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ET - Spring 1997
 
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Everybody's Talkin' - Spring 1997

Spring '97 Volume 1997.2
Everybody's Talkin'
The Schmilssonian Published Quarterly - $4.00
 

This Issue




Happy Birthday
Happy Birthday to ET! The newsletter is now one year old. I have really enjoyed producing it although it has turned out to be more work than I had anticipated. Fortunately, Sue and Curtis and several others have helped and I have really enjoyed working on each issue.

During the past few months I got busy with my real job and did not get a chance to talk with Gary Nilsson as I had promised in the last issue (and the issue before that). One good thing, I can still look forward to talking with him!

In this issue we answer the puzzling question "why is a mouse that spins" and learn just where "Duit on Mon Dei" came from. Sue Schnelzer writes about writers who wrote about Harry. And Curtis Armstrong documents a recent discovery of his.

Fire when Gridley Ready!

-- Roger




Why Is A Mouse That Spins
On the back of Harry's Aerial Ballet album cover is the cryptic message "Why is a mouse that spins." I suppose I'm not the only Harry fan to have puzzled over the meaning of the phrase. When I asked in the Internet's Harry Nilsson Mailing List if anyone knew what it meant, I really didn't expect an answer. Nevertheless, David Stetson was able to point to a reference. The Guardian Weekly's home page on the Internet (www.guardian.co.uk) has a column called "Notes and Queries." In one edition of the column, a reader asks:
In a Christmas cracker my mother found the conundrum 'Why is a mouse when it spins?' The answer was given as 'Because the higher, the fewer.' Is there any meaning to this?
John Nixon, of Horley, Surrey, responded "this nonsense question was popular among the RAF apprentices at Halton, Bucks, in the early 1950s, when the full version was: 'Why is a mouse when it spins? Because the higher they fly the fewer, and the engine driver's name was Smith. Why was his name Smith? Because his father's name was Smith.' Apart from the logic of the last bit, the repartee had no meaning whatsoever and was probably the precursor of the Monty Python type of humor."

Geoff Black, of Cambridge, added "the correct wording should have been 'Why does a mouse when it spins?' with the then obvious answer 'Higher or lower'. At least that was the version which sixth formers at Quarry Bank High School in Liverpool used in the early 1960s to test the gullibility of younger members of the school such as myself. It was rumored that it had been devised by John Lennon, a pupil at the school until 1959, but perhaps I am being gullible in believing this."

Maurice F. deCogan, of Dalkey, County Dublin, spins his own tale: "1919 - The Black and Tans were prodding the armchairs with bayonets to see if the stuffing was hand-grenades. We kids were lined against the wall. 'When is your husband expected?' the officer asked my mother. 'When is a mouse when she spins?' she replied, adding, to his elevated eyebrows, 'The higher the fewer'. He and we knew the conversation was closed. He gathered his men and left - without finding the wireless transmitter under the aspidistra."

Peter M. Horsey MA, of Stockbury, Sittingbourne, Kent, says that the riddle fist came to his attention when he was a student fresher in 1942: "At the same time another phrase was popular. In answer to any question to which one could give no answer, such as 'Have you seen so-and-so?' or 'Have you read such-and-such?' the reply would be 'No, but my sister rides a bicycle.' There was also a sort of son-of-mouse to which the answer was 'No, but you can clean a straw hat with a lemon.' Unfortunately I've forgotten the question. Although this appears to be so much student nonsense, it taught me the meaning of non sequitur. As Hugh Lloyd said to Tony Hancock in The Blood Donor, 'For things unknown there is no knowing.'"

Finally Patrick Nethercot, of Durham, offers a reasonable explanation: "This peculiar saying relates to a certain type of governor on steam engines, whereby revolutions of the engine are reduced if a spinning weight (mouse) is lifted up a shaft by its centrifugal force, releasing steam pressure and ensuring fewer revs: the higher, the fewer. Such systems were common on static engines like those found originally in cotton mills in the heyday of the steam revolution."




Duit On Mon Dei
"Duit On Mon Dei" is a phrase which has intrigued Nilsson fans for some time. Duit on Mon Dei is the name Harry gave to the album he had originally titled God's Greatest Hits. In the middle of a discussion in the Nilsson Mailing List of the possible origin of the title, Curtis Armstrong said:
Through one of those bizarre coincidences that seem to happen fairly frequently with this crowd, last weekend I discovered what I would like to think is an answer to the Duit On Mon Dei question. It's my theory that the phrase is a corruption of the Latin "Dieu Et Mon Droit," which translates as "God and My Right." Maxim Newmark's Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases reports that this was the motto of the Royal Arms of England, first assumed by Richard the First. But the weird part is this: last Saturday I met an old and valued pal (not a Nilsson fan) in one of the legendary bars in these parts, Bob Burns (as in the Bard of the North Country). There is English and Scottish memorabilia festooning the place and, among the brickabrack, I spied my friend Dan taking nourishment at the big curved bar. He had been there for some time apparently and hailed me with much warmth and hilarity. He then pointed to a mounted coat-of-arms on the wall behind me. "Don't you love that motto?" he said. "Do it on Monday." I looked and sure enough, there was the phrase: "Dieu Et Mon Droit". Then I remembered hearing that Harry's mom lived in Santa Monica, which is where Bob Burns is located. I imagined Harry at that big curved bar back in the seventies, tossing back a few quick ones, and saying to a friend, "Don't you love that motto...?"

Diane Nilsson, Harry's first wife, was told of the discussion and she added:

In response to questions a few weeks ago regarding Duit On Mon Dei and where it may have come from ... Harry and I spent quite a few fun-filled days hanging out at the Apple offices on Saville Row in London in the fall of 1968. Most of the time we were visiting with Derek Taylor in the Apple press office. Derek handled all press/publicity issues for Apple and the Beatles - so it was a very busy place. Derek's office was full of secretaries and aides who were constantly fielding phone calls and it seemed that there were a million things going at once. Amid this chaos, Derek put together a monthly in-house newsletter detailing Apple/Beatles doings.

The physical design of the newsletter is a copy and parody of position papers put out by the British government, called white papers. The insignia at the top of the white paper shows a lion and a unicorn holding up a circle with a shield inside and a crown on top. At their feet are the words "DIEU ET MON DROIT." On the Apple newsletter version, the circle becomes an apple, the shield has four beetles, musical notes and a record on it, and the words at the feet of the lion and unicorn are "DOIT ONMO NDAY."

This is most likely where the idea began. I, however, liked the story about the bar in Santa Monica.




Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?
By Curtis Armstrong

Unearthing the "lost" Nilsson Documentary

The existence of a lost Nilsson documentary was completely unknown to me until early last year. I had called legendary producer Richard Perry to discuss with him the possibility of his involvement in a short film project I was hoping to put together as a tribute to Harry. Perry's response was tepid, but he agreed to discuss it again at a future date, when the film was a little closer to actually getting made. (The man hasn't spent years in Hollywood for nothing). I could feel a hang-up was imminent, so I asked one last question. I knew, I said, that the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session had been filmed. Did he have any idea what happened to that footage?

"Well, yeah," he replied. "It's part of the documentary."

I cleared my throat. "The ...ummm...?"

"Yeah," he continued. "The whole album was filmed."

"Do you ..." I asked, after a moment of silent prayer, "by any chance know what happened to this documentary?"

"I've got it," he answered.

Some weeks later, after subjecting the amazingly patient Perry to a relentless barrage of unseemly whining and begging, I found myself at his Hollywood home, a cold beer in hand, being treated to a private screening of "Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?"

Nineteen seventy-one had been a heady year for Harry Nilsson. Nilsson Schmilsson was a world-wide hit and the success must have been all the sweeter as the album had been an audacious experiment. Known and loved by a small but growing number of fans as a pop classicist, loaded with sweetness and gentle irony, scatting around the luxurious orchestrations of his friend and mentor, George Tipton, Harry had gambled with a radical departure into post-Woodstock rock and roll, produced by the young, brilliant Richard Perry. Tipton's Pepper-esque arrangements were a thing of the past; the irony had turned cynical and more harshly funny. From the self-deprecating title, to the fuzzy cover shot of the disheveled singer clutching a hash pipe, to the breath-taking cacophony of the albums most controversial track, "Jump Into the Fire", it was clear: Harry had slammed one door and opened another.

Nilsson Schmilsson
The album's first single, "Without You" had become the biggest hit he would ever have. Earlier that year, he had appeared in his first television special for the British Broadcasting Corporation, a funny, inventive fifty minutes of Harry at his best -- solo; having only just plugged himself in, it was Nilsson un-plugged. Back in the States, Harry's animated fable, The Point! had proved a critical sensation, if a ratings disappointment, on it's broadcast as an ABC Movie of the Week. The Point!'s soundtrack album, narrated by Harry, was also garnering accolades while the release of Aerial Pandemonium Ballet, (his re-mix album) and Scatalogue, a dazzling montage of the best of his first five albums that was released to radio stations, rounded out an extraordinary year at any view.
In March, 1972, with Nilsson Schmilsson still on the charts and the bloom still on the rose, Harry and Richard returned to Trident Studios, London, to start work on a follow-up album with the already widely-publicized title, Son of Schmilsson. RCA, ecstatic over the response to Nilsson Schmilsson, offered their new stars, in Perry's words, "anything to make us happy". Harry and Richard decided to do a documentary about the making of Son of Schmilsson, essentially producing and directing it themselves. And so it was that cameras rolled, documenting virtually every step of the recording of an improbable album. But in addition to the studio jams, rehearsals, all-star session men and the endless, exhausting, exhilarating hours in the recording studio, the footage exposed something unforeseen: the dissolution of a valued collaboration and the beginning of a disturbing pattern of self-destructive behavior on Harry's part that would soon spiral out of control.
Nilsson Schmilsson
Indeed, when he and Richard met again on a recording stage some eight months after the sessions to record their tandem narration for the documentary, Harry was already losing interest. His self-described "side-project", A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night was preoccupying him and the John Lennon sessions were just around the corner.

Less than a year later, Son of Schmilsson and its attendant documentary must have seemed like ancient history to him. A scratch narration was recorded, but the project was shelved.

"Harry torpedoed the project," says Perry, simply.

Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? -- "a ludicrous title", Perry admitted recently -- is a work in progress, or a "rough cut". Scenes are missing, with dialogue or music playing over a blank screen; there are pops and jumps galore and the film itself is dark and grainy. The cut is a mess. But as a document of Nilsson at a critical point in his life as a man and artist, it is invaluable.

It opens with Harry walking the streets of London at night, describing in voice-over how he and Perry met (at a birthday party thrown by Phil Spector for his wife Ronnie) and how their mutual interests ("Laurel and Hardy, Sherlock Holmes, East Side Kids, Charlie Chan") had led to their initial pairing the year before. Harry then ducks into the Trident Studios, losing the camera operator who is supposed to be following him.

Insofar as the film has a structure at all, it is built around the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session. The camera crew is sent on the bus to pick up the guest vocalists for the session: the Stepney and Pinner Choir #6, a group of harmonious pensioners who knew how to have a good time -- then, as always, an important pre-requisite to working with Harry.

"Originally," he tells us as the choir boards the bus -- very slowly -- "we were going to make it a surprise. You see a bus full of old people and every other few minutes we'd show you the bus and then cut to something else and the bus would be getting closer to the city and then there'd be a surprise at the end by seeing all the old people in the studio. But," he concludes, cheerily, "we're not gonna do that now; {we're} just gonna tell you exactly what's happening."

There follow numerous intercuts of this game group driving along in the bus, it all looking weirdly like something out of "Magical Mystery Tour" ("It was their day out," Harry explains).

Meanwhile, back at the studio, Harry and friends are working out various cuts for the album. One of the most striking of these vignettes is the first take of Harry performing "Remember (Christmas)", seated on the piano stool next to the late Nicky Hopkins.

Harry, a little tentative but sounding great, sings with lyrics in hand as the incomparable Hopkins picks out the delicate piece on the piano. Another sequence shows Harry running through a rough version of "You're Breaking My Heart" for his startled band. After years of familiarity with the notorious Son of Schmilsson version, it's startling to hear this unaccompanied pass and realize how much the song originally sounded like pure Randy Newman.

Another surprise is a terrific full band rehearsal of "What's Your Sign" -- a song which didn't appear until several years later (on Duit on Mon Dei); and the climactic "The Most Beautiful World In The World", with Harry mid-orchestra in bathrobe, singing live as Perry conducts, is a gem.

"Doesn't it just kinda make your heart melt?" asks a wistful Perry.

It does; though, strangely, Harry informs us that he intended the song to begin with the bridge, "Your mountains when you're mad; your rivers when you're sad; and those deep, blue seas, etc.", and that he only wrote the previous verse because Perry insisted. He seems, in his voice-over, still to think it would've been better his way.

There is a dark side to the fun and games. We see Richard -- clearly the older brother in this relationship -- trying valiantly to get Harry to stop smoking ... sort of. ("Don't smoke those, Harry ... look, I've got a menthol for you," he says, desperately; within two years, Harry would be hemorrhaging from the throat.)

In several scenes, Harry is clearly drunk. Indeed, he refers, on several occasions, to getting drunk as being a natural and essential part of the recording process. Particularly painful is an extended sequence, disavowed by Perry, that shows Harry with Bobby Keyes, Jim Horn and Klaus Voormann, in 50's rocker outfits, trying to lip-sync "You're Breaking My Heart" in what was clearly intended to be a rock video. The six bottles of brandy reportedly consumed during the filming, however, had predictable results. Sharp differences of opinion had arisen between Harry and Richard regarding "You're Breaking My Heart", though they are downplayed in the narration. Harry shrugs off the entire controversy as old news; while Richard, after noting that radio stations around the country only played the song after making their own edits, says tersely, "Probably coulda been a big hit."

If the film is any indication, Harry's nerves were in shreds during the Son of Schmilsson sessions. His performance is wildly erratic, ranging from the intoxicating ("Remember (Christmas)", "The Most Beautiful World In The World" and "What's Your Sign") to the just plain intoxicated (a god-awful run-through of "The Lottery Song" and the interminable "You're Breaking My Heart"). Some eight months later, while recording his narration, this sometimes embarrassing inconstancy is even apparent to Harry, who blames everything on the presence of cameras in the studio; forgetting that the documentary had been his idea in the first place.

Perry attributes his friend's mercurial behavior to the recent dissolution of his marriage. Whatever its cause, his nervousness occasionally manifested itself in peculiar ways. During the "I'd Rather Be Dead" sessions ("a very nervous day for me") Harry, awaiting the arrival of the Stepney and Pinner Choir, became so depressed and anxious that Perry was obliged to take him across the street to a tailor for a new suit. This whimsical therapy seems to have done the trick, though it delayed Harry's reappearance until after the choirs' arrival, and even then Harry describes himself as "... scared to death."

It's clear that the "I'd Rather Be Dead" session was a traumatic one for Harry, for reasons probably known only to himself. But it would be worth it. This sequence is the high point of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?

"I don't think," muses Perry, "we'll ever see another session that will even come close to resembling this one as long as we work in a studio".

A fair bet. The studio was festooned with balloons, streamers and flowers and the sherry flowed ... well, like wine. Images abound: Harry, in paper hat and carnation, sings the lead; four ladies pose for the cameraman as if he's taking a snapshot of them and can't imagine why he doesn't press the shutter ("Wot's 'e waitin' for, Christmas?"); one woman gives the camera a little flash, to the scandalized laughter of her friends; another slow dances with Harry during a playback; yet another saucily propositions the cameraman -- in fact, there's quite a lot of flirting going on. ("The second from the left," reveals Perry at one point, "had a thing for Harry.") The women loosen up to an extraordinary extent while the men, looking awkward and confused, remain stiff as boards.

And then, there's Old Tom. It was during a playback that Harry and Richard heard a strange squeaking noise. Over and over they played it and couldn't for the life of them figure out what was causing it, when Klaus Voormann, whom Harry has described as having ears "like nothing on Earth", said "Sounds like somebody's squeaky wooden leg."

Harry and Richard were now faced with the delicate task of going into a room of old people and saying that somebody's noisy wooden leg was screwing up their takes. They finally got up the nerve and asked, very politely, if any one present had a squeaky wooden leg.

"I do," piped up Old Tom. Though the narration doesn't go into further details, it can be assumed that either Tom kept very still for the remainder of the session, or that someone oiled him.

It was Old Tom's 85th birthday, Harry informs us and, as it happens, the old gentleman contributed more to Son of Schmilsson than a great story. As the choir were shuffling off to their bus at the end of the session, Old Tom came squeaking past. "Well," he said to Harry and Richard, "See you next album."

Harry knew a good sign off when he heard one. "See you next album, Richard," he says over the swelling chorus at the end of "The Most Beautiful World In The World."

"Good bye!" *

Goodbye, indeed. There would be no next album. Richard's rebellious younger brother was leaving home for good.

The rediscovery of this film came about as the result of a bizarre coincidence. Richard Perry had never seen the rough cut of the film, nor had he heard anything further about its prospects after the day that he and Harry had spent recording their narration. He moved on and had little or no contact with Harry afterwards. (In fact, he expressed surprise to hear Harry had finally recorded "What's Your Sign") Then one day, a dozen years ago, or so, he had attended "the one and only football game I've ever been to in my life." After the game, he had been with friends in the locker room when he was approached by a man who recognized him and said that he worked for Harry's company, Hawkeye Entertainment. The man asked Perry if he'd ever seen Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?

When Perry said he hadn't, the man promised to send him a copy and a week later it arrived.

The excitement of the discovery of a "lost" Nilsson documentary is tempered slightly by the state of the existing cut. The movie jumps all over the place; editorially, it's positively squirrelly -- the sort of film in which a rehearsal of "Spaceman" and a sequence in which Harry does imitations of his session-men are accorded equal importance. The inclusion of scenes like the latter give the film a jokey, home-movie quality that undermine its intentions -- to show how an album is made. Most frustrating of all was the decision to lay narration in the middle of, and sometimes throughout, musical numbers. Scarcely a single song is heard beginning to end, and all are interrupted by interpolations by the two principals. No one is interviewed; the camera, in that tight little space, never really seems to get close to the players. There is no focus -- no objective eye that would help us sort the wheat from the chaff. And yet, there is a movie here. The "Remember (Christmas)" sequence, cutting between Nilsson and Hopkins at the piano, wreathed in cigarette smoke -- both dead far before their time -- and freeze framed faces of the elderly Choir on the bus ("She's a little scared," says Harry tenderly about one woman who sits a little apart from the rest), show what the documentary could have been.

And, happily, still could be. Last fall, the master copy of the film, with its irreplaceable narration, was discovered, along with 135 reels of uncut footage, in an RCA vault in Indianapolis. The film was subsequently moved to the RCA New York Archive. A re-cut is essential but no one knows what the condition of the twenty-five year old film stock might be and the red-tape to be overcome boggles the mind. RCA's ambivalent attitude toward their sometimes difficult star certainly complicates matters, regardless of how much water has passed under that bridge. But discussions between Perry and RCA regarding the future of Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? continue.

* It should be noted that the "Old Tom" story has been told by Harry in a number of different ways, and that the version in the documentary differs slightly from the one recounted here.


This issue of Everybody’s Talkin’ is copyright © 1997 by Roger Smith. All rights reserved. No portion of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without the permission of the publisher.
 



roger@jadebox.com