Harry Nilsson / Al Kooper / Three Dog Night / Aimee Mann
Don't you just hate it / love it / go CRAZY when you find out that a song you know like the back of your hand is really another song by another artist who has even more of a claim to it?
Well, this particular tune keeps upping the ante for me. First of all, like everybody else in my generation, I knew the Three Dog Night mega-hit from 1969.
What a great song, I thought. It may be the only Three Dog Night song I ever really liked -- no, wait, that's not fair. I also liked "Eli's Coming" (until I discovered the Laura Nyro original). In later years I'd also find out that "Try a Little Tenderness" was infinitely better when Sam Cooke sang it, and that "Mama Told Me Not To Come" should only have ever been sung by its original author, the incomparable Randy Newman. Sigh.
But I digress. The Three Dog Night "One" hit the charts in 1969 and it seemed so cool, those opening lines with their intriguing circular logic: "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." Heavy, man, like a Zen koan. But then three years later when I hit my Al Kooper phase (a short but not negligible chapter of my fangirl story), I fell in love with Al's baroque and haunting 1968 version. It forever wiped the 3DNite single from my memory.
Now is that a thing of beauty or is it not? I love those sawing strings, the sweet clarinet (or is it an oboe?) weaving in and out, the triple-tracked overlapped vocals -- even the (at the time not yet hokey) rainfall and thunder effects at the end. For a song that's all about loneliness and disconnection, this elaborately concocted studio montage layers on the borderline schizophrenia, doesn't it? Stay alone for too long and you too will go stark staring mad.
So anyway...the years pass, and DECADES later I encounter this existential version by the way-too-underrated Aimee Mann, used in the soundtrack of the seriously disturbing 1999 Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia.
(There are other YouTube versions. I picked this one because I still need to see images of Philip Seymour Hoffman whenever I can. RIP PSH, you genius.)
If Al Kooper's highly-wrought version was haunting, Aimee Mann's stripped-down version is equally haunting. Every bar of this song expresses existential loneliness. How relentless is that electric piano, tapping out the repeated chords? And I love how Aimee's affectless yet melismatic voice curls knowingly around the phrase ends. Oh, yes, she is a lady in pain, and IT IS OUR COMMON PAIN TO WITNESS.
Now, we need to fast-forward just a few years to, okay, 2013. Here I am, blogging away, and I dig up a tribute album called For the Love of Harry -- the very same album for which Aimee Mann's "One" was originally recorded. For me, this album becomes a rabbit hole worthy of Alice in Wonderland, wherein I at last truly discover Harry Nilsson -- an artist of whom I had always been aware, through a handful of hit records and the fact that he was with John Lennon and May Pang on the Kotex Night. But now I REALLY discover Harry Nilsson, he of the glorious God-given voice and a songwriting sensibility that marries Beatlesque pop with Summer of Love California Dreaming and the American standard playbook.
A genius, pure and simple. And yet I NEVER BEFORE REALLY REGISTERED THAT HE WROTE "ONE."
And yet here it is, the one and only original "One," from Nilsson's 1968 album Aerial Ballet.
The story goes that Harry wrote this after phoning someone and getting a busy signal -- remember the obnoxious beep-beep-beep of a busy signal, back in the days before answer machines and call waiting and cell phones? The whole song is underlaid with that off-putting busy signal, counterpointed with a yearning cello line that speaks volumes about the human desire for connection. But more than anything, it's Harry's pure and sincere vocal that sells this song. I am here alone, it says, trying so hard to make a connection, and the technology won't let me in. And his heart is hurting -- "it's just no good anymore since you went away / Now I spend my time / Just making rhymes / Of yesterday." Major and minor and suspended chords overlap, and this poor schmuck is wading through it all, heartsore and hapless.
Is this a killer song or what?
So what's a girl to do? I'm willing to throw Three Dog Night under the bus, but how can I betray my decades-long loyalty to Al and my sister bond with Aimee? But oh, Harry, my lost dark prince, how could I not love your original best?
I know, I know -- we don't have to choose, we can simply love them all. But for me, loving them all entails being hyper-aware of how Al and Aimee were nested in Harry's original. A great song -- a truly great song -- enables great cover versions. So be it if my personal history ran through the cover versions first. Harry, you were worth waiting for.