- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
At Home With a Ghost - 55
1974 RCA publicity photo with clean hair
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
1974 was the year RCA released House of Pain, my first album as a singer-songwriter. It was the year I loved and lost a man, so my songs poured out the sweet and the bitter in equal measure. Once I was done recording, I rolled up my sleeves to begin my new project: self-pitying wine-soaked self-destruction. I had gotten off to an impressive start when I met Harry Nilsson.
The album’s title song came from the Charles Laughton horror classic Island of Lost Souls. Laughton played a mad scientist grafting men to animals in his lab, which his unfortunate victims – now “manimals” – called “the House of Pain.” I spent my record advance making a weird short film to accompany the title track, including animation and clips from the horror film. This was before music videos. I urged RCA to use their newly developed video players to show the film in record stores, to see if it had any effect on my sales. They failed to see the point. However, the video did result in my meeting a long-adored idol.
I was fresh to art of songwriting, and my early efforts didn’t fit any genre or show any other artist’s influence. They were what they were: my insides turned out. (I had not yet begun my later collaboration with a dead composer – my grandfather – whereupon my songs took a turn towards the musical theater genre.) However, if there was any singer-songwriter I worshiped, it was Harry Nilsson. He suited me right down to the ground: his antic humor, his insouciance, his entwining of musical styles both quaint and contemporary, his impeccable taste in arrangements, brilliantly layered background vocals and, above all, his gliding golden voice.
RCA was Nilsson’s longtime label. One late winter afternoon, on a visit from LA, Harry popped into the office of his product manager, who showed him my strange video. I happened to be next door with my product manager when I was told Harry wanted to meet me.
The following dawn, I remembered nothing. I had probably been out of body. Clearly my body had gone ahead and celebrated without me. My idol was standing by the hotel room window, smoking, and gazing at me sort of wistfully. He said he’d recently become enchanted with a young waitress from Ireland, who had gone back home but would rejoin him in LA in the spring. Now that he’d met me, he was feeling confused. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home, too. (My clothes smelled like the floor behind a bar.)
I didn’t expect to see Harry again, assuming that I had behaved badly as I often did during blackouts, which were common enough for me in those days of wine and bloody noses. But it was a shame to have no memories to savor of my one night with Nilsson. I hadn’t even grabbed a hotel matchbook to prove to myself I’d been there. The RCA product managers knew more about what happened than I did. They were the ones to tell Harry, a few months later, that I was in LA. They gave him my number.
At 5 a.m., I was sleeping soundly on a bare mattress, the one piece of furniture in my West Hollywood sublet except for a phone, which rang. In the blue light of this second dawn, I arrived at Harry’s La Cienega apartment, where I found him on the phone in hoarse conversation with his attorney. Flopped in an armchair was John Lennon. Harry was discussing the text of an apology to be delivered to someone, while John peered at him myopically because his glasses had been lost in a fistfight. Harry instructed his lawyer to send flowers with the apology, and hung up. It seems I had come on the scene right after Harry and John were thrown out of the Troubadour for brawling with the Smothers Brothers.
John repaired to the guest bedroom. Harry downed a quart of milk and a couple of repulsive hoagies from the 7/11, and then fell asleep with his foot hanging off the bed and jiggling, still animated by all the cocaine and brandy he had ingested earlier. (“Ole Coke-foot,” I used to call him.) He favored Brandy Alexanders because the cream lined his stomach; thus the alcohol wasn’t absorbed, allowing him to drink more double Brandy Alexanders until the dawn like this one.
Harry had introduced John to this noxious drink, which was also Ringo’s favorite. Now, Harry could hold his mud. No matter how much he drank, he seemed fine, mind sharp and words unslurred, ever primed with witty banter. Essentially he had a sweet nature, with a side of sadness; but, as I was soon to learn, he was a raging alcoholic. And he was spurring John to commit brandy-kiri alongside him. John, for his part, was terrible at booze. Two drinks, and the darkness fell; you never knew what demon was going to ride out of the murk.
By now their escapades had hit the press. RCA was understandably anxious. John was supposed to produce Harry’s new album Pussy Cats, with recording sessions to begin in two weeks. The word came down from the higher-ups: get out of LA, spend a weekend at a spa in Palm Springs, and dry out.
Women were allowed on board. RCA must have thought we would act as nannies. This was not my strong suit. May Pang, on the other hand, didn’t mind being a minder. She was John’s new love, in the wake of his split with Yoko. She and I packed our weekend bags, jumped into our hot pants, and rode down to Palm Springs with our patients.
I will not go into detail about that long and disorderly weekend. Suffice it to say, the boys took “dry out” to mean: no alcohol. Nothing wet. That left drugs. And Palm Springs was dead boring. The sun was too bright. The shades got pulled down; calls to locate a dealer went out. Some white powder was scored. Perhaps it was coke. If so, it had been stepped on so many times, trampled you might say, that it was mostly suitable for babies with diaper rash. Whatever it was, Harry became more than usually loquacious. Hoarse to begin with, he talked, and talked, and talked until he was down to a rasp. A trip to the hospital ensued. He was handed some antibiotics, and told very sternly not to smoke and to go on a complete voice rest for the remainder of the weekend.
Harry tried the pantomime thing for about four hours before he caved. Alcohol was restored to the menu. Swallowing the pills with cognac, he lit up a cigarette, and proceeded to talk. With a vengeance. He wouldn’t shut up. The rasp now sounded like he was gargling blood. Yet he talked on.
And so I was present to witness the tragedy of Harry Nilsson willfully murdering that beautiful voice I loved so much. It never really came back.
I was back in New York when he and John arrived to finish Pussy Cats. I was horrified to hear Harry’s vocals. There was no trace of the swooping heaven-kissed tenor he was born with. He sounded like he was being flayed alive. The album was one big drugged-out gangfuck of the ears.
Meanwhile I was pulling away, for my own preservation. I lost my nerve, recognizing I had neither the stamina nor the capacity to keep up with his tireless, unending binge. Harry scared me. His self-destruction made my own attempts look feeble.
Besides, I had my second album to record, and Harry’s waitress was flying in shortly. What should he do? Harry asked. He was in love with two women. I told him he didn’t actually have a problem, because I was going home.
I knew if I stayed with him, I was going to die. Instead, he died – twenty years later, in 1994. By then I was happily married (as was he, to his waitress) with one child (to his six). He hadn’t been sober for most of those years, so the news of his death from heart failure, while sad, came as no surprise to me.
I hadn’t loved him, though I’d tried because he was a genius and I am partial to them. Nonetheless I was still and forever in love with his music. I mourned Nilsson’s death by playing his poignant “Turn On Your Radio”:
I don’t know where I’m goin’
Now that I am gone
I hope the wind that’s blowin’
Helps me carry on
Turn on your radio, baby
Baby listen to my song
Turn on your night light baby
Baby I’m gone
I’d said goodbye to him many years before, and fate had not arranged for us to run into each other since. This time I knew for certain I’d never see him again.
But I did.
(To be continued.)