Noel's "Gateway to Geekery" essay on Harry Nilsson went live today. Nilsson is somebody I knew only glancingly in my pre-Noel days -- as the voice behind "Everybody's Talkin'," the beautiful theme to a movie I loved (Midnight Cowboy), and as John Lennon's companion during his infamous "lost weekend" in California (an episode I cataloged along with my obsessive knowledge of all things Beatles).
Finding and resurrecting the three-dimensional career, the arc and the art, behind the handful of pop hits and moments of cultural notoriety -- it's one of the great joys of life, and of my marriage. When Noel and I go out for a date-night dinner out, I like to ask him, "So what's the deal with Ricky Nelson?", and get treated to the fascinating story of who this guy was, where he fit in during his own era, how he got there and what happened to him. It's like the blank spots in one's Headline News version of cultural history being filled in with color.
My interest in Nilsson, I admit, derives partly from his similarity to Todd Rundgren, of whom I've been a rabid fan since my college days. Both were known as great pop songwriters and studio wizards; both put out crazy, idiosyncratic albums full of obtuse jokes and pastiches. Both resented, probably, to some extent, being pressured to be conventionally entertaining, and rebelled in their own ways.
Nilsson probably didn't take himself seriously enough, endlessly deconstructing his own legacy and sabotaging his chances of success; Todd probably took himself too seriously, dumping all his philosophico-mystical dabblings into the marketplace. But that's what makes the frequent moments of absolute pop perfection in both of their catalogs so glittering and precious. Take them as they are, or don't take them at all. For me, the human failings of the carriers of so magical a gift, so immense a share of creativity, make their stories all the more compelling, and the music all the more worthy of our love.