Artist: Harry Nilsson
Album: Nilsson Schmilsson
Label: RCA Records & Tapes
Producer: Richard Perry
1. “Gotta Get Up” (Nilsson) – 2:24
2. “Driving Along” (Nilsson) – 2:02
3. “Early in the Morning” (Leo Hickman, Louis Jordan, Dallas Bartley) – 2:48
4. “The Moonbeam Song” (Nilsson) – 3:18
5.”Down” (Nilsson) – 3:24
6.”Without You” (Pete Ham, Tom Evans) – 3:17
7. “Coconut” (Nilsson) – 3:48
8. “Let the Good Times Roll” (Shirley Goodman, Leonard Lee) – 2:42
9. “Jump into the Fire” (Nilsson) – 6:54
10. “I’ll Never Leave You” (Nilsson) – 4:11
My day started “Early in the Morning” and included a literal lime in the coconut, so I figured this would be as good a day as any to discuss one of my favorite albums “of all time”.* That album is Nilsson Schmilsson, by Harry Nilsson. I have a lot to say about this record, so we’ll see how this post ends up…
*What’s with throwing in the “of all time” all of the time? Man, we’re obsessed with superlatives. It’s one of my favorite albums, okay? Of all time? Sure. I mean, I’m not saying, “Well, I love the record, but when you throw in ‘of all time,’ I just can’t justify loving it so much.” C’mon. Let’s agree that it’s a great record and one of my favorites and throw time out the window, okay?
Also, his name is pronounced like the word “pill” not like the word “peel”. I’ve heard a lot of people pronounce his name like Leslie Nielsen’s, but that’s wrong. You know how I know? Because Harry pronounces it as if it rhymes with “pill, son” on first song on Son of Schmilsson (the next record after this one). If he pronounces it that way, then we all should. So, as you read this, please imagine it being pronounced correctly. Thank you.
I discovered this record in 2005, just hours before Miss Fairchild embarked on our first nationwide tour. Daddy Wrall and I were killing time waiting for Sammy to get done with his day job as a cellular biologist. We were record-browsing at a small record shop in Providence and I, honestly, don’t know why I picked it up. All I knew about Nilsson at the time was “Everybody’s Talkin’,” which I loved. I must have heard that the record was pretty good and when I saw it, I bought it, no questions asked.
We got on the road that night under a little bit of stress, as we had just discovered that my flute was stolen. After that whole saga settled down and we were on the road to Albany, I put Nilsson on the stereo. We listened loudly, pretty much without talking, all the way through, including the bonus demo material and Spanish versions of the songs. We were sold. Immediately. Nilsson is an amazing singer, the album is well thought out and the songs are great. Boom.
With all that said, let’s take a closer look:*
*I can look into the future a little and tell already that this post is going to be about my own personal experience of the record. To really understand what I’m talking about you’ll absolutely have to listen to it while you read. Some of it will be entertaining regardless, but if the record is half as good as I posit here, then you’d be missing out if you didn’t take a listen.
1. “Gotta Get Up” is pretty much the perfect first track. It starts with the piano pumping, building steadily until its wild end. Many other records have started records like this, though I won’t assume they stole the idea from Harry.* The “meet the muppets” chord progression that bridges the vhorus** and the bridge has a circus flavor that is very reminiscent of Nilsson’s earlier records. The accordion and low brass in the bridge makes me think of a boardwalk with vendors, Harry walking along after a long long night out, trying to “get home before the morning comes”. I’ve always imagined that it was too late. Morning had come. The sun is up and he’s down by the sea taking in the sensory overload on too little sleep.***
*“Dream” by Alice Smith comes to mind.
**A combination of verse and chorus. See also: “Where Did Our Love Go?”
***Or is that just me right now?
The horns in this song come in during the second vhorus to emphasis the “one”, but become syncopated in the third vhorus, which is a brilliant tension-builder. In the third vhorus, he also introduces an extreme funk face causing tambourine (in a “Glass Onion” kind of way…) The end of the song, with the chromatic rising piano line, drum rolls and guitar squeals puts the whole thing in perspective for me: I was too late. Damn.
Somehow, though, the song gets you going. My head is always bobbing by the end, and if I put it on when I first start driving in the morning, I couldn’t be more psyched about tackling the day’s challenges. Try it sometime. Speaking of driving…
2. “Driving Along” is next. I seem to remember Wrall saying that he only likes the song because of the payoff at the end. I agree that without that payoff, the song would lack something, but the song does have a lot of great moments. First, the singing showcased here is superb. There are sound effects. There is social commentary, and though it’s not positive in nature, I don’t feel hopeless. Every time gets to “farther and farther away from each other” the anticipation builds for him to do his signature vocal trick of jumping up the octave into his falsetto. Listen for it at 1:33, then go back to the beginning and just wait for it. I get ansty and goose-bumpy and all excited. It’s plum wonderful, I tell you.
I’m not sure why we’re driving along a “57,ooo miles an hour.” If he’s talking about how fast the Earth rotates the Sun, then I think he means 67,000 miles per hour, but that’s okay. Maybe I’ll sing along with the corrected lyric from now on. And “people standing on the petals of a flower” and “those petals pumping for a little bit of power.” The end of that line is totally Beatles–Paul McCartney to be exact. In fact, after he repeats the last few syllables of the word “power” in classic Sir Paul fashion, on comes a guitar lead that could be Macca himself, off Ram or another early record.*
*A lot of sidemen from the Beatles’ solo records play on this record–guys like Klaus Voorman and Jim Gordon, and Nilsson is obviously a huge fan, so this should be no surprise. Who am I kidding? Everything sounds like the Beatles, so that should never be a surprise.
It’s fantastic. I love the pinch harmonics in the solo, and the broken down chorus that ends with the octave jump payoff and then–the brilliant outro! We have baritone sax; we have claps;* we have a repeated lyric that echoes the sentiment of the music: “we seem to go farther. we seem to go nowhere.” It’s like Tim McGraw saying “over and over again” over and over again, except in this instance I want it to go farther and farther and nowhere!
*And if you act now, we’ll throw in the Graty™ absolutely free!
3. The next song is what inspired me to put listen to this record today. “Early in the Morning” is an old Louis Jordan song. The original is great. I had never heard it myself until later in that tour mentioned above, when Wrall and I were having a drink with an old buddy of mine from college. We were in Santa Cruz at the time, and the dj at the bar was playing old blues 78’s. When “Early in the Morning” came on we were floored. Having only just discovered the song ourselves, we were pretty blessed to get to hear the original, which isn’t exactly everyday listening. Krang? You decide.
The Nilsson version of the song is haunting. It sounds like it really was recorded early in the morning. Tthe vocal is filled with the sense that Harry got burned last night, and it was probably his fault, and he called up the engineer and put the track down, and that was that. The way he repeats the lyrics in the second to last chorus remind one of “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the sentiment ain’t far off of that.
I said it was haunting, but there is something playful there too. It’s serious, but he can’t take himself too seriously, you know? I know I’ve been there.
4. “The Moonbeam Song” reminds me more Nilsson’s last record, the soundtrack to The Point. Tthose of you who grew up watching that film, narrated by Ringo Starr, know that it’s about how “normal” ain’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be or even a stationary concept. And the music is a part of that: all dream and surrealism. I just want to float away listening to it. It’s another example run-on lyrics trend on this record. Harry is fishing and you’re on the line and he keeps pulling you along and you think you know where you’re going and just when you think you can escape, he throws another “and” at you and you realize that you’re never getting off this hook and, and, and…
“Have you ever watched a moonbeam as it slid across your window pane, or struggled with a bit of rain, or danced about the weather vane, or sat along a moving train and wondered where the train has been or on a fence with bits of crap around its bottom blown there by a wind beam, who searches for the moonbeam who was last seen looking at the tracks of the careless wind beam, moving to the tracks of the tireless freight train and lighting up the sides of the weathervane and the bits of rain and the window pane and the eyes of those who think they saw what happened?”
A few thoughts:
-What about the ears of those who think they heard what happened?
-And that’s one heckuva a question. Don’t you think you should buy me dinner first, before you expect an answer to that?
-And, dear readers, having read a little of my writing up here, is it any wonder why I love this man’s songs?
-By the way, Dan, I wrote out those lyrics while listening, so if I screwed up, oh well. You get the idea.
It’s also no wonder that those are all the lyrics to the song. It just repeats twice. There is a nice interlude with some Beach Boys-esque harmonies. There is lots of sighing during this song, so if you’ve ever had enough of all the crap, and want to sigh along, this is the song to do it to. More Paul-esque bass playing by Klaus, and a nice “Strawberry Fields”-ish outro.
5. “Down” is next, and this one is more Beatles. Damn, I’m getting repetitive now. It’s not my fault, though! Harry screwed me by loving the Beatles so much. Here’s the thing about this song, though: the vocal is all “Helter Skelter,” but the rhythm track is all subdued R&B. It’s quite the juxtaposition. His plaintive cries of “going down, da-da-down, da-da-down” are made on top of a pseudo-lazy band, playing the blues.
Look at this though: “Down to the bottom. To the bottom of a hole.” (That’s Nilsson.) Here’s Paul: “when I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide.” Well, there’s no similarity. My face is red; I stand corrected. Aside from the tone of the singing, and lyrics like that one, though, the songs aren’t similar. I doubt Harry was cribbing intentionally.* The John Lennon/Elvis Presley echo on the lead vocal is also great, I might add.
*I do love when the screaming background vocal saying “Da-da-down!” comes in, though. That’s special. He also does some patented Harry scatting for a moment.
6. Okay, now we’re on to the hits. Three of the next four tunes charted, and I wouldn’t necessarily call them the best of the bunch. But they are good, for sure.
That, of course, is Mariah Carey. She had a hid with “Without You” just like Mr. Nilsson. Harry hit number one with that tune on 2 charts. No matter your particular feelings about Ms. Carey, she can sing, and I think that if you are going to do a Nilsson song you have to have a really strong high register. Until Harry wrecked that part of his voice, because of drinking and being too scared/proud to not sing when he had plans to make a record with John Lennon.*
*If you had a chance to make a record with your hero and had a problem that could call the whole thing into jeopardy, would you tell your hero and hope that s/he understood? Or would you hide it and it try to “play through the pain”? What a tough situation…
Anyhow, “Without You” is a damn powerful ballad and even though it’s originally a Badfinger song*, this is the version. The string arrangement, the soaring vocal. The spanish version included later as a bonus track.**
*Damn! Another Beatles connection! Of course, Badfinger was perhaps the most successful non-Beatles led band that the group ever signed to Apple Records. Nilsson is really predictable, huh?
**Whoops, scratch that last one.
I honestly have nothing to add about this song, though.
7. “Coconut”. Well, it’s great. One chord. Basically one “chorus” that’s repeated from different characters’ perspectives. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it. (Ish.) It’s fun and he does voices, and the vocal has some very creative doubling and harmonizing. I love this song. In fact, if my day started “Early in the Morning“* then it ended with a lime in a coconut. Allow me to explain:
*If you didn’t get it before, I did, in fact, wake up at 3 am yesterday, and thinking that it was time to go to work, I took a shower and got dressed before I realized, that no, it was 3 am and I should have been sleeping, or trying to sleep through the squice squirming in the insqulation, but instead I was up, and blogging, and now my schedule is totally messed up and I’m 2500 words into this ridiculous Nilsson post and I’d be impressed if you are still reading…
So, we had a sale on young coconuts at the day job last week.* I love young coconuts, but rarely buy them. For one thing: I don’t own a machete, so opening them is liable to break my knife, or cause me to lose a finger, or worse: both. For another: they’re hard to open. Okay, that’s just one thing, but it’s one BIG thing. Also, there is so much agua de coco in there that I can barely finish it myself. And it’s awful sweet.
*Could Young Coconuts be a band name? Or The Young Coconuts?
Well, not having anyone with whom to share this particular coconut, I was stuck drinking and eating it myself. When I leave my apartment for a few days, I like to finish as much perishable food as I can, because I hate waste, and what if the power went out and what if the squice come looking for dinner in my absence and run-on sentences!
So, I got out the knife, and spent a good while hack away at this coconut. Frankly, I made a mess. I was on the telephone at the time (hands free), so my amateur hacking could be heard quite clearly. I’m no Dexter. Eventually, I opened up a hole big enough to pour the coco water out, and filled a pint glass and more. Damn! Lot of juice in that thing! I tasted it: cold, sweet, refreshing, filling. All good things, but something was missing.
I opened the fridge: broccoli rabe? No, too bitter. Brown rice? No, too starchy. Relish? No, that’s ridiculous, and not particularly perishable. Half a lime?
Wait, half a lime? HALF A LIME?
“You put the lime in the coconut and then you feel better?” From “it’s early in the morning and I ain’t got nothin’ but the blues” to “put the lime in the coconut and then you’ll feel better” in one day? Whoopee! Evidence:
That, my friends, is a wedge of lime in a glass of coconut water. I have the shakes right now, and I blame that stuff. But I feel great! Great, I tell you.
Did I do this as an accident? Or is my day one big Krang? Who the hell knows?
8. I’m not terribly interested in discussing “Let the Good Times Roll”.
9. “Jump Into The Fire” was a hit, too. It’s a Who song, I’d say. At least that’s what it sounds like to me. (It’s not an actual Who song, but may as well be from the sound of it…) The shortness of this paragraph probably says more about how much I know the Beatles vs. the Who than anything else.
10. “I’ll Never Leave You” is pretty. It echoes “Without You” a lot lyrically. Has some of that boardwalk thing that “Gotta Get Up” has, too. It’s a good last song and brings us some good closure.
I hope you are listening to this record by now. It’s real good, I say. Real good.