Tuesday, October 04, 2016

N Is For...

Dialing through the alphabet, featuring 26 artists A to Z.

Harry Nilsson / "Life Line"

First -- I am astonished to find that I never did the Harry Nilsson Tribute Week I planned several years ago, the summer when I first plunged into his amazing body of work.  I saw the documentary, read the biography, bought all the albums and listened obsessively. I honestly thought I had shared that with you all here -- but apparently not, and for that I apologize.

Expect a Harry Nilsson Tribute Week in the very near future.

Meanwhile, consider this a down payment. From Harry's quixotic animated 1971 film The Point.

Yeah, The Point. Did you watch it, February 2, 1971, when it was aired as the ABC Movie of the Week?  You can bet I did. I hoped it would be like The Phantom Tollbooth, which had been released the previous November. It wasn't exactly; it was in fact pretty weird. Nilsson himself admits that he got the idea for it while on an acid trip. His boy hero, Oblio, is a round-headed kid in a land where everything is expected to have a point. (A "point" -- get it?) Without getting into the details of how the two films were interconnected, let's just say that in that era animation was cool, and fables were cool, and childlike perspectives on the world were considered to be the ultimate wisdom. So it's no surprise that Harry -- restless, always looking for new creative outlets -- would jump on this bandwagon.

(Interesting sidenote: In 1977, a stage version of The Point was produced in London, with Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz of the Monkees -- both good pals of Harry's -- in major roles.)

This song is inserted in the movie when Oblio and his dog, Arrow (of "Me And My Arrow" fame), almost fall down a deep deep deep hole, and this song echoes back up to them. But I'm guessing Harry had already written it and just shoehorned it into the movie. Because it had nothing to do with the plot (such as it was) of The Point; it's just one of the most stone-cold songs about loneliness ever written.

Loneliness was in fact Harry's greatest preoccupation. His biggest hits (ironically, written by other people) were the two heartbreakers "Everybody's Talking at Me" and "Without You." On his amazing "standards" album A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night he gave a whole new level of pathos to songs like "Over the Rainbow" and "What'll I Do" and "Always" and "Thanks for the Memories."
Abandoned by his father as a child, Harry spent the rest of his life nursing his grievances -- while, ironically, he was beloved by so many friends, from Ringo Starr and Keith Moon and John Lennon and Micky Dolenz to a host of others. Everyone acknowledged his enormous innate musical talent, while also everyone wanted to party with him, known for his epic benders and outrageous antics. Everyone wanted to save him from his substance abuse demons. No one could.

So the poignance of this song -- begging for a life line, wondering if anybody is out there to hear -- rings true on so many levels.  It's what the French call a cri de couer -- a cry from the heart, "Down to the bottom / Hello / Is there anybody else here?" Lines like "I'm so afraid of darkness / And down here it's just like nighttime." That's a soul-baring admission, and it rips me apart.

It's such a simple song, almost monotonic, maybe two chords: The musical landscape of defeat and despair.

Oh, yeah, Harry. He's a heartbreaker. Stay tuned for my long-overdue Harry Nilsson week.


NickS said...

Wow. A riveting performance!

So simple, in some ways, and yet it's hard to imagine anybody other than Harry Nilsson pulling it off. For almost anybody else that would feel either affected or overdone, but he manages to sell the song completely.

Listening to it I never think, "why did he make that choice" instead I just believe that the performance is, simply, exactly as it has to be. As if there never was a choice.

Jack said...


I thought that you might enjoy this little write-up that Ron Sexsmith did on Harry a few years back. I sought out the Knilsson album based on his impressions and had the same response. Magic!

Speaking of loneliness in Harry's music, the longing in the opening track tears my heart out, sung beautifully in a lower register, post shredding his voice with Lennon on Pussy Cats, contrasted against a boy choir - just brilliant. BTW, I had the same experience of discovering Harry later and then devouring everything I could get my hands on. He was quite a talent. Thanks for the blog - your writing has more depth than most of the stuff I see in the music mags theses days. Jim

Brady said...

I love this.

Holly A Hughes said...

Thanks, guys! Ah, a day spent thinking about Harry Nilsson is always a good day.