I saw a trailer for a the Harry Nilsson documentary "Who's Harry Nilsson?" a couple weeks ago, and thought the same thing. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but mostly it just stirred up textbook images of folk singers and Dylan clones. The trailer paints Nilsson as a massively influential artist (worthy enough for cred from The Beatles), but it wasn't until I tracked down "The Very Best of Harry Nilsson" that I was able to fully appreciate the swath of his influence on popular music.
Folk singer has become a bit of an insult. You think of a shaggy bearded man in a flannel shirt droning his 3 chords ad nauseum. Well, Nilsson was the original bearded folk singer, but his tools and styles were vast. As I listened to his album, I quickly discovered that he was responsible for a huge amount of songs that I love and had attributed to other artists. For example, I had no idea that he sang the original "One", the fantastic dialtone-inspired that rose to prominence after being covered by Three Dog Night and later by Aimee Mann for the Magnolia soundtrack. This song alone is enough to gain him entry to a songwriting pantheon, but he also wrote "Coconut" (you'd know it if you heard it), "Everybody's Talkin'" (from Midnight Cowboy) and the song that spurred this blog post, Without You.
If you listened to "Without You" for the first time today, you would without a doubt attribute it to Meatloaf, its cadence and build-up mirroring that of "I Would Do Anything For Love". But you would be wrong, oh so very wrong indeed. Where Meatloaf hams it up, jerking the song all over the place with faux emotion and tongue-and-cheek ambiguity, Nilsson lays it all out in song, simple verses leading to a logical chorus that still manages to surprise with turbulent vocals and inspired strings. When Nilsson reaches even deeper for the second chorus, the song transcends being a song altogether. It joins songs like "I Will Always Love You", "Nothing Compares 2 U" and "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You", that are so sincere in their ambition and affecting in their execution that you worry for the artist's sanity if things don't shape up soon.