CHAPTER SIX … HARRYFEST ’98
This is about 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 ‘H A R R Y N I L S S O N’, 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 no 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 one of Nilsson’s friends Bob and his wife. 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 (Harry’s widow) 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 mantel shelf, 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 I handed 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 lodgings. The following day I went back to work as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.