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Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Who is Harry Nilsson (and why is everyone talkin’ about him)?

People say that the music of the ’60s helped shape America. Hard to argue. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones remain on the lips of most every modern rock act—from folk to punk to progressive—when asked about their influences.

Somewhere in the space between the names we acknowledge is a guy who didn’t quite catch on, a name that escapes those lips for one reason or another.

Usually, it’s musicians who carry the flag for the ones who get forgotten. And so it was that Josh Quinn, front man for The Dead Is Dead and top banana at Tigertree, schooled yours truly on the question posed by this column’s film: Who Is Harry Nilsson?

About Josh

Josh Quinn is some kind of vagabond. The son of a railroad man, Quinn skittered aross the landscape as a youngster, rarely spending more than a year at any post. His eyes and ears opened while attending a music conservatory, and he soon played hooky from school with his band mates, touring Los Angeles, cutting his teeth.

“I think people that are into Nilsson are typically dumbfounded that more people don’t know about him. He has one of the single greatest voices in American pop music, and so few people know who he is. It’s tragic.”

His current band, The Dead Is Dead, plays a ’60s-inspired brand of garage rock, the sort of hair-tossing, hi-hat swing that lends itself well to Nilsson’s style. As it happens, The Dead Is Dead (which includes Andrea Gleghorn, Michael Murtha, Andy Cook, and Tim Vonderloh) has taken on the task of commemorating Nilsson’s album, Nilsson Schmilsson, in a tribute show at Ace of Cups on April 3. That album is his seminal work, one that included three of the untold legend’s biggest hits: “Coconut,” “Jump into the Fire,” and “Without You.”

“I feel pretty genuine in saying my love for Nilsson is pure,” Quinn said. “I got a copy of Nilsson Schmilsson at a thrift store in LA because I liked the cover. A roommate at the time berated me for playing music without knowing Nilsson, so basically, I put that record on for the first time and got obsessed.”

About the movie

Watch Who Is Harry Nilsson?—or listen to his greatest hits—and you’ll learn quickly that you knew exactly who he was and yet likely wouldn’t have been able to provide his name.

“Most of your musician friends are crazy about him. Most of your non-musician friends have never heard of him,” Quinn said.

The story is certainly tragic. One of Nilsson’s prevailing legacies is his penchant for the kind of public theater that today would set TMZ and Twitter ablaze. True to rock-star form, it was not languor that led Nilsson to the land of the lost. Rather, as the documentary puts forth, it was good-natured shouting matches with John Lennon and legendary benders—Nilsson, in the end, was a victim of his own excess.

“I think most good art,” Quinn said, “and songwriting in particular, comes from pain or sacrifice in some way. Maybe he had a better understanding of that concept than most. He gave up people knowing his songs so that his songs could be better.”

I mentioned that Nilsson struck me as something like an out-of-the-way, super-authentic noodle shop that only legit chefs and connoisseurs know, or a bar that only bartenders frequent. Quinn agreed.

“The idea that something is only valuable if it’s obscure—it’s a good analogy. Except the chefs are probably happy to keep that place a secret so it stays cheap and they know a seat is always available.”

As for the movie, Quinn gave two thumbs up… right before returning to band practice. My 68-year-old mother, a product of Nilsson’s era, could only identify him as the guy who sang the song from Midnight Cowboy. This heralded documentary reveals that much, and infinitely more. 

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