Tag Archives: Paul McCartney

Nilsson: the Book

I just finished reading the new biography of Harry Nilsson by Alyn Shipton, titled Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter. I knew Harry, off and on, for the last 15 years of his life, but there were great gaps in my knowledge of the man, gaps that this book filled most admirably. In fact, if I had known this much about his life and times before I’d met him, I’d probably have been too intimidated to approach him.   Harry N

One bit of full disclosure. In the early 90s, he wanted to shop around his autobiography, and I helped him to put together a proposal (I met Harry through the Pythons in general and Graham Chapman in particular); to that end, he sent me what he had written up to that point. I helped him package it and helped him send it around, but there were no takers, so I sadly sent it all back. But his family held onto it long enough for Shipton to mine it for quotes and other information.

Dominating a huge portion of that life, of course, were the Beatles, particularly John and Ringo, though there are some wonderful anecdotes about Paul and George as well. It’s worth reading for that reason alone, but his life crossed so many other paths that I could scarcely believe my eyes.

Harry & RingoHis childhood was spent shuffled from relative to relative, crossing the country alone at a frighteningly early age, until he wound up working as a bank manager. He kept that job even after he started finding success as a singer-songwriter, but shortly after he left it, the Beatles famously described him as their “favorite group.” He went on to major Grammy-winning success, but his success did not serve him well. He was a major part of John Lennon’s “lost weekend,” during which Lennon produced his “Pussycats” album, but drink and drugs took their toll on his personal life and on his amazing voice. I know people who encountered Harry during this period, and they described a different man than the Harry I knew. Of course, I knew him after he had mostly quit drinking, and that had a huge positive affect on him and his family.

During his prime, he was turning out iconic hits like “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Without You” (both written by others), while writing songs that others made into huge hits (Three Dog Night’s “One”). But he refused to be pigeon-holed, and his albums are incredible mixtures of rockers and old standards and everything in between. Yet he prided himself for never playing live concerts, and for the most part, he remained true to that.

Nilsson does an amazing job of analyzing nearly every song he recorded (Shipton is a music writer), though I would have liked to have read more about his personal life, and his life after 1980 is given particularly short shrift. Then again, those were seemingly the saddest years for Harry, at least professionally, when his health began to suffer and his finances suffered because he trusted people he shouldn’t have trusted. I enjoyed reading Nilsson until around 1980 for that reason–then it became a little too painful. But I know the 80s were his happiest family time with his family, making up for what he never had, so I’m not sure Harry regretted them.

Harry 2It should also be noted that he spend time in the 80s campaigning against Handgun Violence after John Lennon was assassinated, so even though he had mostly retired from music, he stayed active. He did appear at a number of Beatles Fan Conventions and sang (usually two or three songs) to raise money for the charity. Near the end, to repair his finances for his family, he was even planning a concert tour, but his ill health prevented that from happening. And frankly, his voice was not what it had once been, either, after those years of abuse. But Harry was still Harry, and I’m sure his personality could have made up for any musical lapses.

It’s such a cliche to say that “his music lives on,” but the new episode of HBO’s Girls featured the cast dancing to Harry’s provocative “You’re Breakin’ My Heart.” He would have loved that, but I’m sure he knew he would be remembered regardless. And thanks to Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, I was able to spend a few more hours with Harry.

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Paul McCartney, Godzilla, and Me

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When I had to pick a new user name for this blog, I’m sure you will not be surprised to hear that I had to incorporate numbers, which is why I became howardjohnson1985. I usually try to come up with something that I can remember (which is becoming increasingly difficult), and thought about using the year I was born. But frankly, I don’t care to be reminded of how old I am that often, and decided to choose another year. For some reason, 1985 popped into my brain, and so I thought I’d grab hold of it for my own purposes.

Then, I tried to figure out what it was about 1985 that appealed to me. It wasn’t as though it was a spectacular year for me personally–it wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great–in fact, I don’t really recall any great triumphs or tragedies occurring in that year. It was the year after 1984, when a lot of people seemed to be a bit disturbed due to the George Orwell book. But I don’t think there was anything significant in getting past the dreaded 1984.

Looking back on it from this millennium, I can only recall two popular culture usages of 1985. The first was the song 1985 from Band on the Run, which is arguably the best post-Beatles work from Paul McCartney. It certainly isn’t my favorite McCartney song, although it also isn’t my least favorite. But if you think “1985” for very long, and you are of a certain age, it may very well pop into your head. Go ahead, try it. See?

The second was the movie Godzilla 1985, which was a re-boot of the Godzilla series from, I believe, Toho Studios, which gave us Godzilla in the first place. It was not the greatest of the Godzilla movies (that title would  belong to either the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters, or possibly Godzilla vs The Thing, also known as Godzilla vs. Mothra), but it was certainly better than much of the drek that had been released during the previous decade. Again, not my favorite Godzilla movie, but certainly not my least favorite. (Not to mention that the following year, I would be on stage in a Chicago improv theatre each night describing  the history of post-World War II relations as seen through the films of Godzilla. Long story, which I’ll get to eventually.)

It all seemed pretty arbitrary. But I learned, largely through my improvisation training with Del Close (again, more to come), to look for connections. And what connections are there between Paul McCartney, Godzilla, and me? The answer became obvious. McCartney and Godzilla are known for comebacks and re-inventing themselves, and that’s what I’m doing with this blog. I’m starting again, just like the Cute One and the Big Green One, only I’m starting over as a fiction writer and delving into the cyber world.

I don’t know where it’ll go, but I think it’s going to be a fun ride. Hope you’ll come along with me.