CHAPTER THREE … CYCLING AMERICA
“Excuse me, which way’s New York,” I asked a stranger as I exited the sliding glass door of Los Angeles airport.
By 1976 and at the age of 18 I’d left school and had developed a keen interest in cycling. I’d been challenged by my mates to cycle solo to the south of France in seven days. After I had returned home, the local newspaper ran an article about my cycling adventure because I’d raised some sponsorship cash for the Guide Dogs. At the end of the article it was written that my next challenge was to cycle across America. I don’t recall having said that to the reporter, but when I read the piece, I felt compelled to give it a go. The thought of being in the country of Nilsson’s origin, with all those massive record stores that I could browse was just too much to resist.
Besides, I was in a dead-end boring job that was going nowhere, and I’d also had a car crash that wasn’t my fault. The insurance company paid me £500 – more money than I’d ever had in one lump sum. I obtained a 3-month USA visa, bought a Freddy Laker Airlines one-way ticket, prepared my less-than suitable tubeless-tyre racing bike that my Mum had bought be for my 13th birthday soon after I’d first met her. I packed and repacked my panniers umpteen times and I also bought a handlebar radio to keep me company while I rode along the quintessential miles-long straight American roads.
But a week before I was due to go, I hesitated. Something was holding me back. Fear. Cowardice. Uncertainty. Danger. All those things. I nearly backed out of the adventure in favour of my dull but safe job – until my father gave me an encouraging talking-to. “If you back out now, Neil, you’ll regret it later, and probably forever,” he advised. I knew he was right, so on 27th April 1981, the day after my 21st birthday, I boarded the plane at Heathrow bound for Los Angeles, with my dismantled bike boxed and stowed in the hold. Later that evening, after going through Immigration and reassembling my bike in a corner of LAX’s foyer, one excited but petrified young man exited the sliding doors that led to the hot and humid street outside, and asked the nearest passer-by “Excuse me, which way is New York?”
For the next ten weeks, thanks to my constant companion, the handlebar radio, I had music with me wherever I went, including during the six-day stretch across the plains of Kansas, when I met a Japanese guy, Yushi, going the other way on his bike. Occasionally I’d hear Everybody’s Talkin’, Nilsson’s hit song from the film Midnight Cowboy. But more often the stations would play the hits of the time on rotation; among them Being With You by Smokey Robinson, All Those Years Ago by George Harrison, and Bette Davis Eyes by Kim Carnes.
In June of that year my epic journey had almost come to an end, and in New Jersey I used up the last of my money to buy my ticket home – due to leave via New York’s JFK airport the following day. Someone I’d met offered to take me through the city in his car straight to the airport. I had previously planned to spend some days in New York, principally to visit record shops in search of American versions of any Nilsson LPs I didn’t already have back home. But I was exhausted – and I was broke, literally only having twenty dollars left. I’d need to exchange that to sterling when I arrived back at Heathrow for my tube fare back to Barnet, so I skipped the record stores in favour of a quick passage through NYC.
I’ve always regretted that decision. Surely I could have got a casual job to earn a few bucks? But the truth was that I was too tired and lazy. Damn me. However, I had met so many wonderful people on that trip, many who invited me to stay at their homes. Of course, when I did I always made a beeline to their record collections, and usually discovered at least one Nilsson record there; either ‘Schmilsson’, ‘Son of Schmilsson’, or ‘Pussycats’. One day I will return to the city, to Brooklyn, to see for myself the district where my hero Nilsson grew up.
CHAPTER FOUR …PROPER JOBS
On my return to North London following my epic ride across the US, it was time to work again and get back into the real world. After all, I was 21 years old and it was about time I settled down and got a job, a mortgage, a wife, and became sensible and responsible. If only someone had told me that 21 is too young for all that.
Nevertheless I was lucky enough to get a couple of ‘extras’ jobs appearing in step-dad Gerry’s TV commercials – one for Ford Fiesta cars, and the other for Cadbury’s Creme Eggs, in which I had to be dressed as a Victorian gentleman walking along the clifftops of Dover, arm in arm with a lady (played by my sister Fiona). That was fun!
With the little cash I’d earned, I spent it buying paper, envelopes and stamps sending out letters about my newly formed ‘A2B’ business to prospective clients who might want me to set up their exhibition stands at their trade shows. It was a good idea and saved having to go to interviews in search of a ‘real’ job. I was contracted by one customer that manufactured drawing equipment to set up their display at the Wembley Conference Centre, and to dismantle and collect it a few days later.
It was exciting, and amazingly I got paid well for doing this. However, I made very little profit as I didn’t have my own van and needed to hire one at great expense, what with the insurance and petrol. But the same company gave me a few subsequent jobs, and then I was asked to set up a show in Dublin. That turned out to be lucrative enough for me to buy my own vehicle – a Honda Acty van for £600. It was small but perfectly formed, and cheap enough to mean that subsequent jobs would then be more profitable.
Things were on the up and up, but one day my good friend Adam spotted an advert in the London Evening Standard for the electrical giant Grundig, who were looking to recruit an ‘exhibitions assistant’. I didn’t really want to do a ‘proper’ job, but felt compelled to apply, just to see what might happen. I was offered the job, based up in the Midlands. Damn! I’d been having so much fun working for myself that I hesitated until eventually my head ruled my heart. After all, Grundig was a highly reputable manufacturer offering me a regular salary, expenses – and my own company van, with free petrol.
For the next three years, I happily went about the country setting up televisions and video recorders – and superb hifi equipment – at trade and public exhibitions. It was a good job, but by then at the age of 24, I knew it wasn’t enough. I needed to expand and improve my career prospects, so I meekly enquired to one of the bosses whether there was any chance of promotion.
There was, but it meant moving into sales, to be the company’s London representative, going to shopkeepers and convincing them to stock Grundig products in preference to the likes of Sony and Panasonic. “There’s no way I can do that,” I thought, but it was too late to back down as the company had already made all the arrangements and had recruited someone to take over my exhibitions role.
“Shit!” I thought, assuming the company would soon realise I couldn’t sell for toffee and then be bound to sack me. But at least I would have got my relocation package to move back to London and they’d have to pay me some redundancy money, I reasoned. Then I’d be able to start up my own business again doing whatever. But I was amazed to discover I was actually quite good at selling. Very good, it turned out, and I found myself top of the sales reps’ leader-board consistently during the next 30 months. Damn again – another of my great plans scuppered!
My pay packet consisting commission and bonuses on top of my wages was more than healthy, and I don’t think the Sales Director took too kindly to me sometimes earning more than his own salary – so he changed the structure that ended up penalising my success. Disgruntled, I handed in my resignation. But they countered that with an offer I couldn’t refuse. My new role was to start up the new car-radio division and persuade the likes of SAAB and Porsche to fit the rather excellent Grundig products into their vehicles. Once again I was in Utopia, listening to car sound systems and being paid for the privilege.
Plus there were the occasional free track-days to which I was cordially invited. Putting a Porsche Carrera through its paces around Millbrook’s speed bowl, or driving a SAAB Carlsson on the race-track circuit at Snetterton, with the stereo on full-blast was like a dream come true. What could be better than listening to Harry Nilsson’s Jump In To The Fire (check it out kids – it rocks!) on top quality car systems, and being paid for it?
Eventually, after 10 glorious years at Grundig, it finally became time for me to move to pastures new. The Swiss company Roadstar wanted a piece of the UK car audio market, and I was given the task to deliver their wishes. Roadstar was a lovely, much smaller company – but the products just didn’t cut the mustard, and the market knew it. After three years of bashing my head against a brick wall, eventually the company closed and I was offered a redundancy package, far greater than I could have wished for.
What should I do with all that lovely lolly, I wondered? “I know – I’ll start up a magazine for other sales people like me, and I’ll call it CoatHanger.” This is the point at which you, dear reader, can cross over to the BOOKS AND WRITING page of this ‘ere website to check out CoatHanger. But y’all come back, ya hear!
CHAPTER FIVE … PUBLISHING TYCOON
How I nearly became one.
The concept behind CoatHanger magazine was a simple one – it was a lifestyle comic for sales reps. Those bastions of the commercial world who would drive up and down the motorways the length and breadth of the country, visiting their clients, telling jokes to, and hopefully walking away with an order tucked inside their briefcase. They’d return to their car, hang their jacket on the coathanger in the rear window, and off they’d go in pursuit of their next killing. Just like I used to do.
The magazine would include articles about themselves, the products and services they sold, however obscure, as well as the items they used to carry out their work. The regular feature ‘What I Sold Today’ included a plethora of case studies.
Until I was a salesman myself it hadn’t occurred to me that virtually everything we see and use has been ‘sold’ by someone to someone else. So the magazine would include, among others, the pig-semen seller, the nuts seller, the bridge seller, to give just three examples. Yes, there really is someone who’s job it is to sell pigs’ semen!
CoatHanger also included things like what suits and ties to wear, what jokes to tell, what coffee to drink. But the real incentive for me was to write about what music to play on the car-stereo while driving from one appointment to the next. Apart from in my early school years of writing a magazine about flying saucers (yes, I did do that), CoatHanger was my first chance to really get into writing.
And there was no better subject that I could write about than the regular feature ‘THE BEST DRIVING ALBUMS EVER!’ This was the golden opportunity I’d created for myself to write about my hero’s music, and perhaps bring it to a slightly wider audience. Even if only one reader had been encouraged to check out my recommended ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ album, then my work was done.
Cars played a large part of CoatHanger’s content, and before long I was being asked to review new cars at their press launches. Flying off to test-drive the new Fiesta, for example, around Barcelona courtesy of Ford wasn’t a bad gig to have, and I had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming. Being whisked away by private jet with ‘real’ motoring correspondents from the Times or the Telegraph, I couldn’t help being perplexed. “How did I get here?”, I asked myself. I still to this day don’t know – I was only a sales rep writing about Harry Nilsson, for goodness sake.
CHAPTER SIX … HARRYFEST ’98
Dial-up modems and the world’s first celebratory gathering of Nilsson fans.
I’d heard that publishers used Apple Macintoshes, so that’s what I bought when I first began CoatHanger magazine. Having never used a computer of any kind before, I naively plugged in my new purchase and expected I could make it work immediately and get connected to the internet. No, I soon realised with a jolt of reality. I needed a ‘modem’, a phone line, a lot of patience, and some basic computer skills of which I was sadly lacking.
But eventually after many strange noises emanating from the machine I was able to get online. I’d heard of Google, and managed to get it on the screen. I stared blankly, not knowing what to do. Aha! I could type letters and they would appear in front of me. I cautiously typed ‘HARRY NILSSON’, and pressed the return key. I was gobsmacked with what came up. A myriad of information about the singer, all his albums, his biography… and… this was SO exciting… the news that there was a fan magazine published by a man called Roger Smith in Florida. My God, I thought, there’s someone else out there just like me who is a Nilsson fan too. I’m not the only one! Amazed, I reached for the phone and rang the international number of Mr. Smith. To hell with the cost – this was important, and there was no time to waste. This for me was a REVELATION!
The American dialling tone that I’d become familiar with on my cycling trip played down the line, until Mr. Smith answered. Ecstatic to be actually talking with a fellow Nilsson fan, I rattled off how excited I was to be in touch with him. He probably thought I was one crazy Brit. A brief chat followed, and then he dropped the bombshell news that he and a few other ‘HarryHeads’, as he called them, were planning the world’s first ever HarryFest in Los Angeles the following year. Oh my, I nearly fainted. I would simply HAVE to go, despite me having no time and even less money. Thankfully my wife Penny was very understanding and did nothing to stand in my way. I guess she knew that would be futile.
With a Virgin Atlantic ticket in my wallet, I embarked the tube train at Southgate Underground station, incredulous that for the next 5,000 miles I wouldn’t need to step outdoors until I’d get out the taxi at the house in the Hollywood Hills belonging to the HarryFest host, actor Curtis Armstrong (Moonlighting co-star with Bruce Willis) whom I’d met the previous year in London to do a swapsie of some Nilsson vinyl.
He had graciously and generously invited 100 or so Nilsson fans, just like he undoubtedly was, to his home – the only difficulty being that he had to be elsewhere that weekend for an acting job. So the job of hosting the party had been handed to his wife. I imagined their conversation; “Darling, I’ve invited a load of strangers from around the world but I can’t be here – will you look after them?”
Having taken a stretch-limo taxi from Los Angeles airport, I arrived at Curtis’s home and rang the doorbell. The house was full, and drinks and canapés were plentiful. The window at the back looked out to the Hollywood Hills above and LA lights below – like a scene from the movies. I should have been more enthusiastic, but I was so heavily jet-lagged and tired. I did my best to make conversations with my fellow party guests, but I couldn’t last beyond 10pm. The fact that there were those who had either met Nilsson or had had direct connections with his him and his music just wasn’t enough to keep my heavy eyes open. I had to retire to my motel back in LA, but I didn’t mind, knowing we’d all be meeting up again the next day in some swanky downtown hotel.
The swanky hotel was the venue chosen for the gathering of Nilsson fans, young and old from far and wide. Refreshed with sleep, I was now in my element, exchanging dialogue and chat, listening to speeches being made by fans and associates of my hero. It was here that I met Zak, Harry Nilsson’s eldest son. What a nice guy I thought.
That Saturday evening there was a Nilsson tribute concert being put on at the famous Roxy Club on Sunset Boulevard, a place I’d read about but never imagined that one day I’d actually be going there. I’d been driven there by, I think from memory, one of Nilsson’s cousins, or at least it was one of his associates, whose name I sadly can’t recall. I was played a cassette in the car of a new singer who bore some similarities in musical style to Nilsson, Rufus Wainwright. I liked it, and made a mental note to check him out some more. In the balmy evening air, waiting for the Roxy’s doors to open, my head spun. This was incredible! But how did I get here? Was I actually really here, or was this all some crazy surreal dream?
Waiting outside the Roxy, looking up to the very pertinent sign above the door, I pinched myself as we went into this dark, and much smaller than I’d anticipated, intimate club. I sat with Mark Richardson, the only other fan from the UK, a chap from Huby, North Yorkshire. Over on another table I could see some of Nilsson’s other children – being a Harry fan, I guessed who they were.
The show was fantastic, with ten or so different acts performing favourite Nilsson compositions. If it hadn’t been for me receiving a rather special invitation for the following day, Sunday, this would have been the highlight of the weekend without doubt. But there was something even better to come. At the swanky hotel I had chatted with Zak, and he told me that on Sunday he’d be driving over to the cemetery where his dad’s gravestone was, and would I like to come along? Gobsmacked by his kind offer, and dumfounded that of the 100 or so fans present, he should single ME to go along with him, of course I had said yes.
He arranged to pick me up the following day from my motel and we set off in his car to the Valley Oakes Memorial Park, about 40 minutes down the freeway. We had another friend with us too, Randy, who had brought along a yellow balloon to let float in the air at the graveside while saying a few words. To be honest, I was a little embarrassed because it wasn’t the sort of thing us Brits do. But I remember thinking what a nice show of respect that was, by someone who obviously cared a lot.
I noticed some other people present. I recognised them immediately as Nilsson’s children who had been at the concert the previous night, along with their mother, Una and her husband. I knew that Una was from Dublin, a place I had visited on a number of occasions for work, so I was easily able to make conversation about her home city. I couldn’t quite believe that, without any pre-planning, here I was at Harry’s graveside with his children and widow, letting off a yellow balloon. It doesn’t get any more bizarre than this I thought.
Well, it did actually. Zak suggested that he and I return to his home and have a game of volleyball in his swimming pool, and would I like to come? I didn’t need to be asked a second time! An hour later we were throwing a ball to each other in the water, but not before he had shown me his music room. In the room was a mantleshelf, with photos of his dad with John Lennon, with Ringo Starr. Zak handed me the Grammy award that Harry had won for Male Pop Vocal Performance for Everybody’s Talkin’. No, this really CAN’T be happening I thought. It CAN’T get any MORE surreal.
Well, again, yes it could. Nilsson had recorded 14 albums with RCA, going up to 1977. Then, after leaving RCA, he recorded one final album, ‘Flash Harry’ on the Mercury label in 1980, only released on vinyl in the UK. After that he more or less retired from recording, with a few exceptions, until a short while prior to his premature death in 1994. During his last months he had begun writing songs for a new album and recording some demos, tentatively working-titled as ‘Papa’s Got A Brown New Robe’. It was legendary among fans like me, as only a handful of people had heard it. I hadn’t been one of the privileged few, and it was closely kept under wraps by the Nilsson Estate. The Nilsson community and fans could only speculate as to what it was like. Had Harry still got that old songwriting magic? Could he still sing?
After handing the Grammy back to Zak, he asked me a question: “Would you like to hear a tape of Dad’s last songs? The ones he was working on for the ‘Papa’ album.”
By now, I knew for sure that I was dreaming. Of course I said yes, and although I remember being somewhat disappointed by the quality of the vocals, I was impressed by the songs. There was hardly any instrumentation, but it didn’t matter – he still had that certain way, that inflection, that sense of humour and poignancy that was ever-present throughout his other recordings.
That evening, Zak and his wife took me to a local restaurant before returning me to my motel. It had been a long day, but one of the very best I’d ever had.
The following morning I packed my bag and had breakfast in a diner, having bought the morning edition of the LA Times in which there was a glowing report of the Harry Tribute concert at the Roxy two evenings earlier. I read it, hardly believing that I’d been there too. With head still spinning but brought to earth by the strong coffee, I made way across the road to a record store on the other side. There were a few Nilsson records and CDs, all of which I already had, so the CD I bought was the one I’d heard in the car the other evening, by Rufus Wainwright.
I got a taxi back to LAX, boarded the plane, fell asleep and awoke as we were approaching Heathrow. An hour later I was on the tube to Southgate, and soon after I reentered my home in Southgate. The following day I went back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
CHAPTER SEVEN … MUSIC MOGUL
How I nearly became one of those too.
During the time of my trip to Los Angeles, there was a crisis taking place in my life. Nothing unusual really. It happens with thousands of couples every year, but for me it was a big deal. I was getting divorced. Luckily for me, a few years later in 2003, I’d managed to get my feet back on the ground. I’d rejoined Grundig albeit in a job that I hated. But that didn’t matter – I was on a salary with a company car, which was good because by now I’d got a new mortgage and was getting married again, to Jane. Jane, also a divorcee, and I were planning a happy, informal registry-office wedding with a reception to be held at our local hotel in Saffron Walden, the Essex market town where we were now both living. And to fit in with our mutual love of music we wanted to have a singer at the registry office and the hotel reception after, and we’d booked local musician, Larry.
The big day was looming and we were naturally excited. But Larry told us that he’d been offered a skiing holiday in the South of France and he was to be going off piste. He wasn’t the only one – we were also pissed off! But to his credit he did suggest that we check out another local singer, Joanna Eden, who played a regular gig at the wine bar in Market Hill on Thursday evenings. With only two weeks to go before our Big Day, Jane and I went there to check Joanna out. Our presence doubled the audience numbers, but as soon as we entered the premises our jaws dropped in astonishment. Joanna’s voice was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was breathtakingly beautiful, mesmerising and engaging, on a par at least with Karen Carpenter or Dianna Kraal, if not better. Jane and I looked at each other, speechless. Yes, Larry had done us a big favour by cancelling his booking with us. Now we just hoped that Joanna would be our singer.
A meeting was arranged, contracts signed, and we had a new booking. I was so keen for our guests to hear Joanna’s music, and I suggested that if she were to bring her CDs to the wedding, I’d try to sell a few for her. I was confident that I could sell more or less anything, just so long as I believed in what it was – and in Joanna’s case, I certainly did, despite us only having recently met.
The wedding was a lovely affair, and I did what I said with selling some CDs for her. It was effortless because she was so good, and I could tell that all our guests thought so too. We’d agreed to keep in touch, but at the time I hadn’t realised just by how much that would turn out to be.
There was a jazz-evening due in a few weeks time, also at the Saffron Hotel, and Jane and I looked forward to attending. Joanna was in the audience, like us, sitting a couple of rows back. Unbeknown to us, she’d arranged to do a couple of songs with the band at the end of the evening – I think she knew one of the band members. Her renditions brought the house down to rapturous applause with her wonderful singing. I was mesmerised, and knew in that instance that my present job wasn’t enough – I wanted to have something new, different and exciting to focus on. I swivelled in my seat round to Joanna and suggested that maybe I could try making a few phone calls on her behalf. Maybe she was equally excited by having an ambassador offering his services so enthusiastically, I don’t know. Or maybe she just said yes to shut me up.
Whatever her motive, I agreed to become her ‘manager’. I knew exactly what my incentive was… I wanted Joanna to discover with my help the music of Harry Nilsson and get her to record at least one of his songs on one of her forthcoming albums. How cool would that be? So, like our wedding-singing contract, we wrote another contract to incorporate my Nilsson clause. (By the time of me writing this, that clause hasn’t yet been fulfilled. But there was no conclusion date included, so technically it hasn’t lapsed. After only 18 years since then, there’s still plenty of time).
On my first day of being a self-certified music mogul, I stayed at home and on the phone. Joanna met me the following day so I could give her a progress report. “Well, I’ve got a meeting booked with Radio 2, also one with Atlantic Records, and Jamie Cullum’s manager has called me back but his voice was so mumbled I couldn’t actually understand what he said. Never mind, I’ll try again tomorrow. Oh yes, and I’ve called at the house belonging to Mark Wesley across the road. I’d been told that he has something to do with radio, or video production or something like that. Anyway, he knows your music and loves it, and he’s agreed to make a promo video for you.”
“Great, but how much will that cost?” Joanna quite understandably asked. “Nothing,” I said. And it was true. Mark, who I sheepishly knocked at the door of for the first time, warmly invited me in and agreed to help. And that began the life-long friendship I was to form with the ex-Radio Luxembourg DJ-turned-film-maker. He was also one of the original pirate station DJs from the late sixties, the era that I was particularly smitten with.
The following three years proved to be the most exciting of times for me. Joanna and I worked well together during the time of me becoming her ‘manager’. I can’t say I did much managing in the classic sense, it was more like being her biggest fan, talking the talk at every opportunity to help forward her career in any way I could. Whether that was getting her CDs on sale in Tesco and Waitrose (local branches only, I’m afraid), helping to secure PRS payments that were due to her, organising some of her gigs (although Joanna did do most of those herself), applying successfully for an Arts Council grant to enable her to release and promote a single, or achieving some airplay on local and national radio – these were elements that I can put my name to. It was a thrilling period, especially when after badgering Mr. Connor, Jamie Cullum’s manager on countless phone calls to let her have a slot on his stage at a large open-air concert, he eventually caved in and said “Okay, she’s got fifteen minutes!” I suspect Mr. Connor only said that to shut me up.
I couldn’t wait to give Jo and husband Charlie (also her band’s drummer) the good news, and I do believe that that gig played a small but important part in the progress of her career. But I was equally keen on hearing Joanna’s recorded voice on the radio as much as her live performances. So when we had been given the £5000 Arts Council grant to pay for her first CD single production as well as hiring a professional radio plugger, I leapt at the chance to interview a number of contenders who might be able to persuade some radio producers to play her song Singing Out on air.
During a meeting with one such PR pro, over a coffee in a cafe in Marylebone High Street, I mentioned my interest in Harry Nilsson, not knowing that in months to come this would turn into something very significant and would lead to one of my proudest achievements…
But, back to being a music mogul… I’d received some financial backing by the owner of the local Saffron Walden hotel (where Joanna had sung at Jane’s and my wedding) to enable me to form a music management company. As well as Joanna, there was also a young male singer, 13 at the time) who lived nearby, and who was also being tutored by Joanna. When I first heard Sam Smith sing, I instantly knew that he would become a star, and I wanted to play a part of his introduction to the world. Through working with Joanna I had learned how to pick up the phone and say the right things at the right time to the right people, and I was confident that I could do similar for Sam. I got in touch with his parents, Fred and Kate, and they agreed I could try to help bring Sam to the attention of some of those right people.
I arranged a meeting with Sony, and I played one of the executives a demo recording of Sam singing Mac The Knife, accompanied by a standard off-the-shelf backing track. The Sony man was impressed with Sam’s vocals, and he suggested I should come back with two more well-recorded songs that he could then take to his fellow Sony colleagues, potentially to sign Sam up to their roster of recording artists. I was so excited, but scared as well. How would I do what was being asked of me? And how would I pay for that to happen? Recording studios and musicians didn’t come cheap. The financial solution came from Fred and Kate, who would fund the recordings. In addition, Cliff, the Saffron Walden hotel owner, with whom I was by now friends, was prepared to fund my time as well as help me form my own Management company – Cam-Music. Finally, my old chum, music producer and guitarist Jay Stapley agreed to record the two songs in his north London studio.
It was all coming together. I was full of enthusiasm, and felt elated at being in a studio, listening to such a talent as Sam – and with Joanna on backing vocals too, the icing on the cake. However, coinciding with what I was doing, Sam’s parents wanted me to work with another management company who’d also by now come on the scene. To say I wasn’t impressed with ‘the other lot’ was an understatement. I simply couldn’t bring myself to work with them, and I had no choice in my mind but to part company, albeit amicably, from Sam and his parents. The whole debacle had caused me quite a lot of stress, and it wasn’t doing much good for my relationship with Joanna either, so we too parted company, again amicably, but no doubt for the best.
So that was my venture into the heady world of artist management and of becoming a music mogul. It lasted four glorious years, I earned a few bob, I got to hear Joanna’s and Sam’s vocals being recorded in top studio quality, and I became lifelong friends with Mark Wesley. So, although I ended financially poorer than richer, it didn’t matter. The experiences I had were worth much more than all the money in the world.
CHAPTER EIGHT … MY NILSSON CD
My own personal playlist for the whole world to hear.
It’s funny how one thing leads to another.
Thanks to Joanna Eden being in receipt of the Arts Council Grant to pay for her CD’s production and radio plugging, through a series of events I unexpectedly hit the jackpot. Not a monetary jackpot, but something much cooler (for me, at least) than just a load of dosh!
One late evening I was working, as I often did, at the computer in the kitchen at home. Out of the blue I received an email from Alan Robinson, the man I’d chatted with several months previously when discussing with him about plugging Joanna’s single on BBC radio. After the ‘business’ part of our conversation had ended at a coffee shop in Marylebone High Street, we had gone on to discuss our general mutual interest in music, and I’d told him about my love for Harry Nilsson’s. We then finished our drinks and parted company.
Alan and I didn’t end up working together on Joanna’s project; his schedule didn’t match ours, we ended up hiring someone else, and apart from a couple of polite emails between Alan and me we had no further need to communicate again.
Until, that is, I was able to help out on something. As a consultant to several record companies, he often received commissions from the likes of Universal and Sony to work on some project or other.
For him, that month’s project was to select the tracks for a ‘Best-Of’ compilation being scheduled for release by Sony (who had taken over RCA, Nilsson’s label). I guessed that for Alan it was one of those jobs that kept being put to the bottom of his to-do list, until he suddenly realised that his deadline was the following day. He needed some help, and he needed it in a hurry!
The email I received from him that evening asked whether I’d be able to select 36 tracks for a double-CD release – no fewer and no more. The selection had to include the hits, plus other tracks that would make up an interesting, commercially pleasing and varied compilation. Would I be able to help, he asked? The caveat was that he needed my list by 10am the following morning!
Initially I hesitated about whether I’d have enough time, but when Alan went on to say that he would credit me on the liner notes about the choices made, I ecstatically agreed. I’d just have to make time, I decided.
That it would be an unpaid labour of love didn’t matter to me. In fact, if I’d have had to pay £100, or even £1000 for the privilege of choosing these tracks, I would have gladly done so – although of course I didn’t admit that. What I did do was to go to bed early to sleep off the several glasses of wine I’d been consuming that evening (‘several glasses’ sounds better than ‘a bottle’, doesn’t it?), and I set my alarm for 4am. I wanted to rise with a clear head, spread out all my Nilsson CDs and records, put on my headphones and get selecting, ready to meet the deadline.
By 9.30 I was almost finished, with all but one of the 36 tracks listed. But a worry suddenly occurred to me… after all this work, how would I be sure that the selection of tracks was my selection when the CD came out?
I had an idea: the songs I had so far chosen had all been previously commercially available – but my 36th choice would be Isolation, written by John Lennon. It had never been released in the normal way, although I knew of its existence. Nilsson’s was a fantastic version to be sure, and I’d be delighted if it could be brought to a wider audience. If Sony included it there would be no doubt that they were using my list and nobody else’s.
The release date came on the 26th November 2007, and I stood outside the HMV record shop at Brent Cross in north London, waiting for the metal shutters to be raised at opening time. As soon as they were, I rushed to the ‘N’ section of CDs – and there it was! ‘ONE – THE BEST OF NILSSON’. I picked it up and quickly looked at the track listing on the reverse side. Trembling with excitement, my eyes darted down to the last track, and there it was: Isolation. This was without doubt ‘my’ CD, and I rushed over to the counter to pay for my purchase, desperately holding back the urge to declare my claim to fame to the girl at the till. I somehow managed to restrain from making a fool of myself, but not for long. I ran out to the main concourse, ripped off the cellophane wrapper and squinted at the small writing of the introductory notes by my man Alan. “The author is indebted to Neil Watson for his exemplary assistance in this compilation.”
I let out a yelp and punched the air, exclaiming a loud “YES!!!” to bemused passers-by, themselves more interested in getting their Christmas shopping done. They were oblivious to my hitting of the jackpot.
CHAPTER NINE … BARNACLE BILL
Following my initial meeting with my neighbour, ex-radio DJ Mark Wesley who had so generously offered to make a promo video at no cost for Joanna Eden, we had become close friends. We shared similar interests and senses of humour, danced and laughed together at parties we’d hosted at our respective homes, as well as transforming our shared cul-de-sac into an annual street-party venue. I looked up to his elevated status as one of the voices I used to listen to under the pillow with my ear firmly pressed to a transistor radio. I’m sure he in turn looked up to my elevated status as a Harry Nilsson enthusiast. Well, maybe not – I don’t think he ‘got’ Harry. But no matter – we were mates, and inevitably as mates do, we often ventured to the pub together.
On one such occasion, as we sauntered down past the Common on the way to the Old English Gentleman, we told each other our latest news. Way down at the bottom of his list, almost as an afterthought, he casually mentioned having received an invitation by the BBC for him to have a one-off two-hour lunchtime show.
Frustrated by Mark’s apparent indifference, I demanded more information. It transpired that BBC Essex Radio was planning to celebrate 40 years since the closure of pirate radio stations such as Caroline and North Sea International in 1968. There would be almost a week of broadcasts from the LV18 Lightship off the Harwich coast, one of the original pirate vessels, (and incidentally used for the location of Richard Curtis’s film The Boat That Rocked). But Mark initially wasn’t interested. “I’ve done all that Neil, and I think I’ve had enough of playing old records on the radio.”
“MARK!” I said with frustration. “You HAVE to do it! It’ll be SO exciting. And by the way, please can I come? Please? Please?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll think on it. Come on let’s have a pint,” he said, bringing closure to that topic of conversation. I decided my best course of action was not to antagonise him, so we changed subject to the miles per gallon that we achieved from our cars, or some other such triviality.
A few weeks passed, and Mark informed me that he’d decided to accept the BBC’s invitation, and that if I wanted he’d organise for me to have a presenter’s pass as well. “You can be ‘Barnacle Bill’ if you like; have a bit of banter with me on air, read out the dedications and texts, that sort of thing,” he suggested. I couldn’t believe it. Of course I immediately accepted, and asked whether I could also choose any of the music to be played as well. Mark wasn’t sure. “I think they’ve already made up the playlists – and besides, the songs have to be from 1968 or earlier.”
I knew, given half a chance, which Nilsson song I’d choose from that era – not the obvious choice of Everybody’s Talkin’, but a more obscure track. There Will Never Be wasn’t a Nilsson composition, but Harry sang it with an upbeat tempo suitable for a midday show, and it had a distinct sixties sound. I made it my personal challenge to get it played and I hoped I’d be able to slip it in to the schedule.
The big day came, and Mark drove us both to Harwich in his Jag. We parked up outside The Pier restaurant on the Quay, and then made our way to the private ferry that would whisk us out to the lightship from where the programmes were being broadcast. We carefully climbed up the ladder thrown over the ship’s side and embarked.
I’m not usually at a loss for words, but on this occasion I was. There, standing on the deck just a few feet in front of me was legendary DJ Johnny Walker. I’d been an admirer of his for many years, listening to him on Radio One, Greater London Radio and then Radio 2.
A Johnny Walker connection suddenly came to mind… during my CoatHanger days I’d bagged an interview with BBC traffic reporter Sally Boazman in her broadcasting office at Scotland Yard. I was writing a piece about how she brought the travel news to the listeners of Johnny’s evening Drive Time show on Radio 2 using the latest technology, and I had also taken some photos of Sally in full-flow in front of her microphone. Being a friend of Johnny she’d promised if she got the chance, to talk with him on his show about the magazine. Once that issue of CoatHanger had been published, we sent a copy to her and she put it in front of Johnnie while he was presenting. He duly played along, teasing Sally about her photos that appeared with the article, graciously giving ‘CoatHanger’ several valuable mentions to his audience of millions.
I also surmised that Johnny was a Nilsson fan. He once played the entire first side of ‘The Point’ on air – the wonderful album of songs and narration Nilsson had written about Oblio, the boy born without a point who was banished by the Evil Count to The Pointless Forest. (I think there may have been a few drugs influencing the album’s creation, and maybe that was one of the reasons why Johnny liked it).
So, there I was on the lightship, star-struck, unable to speak. I needed to walk around the deck twice in order to compose myself, and then be ready to take up my position alongside Mark in the ship’s studio at the bow, knowing full-well that Johnnie, the King of Radio, would also be listening below deck to The Mark Wesley Show, with me, Barnacle Bill, hopefully playing a Nilsson song. No pressure!
Mark and his producer humoured me by playing my record request, and I ticked an imaginary box in the air. Thanks to me, me, me, millions (or at least thousands) got to hear There Will Never Be for the first, and probably the last, time.
It was eventually time to leave the LV18 lightship after our show was over, and to head across to The Pier restaurant for a fish and chips late lunch. Once Mark and I had settled in our seats on the ferry that would take us back to shore, there was room for one more passenger to join us, so we waited. I looked up to see a man climbing down the ladder, and I courteously said hello to his bottom. The bottom turned out to be Johnnie Walker’s, and once again my nerves took hold. Determined not to be silent, I forced myself to chat with him about his old GLR days, about Sally Boazman, and of course about when he played the whole Side 1 of ‘The Point’.
“Ah, Nilsson,” he said. “He was a one-off.” I nodded while disembarking and making our way to lunch, with Johnnie and other radio greats like Dave Cash taking up the table next to ours.
I felt completely elated. It was a day that could not have been bettered, and I was glad that Mark was doing the drive home because I don’t think I’d have been able to concentrate. I was buzzing from adrenaline all the way, and for days after.
CHAPTER TEN … PIRATE RADIO
“The World’s Smallest Pirate Radio Station” is what I called it.
Flushed with the success from my most brilliant radio coup, one of my Best-Day-Ever experiences that nearly equalled my wedding day or birth of my children etc, I wanted more. I had an idea, as I often did. Lovely wife Jane and I had recently moved to Wivenhoe, a charming fishing and ex-shipbuilding village on the River Colne estuary, a few miles inland from the Essex seaside town of Brightlingsea, and it wasn’t long before I’d been offered a free boat to renovate. My BOAT FOR MY POTPLANTS is a whole story in itself. Soon after bringing my nautical acquisition to Wivenhoe I began getting ideas of what to do with it, and that didn’t include taking it out on the river. That was for proper sailors, and I wasn’t one of them.
Making a return visit to the pub in Saffron Walden for a glorious pint or two with my radio co-host Mark, we reminisced over the fabulous day we’d had. “Mark,” I began. “I’ve had a great idea!”
Mark rolled his eyes. He’d heard some of my great ideas before. But undeterred, I continued.
“Mark. I’ve been given a boat – I’ve called it my ‘Boat For My Potplants’. I’ve renovated it. I’ve brought it to Wivenhoe. I’m going to make it ‘The World’s Smallest Pirate Station’, and I’d like YOU to be MY guest on MY show. Say you will, say you will!” I pleaded.
“I’ll have to have a think about that, Neil,” was as far as I got that evening. Mark did a lot of thinking, I’d come to realise.
It was one of those little FM transmitters you can get for playing your phone through your car stereo, except in this instance we were using it to broadcast the signal from inside the boat to the good folks of Wivenhoe eagerly sitting on the quayside, and inside the Royal British Legion, all of 30 feet away, tuning into their own transistor radios that they’d brought along. What fun we had, especially when dear old Martyn Carrick (now sadly no longer with us) roamed his way through the throng of listeners sat at the pub’s tables on the quay, interviewing anyone that was a) female and b) pretty.
It was mayhem inside my boat-cum-studio. I had Jerry twiddling his knobs on his laptop, me trying to make sense of the text and email dedications flooding in, literally, from around the world (well, one in Spain and one in Minneapolis), and vinyl 45’s being thrown down the hatch for me to play at the paid requests of the quayside listeners.
What with doing links between the songs, interviewing my co-host Mark, I was doing my best to keep things reasonably coherent. Not easy when the effects of a few glasses of wine were beginning to take effect as well as the general hubbub.
The craziest memory I have of that day was when I looked up from my position inside the cabin to see my fun-loving mother Jackie squeezing herself down the hatch at the boat’s pointy-bit-at-the-front, somehow managing to carry a glass of wine in one hand while holding a lit cigarette in the other. Once inside the boat, she announced, “don’t mind me, dears, I’m just passing through!” as she sauntered past us, climbing out at the flat-bit-at-the-back and continuing on her merry way, returning to the quay, no doubt to top up her drink. Bizarre.
And all this effort was made just so that I could play a Harry Nilsson song on my own radio programme without having to get any permission from a producer. This was my station and I could play what I liked. Unfortunately, although my motive was there, my brain was not. Before I realised it, we’d run out of time, and I never did get to play anything by Harry. Or did I? It was all such a blur I can’t remember.
But no matter. I was sure I’d get another chance to to get some Nilsson on the radio, and I was right. But not until I’d begun the next chapter in my career…
CHAPTER ELEVEN … WRITING ABOARD
A couple of years later my life took a new and exciting direction. I became an amateur author. Or was that ‘professional’ author? I’m not sure what the difference is. Thankfully I was mentored and taken under the wings of a true professional, of his status there could be no doubt. Thanks to a mutual love of music, I’d met a man who had written books on the subject that was close to my heart – music – especially rock, pop, prog, country and most genres in between.
David Roberts and I immediately got on well, chatting about bands and singer-songwriters we admired like The Beatles, CSN&Y, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, among many more. I of course brought up Harry Nilsson and my obsession with him. Yes, by now I admitted to myself that it was no less than an obsession. One that refused to go away.
Our discussion had turned to the topic of his books and I mentioned how much I liked writing and that one day I wouldn’t mind having a go at doing a book myself but I didn’t have a clue where to start.
Over a couple of pints in the pub, David offered to guide and help me, if I would care to come up with a few ideas. I had plenty, seven or eight in total, some of them fact and some fiction. We agreed to meet the following week and go through them with the aim to maybe choose one particular project to venture forth with.
I considered doing something about my epic bike ride across the States in 1981. Or perhaps the story of my Boat For My Potplants and its unique Smallest Pirate Radio Station. Or possibly something about Harry Nilsson. Not a biography as such, as that had already been done the year before, but instead drawing from his fans’ and fellow musicians’ points of view about the man and his music. (Little did I know that that casual suggestion would come to fruition several years later. But I digress, I’m getting ahead of myself.)
I had also come up with a few ideas for novels, including one about a pop star whose popularity was on the wain and who faked his own… (no, I won’t elaborate here incase one day I decide to do it!). But it was enough to sow the seed in David’s mind to work on a novel. He’d previously only ever written factual music books, and the idea of writing fiction vicariously through me appealed to him. In fact the word ‘vicariously’ became our mutual catchphrase.
At that time, the stars were not aligning for me. My mother was dying of cancer and I had to put all thoughts of becoming a bestselling author on hold. Or even a multi-singular selling author for that matter. Things would have to wait.
Early the following year after my mum had passed I was beginning to pick my feet up and dust myself down. “Things have to move on,” I told myself as I got back to work.
Back at work, I met someone who fascinated me with his personal story. He was a single man, we’ll call him ‘Leslie’. He was very aggrieved by his late father who had disinherited him because of him having no children, in favour of his younger brother who did have. In order to make an attempt to scupper his father’s will, Leslie had begun trying for a baby of his own by using the services of a surrogate mother. Every so often he would meet a potential mother and hand over a pot containing his sperm sample so she could try to impregnate herself. Appalled, but equally fascinated, I couldn’t help remark what a great tale his story could make. “Well, fill yer boots then,” he invited. “Just change my name.” So, he became Leslie Markland from the Markland Estate.
In my mind’s eye I imagined how I might embellish Leslie’s story beyond the point that had been described to me. Drawing from my own family background, I knew first-hand how complicated family shenanigans can become. Leslie’s account could very well develop into being the next Forsyth Saga.
A few weeks went by after I’d met Leslie. By chance I bumped into David Roberts again in the B&Q car park of all places. I apologised for not having been in touch since our meeting at the pub. “Whenever you’re ready,” he replied generously. As I drove away I thought a moment and realised that yes, I was now ready to move on after my mother’s death, pick up that metaphorical quill and begin writing my life’s next chapter.
We agreed to meet at my boat one evening to chat about what I could write. Over a bottle of wine that was beginning to form a theme for subsequent meetings, I told him of my meeting with ‘surrogate baby man’. “Well, it sounds like you’ve got the subject for your first novel already,” David suggested. “Why don’t you see if you can get something down about Leslie Markland, and let’s meet again next week to take a look at what you’ve done.
That became the beginnings of our regular ‘Book Club’ meetings. After I’d written a few chapters, David came up with the title ‘MUDDY WATER’ – a metaphorical reference to the murkiness of the Markland family, as well as the literal muddy water of the Wivenhoe river estuary of the story’s location. I carried on writing and submitting my words to David week by week until it was finished. His advice to inexperienced ol’ me: just get the story down – we can come back to polish it later.
As the book continued to take shape, I found myself including as many Harry Nilsson references as I could. I couldn’t help it. And why not, I thought? After all, this is my book, so I can. And I then hit upon a genius idea. It was genius in my own eyes at least. I would head up all the chapters with an illustration that was my interpretation of how each character looked. Lead character Leslie Markland would, of course, take on the appearance of Harry Nilsson. It would be my own private and subtle nod to my hero. No one would ever guess – unless I told them.
I am no artist, but my talented daughter Laura is. I briefed her on how I visualised all the characters in Muddy Water should look, and she took the task from there, creating a number of excellent line drawing illustrations. I was delighted with the results, especially Leslie Markland as Harry Nilsson. Or was it Harry Nilsson as Leslie Markland? Whatever – Laura did her dad proud.
Once I’d reached Muddy Water‘s final full-stop, David and I celebrated with a rather pleasant bottle of Merlot on the boat. It should have been Champagne – it was the moment I got my biggest and luckiest break in the history of big and lucky breaks.
Muddy Water could become the first novel to be published through David’s newly-formed Hornet Books platform if I wanted. If I wanted???! Of course! Yes please! His condition was that he wanted to create the cover. I ecstatically accepted his offer, contracts were signed, and that was how I became the next author to get his book on Amazon, and Laura became the next cover-girl.
CHAPTER TWELVE … RADIO GAGA
Now with a real paperback book with my name to it, I had to get out there and promote it. Despite my background in sales and marketing I didn’t relish the task. No, in fact I was reticent and shy. Yes, me – shy. I’ve analysed this paradox in my personality and have concluded that whereas I find it easy to enthusiastically promote others, when it comes to selling myself, that doesn’t come so naturally. I’ve heard that I’m not alone in suffering this trait – and that’s why so many artists, musicians and creators crave an agent to do the marketing for them.
However, unless (or until) I reach the dizzy heights of success that enable me to hire such a person, I recognised that I’d have to get off my lazy arse and get on with doing it on my own.
It was more the thinking about self-promo that gave me the collywobbles, but I didn’t find it too bad once I got going. I would do whatever I could. I first made a short YouTube video of me going around Wivenhoe and talking to camera about the various locations featured in the story. That was fun.
Then there was a fabulous book launch too, and I don’t think that it could have gone any better. There were a hundred or more folks crammed in to a hall on the Quay in Wivenhoe, listening to me ramble on stage about the book, and I was over the moon that many of them then queued up to buy the thing. With real money too! Even Fred Smith (Sam’s dad) had turned up, bringing me a CD signed by his famous son. “Neil, A big thank you. Sam,” was inscribed on it.
With so many books sold that day it was a shame I was only making something like 30p a copy, otherwise I’d have been able to retire there and then. That’s not the way publishing and bookselling works, but, hey, I wasn’t complaining one iota.
As well as me introducing the various characters who had paid to be in the book, many of whom were at the launch in person, I also had my lovely musician friend Joanna Eden. She performed her song Muddy Water that she had written especially for me. How cool was that? I’d like to claim that I co-wrote the song, but really all I did was tell Joanna what the story was about – she did the rest. Before she began her performance the throng of chitter-chatter was deafening, and the next moment after she’d only sung a few bars, one could have heard a pin drop. It was magical. I ended the day exhausted but on one of the highest highs I’d ever had. I discovered what it was like to be on Cloud Nine.
But just having a grand book-launch wasn’t enough. I needed to get out there and talk about Muddy Water on the radio. Publisher David had organised a couple of phone interviews as well as ones in person with BBC Essex Radio’s Tony Fisher, and also BBC Suffolk Radio’s Stephen Foster. Nervous though I was, I knew what I had to do – big-up me and my book. Here, once again the old shyness trait kicked in, and on each interview I found myself drawing attention to the Harry Nilsson connection as it was easier talking about someone other than me. Yes, I definitely could do with some psychoanalysis to exorcise my demons.
Good old Tony Fisher. What a nice chap. In the preamble we’d had by email before I went to his studio I must have mentioned my love of Nilsson, and he graciously played a relatively obscure track before I came on air. That was quite awesome, I thought.
And then following the Suffolk Radio interview I was messaged by a listener, also a Nilsson fan, who subsequently bought a copy of Muddy Water solely because of those Nilsson references in it. Well, that was another 30p in the coffers that I was grateful for. Ker-ching!
Despite my nervousness, I found that I was loving being on the radio. It was like being Barnacle Bill all over again, or Captain of The World’s Smallest Pirate Radio Station – and the BBC was certainly a lot more professional than my boat.
David Roberts had also come into contact with another radio presenter, Mark Punter. Mark hosted his own ‘Vintage Vinyl Show’ on BBC Essex on Sunday afternoons, and David had mentioned to him about yours truly and my love of Nilsson’s music. Mark very kindly invited me on his show to talk all-things-Harry – and to play three Nilsson tracks of my choice. Wow! That would be brilliant, I thought, and a date was set for me to go to his studio in Chelmsford. But finding it impossible to pick only three songs, I would go armed with my entire collection of Nilsson LPs and decide which songs to play on the day.
As the big day fast approached, I still hadn’t decided my choices. They had to be on vinyl of course, and I wanted to relay a story that was relevant to each selection.
Concurrently I remembered meeting an English musician in Montolieu, France, who had mentioned to me he was mates with Herbie Flowers. Who is Herbie Flowers, you might ask? Well, Herbie is a bone-fide member of bass-guitarist royalty, having provided the grooves for Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side. He had also played bass on two songs from the ‘Nilsson Schmilsson’ album, Harry’s most commercially successful record, released in November 1971. (He also wrote the smash hit for Clive Dunn, Grandad. It’s surely something any musician can be justly proud of, to have written a number one hit, so hats off to Herbie is what I say!)
Anyway, I was keen to ask Herbie if he had any recollections of playing on Nilsson’s album, and he sure did. He told me how, during the recording of the longest track on the album Jump Into The Fire, he began detuning his instrument during the drum solo because he felt it was “going on a bit”. Magic! He had also played on the song Coconut from the same LP, but I couldn’t decide which song to play. So, live on air I flipped a coin to determine the outcome. Coconut won the day, so that was one of the three songs we played.
How I loved, and still love, the wonderful medium of radio.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN … SISTER’S SECRET
Harry Nilsson, the musician who touched so many peoples’ lives – despite choosing only to bring his music to his audience via the media of recorded sound or film, and never playing a live concert. The man with whom I’ve had an emotional connection since I first met my mum when I was in my early teens.
I think back to my own personal anecdotes, and one among many that stands out the most for me. I cast my mind back to around 1985 when my first wife Penny and I had invited my sister Emma and her boyfriend Dominic for dinner in our flat in Barnet. We were pleased to be introduced to Dominic, and as we sat around the table after having finished our meals, our topic of conversation turned inevitably to the music that we liked.
At arm’s length I could reach my record player and collection of LPs. I pulled out one of my favourites, Nilsson’s ‘The Point’. Dominic declared that he loved it too, but it wasn’t his favourite of Harry’s albums. I was intrigued. Usually when I mentioned Harry Nilsson to someone, the response would beg the question “Harry who? Oh, the guy who sang Without You. I love that one!” End of conversation. But this was no normal conversation.
“Oh, you know Nilsson?” I asked, impressed with Dominic’s knowledge of my music hero. “Yes, of course I do. He is my Godfather,” Dominic explained, quite nonchalantly. “What? You’re kidding, right?” I prodded. Emma had never told me that her boyfriend was the son of Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer, who was known famously (among Nilsson fans like myself) to have been instrumental in bringing Nilsson to the attention of the Beatles in the late ’60’s.
Legend has it that, following the release of ‘Pandemonium Shadow Show’ Harry’s first release on RCA Records, Mr. Taylor had heard a song from that album, 1941, on the radio in Los Angeles, fell in love with it, and investigated further. He then discovered Nilsson’s version of the Beatles’ songs You Can’t Do That and She’s Leaving Home on the same record, and was so impressed that he shipped a boxful of LPs over to his friends in the UK, including the Beatles themselves. That began Derek Taylor’s life-long friendship with Harry during which time he produced Nilsson’s album of American Standards, ‘A Little Touch Of Schmilsson In The Night’, arranged by Gordon Jenkins – done long before the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Rod Stewart followed suit with their albums of a similar genre.
Anyway, here was my sister with her boyfriend sitting at my dinner table, bringing to my attention that he was Harry Nilsson’s Godson. “Yes,” clarified Dominic. “And my other Godfather is George Harrison.” At this point I nearly fell off my chair.
And then when Emma, a trained Cordon Blue chef, went on casually to explain that she’d been to Harrison’s gothic house, Friar Park, on a few occasions to do the party catering there, I think I actually did fall to the floor.
If only she’d told me. I’d have happily driven her there at any time and waited by the gates all evening if I’d had to. I’ve still not forgiven her for keeping her cards so closely guarded during that time.
So, there we are. My Harry Nilsson series of anecdotes that have most definitely shaped my life so far. And with the new HARRY & ME project now brought to fruition thanks to a series of chance meetings, collaborations and general good luck, I’m looking forward to reading the next chapter in my own story.
CHAPTER FOURTEEN … ‘HARRY & ME’
The book co-authored by David Roberts and me came about in 2021. Will this be the last chapter? I have a feeling it’s just the beginning of a whole new volume. If someone had told me that one day I’d be doing a book about Harry Nilsson, who died in 1994 at age 52, and that it would be published by a real, proper music-book specialist – I simply wouldn’t have believed them. But it was true.
And there were oodles of icing on the cake as well as between the many layers, with this exciting project. Not least that I would be corresponding – either directly or via their representatives – with members of Harry’s family, his music collaborators and friends, and his many fans.
It was a real thrill to be exchanging emails and even speaking by phone with folks who actually knew Harry. For example, early BBC Top Of The Pops director Stanley Dorfman who in the ’70s made two films featuring Harry. What a great man! And then there were Micky Dolenz, Randy Newman, Klaus Voormann, Marc Cohn, to namedrop just four, forgive me but I just can’t help it.
But I’d have to say the biggest thrill was making a phone call to Killarney, Ireland, where I’d managed to track down Harry’s teacher from his Catholic school in Los Angeles in the mid ’50s. Ex-Sister Mary, nearing 90 years old now, remembered Harry well but was blissfully unaware that he’d become famous and successful.
And then there were the tapes. And the book’s jacket cover. Where to begin? I’ll tell you first about the tapes…
… It was a tough old year, was 2021. Not only was there the Covid- 19 pandemic that affected everyone’s lives the world over, there was also my poor old dad, gradually deteriorating due to cancer. Zak Nilsson, Harry’s eldest son was also succumbing to the illness to, and I really wanted to get Zak’s approval about the book before it was too late. I welcomed how open and honest Zak was on his Facebook page about what he was going through – very helpful in helping me understand a little of what my dad was going through but who was much less willing to express to me his own thoughts.
It was my honour and privilege to spend each Sunday with my dad, although inevitably he’d sometimes fall asleep in his armchair. One such time, I just happened to check online for any latest Harry Nilsson material that might become available, something I would do sporadically every 6 months or so. And on this occasion, on the very same day, there it was: a package of audio cassettes of interviews conducted in the ’70s and ’80s with Harry. How they were described got me drooling, and without hesitation I knew I had to have them. I negotiated with the seller from Los Angeles, going by the unlikely title of ‘The Jewish Rapper’. I couldn’t have made it up, but after all I discovered he was Jewish and he was a rapper – so why not?
When the tapes arrived and I listened to them, my jaw dropped. The interviews were also from the ’60s, and were utterly mesmerising. Hearing Harry talk about all number of subjects was absolutely incredible, and I knew instantly that their content HAD to be included in the book. Co-author David, and the publishers also agreed, but what I hadn’t reckoned on was that they’d even go as far as including an audio CD of some of the best bits along with the book. Hey presto, I was mightily impressed.
And the cover… One day I had a brain-wave, a light-bulb moment as bright as any that I’d ever had. Of course! I would ask our friendly neighbour and super artist-extraordinaire, Alison Stockmarr, whether she might be interested in doing the cover. She said yes straight away. So then I had to persuade David and the publisher the merits of collaborating with Alison and getting her to work with us on ‘Harry & Me’. She hardly knew who Harry Nilsson was – so some Harry-education needed to be administered, and fast! The publisher was mighty eager to get an image done quickly so that they could post something on their website to entice pre-orders.
Alison agreed to be commissioned, and a meeting was held to discuss creative ideas, of which there was no shortage. We ended up deciding that the central image should be a fridge, representing the fridge on the cover of Harry’s most commercially successful album, Nilsson Schmilsson. And a dressing gown. And hundreds of tiny images to be sourced, cut out by hand, stuck down and then photographed by Alison’s husband Richard, all representing relevant ‘clues’ to readers about Harry and his music.
So there we are. I began my Nilsson adventure at the age of 13 or so. Now, 50 years later, I’ve managed one of the greatest achievements I could ever have imagined. Harry Nilsson might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s no denying, he was a great singer, an incredible songwriter and an absolute genius. I’m very proud to have co-authored one of only two books in the world about him. The other is the excellent biography by British writer Alyn Shipton.
And CHAPTER FIFTEEN, if ever there is to be one, might entail me going to Los Angeles in 2022 or whenever, to meet some of the contributors to the book in person. I’d like to meet the likes of Micky Dolenz and Randy Newman of course. But I’d also like to say hi to others who helped me with this project.
Maybe I’ll hire the Rainbow Bar And Grill, one of Harry’s favourite haunts on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, and have a book-party? I hope I’ll get a chance to meet Una Nilsson and thank her personally for her endorsement of the book. She likes it, I understand. And I’ve had an invitation to become a temporary member of The Lunch Bunch, where some of Harry’s best friends regularly meet, including the afore-mentioned Stanley Dorfman, and Lee Blackman, the Nilsson Estate’s lawyer. He drives a Harley. He sounds like a cool dude. And he likes the book too. That’s a relief!