158: Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Posted by jeff on Jan 4, 2013 in A Cappella, Rock, Song Of the week

Paul Simon, ‘Surfer Girl’

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

I first heard a piece of music this week that touched me very deeply, Brian Wilson’s ‘Surfer Girl’, as performed solo by Paul Simon in “An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson” from 2001.

I’m guessing we all pretty much agree that the original ‘Surfer Girl’ is a pretty schlocky song. The lyrics couldn’t be more callow. The melody and vocal harmonies are Brian Wilson clawing his way out of the gooey larva of his California pubescence.

It even takes a back seat to ‘In My Room’, the other slow song from the Beach Boys’ third album (1963). And we all know what happens in the back seat of a Little Deuce Coupe.

Beach Boys 1962

California pubescents: (clockwise from top right) Mike (Don’t Fuck with the Formula) Love, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Carl Wilson, genius Brian Wilson

Brian on the genesis of ‘Surfer Girl’: “Back in 1961, I’d never written a song in my life. I was nineteen years old. And I put myself to the test in my car one day. I was actually driving to a hot dog stand, and I actually created a melody in my head without being able to hear it on a piano. I sang it to myself; I didn’t even sing it out loud in the car. When I got home that day, I finished the song, wrote the bridge, put the harmonies together and called it ‘Surfer Girl’.”

Thanks for sharing that, Brian. Go to your room.

Ok, so Brian may not be competing with Ludwig Wittgenstein, but I am among those who consider him to be THE musical genius of contemporary popular music.  Admittedly, ‘Surfer Girl’ ain’t the one I would choose to have played at his wake. The works of his fully-fledged genius begin to trickle out a year (two albums) later, with ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and ‘Warmth of the Sun’ on “Shut Down, Vol. 2”. And then bloom a year after that (1965) on the legendary Side B of “Beach Boys Today!”: ‘Please Let Me Wonder’, ‘I’m So Young’, ‘Kiss Me Baby’ (see also SoTW 004), ‘She Knows Me Too Well’ and ‘In the Back of My Mind.’). Not to mention, of course, “Pet Sounds” (1966), the musical opus magnum of our generation.

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

Surfer Girls circa 1966, © Bob Weeks

What the song ‘Surfer Girl’ does offer us musically is an early hint of what I call Brian’s Cubist melody lines. He’s doing an arpeggio on familiar chords (‘Little surfer, little one’), but then it opens up (‘Make my heart’) into a new context, and then follows this beautifully shocking line even further afield (‘come all undone’). If you’re into chords, it goes like this: C Am F G (ok so far), but then Cmaj7 C7 F Fm6! Huh?? WTF? What’s wrong with this kid?

I’m not going to talk here about how much the world wants brilliant reworkings of some of Brian Wilson’s unexplored works of genius. I have enough self-awareness to realize that I get obsessive on the subject and cause people (like the very fine Danish choral arranger/conductor Jens Johansen) to carefully edge away from me to another room.

Brian Wilson Songs

Brian Wilson Songs

No one (until Paul Simon here) has succeeded in unlocking the Brian Wilson treasure chest to my satisfaction. I won’t even mention the Billy Joels and Ricky Martins from the “All-Star Tribute”.  Here’s a pretty typical example of a competent a cappella group, Rockapella, missing the point of how to cover ‘Surfer Girl’. Even some artists I greatly admire have been daunted by the original material. Here are my friends The Real Group, and here are my friends The Swingle Singers, both covering ‘God Only Knows’. I think neither really master the material. It’s hard to blame them. Paul McCartney’s called ‘God Only Knows’ the greatest song ever written. Here’s Paul making a mess of  ‘God Only Knows’ with Brian. ”We were doing a benefit together, and at the sound check I lost it, because it’s very emotional, this song. I think ‘Oh my God, I’m singing it with Brian’, it just got me. I couldn’t do it.” I give both TRG and The Swingles credit – they do a better job than Paul and Brian himself. But there’s so much more still to be mined.

Woodie, including back seat

Woodie, including back seat

The one and only cover I’d heard before that to my ears really showed how much gold there is in them thar hills is that by a not-yet-fully-appreciated young artist, Kat Edmonson. She’s a knockout songwriter, and does great covers as well. On her 2012 album ‘Way Down Low’, she tackles ‘I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ with taste and intelligence and talent, and comes up with a gem of a gold nugget.

When I talk about covering a work of substance, I believe it should be a piece that deserves to be revisited, that has musical value beyond that which earlier versions have found and which deserve to be explored. The original ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ is great, but would have been better served left alone.  All of its value was right there in the original. More is less.

In researching this post, I was tickled to trip over three tributes that I hadn’t been aware of. The ‘All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson’ (2001) is a pretty embarrassingly lowbrow affair, our SoTW itself excluded. More interesting is the 2000 ‘Caroline, Now!’ CD, but the material is obscure, the artists mostly unknown to me, and the results unengaging. Most successful for me is ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, a jazz tribute to Brian Wilson from 1997, even though it takes Brian’s perfected edifices into the playing field of improvisation and thus doesn’t really deal with the essence of the material itself. The exception was a serendipitous discovery, five lovely, short a cappella cuts by ‘The Clark Burroughs Group’, L’Arc. And listen to this folks! Clark Burroughs is the original tenor of the Hi-Lo’s!! And not only that, he wrote the vocal arrangements for The Association’s ‘Windy’ and ‘Never My Love’!!! That connection has my head spinning, and you can bet your booties I’ll be pursuing it. Take a listen to what Mr Burroughs has done:

Surf’s Up – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Can’t Wait Too Long – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

‘Til I Die – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

Cabinessence – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

I Went to Sleep – by L’Arc, by The Beach Boys

If I have a reservation, it’s that Mr Burroughs chooses material from the ‘Smile’ era, when Brian was in full control of the studio and free of the fetters of Top 40 considerations. That’s not mining, that’s plucking gold from the surface. Still, it’s gold, and I just discovered this. Give me a few thousand more listens to coalesce my opinion.

Angst on the Beach, Surfer Girl, Beach Boys

Angst on the Beach

Brian Wilson’s early masterworks have so much still untapped that it breaks my heart to not hear this treasure appreciated anew. Jens Johansen reworked fully realized jewels such as Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’. How much more fitting that he apply his great talent and that of his marvelous Danish rhythm choir Vocal Line to treat unrefined treasures such as those of Brian Wilson before he had his run of the studio with “Pet Sounds”. Or perhaps Clark Burroughs.

Paul Simon has recorded very few covers of other artists. With Art he did ‘The Times Are A-Changing’ (before he knew any better) and a couple of Everly Brothers just for fun (‘Wake Up, Little Suzie’ and ‘Bye Bye Love’). Much later he did a more respectable job on ‘Here Comes the Sun’, here solo and here with David Crosby and Graham Nash. But neither is really revelatory. More successful is the collaboration with James Taylor and Art Garfunkel on Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’, but that’s really James’ work rather than Paul’s.

Paul Simon is a remarkable artist. He can sing a phrase that’s so poignant and emotionally precise that it will echo in your heart for weeks. He’s also a perfectionist. He gets oodles of credit for his songwriting and even his singing and guitaring, but I think he’s too seldom recognized for his production and arrangement abilities, even from the old days of Simon and Garfunkel.

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

Paul Simon, All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson

For his live performance of ‘Surfer Girl’, he clearly did his homework. The melody line is lovely and just a bit challenging. Paul employs it as a springboard for his own unique, affective talent and thereby both pays due respect and enriches the original. Listen to the beginning of the second verse. He sings ‘I have seen you on the shore’ in falsetto up an octave, and you’re saying ‘Oy, the melody goes up, he’ll never make it!’ But with a feat of inventiveness, ‘the sound of surprise’, he creates a beautiful new descending line, moving seamlessly from the head voice to chest voice.

He looks the line ‘I would drive you in my woodie’ right in the eyes, without flinching, and delivers it with compleat sincerity – neither pandering to the shlockiness nor pretending that it’s anything other than what the song really is: a beautiful, heartfelt ballad of unrequited teenage love, performed impeccably. What more could we ask for?

Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

 I have watched you on the shore
Standing by the oceans roar.
Do you love me do you surfer girl?

 We could ride the surf together
While our love would grow.
In my woody I would take you everywhere I go.

So I say, from me to you
I will make your dreams come true.
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

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Brian Wilson Songs of The Week
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040: Lennie Tristano Quintet, ‘317 East 32nd’ (Live in Toronto 1952)

Posted by jeff on Dec 28, 2012 in Jazz, Song Of the week

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

Lennie Tristano, 1965 ©Robert Polillo

I recently discovered a treasure chest – a BBC radio series called ‘Castaway’ or ‘Desert Island Discs’ (they’re surprisingly fuzzy about the actual name) in which a whole passle of famous people are interviewed about their lives and the 8 musical tracks that they would take with them to a desert island. The program (programme, actually) has been running since 1941, with almost 3000 episodes available on-line.

They’ve been busy with people like Aaron Copland, Alan Alda and Alfred Eisenstadt, so I understand why they haven’t gotten around yet to calling me. But I figure I’d better be ready when they do, so I’ve been working on my list.

Many of the interviewees 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 (or Dylan in general), which I esteem at the top of the pile but listen to relatively infrequently. I listen to a lot of Renaissance liturgical music 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.

Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano

Foreground, LtoR: Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano

So one of my leading candidates for a cut I’d 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. Most people don’t get his music. There’s nothing to get, really. 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 and 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 Tristano: “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:

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SoTWs: Lee Konitz

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157: Nilsson, ‘One’

Posted by jeff on Dec 22, 2012 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 commercially 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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156: Nilsson, ‘Without Her’


156: Nilsson, ‘Without Her’

Posted by jeff on Dec 14, 2012 in Rock, Song Of the week

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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