[A note on sources: Where most of these essays have multiple sources, almost all the information here comes from Alyn Shipton’s masterful Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, with a little from Andrew Sandoval’s liner notes for the RCA album box set. Whenever I lean heavily on one source, I like to credit it]
Harry Nilsson’s time working with Phil Spector seemed to have been even less useful to him than Van Dyke Parks’ time with Brian Wilson — at least Heroes & Villains had been released as a single, while none of Nilsson’s collaborations with Spector had been heard outside the recording studios.
He’d been recording with a small company called Tower, putting out singles (eventually compiled into an unsuccessful album titled Spotlight on Nilsson), while he was working with Spector, but none had had any success. He’d also been working as a staff songwriter, paid $25 a week, for a company called Rock Music, co-owned by Perry Botkin jr, to whom he’d been introduced by the arranger George Tipton, and he’d been doing this while also employed in a full-time job on the night shift as the manager of a bank’s computer department.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was essentially working two full-time jobs, Nilsson’s first marriage had collapsed, but in January 1967 a lot of things came to a head. That month, he not only split up with his wife, but he was dropped by Rock Music (amicably, they ran out of money) and almost simultaneously met Rick Jarrard, a record producer for RCA, who signed Nilsson and gave him an office where he could continue the daily songwriting routine he’d started at Rock.
It was also the month that the copyright was registered in a song, apparently about the breakdown of Nilsson’s marriage, titled Without Her. Nilsson would later claim that that song, 1941, and Don’t Leave Me, were all written on the same night, although their copyright registration spans a fourteen-month period. Whatever the truth, though, two of those songs would be used on the new album Nilsson began work on, with Jarrard producing and Tipton and Botkin sharing arrangement duties.
However, even with his RCA contract and day job, Nilsson was still a hustler, and soon hit paydirt with his songwriting. Chip Douglas, who had been in the Modern Folk Quartet when they’d recorded Nilsson’s This Could Be The Night, had remained an admirer of Nilsson’s writing, and had recently become the producer for the Monkees, who were looking for new material.
Nilsson went into the studio with them and played them a handful of his new songs. Michael Nesmith reportedly replied “Man where the fuck did you come from? You just sat down there and blew our minds. We’ve been looking for songs, and you just sat down and played an album for us!”
While both the Monkees and Douglas’ old band the Turtles would use several Nilsson songs between them in the future, the Monkees didn’t quite decide to record the album Nesmith talked about. However, they did decide to use Nilsson’s song Cuddly Toy, and Screen Gems, the Monkees’ publishing company, paid him an advance in the region of $40,000 (a reasonable sum today, but a small fortune in 1968 dollars) for the one song. Lester Sill, the Monkees’ music supervisor, told Nilsson after he’d played for the band “you can quit the bank”.
Cuddly Toy would also appear on Nilsson’s album, to which he could now devote his full attention. Titled Pandemonium Shadow Show, after the evil magical carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, the album was a mix of Nilsson’s own material (roughly half the album), and an eclectic mix of covers including a song by Jesse Lee Kincaid (formerly of the Rising Sons), two Beatles tracks, a song by Botkin and his Rock co-owner Gil Garfield, a vaudeville song from 1919, and River Deep Mountain High. All of this was recorded in a style suggested by Jarrard and primarily arranged by Tipton, with heavy emphasis on brass instruments and snare drum, designed to sound like the circus of the title.
While the album’s material seemed disparate, it was in fact carefully chosen. Every song was, in some way, about childhood, separation, or running away to the circus, either literally or metaphorically. And there was a good reason for this.
When the Spotlight on Nilsson album had been released, despite it having little or no promotion, it had put Nilsson in the public eye in a way he previously hadn’t been, and his mother had broken news he wasn’t expecting — his father was alive.
For more than twenty years, Nilsson had been under the impression that his father, Harry Nilsson senior, had been killed during the war while serving in the Navy as a Seabee. In fact, he’d been a merchant seaman, not in the US Navy, and had survived, but had abandoned his wife and child, and was living in Florida with a new family.
The song he wrote about this, 1941, had a deceptively jaunty melody, but the lyrics, with an almost nursery-rhyme simplicity, spoke about how “in 1941 a happy father had a son/and in 1944 the father walked right out the door”, before going on to describe the son running off himself to the circus (a not-very-veiled description of Nilsson’s own teenage years), before having his own child and abandoning the mother himself, and ending with “what will happen to the boy when the circus comes to town?”
Nilsson was clearly worried that he would follow the pattern of his father’s life — while his first marriage had not produced any children, he had adopted his wife’s son and clearly felt bad about abandoning him (and he would later repeat the pattern, leaving his second wife and their son four years after marrying her) — and the combination of Nilsson having to reevaluate his whole childhood, and in effect experiencing two breakups at once — that of his own marriage, and that of his parents’ twenty-three years after the fact — made the selection of material on Pandemonium Shadow Show show the whole spectrum of feelings about abandonment and breakups. From the callous, almost date-rapist, vicious protagonist of Cuddly Toy to the girl leaving home in She’s Leaving Home to the protagonist of Without Her spending “the night in the chair, hoping she’ll be there, but she never comes”, every character is Nilsson, both abandoner and abandoned, leaving home to seek his fortune but being left by his parents, drifting apart from his wife while being desperate when she’s not there.
And it was this sense of loss that must have affected John Lennon in particular. Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ former publicist, now working for the Beach Boys and Byrds in LA, had heard 1941 on the radio, and immediately bought several copies of Pandemonium Shadow Show and sent them to the Beatles [FOOTNOTE: Taylor seems to have been aware of Nilsson before this, and even to have introduced him to George Harrison and given Harrison acetates of some of his recordings when Harrison was visiting LA in summer 1967, but the story he and Nilsson always told ignores that, and it seems Nilsson didn’t really figure on the Beatles’ radar until the album had been out a while.]. The Beatles, especially Lennon, fell in love with the music. Both Lennon and Ringo Starr had been abandoned by their fathers as children, in 1944 or 45, just as Nilsson had; like him they’d had almost no contact with their fathers since; and both of them had fathers who’d worked in shipping — Lennon’s father was a merchant seaman, like Nilsson’s, while Starr’s was a dock worker. Combined with how much Nilsson’s music was clearly inspired by the Beatles’, while being distinctively its own thing, it’s no surprise that Lennon adored it.
In early 1968, while promoting their new Apple label, Lennon and McCartney were asked their favourite American artist during a press conference, and Lennon replied “Nilsson”. When asked their favourite American band, both men again replied “Nilsson”, and later that day when asked about the state of pop music in the US, Lennon said “Nilsson, Nilsson for President!”
Nilsson had finally hit the big time.
Composer: Harry Nilsson
Line-up: Harry Nilsson (vocal) plus some of Mac Rebbenack (guitar and keyboards), Mike Deasy, Michael Duré, Neil Lavang, and Bob Segarini (guitar), Ray Brown, Al McKibbon, Lyle Ritz, and William Trochim (bass), Richie Frost, Vann Slatter, and Jerry Williams (drums), Dale Anderson, Hubert Anderson, and Milt Holland (percussion), Mike Melvoin and Don Ralke (keyboards), Roy Caton, David Duke, Robert M Knight, Carroll Lewis, Oliver Mitchell, Richard Nash, and Thomas Scott (brass), Jesse Erlich, Paul Shure, Robert Sushel, and Darrell Terwillliger (strings) (Credits taken from the booklet for Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection, which only provides credits for the full album, not individual tracks)
Original release: Pandemonium Shadow Show, Nilsson, RCA LPM-3874
Currently available on: Pandemonium Shadow Show /Aerial Ballet/Aerial Pandemonium Ballet BMG CD
Van Dyke Parks’ big break had broken. The album on which he had been collaborating with Brian Wilson, Smile, had fallen apart, and Heroes & Villains, the single that was originally to be the basis for the album, had been a comparative flop. Parks had little to show for many months’ work, other than being involved in “the greatest unreleased album of all time” — an album that would act as an albatross around the neck of everyone involved in it, dominating all discussions of their later careers. The recording sessions had become so tense and unproductive that Parks felt he had no choice but to leave the project before it was completed; he believed that some members of the band, notably Mike Love, were so unsympathetic to his work that it was impossible to work with them, however great the financial rewards might have been. The project itself collapsed soon after Parks left, although it had been clear for some time before that it was in trouble.
But Parks, luckily, had kept many irons in the fire while working with the Beach Boys, and had been working with almost every up-and-coming musician in LA, either as a session musician, an arranger, or just as someone to bounce ideas off. In particular, Parks had been working with Lenny Waronker.
Lenny Waronker was a young staff producer at Warner Brothers records, who had got his job largely through family connections — his father, Si Waronker, had been head of Liberty Records, and Lenny had gone from working for his father to working at Warners. Waronker was responsible to the label for the Mojo Men, the Beau Brummels, and a band called the Tikis (who he got Van Dyke Parks to produce; parks renamed them Harper’s Bizarre), and had built around himself a small team of musicians, including Waronker’s childhood friend Randy Newman. Parks was part of this group, which quickly started making some of the most interesting — if not always the most commercially successful — music coming out of Hollywood.
As a result of this work, Waronker soon offered Parks the chance to make a solo album with Waronker producing, and Parks eagerly accepted. Provisionally titled Looney Tunes, his album would be a continuation of Parks’ (as opposed to Wilson’s) artistic vision for Smile – a unified piece, with allusive lyrics, a tribute to America and Americana, and to the pre-rock popular song.
To test the waters, a single was recorded and released, under the pseudonym George Washington Brown. Donovan’s Colours took the simple folk song Colours by “British Dylan” Donovan, and turned it into an instrumental (apart from one single line of vocal on the single mix, absent from the album), with Dixieland clarinet, multiple overdubbed ragtime pianos, clanking percussion and complex but joyful orchestration, sounding somewhere between the music Carl Stalling wrote for Warner Bros cartoons, the original, jazzier, version of Rhapsody In Blue, and the piano-roll experiments of Conlon Nancarrow.
While this was, obviously, not a commercial success, it generated enough interest that an album was a definite possibility. Donovan’s Colours was included on the album, of course, as was a small section of Nearer My God To Thee (retitled Van Dyke Parks and credited to Public Domain — another track on the album was titled Public Domain and credited to Van Dyke Parks), but with one exception the songs on the album, now titled Song Cycle, were all Parks’ work — intelligent, complex, music that required multiple listens to grasp, and which eschewed rock instrumentation almost completely in favour of tuned percussion, chromatic harmonica, balalaika, accordion, woodwinds, strings, and tack piano. It’s an album that has a unique sonic fingerprint — a bar or two from the album is enough to identify it absolutely, and not just because of Parks’ arrangements, but also the treatment of his vocal, which is reverbed and processed by engineers Lee Herschberg and Bruce and Doug Botnick so it sounds distant, as if coming in on a radio signal from some other plane of existence.
There are only two exceptions to this on the album — two tracks where you can hear Van Dyke Parks singing as himself, undistorted, without effects. One is the last song, the gorgeous Pot Pourri, where only Parks’ vocal and piano are used, and where the piano is so far up in the mix it’s almost impossible to make out the voice at all. The other is Vine Street, the opening track, and the only new song on the album not written by Parks.
Vine Street, though, was completely of a piece with the rest of the album. Written by Randy Newman with Parks in mind, the track starts with what sounds like a field recording, before the song proper comes in — “that’s the tape that we made, but I’m sad to say it never made the grade/That was me, third guitar, I wonder where the others are…” (Newman knew that Parks had been third guitar in a folk band with Steve Young and Steve Stills), before introducing two of the major themes of the album — nostalgia, and the landscape and geography of LA and Southern California.
Newman was, by this time, a successful songwriter for hire, and in Vine Street he managed to encapsulate the feel of the album, but in a slightly more accessible way than Parks’ own songs. Musically, Newman’s arrangement contains references not only to other songs on the album but to Parks’ influences — there’s a snatch of Rhapsody In Blue, a couple of bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Parks had earlier recorded a jangle-pop version of the Ode To Joy from the Ninth and released it as a single under the title of Number Nine), and a string figure, suggested by Parks, coming in just before the first mention of the title, designed to mimic the sound of the train in the distance at the end of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album — despite stopping work on Smile, Parks still had enormous admiration for Brian Wilson as a composer and producer.
Parks did make one change to Newman’s original song, though. Newman originally intended the intro to the song to be a performance of a cheesy pop song he’d written called Anita [FOOTNOTE: Newman’s original intended opening can be heard on Harry Nillson’s gorgeous cover version on the Nilsson Sings Newman album, one of the best things either man ever did.], but Parks instead replaced this with a recording of an old folk song, sung by his old friend the country singer Steve Young (who was himself the subject of another of the songs on the album, The All-Golden). The song chosen was Black Jack Davey, a variant of a very old traditional song sometimes also known as The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, about someone who forsakes the comfort and reliability of life as a rich person to run off and live on the fringes of society. Possibly Parks, who had given up writing for what was still at the time the most successful band in the USA in order to write a collection of oblique art songs, saw a parallel with his own life?
Sadly, Song Cycle was not to find the commercial success it deserved — Warners’ head, Joe Smith, was unwilling to release the album at all until Jac Holzman, the head of rival company Elektra, offered to buy it off him. Warners did then put it out, but with a bizarre advertising campaign that Parks believes killed what commercial potential the album had.
Song Cycle would go on to be regarded as a classic, and has as good a claim as any to be the best album of the 60s, but Parks, Newman, and Waronker were already all thinking about future projects together…
Composer: Randy Newman
Line-up: Van Dyke Parks (vocals), Randy Newman (piano), plus some or all of Ron Elliott and Dick Rosmini (guitar), Carl Fortina (accordion) Nicolai Bolin, Vasil Crienica, William Nadel, Alan Reuss, Leon Stewart, and Thomas Tedesco (balalaika). Donald Bagley, Gregory Bemko, Charles Berghofer, Harry Bluestone, Samuel Boghossian, Dennis Budimer, Joseph Ditullio, Jesse Erlich, Nathan Gershman, Philip Goldberg, Armand Kaproff, William Kurasch, Leonard Malarsky, Jerome Reisler, Orville Rhodes, Trefoni Rizzi, Lyle Ritz, Misha Goodatieff, Joseph Saxon, Virginia Majewski, Ralph Schaffer, Leonard Selic, Frederick Seykora, Darrel Terwilliger, and Robert West (strings), Gayle Levant (harp), Norman Benno, Arthur Briegleb, Vincent De Rosa, George Fields, William Green, James Horn, Richard Hyde, Jay Migliori, Thomas Morgan, Ted Nash, Richard Perissi, Thomas Scott, and Thomas Shepard (woodwinds), Hal Blaine, Gary Coleman, James Gordon, and Earl Palmer (percussion), Steve Young (guitar and vocals on Black Jack Davey)
Original release: Song Cycle, Van Dyke Parks, Warners WS 1727
Currently available on: Song Cycle, Bella Union CD
(I posted this on Facebook as just a normal rant, but a few people wanted to share it, and couldn’t because I lock my FB to friends only. I’ve copy-pasted it here for those people, but be warned that it’s not a properly thought out post)
Now, the Pope doesn’t need me to defend him, and I disagree with what he said, and think it’s stupid, but he didn’t compare trans people to nuclear weapons.
The actual quote, before being turned inside out and upside down by Gay Star News, was:
“Let’s think of the nuclear arms, of the possibility to annihilate in a few instants a very high number of human beings,” he continues. “Let’s think also of genetic manipulation, of the manipulation of life, or of the gender theory, that does not recognize the order of creation.”
“With this attitude, man commits a new sin, that against God the Creator,” the pope says. “The true custody of creation does not have anything to do with the ideologies that consider man like an accident, like a problem to eliminate.”
Looking at this, he’s criticising:
1) Nuclear weapons
2) Genetic manipulation
3) “Gender theory” — the idea that gender exists on a spectrum.
The Gay Star News piece paraphrases bits, cuts sentences up and places them out of order, and — crucially — has a paraphrase about “people who ‘manipulate’ their bodies” that appears nowhere in the Pope’s actual statements.
Now, it happens that I think the statement itself is bloody stupid and worthy of criticism — nuclear weapons are a terrible evil, genetic engineering is something that could have very good or very bad uses, and the idea that gender is a spectrum is not only scientifically obvious but is also blatantly obvious to anyone who actually looks at the different ways gender presents itself in different people — but he wasn’t talking about trans people, he didn’t compare them to nuclear weapons, and frankly there are enough people out there *really* saying horribly bigoted things about trans people that it isn’t necessary to manufacture another one when you could throw a rock in a Guardian editorial meeting and hit half a dozen of them…