The Harry Nilsson legacy

Everbody’s talkin at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of their mind

People stopping staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes

I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Backing off of the North East winds sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

I first heard Harry Nilsson sing these lyrics, composed by Fred Neil, and a staple of the great music that helped make Midnight Cowboy one of the best films of 1969 as a graduate student in Chapel Hill, seeking time-out from academic rigor.

Over the years, I neither forgot the movie with its archetypal search for the lost Eden, nor its haunting lead song, which has remained my favorite, beating out even John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Linda Ronstadt’s smash hit, “Blue Bayou.” By the way, Lennon and Nilsson were drinking buddies at one point, and the Beetles admired his song-writing. He was prolific, often writing songs for other singers and bands, including Glenn Campbell and the Monkees.

There’s something about this song, maybe the way Nilsson sings it, that puts me in a buoyant mood setting out for a new day whenever I hear it.

Ironically, his name probably draws a blank for many young people, underscoring yet again the short tenure of fame in a world that moves on.

For the older generation, how can one forget his “I guess the Lord must be in New York City,” another great song from Midnight Cowboy:

I say good-bye to all my sorrows
And by tomorrow I’ll be on my way
I guess the Lord must be in New York City

Nilsson also wrote and sang the gentle lyrics of “Remember,” which was revived as part of the sound track for the popular movie, You’ve got mail:

Remember is a place from long ago
Remember, filled with every place you know
Remember, when you’re feeling sad and down
Remember, turn around

Life is just a memory
Close your eyes and you can see
Remember, think of all that life can be

I think of “Remember” as a lullaby, great for sleepless nights.

Nilsson also wrote other memorable songs, often sung by other artists:

“Sixteen Tons”
“Me and my Arrow”
“As Time Goes By”
“A Love Like Yours”

I like it best when he sings his own lyrics in that mellifluous, cadenced voice that resonates so hauntingly, for Nilsson’s music, make no mistake about it, is about you and me in our everyday humanity, expectant, but often disappointed.

It’s quite amazing that this musical genius came from a rough, Brooklyn neighborhood and a broken home. He had just a ninth grade education. His mother was an alcoholic, and he would have six step-fathers. It was rare he gave a public concert. Only one album came out under his own name.

Among his admirers were the Beatles, who deemed him the best American solo singer-writer in America. He enjoyed close relationships with John and Ringo.

I think of him as being a lot like his contemporary, the English singer-songwriter, Nick Drake. Like Nilsson, Drake refrained from public concerts, remained relatively unknown, and was largely an influence. Today he’s recognized in the UK as one of its greatest singer-songwriters in the last 50 years. He was 26 when he died of a drug overdose for depression.

On January 15, 1994, Nilsson died from a heart attack. He was just 53.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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