If our “A Wrestler You Should Probably Know Better” series had a documentary equivalent, it would be “Who’s Harry Nilsson and Why Is Everyone Talking About Him?”.
It’s easy to understand why The Beatles were such enormous fans of Harry Nilsson, calling him their favorite group (as in not artist, not singer-songwriter, but “entity in music.”) A great performer with unmatched vocal prowess and a quirky sense of individuality, he was considered smart and funny by those who knew him, and generally regarded as a blast to be around. At his best, he had the songwriting talent of John and the charisma of Paul.
But at his worst he was a heel, with the pretension of John and the cocaine habit of Ringo. While clearly very talented, he was just as clearly a raging egomaniac. Like Lord Steve Regal, he was palpably too good for everything. And in real life, acting that way — in Nilsson’s case, reclusive uber talent — doesn’t get people to pay money to see you “show ass”, it drives them away. Which is why Nilsson became a forgotten legend, the Ozymandias of pop music’s golden age.
Living the ages-old heel philosophy of “not needing the fans,” the foundation of Nilsson’s gimmick was his artistic arrogance. When he won an Oscar for his recording of “Everybody’s Talking” from the soundtrack of Midnight Cowboy, he followed up not by recording a new album to capitalize on the success, but by rerecording and rereleasing his first two albums. The clear message to the public was, “I’m glad you finally got with the program and discovered how great I am. Now you need to go back and listen to my early work – it’s amazing.”
He knew he created great art, but only did so to support his ego and, later, his vices. He refused to tour, partially to protect his workrate (his signature vocal acrobatics were not reproducible night to night) and partially because he preferred putting things into himself rather than putting anything out. Perhaps the greatest vocalist of a generation, he frequently denied his fans the opportunity to see him in person essentially because it didn’t sound like much fun to him.
Through his music, Nilsson self-consciously meditated on what had led to his turn. In “1941” he suggests that the only logical path for him was to recreate what he had known after being abandoned by his father: selfishness and emotional distance. He would abandon his first wife and son just as he predicted he would in the song, which was released two years before his marriage even began.
His “talents” for drinking and smoking and doing lines were legendary even by the standards of the golden age of drinking, smoking, and doing lines. A Pillman-esque bad boy twenty years before Pillman, what makes Nilsson a truly great heel, though, is that his life story forces us to reconsider what makes “bad” people so wicked. Was he the product of his upbringing, a lonely, isolated man who used overconfidence as a front to hide his low self-esteem or just a jerk who knew how to manipulate people by spinning a sob story?
Someone with Nilsson’s overwhelming talent makes us want to create a narrative where his obvious flaws weren’t his fault. A great heel makes you need to hate them in spite of themselves and virtuosos — think Randy Orton — are particularly alluring. When someone actively deprives us of something, especially when they choose to, it’s infuriating. Which is why denying the fans what they want is the very essence of the heel.
In his later years, with his talents largely faded from age and self-abuse, Nilsson may have found a measure of redemption or happiness when he settled down and had the family he’d been running from his whole life. But Nilsson will deservedly be remembered as a heel, not just because of squandered talent. It’s because wearing the black hat was as big a part of his act as his ability to hit the high notes.