Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter by Alyn Shipton

Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter BY Alyn Shipton. Oxford University Press, USA. Hardcover, 368 pages. $27.
The cover of Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter

Harry Nilsson was a ramshackle musical savant with a weakness for misbegotten life decisions and career-sabotaging swerves. Or maybe he was a scheming genius whose monastic devotion to idiosyncrasy made him a visionary in ways that have not yet been fully revealed. Either way, he was maybe the most innately talented rock star of the 1960s and ’70s— among stiff competition—as well as an enigma who jams the signals of standard stories of rock-star rise and fall.

As told in Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, the artist’s story follows a long, curving, more or less conventional arc with all kinds of aberrations in between. Nilsson’s course to notoriety, delivered first by way of an endorsement from the Beatles in 1968, and more measurably a year later with the success of his single “Everybody’s Talkin’” from the film Midnight Cowboy, started with enterprising industry work in LA as a songwriter and hired studio hand. By day, he worked as a banker, diligently scraping for stability; at night, he worked on music with an increasingly singular sense of how to craft and present songs. His voice, especially, was a wonder.

It would be ideal to defer to author Alyn Shipton on the many splendors of that voice, but alas, Nilsson is less a critical visitation than a gathering of facts in the most orthodox of biographical forms. That makes for fates both better and worse—worse when Nilsson is young and thus only so demonstrably and citationally interesting; better when he starts to find his way into a ’60s/’70s rock milieu that abounds in thrills.

With behind-the-scenes studio work logged (for Phil Spector, among others), he made his name with a series of strong albums leading up to his improbably eclectic 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson. It was a hit, and multifaceted in ways signaled by the stylistic disparity between songs like “Without You” (a soaring, string-strewn paean to melodramatic love), “Jump into the Fire” (a seething rock seizure fit for both Martin Scorsese and LCD Soundsystem), and “Coconut” (a total trifle of a song featuring one of the greatest and most elastic vocal performances ever recorded).

From there, his success hard-won, Nilsson followed nobody’s sensible advice and returned a year later with Son of Schmilsson, a schizophrenic, scattershot collection exemplified by a would-be anthem boasting lyrics like so: “You’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart—so FUCK YOU!” The album happens to be fantastic—tender, touching, searing, funny—but there was no way it could be a success in context, and its failure seemed to be part of Nilsson’s self-undermining plan.

The pattern repeated, more or less, for the rest of his career, which Shipton chronicles in dutiful fashion. A dearth of sources imparting Nilsson’s own insight means there is little in the way of intrapersonal revelation, and too much space is devoted to long quotes, sometimes half a page, from bit-players with little to say. Likewise, the worth of too much of Nilsson’s wild, unpredictable, and above all brilliant music is handed over to excerpts from lifeless record reviews.

What it lacks in majesty, however, the book makes up with solid biographical overtures to a complex, beguiling character whose story has threatened to fade since he died in 1994. Nilsson was famous in his day but somehow always elusive, too wily and restless to stay still for long enough to let his reputation turn firm. Within the biz, he was a legend, and it’s on the strength of insider music-industry tales that Nilsson thrives. Nilsson’s fabled “lost weekend” of drunken ribaldry with John Lennon in ’70s-sick LA gets thorough attention, as does his habit for doing much the same with a rich cast including the Monkees’ Micky Dolenz, The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, and Alice Cooper (all of whom drank together in a group dubbed the Hollywood Vampires).

The narrative follows the same general lines as the 2010 documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?), charting a swell of savvy early showmanship followed by a slow diminuendo that continued for the rest of his life. But while aspects of his story point that way, to be sure, it’s hard to square that downcast narrative with all the thrill and life left in Nilsson’s records still, even the supposedly bad ones held out as evidence of his squandered ways. Nilsson at his worst was more vigorous and original than many at their best, and his story is more than simple a morality tale. Nilsson marks a solid start on making more of that story known—the rest will have to be consigned to time.

Andy Battaglia's work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Wire, The National, Rolling Stone, Spin, New York, and The Onion A.V. Club, among other publications.