If there is anyone whose career has benefited more from Netflix’s Russian Doll series than co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne, it has to be Harry Nilsson.
Although the complicated pop star has maintained a cultish following since his early seventies heyday, interest in him spiked up considerably after his jaunty piano piece Gotta Get Up was used as the trigger and tonal inspiration for the show’s looping journey through self-loathing and self-knowledge.
In our age of digital data, we don’t even need to resort to vague temperature-taking to understand the impact. The song’s repeated use throughout the show’s eight episodes earned Nilsson something like 2,000 per cent more downloads and streams than his average, enough out-of-nowhere attention that the song is now amended with an “As heard on …” label on streaming services.
And now, that attention is trickling down to the rest of his convoluted canon. On Nov. 22, Nilsson completists will finally get a chance to hear Losst and Founnd, the album he was working on at the time of his death in 1994.
As a final artistic statement, the album is maybe too inflected with the torpor of a man who hadn’t released anything since the demos for the Popeye soundtrack in 1980. Nilsson’s often absurdly gorgeous multioctave tenor is flattened into something close to Leonard Cohen’s, although his songs retain his trademark slippery humour, and the off-kilter dynamic of melancholy is played beautifully, especially on the fitting album and career closer What Does A Woman See in A Man.
More exciting might be the early 2020 rerelease of The Point!, Nilsson’s oddball 1970 children’s animated film and parable. The original was narrated by Dustin Hoffman, and in the coming 50th anniversary version former drinking buddy Ringo Starr is the voice. Written after an LSD trip around the forests of Los Angeles gave him an insight into the nature of trees, The Point! is the story of a round-headed boy in a world where everyone has a point on their head.
While Nilsson’s own point is hard to miss here, the celebration of being different, plus its combination of joyous innocence, cheery dismissal of convention and ability to drown sadness in dry humour, feel like an appropriate summation of Nilsson’s philosophy. At least insomuch as he ever had a philosophy beyond swallowing some drugs and seeing what comes out.
Nilsson doesn’t just resist summary, he seems to mock the very idea that an artist should be able to be simplified. As a person, let alone as a musician with a surprising half-century legacy, Nilsson really just shouldn’t have been. He was less a human than a coalescence of opposing forces that should have cancelled each other out. He was his own action and reaction, a move in every direction, and never more happy to switch his heading than when it seemed like you had him figured.
Nilsson sang like a pure beam of light and drank like a black hole. He was a restlessly inventive musician – he arguably created both the mash-up and the remix album – whose biggest hits and Grammy nominations came from the oldest trick in American pop music, heart-on-the-sleeve covers: the wistfully sunny Midnight Cowboy theme song Everybody’s Talkin’ and torch song Without You, which is so maudlin it circles back around into genuinely piteous. (Although many also know him for the novelty hit Coconut, which fits just as uncomfortably with the rest of his oeuvre.)
He had gold records and chart-topping singles, but basically refused to play in front of an audience, limiting his “live” performances to half-experimental video projects in which he spliced in obviously fake crowd shots, did piano duets with himself and performed in a gorilla suit.
His music was the kind of pop that sounds obvious as soon as you hear it, although nobody had quite figured it out before. His biggest album, 1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, is essentially a tour of what the rest of the decade would sound like in 35 minutes and 10 songs.
He was the Beatles’ favourite American artist, but his favourite Beatle was Ringo. Although, in fairness, he also helped John Lennon during his brief separation from Yoko Ono, turning it into a recording session and debauch so notorious it became known as Lennon’s Lost Weekend, and the foundation of the semi-notorious Hollywood Vampires drinking club.
(And as much as he was a libertine and a goof, Nilsson also all but gave up his recording career to campaign for an end to gun violence after his friend was assassinated.)
That kind of unrestrained self-destruction was one of the few things Nilsson did purely, and was the main reason his career essentially amounted to a blinding flash of brilliance in the late sixties and early seventies and a lot of unfocused blinking and recovery until his early death in 1994.
And yet, for all his escapades, oppositions and self-destruction, Nilsson has managed to endure in a way that relatively few artists of the non-Beatles variety ever do: He keeps popping up, in reference and in revisitation – both as a popular-enough-to-be-profitable bit of nostalgia and as an essential muse for weirdos.
For all his contradiction and complexity, it’s probably his plain frustration with conventional expectation that seems to keep him as an inspiration for some of our more complexly modern artists.
The most obvious recent example is Russian Doll, but he pops up every few years in some powerfully memorable context though: A personal favourite is the yearning He Needs Me, originally part of that Popeye soundtrack and later providing an emotional capstone in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Punch-Drunk Love.
The common thread to Nilsson’s re-emergences are that they were instigated by artists who are just as unwilling to sit still, who are just as happy to embrace contradiction and chaos to get whatever it is they need to say out.
In this way, Nilsson’s evergreen relevance takes on a larger and more hopeful tinge: His unwillingness to settle into any kind of simple category, far from causing him to fade away, is exactly what keeps him alive. If the world, or at the very least the entertainment-industrial complex, is only comfortable with things that are simply branded and easily taggable, there will always be some artistic disposition that is thirsty for a mess they have to sort through and figure out all on their own.
In The Point!, Nilsson’s child hero solves the riddle of his difference when an equally circular wise man makes the observation that a point in every direction is the same as having no point at all.
If it works as an epitaph for Nilsson’s own genius, true to form the most important point for his legacy might be just the opposite of the one he was making in the film: When someone is going in every direction at once, anyone who comes after will never run out of interesting paths to follow him down.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.