How do I reduce a life to a few words? Especially an extraordinary life, one for which there aren't enough words.
Harry Nilsson died on January 15, 1994. An incredible talent was lost decades before his time, yes. But I lost a dear friend. I've known Harry and his beautiful wife Una since 1979. How now can I pay tribute to someone so special? You know only of his celebrity. Maybe I can tell you a little about the man.
Not long after the notorious "lost weekend" with Lennon, Harry had the great fortune to meet Una O'Keefe; by far the most positive influence ever to come into his life. Harry had led the same drugs and alcohol lifestyle that killed Hendrix and Joplin, Brian Jones and Keith Moon, and so many others, and survived. Yet perhaps it was Una who pulled him back from the brink to settle into a life of marriage and child rearing.
Harry loved his wife, savored the quiet moments of his home life. He adored his children. When their second son was a baby (beautiful as an infant, a heartbreaker at 15), Harry sat with him, staring at the baby's smile. Unable to contain his joy he turned to my fiance and I and blurted out, "Have babies! Have lots of babies! They're wonderful!"
Harry had no use for conspicuous wealth. Even when he had his home built in Bel Air it was designed to be first comfortable and functional. He told his architect that he wanted it to be "like something a child might draw." The result was modern yet very warm, with oversized windows and doors, sparse lines, a work in subtleties, understated elegance. He and Una loved that house. They lived there until it could no longer contain their growing family, and often spoke of moving back when the kids were all grown.
Which brings me to what Harry termed his retirement. For the latter half of the '80s Harry introduced himself to people as a retired musician (and they were still giving him demos). He formed a partnership with writer Terry Southern and created Hawkeye Entertainment, a company which produced works in all fields of entertainment.
While the fledgling company gained a foothold in the maze of Hollywood, Harry moved his family east to Upper Nyack, NY. The house in Bel Air had grown impossibly small and he wanted his children (then numbering five) to know the changing of the seasons as he had in his youth. The plan was to live in the east until the children grew and began moving out on their own and the house in Bel Air could hold them once more. That plan was short lived.
Harry and Terry Southern fired Hawkeye's CEO and Harry took over the position. The demands of the job were heavy. Harry was developing health problems as his body reminded him that he was no longer 30, and what he'd done to it when he was. When the bi-coastal commute became too much, it was back to LA. (Sorry, I mean Bel Air. Harry was very quick to point out, "I don't live in LA.")
The biggest challenge with any new company is getting it into the black as quickly and efficiently as possible. Hawkeye showed such promise that Harry and Terry were determined to make it work. Harry moved many of his carefully laid out investments into the company to help keep it afloat until it could click.
It seemed a wise decision. Harry was always concerned with the financial future of his golden years and for the future of his children. Yet Hawkeye was moving into the black. He could always shuffle his investments later.
The gamble seemed to pay off. The company was on its feet. It was demanding less of his time and he found the opportunity to do a little studio work (including a calypso version of "Everybody's Talkin'") and witness the birth of his and Una's sixth child. Harry was happy. They found a home to hold them all comfortably. And of his growing number of illnesses, he seemed more disappointed than anything else -- disappointed that his body had not kept up with him over the years. But still he was happy.
Terry Gilliam phoned him up to sing "How About You" for The Fisher King. After all, who else could have given that vocal? "How About You" turned out to be Harry's last release, and one of his most charming performances.
At a time when it seemed he could chart a smooth and productive retirement, the first tragedy struck. He woke one morning to find $300 in his checking account and nothing else. A trusted assistant, someone he'd worked closely with for well over a decade, had disappeared with his carefully planned fortune and all the finances of Hawkeye. The betrayal was devastating. Financially he was bankrupt.
The FBI eventually found the woman. She was tried and sentenced. But she never confessed the location of the money. She knows she'll be out of prison eventually. Just last October at dinner with Harry, Una and their two daughters, Harry spoke of the theft. Years after the betrayal he was filled with no less hurt and anger. He motioned to his little girls and told us, "She stole their future!"
But perhaps she stole more than that. The Nilssons were survivors. Harry and Una stood by each other while they struggled to put their life back together, even when they were forced to move from their home in Hidden Hills. It was while packing for the move that the aftershocks finally hit.
Harry had injured his arm. A few days later when he felt shooting pains up that arm he thought it was residual from the injury. It was 3 days before he realized that the pain was more than that, that the tightness in his chest was more than just the now routine stress. On Valentine's Day of all days in 1993, Harry suffered a massive heart attack.
The doctors said he never should have survived. The heart muscles were damaged to the point that surgery was impossible. But Harry was a survivor.
He never stopped fighting. He used his long recuperative months to begin an autobiography. He eventually went back into the studio to record a new album while searching for a record company exec who would give him the chance to sing again. One by one he heard his old "friends" turn him down. But he never stopped trying.
The autobiography remains unfinished. The album was completed just a week before his death. Only days before he'd finally come out of bankruptcy, proudly solvent once more. Funds long held in escrow were available to him and his family. But it was too late for Harry.
On January 15, 1994 at 2:30am, Harry woke beside his wife. He was having trouble breathing. The oxygen at his bedside was of no use to him. His heart finally gave out and his struggles came to a peaceful end.
When I hugged Harry goodbye last October at his home in Old Agoura I stared for a moment to memorize his face, to freeze that moment in my mind. Deep down I knew it was the last time I'd see him.
I didn't want to believe it; I still can't. Sometimes Harry was bigger than life. He'd survived so much and had so much yet to give; I guess he was supposed to be immortal. He was big in stature. He gave new meaning to bear hugs. He was warm and affectionate. He was a good friend. Why is it so hard to write this? Listing the facts was easy. I wrote a discography for him back in the late '70s. Only last October Harry asked to include it in his autobiography. I'm supposed to be an expert on Nilsson. But I promised to introduce you to Harry.
Harry loved movies. He had a wonderful sense of humor, very funny, often dry. He loved Laurel and Hardy -- even thinking about them brought a smile to his face -- and he did a great Stan & Ollie both. Hal Roach's son re-recorded the old Hal Roach music from their films and gave Harry a copy of the tape. I remember Harry popping it in his tape deck while driving through the mountains of Rockland County. He bounced and swayed along with the music in the best Stan & Ollie tradition. Very funny, a great moment.
One of Harry's favorite stories: Harry understood what it was to be a fan. When he was younger, he and a buddy tracked down Stan Laurel shortly before his death. They called him and spoke to him, both huddled around the receiver. "It's him! He's really on the phone!" they whispered to each other as Stanley thanked them for calling.
In 1979, Harry packed up his family for an extended stay in Malta where Popeye was being shot. Director Robert Altman had a studio constructed for him to record the songs which were to be woven into the film. Heavy rains held up production, even in the studio where the roof leaked badly. To liven up the months away from home, Harry decided that he and the other musicians should form a gang. They called themselves The Falcons. The scrawled legend "Falcons rule ok" began to show up everywhere in their tiny community.
We all remember where we were on the night of December 8, 1980. Harry was in the studio, taking a break and writing a letter when the news hit the wire. Oddly enough, the letter was to John Lennon. He had wanted to thank John for mentioning him in his Playboy interview that month.
Harry put his mourning to positive use. In 1981, shaken as the rest of us, Harry chose to take a stand. He came out into the public for the first time to use his celebrity in support of The National Coalition to Ban Handguns (now the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence). As Harry told me, "I get nervous when they start shooting piano players."
I remember one of Harry's appearances at a Beatles convention. Due to a shipping error, they showed all but the last half hour of Son of Dracula, then everyone gathered around to listen to Harry tell how it ends. He concluded with, "I get the girl, we walk off into the sunset, and I sing 'Remember (Christmas)'." Someone in the crowd shouted, "Sing 'Remember (Christmas)'." There was a piano nearby so Harry sat down and played. Someone whipped off a baseball cap and passed the hat to collect donations for NCBH. Afterward in his hotel room Harry couldn't get over the crowd's response to his simple impromptu rendition of his song. "All I did was sing a few verses of 'Remember (Christmas)'," he marvelled, "and they collected $80 for the guns!"
As confident and capable as Harry seemed to the public, he was actually shy about compliments. He accepted them graciously but with a great deal of humility.
I once asked Harry which of his albums he liked. He grinned and gave a little shrug. "I like Knnillssonn." There was no reason for him to be shy in his response. He'd worked hard on Knnil. His multi-layered vocals -- as sweet and pure as his early days -- were cradled in lush string arrangements. With its title (actually pronounced Nilsson) it feels more like a sequel to HARRY. An album to be savored.
There were singles from the album, but there should have been hits. RCA had promised to give KNNILLSSONN heavy promotion. It was released in August 1977 and it seemed that the public would actually get to hear about it.
Then Elvis died. Everything at RCA screeched to a halt and turned to pumping out everything they possibly could to capitalize on the death of The King. When the dust & lust settled six months later, Harry asked about the promised push for KNNILLSSONN. By then the album was old news. On to the next thing.
Harry and RCA had had their differences from the beginning. They had refused his original concept for the cover of PANDEMONIUM SHADOW SHOW and substituted it with their own. When their hot property The Monkees recorded his DADDY'S SONG for their movie HEAD, RCA yanked Harry's version off AERIAL BALLET without a word to him. He had to fight and threaten to get them to use the old Victor label for SON OF SCHMILSSON.
But this probably hurt Harry more than anything they'd done in the past. It's what brought his stormy 10 year tenure with Victor to an angry end.
Harry's ongoing feud with RCA was almost a comedy in itself to watch. RCA had put together a Best of package, just before KNNILLSSONN was released. It was all ready to go. But he never wanted a compilation album and refused to allow it. When he left the label NILSSON'S GREATEST HITS nearly beat him out the door. With his contract dissolved, they had the right to repackage his material anyway they chose.
What they couldn't do, though, was license his work to another company without his permission. RCA licensed a package called HARRY AND... to K-Tel in England. He was on the phone immediately to remind them that they'd forgotten to ask. "Harry doesn't like you," he taunted his ex-bosses. "In fact Harry's very angry with you." To the tune of half. "Half is better than nothing," was all they could reply.
When CDs hit the market, NILSSON SCHMILSSON was out immediately. Harry's lawyers pointed out that the contracts spoke of records and tapes. Nowhere did they say RCA could release CDs. The fact that there was no such thing as a CD when the contracts were signed would never hold up in court. Negotiations once more went in Harry's favor.
Everyone's heard the bad stories about Harry. They made better press than the good ones. Most of them were probably true. Harry was a formidable enemy. Angered, armed with a sly wit, a sharp mind, and a fast tongue, he could nail his opponent to a wall before that person even knew they were losing the argument.
At the same time he was a loyal friend, always ready to defend those he cared about. He was generous and giving. Never an ostentatious gift, he gave me small personal tokens, knowing what they would mean to me. He accepted such tokens with the same sincerity.
He was very well read and intelligent, without being aloof. He loved a good argument and, even better, a good bet. (Michael Nesmith probably still has framed on his office wall a check for a million dollars from Harry, the result of a silly wager and a promise from Nesmith not to cash it.)
Harry loved to talk to people. Moreover, he always listened when you spoke. He often remained anonymous to strike up a conversation with a stranger, no matter what their social status. Everyone was interesting to him. He learned from them all. Even at the peak of his wealth and comfort he never forgot what it was like to try to make your rent. He was never above us common folk and could always relate to our situations. He never forgot how to be a survivor.
The other day someone asked me if, in the end, Harry could still sing. Yes. Alcohol, drugs and age may have taken away part of his range, but they never touched the purity and resonance of his voice. Even speaking. Rarely have I heard such a commanding voice. The resonance held you, demanded that you listen, even over a tinny phone line. And when conversation turned to a remembered song and he'd sing a line or two to refresh his memory or mine, the sound drifted across the table with the same magic it had always possessed.
Yes, Harry could still sing. If that final album is ever released, it will prove my words. And the record execs who would not give him that chance when he needed it will regret their callous greed.
Harry Nilsson. 1941 - 1994.
I miss you, Harry. Wherever you are I hope you're singing.