On Harry Nilsson
The Barest of things...
If you can pardon a touch of shameless self-promotion, I promise there is an interesting story here.
Two weeks ago as I worked the Naked Pasta booth at the TD Saturday Market with The Wife, a woman walked up and asked me if we “still made the lime fettuccine”, an item which we never made in the first place. I ended up steering her toward the lemon and chive linguine, because citrus, and suggested she pair it with some seared scallops or shrimp and a light sauce as that is a plate I could eat eight days a week. When she left, however, I had a burning question for The Wife.
“Who wrote that lime and coconut song?” I asked to which she replied “Harry Nilsson” as if I was some kind of moron for not having that name sitting patiently at the tip of my tongue.
A brief discussion was had over post-market beers that afternoon and it was agreed that a lime and coconut pasta would be an interesting flavor profile so, beginning this week, Harry Nilsson Capellini will be available from Naked Pasta. In the process of this discussion, though, I realized that I knew nothing about Harry Nilsson beyond “the lime and coconut song” and I had some homework to do. Fortunately for me it is 2018 and the Google had me covered.
Harry Nilsson moved to California from Brooklyn where he lied his way into a computer programmer position in the 1960’s with only a ninth grade education. Somewhere along the way he became interested in music and eventually found himself in the lucrative business of singing demos for five dollars a track. This evolved into songwriting which saw Nilsson penning tunes for the likes of Glen Campbell, Fred Astaire, and The Monkees, all the while keeping his night job as a computer programmer at a local bank.
By 1967, Nilsson recorded the album Pandemonium Shadow Showwhich was so critically well received that it earned the attention of the Beatles and famously led to John Lennon answering the question “who is your favorite American artist?” with the one word reply “Nilsson”. All of this was done without playing a single live show and never planning to perform one, a model inconceivable in the modern music industry. His follow up album Aerial Balletwas named as a tribute to his grandparents who were Swedish circus performers because how could Harry Nilsson’s family be anything else?
Commercial success proved elusive but once you are The Beatles favorite act, who cares about such things? Nilsson did win a couple of Grammy’s, however, with the songs “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Without You” which is a classic by any measure of the word. Each of these songs did crack the top ten singles charts, as did the inspiration for my research, “Coconut”, but the majority of Nilsson’s praise remained critical rather than commercial over the course of his near 30 year career in the music industry.
Sadly, Nilsson died in his home of a heart attack in 1994 at the too-young-an-age of 52. He had been working on an album which would have been his first since 1980 when he took a break from recording following the death of his friend John Lennon. That album was never finished but RCA Records released the box set (remember those?) Personal Bestin 1995 following his death.
Harry Nilsson’s legacy is one of an artist that did things his own way and bucked the trends of the era in which he lived. His voice was incredibly unique, his songwriting was prolific, and he did it all on his own terms without ever launching a tour or promoting himself in any traditional way. His success was entirely organic based solely on the quality of his product and the people that appreciated it.
I write this with regret that I never previously delved further into the life and talent of the man behind “that lime and coconut song” which I have always enjoyed but never gave much thought about. I also write this with appreciation for a woman with faulty information about some lime fettuccine at the farmers market. Finally, and oddly enough, I write this on the anniversary of Harry Nilsson’s birth, June 15, 1941, a fact that I never could have predicted when his name first piqued my curiosity.
Happy birthday, Harry Nilsson and thanks for the tunes. I may be late to the party but I am enjoying finally getting to know you. Your pasta is delicious, by the way.
fête it be...