with the bombastic ‘Without You’, but the gentle, perfectly understated Nilsson original. The much better known version is from Blood, Sweat and Tears’ great first album “Child is Father to the Man”, with Al Kooper leading the bossa nova interpretation. It’s pleasant enough. But listen to Nilsson sing it accompanied only by electric bass and cello, later joined by a flute and then an acoustic guitar. Tell me this isn’t a gem, a neglected masterpiece. I dare you.

But the legendary cut from the album is called ‘You Can’t Do That’. Yes, the Beatles song. The concept has become popular, but when this was recorded – one week after the release of “Sgt Pepper” – Nilsson was pretty much inventing both multi-multi-tracking of vocals (one critic complained that the backing singers went uncredited) and the mashup. In late 1967 The Beatles’ publicist Derek Taylor was in Los Angeles and heard ‘1941’ on the radio. He bought an entire box of copies of “Pandemonium Shadow Show” and sent it to England.

Nilsson, from “Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)”: One day at five in the morning I got this phone call and there was this voice long-distance, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” “It’s John.” “John who?” “John Lennon.” “Is this really John?” “Yeah, I just wanted to say you’re fantastic man, we listened to you all weekend, you’re great, great, great. Fantastic” The following Monday I got a phone call from Paul. “How are you? Just calling to say you’re fantastic. You’re really great. We really love what you did and all that stuff. Derek played it for us. Hope to see you soon.” Clunk. The next Monday morning I got up, combed my hair, five o’clock in the morning, waiting for a call from Ringo. There was no call. But he ended up being the best man at our wedding, so that’s ok.

There’s more to the story. It wasn’t long before Nilsson became best friends with both Ringo and John. At the wedding, Nilsson was so stoned on cocaine that Ringo had to help him put the ring on the bride’s finger. In the film, the Smothers Brothers laughingly describe their comeback performance and how their buddies John and Harry were thrown out of the club for disorderly behavior. Theirs was, in the words of one intimate, ‘a friendship made in hell’. But that’s another story.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

085: Randy Newman: ‘I Think It’s Going to Rain Today’
053: The Beatles, ‘In My Life’
018 Sir Paul McCartney, ‘Distractions’

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