His name was Dodge & he seemed to be impossibly old, maybe even 24 years old. He looked like James Taylor & he lived in bohemian digs in Browne’s Addition, the closest thing Spokane had to a gay neighborhood. Dodge’s sitting room, draped in Indian print bedspreads, was a turret in a Queen Anne style mansion that had been broken up in to small apartments. I never saw his bedroom, try as I might.
Dodge was my pot dealer from 1969-1972, & I loved him for his long limbed, gangly body & sweet hippy disposition & of course, for the plant materials he provided for sale. During that epoch, Mary Jane was sold by the “lid” & was measured by finger widths. I would buy a “3 finger lid” for $15 from Dodge & lounge around the turret room after the transaction, listening to music, getting stoned & trying to seduce Dodge.
Dodge introduced me to the amazing music of Harry Nillson. It was the album- Harry in 1969, Nilsson Schmilsson & The Point in 1971, & Son of Schmilsson just 8 months later. Singers from that era sometimes released more than one album a year. Nilsson’s songs would receive plenty of listening by me for the next 40+ years. His music spoke to me with the unique blend of 2 genres that I hold dear- Tin Pan Alley & Rock n’ Roll.
In October of 1979, I declared my romantic inclinations to a married, impossibly beautiful set designer, who would eventually become my husband, as A Little Touch of Schmilsson In The Night played on the stereo in the background. Nilsson’s version of Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do? would become “our song”. 30 years later I would weep while playing Without You on repeat when I assumed that we were about to divorce.
Nilsson deserves to be grouped with Gershwin, Cole Porter, Berlin, & Lennon/McCartney as the great songwriters of 20th century standards. He was considered a peer by all 4 members of the Beatles, who all called him a 5th Beatle, & one on the same wavelength as themselves.
Nilsson refused to tour, so Baby Boomers don't remember him, & those born after his apex are unaware of who he was. This is tragic. Everyone should have the opportunity to be exposed to this wonderful talent.
Nilsson spent the last 15 years of his relatively short life with a vocation for self-destruction. He died at 52, overweight & dissipated, of heart disease, after a decades long rampage of non-stop overindulgence in alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, hard partying, & flagrant misuse of his special vocal instrument.
Yet he had perhaps the most gifted pop singing ability of his generation; he was financially & artistically successful, was held with industry acclaim, won a Grammy, an Oscar, an unusually good recording contract with a top label, & recorded at least 2 perfect albums - Nilsson Schmilsson, all originals, & A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, all standards recorded with a live studio orchestra.
Brooklyn born Nilsson’s bestselling song was his rendition of Fred Neil's Everybody's Talkin', featured in the film Midnight Cowboy. His own submission for the film’s title song, the rejected- I Guess The Lord Must Be In New York City is one of my favorite songs about my favorite city.
Nilsson's produced & wrote a charming & captivating animated film- The Point!, broadcast on ABC in February,1971, as an ABC Movie of the Week. Nilsson's self-produced album of songs from The Point! includes the enchanting single, Me & My Arrow, my favorite song about dogs.
Nilsson chose producer Richard Perry to record his very best album- Nilsson Schmilsson, yielded 3 very stylistically different hit singles. The first was a cover of Badfinger's song Without You, by Pete Ham & Tom Evans, featuring a highly emotional arrangement & soaring vocals, recorded, according to Perry, in a single take. This song still stirs my senses.
The second single is Coconut, a favorite of my father, which makes me love it more. Coconut is a novelty number with a calypso beat featuring 4 characters: a narrator, a brother, a sister, & the doctor) all sung in different voices by Nilsson. The song is remembered for using just a single chord- C 7th & for the chorus lyric, "Put de lime in de coconut, & drink 'em both up." The third single- Jump into the Fire, is raucous, ranting Rock n’ Roll.
Nilsson’s music has informed my life for the past 4 decades. I still discover tracks that sound as if they could be listened to fresh today. I have recently re-discovered the off-beat charm of his songs & score for Robert Altman's musical film- Popeye. I am listening to him as I compose this post. Nilsson would have been celebrating his 71st birthday with his pal John Lennon today, if they had both made it.