Friday, September 30, 2005

Off By O'Hare: The Beatles and Harry Nilsson

Weekend Assignment #79: Chicago! It's a toddlin' town. Share some of your favorite things about the City of Big Shoulders. If you've ever been to Chicago, memories of your visit would be a topic. If you live in or near Chicago, some hometown favorite things would be good. If you've never been, share your favorite Chicago-related thing, from the Jordan-era Bulls to the Blues Brothers to Ferris Bueller. As long as it's tangentially related to Chicago, it's all good.

Extra Credit:
Chicago Deep Dish Pizza -- the best pizza ever? Your thoughts.

Sometimes, I could almost swear that John Scalzi is trying to stump me on a topic, were it not for the fact that it's clearly paranoid of me to think such a thing.  Listen, I've barely been to Chicago.  I've seen one hotel, and the roads leading up to it. I've seen O'Hare Airport, which is technically outside Chicago itself.  And I've seen downtown Chicago from the air.  Very pretty. 

Not much to hang an entry on, is it? So I'm going off on a tangent, based on that one visit to that one hotel.  Hey, he said we could do that! 
Evidence that I've been to Chicago - barely.As I've mentioned repeatedly in this journal, John, Kal and I were the owners of Rockarama from 1979 to 1982.  The store never made money, so we kept it going by hauling our best stock to record shows.  Most of these were in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Detroit, Toledo and Covington.  A couple of times, though, we went to Beatlefest.  In 1981 it was the Chicago Beatlefest.  In 1982, it was the one in Port Chester, NY, not far from New York City.  In 1987 and 1990, when Rockarama was long gone, we attended the Beatlefest in downtown Los Angeles.

On of several shirts I bought at Beatlefest.Now, honestly, I don't remember much about that first Beatlefest I attended.  I remember how green and pretty the drive to the hotel was, and that we sawsome kind of light rail on the way in and were impressed with it.  The hotel itself was the Hyatt Regency Chicago.  It had a mezzanine level, and that made me a  little nervous.  A month before, almost to the day, the Skywalk mezzanine at the Hyatt Regency Kansas City had collapsed, killing 119 people.  Nothing bad happened at the Chicago hotel, though.  The room even had a mini-refrigerator, which was the first time I'd seen one in a hotel room.

I'd like to be able to tell you all about that Beatlefest: the Monkees dealers in the booth next to us, the guy in the corner with a Beatles alarm clock and other great licensed merchandise from 1964, the great Beatles tribute band, Harry Nilsson and Mike Mac, the great t-shirts I bought and the money we made.  The truth, however, is that such anecdotes would be a confabulation, a dimly-recalled, half-made-up mishmash of things we saw and heard and did at at least four different Beatlefests over the years.  What happened in Chicago, specifically?  I can't  begin to tell you.  Other than the drive in and the mezzanine level and the fridge, I have no specific memories. 

Harry Nilsson, 1982.Too bad, because I wanted to tell you about Harry Nilsson.

After John Lennon's death in December, 1980, John's friend Nilsson became involved in a Coalition to "End Handgun Violence."  He would go to Beatlefest, sell autographs and auction off his time on behalf of that cause.  We met Nilsson at a Beatlefest, as you can see from the photo and the accompanying ticket.  However, as you can also see from the ticket, this happened at the 1982 Beatlefest in NY, not the 1981 one in Chicago.

Let me tell you about him anyway.

Harry Nilsson (1941-1994) was a heavy drinker, a bit of a cokehead, and a very talented man.  His biggest hits, Everybody's Talkin' and Without You, were not written by him;  but he wrote a lot of great songs, and not just for himself, either.  The Monkees' Cuddy Toy was one of his.  So was the Three Dog Night hit One.  Early on, he was writing pop hits while working the night shift at a bank.  Later, he wrote the music for his own animated tv special, The Point.  He also wrote the music for The Courtship of Eddie's Father, and for Robert Altman's Popeye.  I count that last one as a plus, not a minus, by the way, both in the film's favor and in Harry's.  He also had a really great voice, and a wonky sense of humor. Unfortunately, he had an uneven career, and drinks and drugs contributed to his early death from heart failure.

Nilsson came to the Beatles' attention via Derek Taylor and Nilsson's cover of You Can't Do That, which worked a slew of lines from other Beatles songs into Nilsson's multitracked backing vocals, ending with the words "Strawberry Beatles forever!"  But that wasn't the first time his career crossed that of the Beatles.  In 1964, there was a 45 called Stand Up and Holler, accompanied by a film strip.  I think it was some kind of promotional thing. The song, sung by young Nilsson, had the following lame lyric:

Two bit, four bits, six bits, a dollar -
All for the Beatles, stand up and holler!

The film strip was footage from the Beatles' February 1964 visit to America.

I'm pretty sure we found that 45 at a Beatlefest, maybe even the Chicago one.  When my husband talked to Nilsson about it in 1982, he was amazed that we had it.  Sorry, but I don't really remember what story, if any, he told John (Blocher, not Lennon) about it.  But he did sign an autograph for us, and wished John a happy birthday for the next day.

And that's what I know about Chicago.

Okay, okay.  I've heard of Chicago blues, and watched the first Blues Brothers movie.  The Bob Newhart Show was set in Chicago, a fact  I remember because Newhart has a great bit in one episode in which he utters a long series of musical cliches about Chicago.  "It's, uh, my kind of town!"  The Chicago White Sox have spring training here in Tucson, and I hear they just clinched a berth for the post season. Good for them!  As for the Cubs, according to Back to the Future, they'll win the World Series in 2015.  Oh, and Gary Marshall's character in A League of Their Own is loosely based on Mr. Wrigley of chewing gum and Wrigley Field fame.

Extra Credit:  Don't be silly.  The best pizza is from New York State.  Pizza crust should be semi-thick and breadstick-chewy at the edge, thinner in the middle, with big air bubbles and not too much sauce. Unfortunately, Johnny's Pizza is long gone from Manlius, I hear.


P.S.  See the entry below for updates on the Saga of the Missing Check, and for new photos that accompany answers to the questions posed in my Monday Photo Shoot entry.  Good night!


ondinemonet said...

OMG...I was always a huge Nilsson fan. I love his songs and in fact was looking up some of his hits at just about a month ago.  Especially the "Cowboy song." I swear you do and write about the most interesting things, most of which bring back some pretty good memories. :)

Always, Carly :)

ryanagi said...

You never cease to amaze me! How cool is this?!

monponsett said...

pssst... (we East Coasters sort of let Chicagoans think they have the best pizza... it makes up for them being 2000 miles from any sort of ocean).

shellys555 said...

I adored Harry Nilsson and have many of his albums. "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night" is probably my fav, the one where he sang classics." As I recall reading a long time ago, he recorded "Everybody's Talkin'," which was the main song from the movie "Midnight Cowboy" and was written, (and I just Googled to check) by Fred Neil. Harry had been asked to write the main song and came up with "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City," which I consider the superior of the two songs. The producers or whoever thought it was too downbeat or some such, but they used it in the movie, but used "Everybody's Talkin'" as the main song and he got to record it for the movie. And of course, "Everybody's Talkin'" was a big hit, which the other song likely wouldn't have been if it had been the one showcased.

He also was a good friend of Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. During Mickey's brief stint at NYC's oldies station last winter, Mickey told a lot of stories about Harry Nilsson. Mickey lost that radio gig when the station switched to the new Jack format, which I hate.