Harry Nilsson, one of the very few things all four Beatles agreed on and a singer of nearly unparalleled talent, will get the tribute treatment at Off Broadway on November 26th. What Is The Point? A Tribute To Harry Nilsson will feature Nilsson sets from Theodore, Ransom Note, Edward Burch, John Krane, Tommy Halloran, Brian Wiegert and the Dock Ellis Band. And the night will be anchored by an abbreviated screening of The Point with a soundtrack provided by a Nilsson supergroup comprising members of the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, Old Lights, Grace Basement and Tenement Ruth. We spoke with Tenement Ruth's David Anderson and Grace Basement's Kevin Buckley, who put the show together along with Off Broadway owner Steve Pohlman.
Kiernan Maletsky: Why do you think Harry Nilsson should be paid tribute?
David Anderson: Well, he was an amazing artist. He's unique because most people really don't know him by name necessarily, but when you start to go though and listen to his catalog of music it's like "I know this, I know that one, too..." Plus, he rarely performed live, so it's interesting to me, the idea of hearing other musicians interpret his music live.
Kevin Buckley:Well, there are a lot of Nilsson fans out there, many in hiding, their fan-dom laying dormant because of the complete lack of Nilsson exposure. I didn't even know I was a Nilsson fan until my parents told me that I had a "Coconut" phase as a child. Not one of favorites these days; I guess I've changed. I only became reacquainted and truly interested a few years ago after I put out the first Grace Basement album. The music seemed to be coming from a similar place, and I was immediately a fan.
I think the idea for the show came up between Dave Anderson, Steven Pohlman and myself coincidentally all wanting to do the same thing. Nilsson comes up a lot in record stores, clubs and band practices. Pretty much anyone who loves rock and pop traditions knows and respects his work.
Why did you decide to use The Point to frame the main set, as opposed to just playing some of his songs?
Anderson: It seemed to just make sense to us. The album is fairly short so it wouldn't take up too much time to perform it live, and plus, to have the opportunity to play it along with an edited version of the movie seemed like a really cool idea. The songs are so strong. For me, it really hinged on who would help out in the performance and I think we got an amazing group of musicians for it...Matt Pace, Heather Rice, and Matthew Frederick from The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, JJ Hamon from Theodore and Magic City, John Joern of Old Lights, Kevin Buckley... so the bases are really covered, Plus, Sherman S Sherman is going to narrate it.
Do you think of this as a chance to re-imagine Nilsson's songs or more of a straight-up re-creation?
Buckley: That's up to the band. I can't wait to hear what all the bands come up with. A lot of his work is very intimate and solo, while other songs are big productions. We've got singer songwriters like Ed Burch, Tommy Holloran and John Krane as well as rocks bands like Theodore and Ransom Note, so who knows what will happen.
Our little super group is gonna try to stick pretty close to The Point, but that record in particular is very much created in "studio-land." Our performance will be its own thing. Worst case scenario, at least the songs won't suck. But I'm pretty certain its going to be a night of great music.
How did you decide which bands will play which songs?
Anderson: We pretty much made up a list and gave to everyone and to choose from. It'll be first come first serve on what songs people want to do.
Buckley: The songs we put aside were from The Point. I'm pretty sure everyone asked to do "Think About Your Troubles." There were many other songs I wanted to do, just to have an excuse to learn them and play them, but I decided to just stick with The Point tunes so the other bands could get a chance to play some of the "hits."
Nilsson recorded a ton of covers himself. Are those songs off-limits?
Anderson: I don't think so. You know, a song like "Everybody's Talkin'" isn't a Nilsson composition, even though he made it famous. You have to let somebody do that one, so no....anything goes...
Do you think Nilsson's music has undergone a revival recently? If so, why do you think it has?
Buckley: It seems like a lot of people saw that documentary. A few years ago The Walkmen remade Pussy Cats, which I think turned a lot of people on. However, Nilsson, for a variety of reasons, will remain somewhat on the fringes even if more and more people become aware of his work. Something about his art and persona is strangely subversive and elusive, while his music was so beautiful and melodious. Nilsson is interesting because he's confusing. He almost went out of his way to let people know he didn't take himself too seriously.
Who do you think was the most fruitful collaborator with Nilsson, whether as a writer, producer, musician or whatever?
Anderson: Probably the easy out answer is John Lennon, though that collaboration may have been a bit of a double edged sword for Nilsson. Lennon, at that time, was not exactly a positive influence in Nilsson's life, but he did probably help propel his career just by association. I might say Richard Perry probably brought out some of the best in Nilsson as a producer.
Buckley: I think Nilsson surrounded himself with lots of great musicians and talent, but even with having the likes of Ringo, Klaus Voormann, Nicky Hopkins, Gordon Jenkins and John Lennon around, it seems like he worked best a loner. He didn't tour, so he never really had a band as such. As a result his work largely exists as studio recorded material, much of it done solo. It's exciting to be able to pull some folks together and bring these songs to life. I'd say it's a rare opportunity to see Nilsson songs actually being performed.