Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

You might not be be able to place Harry Nilsson's name but you'll definitely recognize some of the music that he created. He wrote songs that were hits for the Monkees (Cuddly Toy) and Three Dog Night (One) while also producing his own successful covers of other artists in Without You (his first number 1 hit) and Everybody's Talkin' which was the theme song of the film Midnight Cowboy. He became good friends and drinking mates with multiple Beatles and was in fact referred to by some as "the American Beatle". Unfortunately, at the height of his fame he squandered his talent by giving in to his alcohol and drug vices.

Alyn Shipton's new book Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter does a commendable job at shining a spotlight on this incredibly talented musician. Nilsson's childhood was a troubled one in which his father left the family, a fact that Nilsson constantly alludes to in some of his earlier work. His family moved around, giving young Nilsson plenty of opportunities for mischief, though ultimately he started writing songs on the side while working as a computer programmer in a bank. After the Monkees recorded his song Cuddly Toy he was able to quit the bank job and concentrate on writing songs for himself, many of which were also recorded by other artists. While his first few albums and his soundtrack to the movie Skidoo were not chart successes, the Beatles declared him their favorite artist and his cover of Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin' was a big success, leading to his more successful albums Harry and Nilsson Sings Newman (on which he covers another up-and-coming singer-songwriter, Randy Newman).

However, it was 1971's #3 album, Nilsson Schmilsson with its hits Coconut, Jump Into the Fire and the #1 Without You (a cover of a Badfinger song) that showed Nilsson at his recording peak. He changed producers, brought in a rock band and moved away from the more piano-based sound of his earlier recordings. Unfortunately, while this album was a massive success it also seems to have sent Nilsson on a personal downward spiral, with heavy usage of drugs and alcohol leading to weekend long benders with friends such as John Lennon (living in L.A. as part of his "lost weekend" spent away from Yoko Ono). The Pussy Cats album, recorded with Lennon, while a great album also seems like the work of a desperate man.

Much of Nilsson's post-Pussy Cats work seems uninspired, with songs rescued from the dumpster and Nilsson's sweet voice of his earlier years only a distant memory. His late album Knnillssonn was an unheard masterpiece that was unfortunately released around the time of Elvis Presley's death, causing the label to focus on Presley's back catalog instead of Nilsson's album. Nilsson's later years were spent fighting for gun control following John Lennon's murder, as well as occasional musical projects such as the soundtrack for the film Popeye. He would die of a heart attack at the young age of 52.

Author Shipton gives us all the facts of Nilsson's life, with particular focus on the effect of Nilsson's father's abandonment of and later return on Harry's treatment of his wives and children. It is probably impossible to reconcile the two sides of Nilsson that were on display depending on whether or not he had been drinking but we do get a sense of this as well as the talent that was squandered in his later years (although Shipton's defense of some of Nilsson's material is admirable). As a big Nilsson fan I didn't find myself always agreeing with Shipton's take on what was Harry's best material but obviously that is up to the individual. I also found Shipton to be humorless when it came to certain material that I enjoy (see Pussy Cats) although some of this might be due to an English author taking on a very American personality. Ultimately, I'm happy to see Harry Nilsson's story out there. With a recent movie (Who is Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking About Him?) and box set of his complete works available there is really no reason for Nilsson's name to wallow in obscurity anymore.

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