Magazine · Non-Fiction

At Home With A Ghost: Watching Harry Nilsson’s Voice Die by Sarah Kernochan

1974 was the year RCA released House of Pain, my first album as a singer-songwriter. It was the year I loved and lost a man, so my songs poured out the sweet and the bitter in equal measure. Once I was done recording, I rolled up my sleeves to begin my new project: self-pitying, wine-soaked self-destruction. I had gotten off to an impressive start when I met Harry Nilsson.

My album’s title song came from the Charles Laughton horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Laughton played a mad scientist grafting men to animals in his lab, which his unfortunate victims – now “manimals” – called “the House of Pain.” I spent my record advance making a weird short film to accompany the title track, including animation and clips from the horror film. This was before music videos. I urged RCA to use their newly developed video players to show the film in record stores, to see if it had any effect on my sales. They failed to see the point. However, the video did result in my meeting a long-adored idol.

I was new to songwriting, and my early efforts didn’t fit any genre or show any other artist’s influence. However, if there was any singer-songwriter I worshipped, it was Harry Nilsson. His early album Harry (the one which brought him to the attention of the Beatles) captivated me, and then Nilsson Sings Newman (his perfectly distilled renderings of Randy Newman songs) tied the knot; every subsequent album found him defying prediction and exploring something completely new. Harry just suited me right down to the ground: his bizarre humor, his insouciance, his entwining of musical styles both quaint and contemporary, his impeccable taste in arrangements, his brilliantly layered background vocals and, above all, his gliding, golden voice.

RCA was Nilsson’s longtime label. One late winter afternoon, on a visit from LA, Harry popped into the office of his product manager, who showed him my strange video. I happened to be next door with my own product manager when I was told Harry wanted to meet me.

The following dawn, I remembered nothing. I had probably been out of body, and my body had apparently gone ahead and celebrated without me. My idol was standing by the hotel room window, smoking, and gazing at me sort of wistfully. He said he’d recently become enchanted with a young waitress from Ireland, who had gone back home but would rejoin him in LA in the spring. Now that he’d met me, he was feeling confused. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home, too. (My clothes smelled like the floor of a bar.)

I didn’t expect to see Harry again, assuming that I had behaved as badly as I often did during blackouts, which were common enough for me in those 1970s days of wine and bloody noses. But it was a shame to have no memories to savor of my one night with Nilsson. I hadn’t even grabbed a hotel matchbook to prove to myself I’d been there. The RCA product managers knew more about what happened than I did. They were the ones to tell Harry, a few months later, that I was back in LA. They gave him my number.

At 5 a.m., I was sleeping soundly on a bare mattress, the one piece of furniture in my West Hollywood sublet, except for a phone, which suddenly rang. In the blue light of this second dawn, I arrived at Harry’s La Cienega apartment, where I found him on the phone in hoarse conversation with his attorney. Flopped in an armchair was John Lennon. Harry was discussing the text of an apology to be delivered to someone, while John peered at him myopically (his glasses had been lost in a fistfight). Harry instructed his lawyer to send flowers with the apology, and hung up. It seems I had come on the scene right after Harry and John were thrown out of the Troubadour for brawling with the Smothers Brothers.

John repaired to the guest bedroom. Harry downed a quart of milk and a couple of repulsive hoagies from the 7/11, and then fell asleep with his foot hanging off the bed, jiggling, still animated by all the cocaine and brandy he had ingested earlier. (“Ole Coke-foot,” I used to call him.) He favored Brandy Alexanders because the cream lined his stomach; thus the alcohol wasn’t absorbed, allowing him to drink more double Brandy Alexanders until the dawn like this one.

Photo copyright May Pang

Harry had introduced John to this noxious drink, which was also Ringo’s favorite. Now, Harry could hold his mud. No matter how much he drank, he seemed fine, mind sharp and words unslurred. Ever primed with witty banter and guile, he was a world class motormouth. He was also, as I was soon to learn, a raging alcoholic. And he was spurring John to commit brandy-kiri alongside him. John, for his part, was terrible at booze. Two drinks and the darkness fell; you never knew what demon was going to ride out of the murk.

By now their escapades had hit the press. RCA was understandably anxious. John was supposed to produce Harry’s new album, Pussy Cats, with recording sessions to begin in two weeks. The word came down from the higher-ups: Harry and John needed to get out of LA, spend a weekend at a spa in Palm Springs, and dry out.

Women were allowed on board. RCA must have thought we would act as nannies. This was not my strong suit. May Pang, on the other hand, didn’t mind being a minder. She was John’s new love, in the wake of his split with Yoko. She and I packed our weekend bags, jumped into our hot pants, and rode down to Palm Springs with our sick patients.

I will not go into detail about that long and disorderly weekend. Suffice it to say, the boys took “dry out” to mean “no alcohol.” Nothing wet. That left drugs. And Palm Springs was dead boring. The sun was too bright. The shades got pulled down; calls to locate a dealer went out. Some white powder was scored. Perhaps it was coke. If so, it had been stepped on so many times that it was mostly suitable for babies with diaper rash. Whatever it was, Harry became more than usually loquacious. Hoarse to begin with, he talked and talked and talked until he was down to a rasp.

A trip to the hospital ensued. He was handed some antibiotics, and told very sternly not to smoke, and to go on a complete voice rest for the rest of the weekend.

 

Harry tried the pantomime thing for about four hours before he caved. Alcohol was restored to the menu. Swallowing the pills with cognac, he lit up a cigarette, and proceeded to talk. With a vengeance. He wouldn’t shut up. The rasp now sounded like he was gargling blood. Yet he talked on.

And so I was present to witness the tragedy of Harry Nilsson willfully murdering his voice, that beautiful instrument I loved so much. It never really came back.

I was back in New York when he and John arrived to finish Pussy Cats. I was horrified to hear Harry’s vocals. There was no trace of the swooping, heaven-kissed tenor he was born with. He sounded like he was being flayed alive. The album was one big drugged-out gangfuck of the ears.

Meanwhile I was pulling away, for my own preservation. I lost my nerve, recognizing I had neither the stamina nor the capacity to keep up with this tireless, unending binge. Harry scared me. His attempts at self-destruction made my own look feeble.

Besides, I had my second album to record, and Harry’s waitress was flying in from Ireland shortly. What should he do? Harry asked me. He was in love with two women. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home.

I knew if I stayed with him, I was going to die. Instead, he died – twenty years later, in 1994. By then I was happily married (as was he, to his waitress) with one child (to his six). He hadn’t been sober for most of those years, so the news of his death from heart failure, while sad, came as no surprise to me.

I hadn’t loved him, though I’d tried because he was a genius and I am partial to them. Nonetheless I was still and forever in love with his music. I mourned Nilsson’s death by playing his poignant “Turn On Your Radio”

I don’t know where I’m goin’
Now that I am gone
I hope the wind that’s blowin’
Helps me carry on
Turn on your radio, baby
Baby listen to my song
Turn on your night light baby
Baby I’m gone
            

I’d said goodbye to him many years before, and fate had not arranged for us to run into each other since. This time I knew for certain I’d never see him again.

But I did.

 

*For the rest of this story, as well as other entries in Sarah Kernochan’s At Home With A Ghost memoir series, visit sarahkernochan.blogspot.com

First catching the world’s attention for co-directing the Academy Award winning documentary Marjoe, renaissance woman Sarah Kernochan has lived a storied career as a musician, screenwriter, filmmaker and author. “It’s my way of being promiscuous,” she says. She won a second Oscar in 2002 for her documentary short Thoth (available on YouTube). Her writing credits include the films 9 1/2 Weeks, Impromptu, Sommersby and What Lies Beneath, and she is the author of the novels Dry Hustle and Jane Was Here. Her blog At Home With A Ghost, chronicling Kernochan’s history with spirits, has a large online following. Kernochan lives in New York with husband James Lapine. Check out her website at sarahkernochan.com

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