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

Posted by jeff on May 25, 2012 in Rock, Rock and Roll, Song Of the week

James Taylor, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel – Wonderful World

What happens when three of the finest and most successful singers of our times get together to record a pop paean to pimply passion? Well, when it’s James Taylor hooking up with Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel to sing “Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all”, it’s pretty darn memorable.

Paul, Art, James

Paul and James had been friends since their teenage backpacking days circa 1966 as the two leading Americans in the nascent London folk scene. Fame snuck up on Paul while he was in London, when (unbeknownst to him) the acoustic ‘Sounds of Silence’ he had recorded with Art was overdubbed with electric guitars and drums, thereby inventing folk-rock. Meanwhile, James was hanging out with Peter Asher and becoming the first non-British artist signed by The Beatles’ Apple label.

If you don’t know what happened to James and Paul and Art in the late 1960s/early 1970s, you should probably be out mowing the lawn or watching Championship Bowling.

In late 1977, James got a call from his neighbor Paul, who was in a period of reconciliation with Art, who had provided backing vocals on James’ “In The Pocket” album the year before (the very fine ‘Captain Jim’s Drunken Dream’ and the sublime ‘A Junkie’s Lament’) the year before. Art had recorded an album of Jimmy Webb songs, “Watermark”, which was his best solo effort artistically but another commercial flop. It seems Paul was feeling sorry for his ex-, seeing how his own solo career was flourishing. So he called James, and the three of them convened in Paul’s apartment to record a song for belated addition to the already-released album.

In 1978, refashioning up-tempo rock songs into gentle ballads was nothing new—way back in the nascent years of rock and roll, Buddy Holly covered Little Richard’s raucous 1956 ‘Slippin’ and Slidin’’ twice, in a slow electric version and in an unreleased acoustic version.  (The Band and John Lennon also tried their respective hands at the song, albeit in the spirit of the original.)

Wonderful World

I’m assuming it was James who chose to record the Sam Cooke hit, ‘(What a) Wonderful World’. He had been reworking bouncy rock and roll standards in just the same acoustic, introspective, gentle mode to great success (his mega-hit ‘Handy Man’, a hit for Jimmy Jones in 1959; and his Carole King-penned ‘Up On The Roof’, a hit for The Drifters in 1962). In SoTW 112, we took a look at what James could do to Beatles songs such as ‘If I Needed Someone’ and ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, not to mention the already-ballad ‘Yesterday’.

But whoever picked the song, it’s James’ vocals that invest it with such magic. One of the most common planks in the SoTW soapbox is just how fine an artist James Taylor is, and no matter how much of an icon he has become today, his artistry is loved more than understood or seriously appreciated. One of his many insufficiently appreciated talents is as a harmony singer. In my not-so-humble opinion, James and David Crosby stand head and shoulders above the field as harmonizers supreme.

All the others, Art Garfunkel and Graham Nash and the Everlies included, go for the easy choices—adding a second voice a third or a fourth above the lead. James and Crosby have a penchant for adding subtle harmonies below the lead, where they unobtrusively add a depth and a resonance unique in the world of rock.

Take for example TS&G’s ‘Wonderful World’. In the second verse (‘Don’t know much about Geography’), S sings the lead with G singing a fourth above him. Just like in Simon and Garfunkel. It’s not a bad formula—they sold about three bazillion records that way. Contrast it with the introduction (TS&G) or the first verse (G singing lead, T harmonizing a minor third underneath him, then S adding a falsetto counterpart). Then listen to what happens in the second verse when JT joins in on ‘But I do know one and one is two’. Nothing more than the quantum shift from 2D to 3D.

The choice of the song is no little win in and of itself. It was originally a hit (#12 in the US) for Sam Cooke in 1960, and  placed 373rd in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was written by Lou Adler (producer of Cooke, The Mamas & the Papas, Barry McGuire, and Carole King, including her Tapestry album; former husband of Shelley Fabares; and Lakers’ courtside crony of Jack Nicholson), Herb Alpert (Mr. Tijuana Brass, producer of The Carpenters and  Sérgio Mendes, and the Broadway “Angels In America”, mogul and sculptor), with finishing touches by Sam Cooke himself. Lou Rawls sings backup on the original.

It is so irresistible that it’s been recycled more times than the number of ants on a Tennessee anthill:

  • The 1965 #4 hit for Herman’s Hermits, recorded as a tribute to Sam Cooke after his horrific death
  • An obscure version by Blind Willie (“Magicfingers”) Feigenbaum, the main claim to fame of which is the fact that the soft, acoustic treatment preceded that of TS&G by several years.
  • The 1978 cult classic film “Animal House
  • The 1983 Richard Gere demeaning remake of Godard’s “Breathless
  • The 1985 Harrison Ford/Kelly McGillis film “Witness
  • The 1985 Levi’s 501 commercial (which I don’t understand, but was voted the 19th greatest song ever to feature in a commercial)
  • The 2005 Will Smith film “Hitch

And here are the wonderful lyrics to this whimsical, witty paean to mindless teenage love. I taught high school for 25 years. Believe me, every word of it is true:

Don’t know much about history, don’t know much biology.
Don’t know much about a science book, don’t know much about the French I took.
But I do know that I love you, and I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Don’t know much geography, don’t know much trigonometry.
Don’t know much about algebra, don’t know what a slide rule is for.
But I do know that one and one is two, and if this one could be with you
What a wonderful world this would be

Now I don’t claim to be an “A” student, but I’m trying to be.
I think that maybe by being an “A” student baby, I could win your love for me

Don’t know much about the Middle Ages, look at the pictures and I turn the pages.
Don’t know much about no Rise and Fall, don’t know much about nothin’ at all.
‘Cause it’s you that I’ve been thinking of, and if I could only win your love,
What a wonderful world this would be.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

Sam Cooke Songs of The Week

James Taylor Songs of The Week

Paul Simon Songs of The Week

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033: Radka Toneff, ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’ (Jimmy Webb)

Posted by jeff on Apr 15, 2010 in Nordic, Rock, Song Of the week, Vocalists

Everybody goes for a love story. Okay, here’s one. I’m in love. Love at first sight.
Well, maybe not love. But real, true, deep infatuation that will last at least until I open my eyes.

The biggest problem right now is that I have a lot of trouble remembering her name. Radka Toneff. You have to admit, that’s objectively a hard name to remember, even if you’re in love with her. Just as lovers revel in reconstructing how they first met, I’m trying to remember how I stumbled on her. I guess I was looking at all the YouTube hits for ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘ or – hey, Jeff, the music?
Right.

Radka Toneff (1952-1982) was a Norwegian singer “of legendary stature”. Well, in knowledgeable jazz circles in Oslo, perhaps. For me she was new. But I’ve been listening to a lot of Scandinavian music over the last couple of years, and I’m working hard at cultivating that taste and broadening my knowledge.

I admit a certain bias towards Nordic singing. At its best, it’s flawless, perfect, precise, technically refined on a level we just don’t encounter in our more familiar neighborhoods. With male pianists, that can get pretty boring for me. But with female singers it can be intoxicating.

It all depends on the material. When my new love Radka (I need to practice using her name) hits on the right material–which she does sometimes, not too regularly–it can really be breathtaking.

For convenience’s sake, we’ll call Radka Toneff a jazz singer, though that’s not really accurate. She recorded a wide range of material – from rarified jazz to hackneyed pop, a pinch of Bulgarian folk (her father was a Bulgarian folk singer), with a little bit of soul thrown in, paying her Nordic dues to the mothers of her music.

If you did the math above, you got that she died at the age of 30. It’s usually called a suicide, but the fullest version I found (in English) says: “Her sudden death was described by newspapers as a suicide, but friends said that although she brought it on herself, it was an accident.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about Eva Cassidy, in Song of The Week 29. The similarities between Eva and Radka are rather uncanny. Eva died from cancer at 36, a restrained and tasteful singer of an unclassifiably wide range of material. If you remember Eva’s “Over the Rainbow“, especially as compared to the other versions we compared it to, it’s a model of good taste and control, of the tension created by strongly felt passion being expressed without histrionics—a fan dance of the heart.

Eva had no career whatsoever. Radka recorded 3 albums–”Angel Heart”, “Fairy Tales”, and the posthumously released “Live in Hamburg”. There are also 2 compilations of other cuts, and a lot of live videos in all kinds of settings–small combo, big band, orchestra, many with material not found on the CDs.

Radka’s material includes classic jazz. One of my favorites is her treatment of ‘My Funny Valentine‘. I have a lot of respect for that song, and I’ve heard it butchered and demeaned more often than I care to remember. Her version is heart-rending. (Ever wonder why singers always make the song mournful? The lyric is quite loving. Hmm.) There’s also ‘Nature Boy‘, sung pretty much perfectly, but a song I’ve never warmed up to; a Nina Simone; one by Kurt Weil and Maxwell Anderson!; two personal beatnik favorites of mine by Frances Landesman and Thomas Wolf, ‘Ballad of the Sad Young Men‘ and ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most‘.

But there’s also a lot of ‘pop’ (ouch): Michael Franks, Kenny Loggins, an unfortunate Bob Dylan, 2 surprising Paul Simon selections (a lovely live ‘Something So Right‘ and the rightfully minor ‘It’s Been a Long, Long Day’), Elton John, Jerry Jeff Walker, our Song of The Week, Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’.

Her upbeat songs, and the ones that try to be black, are uniformly unsuccessful. Oh, but when she hits the bulls-eye, it’s right to the heart of your heart.

Jimmy Webb is a story to himself. Excepting Burt Bacharach, the only ‘non-performing’ (we wish) songwriter of our time to get his name above the title. He’s the auteur of hits such as ‘Up, Up and Away’ (5th Dimension), Glenn Campbell’s ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘Galveston’ and ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’, and the Richard Harris epic ‘MacArthur Park’. That’s some very, very fine music there.

But there are a couple of problems with Mr Webb. First of all, he kept trying to become a singer, which only damaged his reputation. But more significantly, he was so talent-inebriated that he couldn’t walk a straight line, constantly teetering from the sublime to the grotesque, from the poignant to the maudlin. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’? C’mon. If that’s not bad enough, he (or someone) chose that as the name for one of the compilations of his greatest hits. Jimmy Webb, haunting at his best, embarrassing at his worst.

I don’t want to detract from those Glenn Campbell songs. Glenn Campbell is also a story in and of himself. (Why do people say I ramble?) He was a studio guitarist on Blonde on Blonde!!! He has the God-given voice of a cowboy angel, and the good sense and taste and intelligence of a Texas Longhorn steer.

Glenn Campbell had the initial hit of ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. Judy Collins also got a hit out of it (you’re lucky I couldn’t find that on YouTube—it’s a pretty horrifying experience), as did Joe Cocker (well, Joe, you know). It got a lovely, respectful treatment by  Charlie Haden and Pat Metheny on “Beyond The Missouri Sky”. Versions such as Jimmy Webb’s own and that of Joan Baez, believe me, you don’t want to hear.

It’s not hard to get why so many people want to do this song. The title, by the way, is that of a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, “about a lunar colony‘s revolt against rule from Earth. The novel expresses and discusses libertarian ideals in a speculative context.” (Thanks, Mr Wikipedia). What that has to do with this lovely song is beyond me. Listen to the mean modulation at “I fell out of her eyes,” right at the shift in the lyric from the outer to the inner.

The one other version I do recommend you take a listen to is that of Linda Ronstadt. We Americans think of Linda as having a pure, gimmick-free voice. Well, listen to her version. Then listen to that of Radka Toneff. I’m sure you’ll hear how precise, fine, dignified, and moving a singer she is. And maybe you’ll see why I used to be in love with Linda, but now it’s Radka who holds my heart.

See her how she flies
Golden sails across the sky
Close enough to touch
But careful if you try
Though she looks as warm as gold
The moon’s a harsh mistress
The moon can be so cold

Once the sun did shine
Lord, it felt so fine
The moon a phantom rose
Through the mountains and the pines
And then the darkness fell
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
It’s so hard to love her well

I fell out of her eyes
I fell out of her heart
I fell down on my face
Yes, I did, and I — I tripped and I missed my star
God, I fell and I fell alone, I fell alone
And the moon’s a harsh mistress
And the sky is made of stone

The moon’s a harsh mistress
She’s hard to call your own.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy:

029: Eva Cassidy, ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’

045: Julie London, ‘Bye Bye, Blackbird’

080: Tim Ries w. Norah Jones, ‘Wild Horses’

 

 

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