I'm not exactly proud of how I was first exposed to Harry Nilsson, but I'll admit it. I heard a sample of him in a Blackalicious song and researched it. I know it shows my ignorance for not finding the man sooner, however - this is how I've discovered lots of things over the years. For example, I only watched the movie Scanners because it was briefly referenced in Tommy Boy. I like to think of my culture tree as having long, spindly, and sometimes embarassing roots.
Plus, the Blackalicious reference was more than just a single sample. Their album Blazing Arrow is littered with samples and thematic references to Nilsson's classic children's record, The Point. Check out the title track, which samples Nilsson's Me and My Arrow. It's awesome.
Sadly, my dad does not have The Point on LP. However, he dug around a bit and found me both Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, two of his best. And when I started listening to them, it was clear that even if you don't know about Harry Nilsson, you've definitely heard him before.
[ mp3 ]: Harry Nilsson - Gotta Get Up (Vinyl Rip 256kbps)
The opener Gotta Get Up is a good example. Quirky enough to be the "Ringo" song on a Beatles album, it perfectly showcases Nilsson's effortless vocals. It sounds so natural and instinctive, yet there's just enough complication in the arrangement to let you know there's something different going on here. It also makes me realize that Badly Drawn Boy's Damon Gough wouldn't have a career if he didn't have Nilsson as a touchstone.
By the time the end of the record rolls around, Nilsson's strangeness becomes so familiar that the hard rocking Jump Into the Fire's guttural howls are completely acceptable. He's convinced you of his virtuosity, and at this point, he can do whatever he damn well wants.
[ mp3 ]: Harry Nilsson - Jump Into the Fire (Vinyl Rip 256kbps)
Overall, you get the sense from Nilsson Schmilsson that Nilsson the man is something of an enigma. You can't really get a grasp on the person behind the lyrics, like you can with a Springsteen or a Van Morrison. In fact, a documentary about Nilsson was released this year called "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)" I'd be interested in seeing that, because I've got the feeling the more I see about the man, the less I'll have him figured out.
Buy some Nilsson here. (If you're not a MOG member, consider it. It's the best alternative I've found post-Lala)
PS - If anyone has seen the Nilsson documentary, please let me know what you thought about it in the comments. I may have a Nilsson night on Netflix. And yes, I'll smoke a pipe and wear a robe.