Marshall Crenshaw Sings
I'll admit it -- I'm still part-time obsessed with Harry Nilsson, have been ever since last summer. So please permit me to interrupt the regularly-scheduled program here to post a memorial tribute.
I've just finished the Alyn Shipton biography of Nilsson that I was reading, and realized that it was 20 years ago this January that Harry Nilsson died, at the way-too-soon age of 52. If I'd read the book faster, I'd have known the date in time to post this on January 15, but I'm sure Harry wouldn't mind that I'm getting around to it a couple weeks late.
Because Harry didn't want to be forgotten.
I promise you a Harry Nilsson week this summer, to celebrate his birthday (always better to celebrate births than deaths). But I couldn't let this anniversary pass without something, and this song is perfectly apropos.
Harry Nilsson had one of the great voices of the 20th century -- at least he did early in his career, before damaging it with his legendary rock-n-roll lifestyle. When Harry recorded "Don't Forget Me," for his 1974 album Pussy Cats, the months-long party that accompanied that recording session had left his voice ravaged. So instead of listening to Harry's version, let's get an idea of what it could have been by hearing Marshall Crenshaw's faithful cover, from the brilliant 1995 tribute album For the Love of Harry. After all, Nilsson was also one of the great songwriters of the century, and I've always believed that the mark of a great songwriter lies in how good his songs' covers are.
Nobody could outdo Harry Nilsson when it came to wistful songs about loss and parting. This is a break-up song -- a divorce song -- but with dashes of ironic humor and regret that make the parting even more bittersweet. (And having already gone through two divorces, Harry knew whereof he spoke.) "In the wintertime," he begins, already projecting into their future apart. Still feeling protective, he advises her to "Keep your feet warm," but then adds wryly, "Keep your clothes on" -- he may be letting her go, but he's not ready to imagine her getting naked with anybody else. He keeps working that fine line between sentiment and sarcasm: "Don't forget me / Keep the memories / But keep your powder dry too."
Verse two follows songwriting convention, moving onto the next season, projecting even further forward in time. It's a lyrical vision at first -- "And in the summer / By the poolside / While the fireflies are all around you / I'll miss you" -- but before he gets too sappy, he undercuts the sentiment to add, "And I know that / I'll miss the alimony too."
The chorus simply repeats the melody, only in a higher key -- a trademark move for Nilsson, he of the three-and-a-half-octave voicespan. (Luckily, Marshall Crenshaw also has that upper register well in his range.) "Don't forget me, / Please don't forget me," he yearns in that higher key. "Make it easy on me, just for a little while" -- I love how that phrase admits to the pain of this split, without asking for pity. And then the chorus shifts down to the original key, adding tenderly, "You know I think about you / Let me know you think about me too." Because marriages don't just vanish; it takes time to work through this stuff.
To me, the tour de force is verse three. Talk about projecting into the future: "And when we're older / Full of cancer / It doesn't matter now, / Come on, get happy." Nothing like putting perspective on today's pain. And then he winds it up with "'Cause nothing lasts forever / But I will always love you." If nothing last forever, how can he "always" love her? Yet he will.
Harry was one of the world's great Beatle fans -- he was thrilled to be referred to as the Fifth Beatle, and not only because he was close friends with John Lennon, and even closer with Ringo Starr. (The respect was mutual -- at one press conference when the Beatles were asked who their favorite group was, they all answered, "Nilsson.") It wouldn't be surprising, given that his idol John Lennon was producing this album, that this simple melody sounds Lennonesque in its pared-down range, the narrow intervals and chromatics and repeated variations. Yet there's also a McCartneyesque playfulness to the rhythm, a skiffle-ish dance before and behind the beat that gives the song extra buoyancy.
But what really makes this a wonderful song is the unique Nilsson touch, the sidelong way he communicates heartbreak, without ever getting soppy or melodramatic. Who else has ever captured the perverse yin and yang of love and loss so well?
We won't forget you, Harry.