Saturday, October 9, 2010

Without You, Harry Nilsson (1972)

No, I can't forget this evening
Or your face as you were leaving
But I guess that's just the way the story goes

While today we commemorate what would have been the 70th birthday of John Lennon, I'm going to cast my net toward another brief candle - one of John's contemporaries and great friends, Harry Nilsson.

Last week I finished up the tome Here, There and Everywhere by Geoff Emerick, who was the Beatles' recording engineer for most of their career and for some of their solo enterprises. I could write a book about the book (well, maybe an article), and one of the many things I learned about is the connection between Nilsson and Badfinger. Badfinger, of course, was one of the early acts in the Apple Records stable. I never paid that much attention to them because their big hit, Come and Get It, was exactly the sort of jaunty pop music that I never took a shine to and that Paul McCartney seemed hellbent on writing, producing or recording himself after the Beatles broke up.

How Nilsson and Badfinger are connected is via one of the great melodramatic songs of the 70s, Without You. Some may know that Badfinger recorded the song first; and since it was co-written by the group's two tormented lead singers, Pete Ham (the verse) and Tom Evans (the chorus), I guess that makes sense. Emerick, who worked for Apple after leaving EMI/Abbey Road, produced the No Dice LP that this song appeared on. I had never heard their version before now.

What this reminded me of is how little I know about Nilsson. In a few weeks that deficit is going to be corrected because a documentary about his life, Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? is coming out on DVD. It's gotten great reviews in the few cities where it's had a theatrical release.

I associate Nilsson, who was a prolific singer-songwriter, with just a very few things - Without You (which he didn't write), the Midnight Cowboy touchstone Everybody's Talkin' (which he also didn't write), and his so-called "lost weekend" with John Lennon that took place over the course of more like 78 weekends in Los Angeles (for John anyway) after John and Yoko Ono broke up once. Oh, and also that the Beatles once told the press that their favorite "group" was Nilsson. 

That's pitiful, and I'm looking forward to filling in all the blanks when the doc comes out. I could never really reconcile in my mind the image I had of the angelic looking guy with the three-octave voice with his reputation of being a debauched wild man who could drink everyone he knew under the table and died too young.

One of the extended sequences on the DVD details how Nilsson came to record Without You and how it became such a smash hit. I've read various stuff about it, but I think I'm just going to wait instead of writing about it now. As songs that take histrionics to the pinnacle, it has almost no peer. We've all felt the emotions this song lays bare, and the way Nilsson interpreted Pete Ham's and Tom Evans' anguish is one of his many legacies. In memory of his friend John, here he is singing one of his own beautiful songs, Remember.   


H. Harvey said...

A great, great record. Nilsson Sings Newman is also a classic. His take on 'Yellow Man' is unparalleled.

Holly A Hughes said...

Funny, I always thought it was the other way -- that Nilsson wrote "Without You" and Badfinger covered it. Both great renditions, of course, and the song is a heart-wrenching classic.

I must check out that Nilsson Sings Newman -- it just makes sense that those two guys would be on the same wavelength.

For some reason, I've always mixed together Harry Nilsson and Harry Chapin. Both were literate songsmiths with a jaded-yet-wistful vibe -- and both greatly underrated in their era.