When John Lennon teamed up with Harry Nilsson to cover Bob Dylan song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’
John Lennon and Harry Nilsson formed a debauchery filled friendship that very nearly tore apart Lennon’s marriage to Yoko, a time when he lived life to the fullest and continued to act as if there was no tomorrow. Although their friendship nearly obliterated his personal life, one thing that came out of this reckless period was Nilsson’s tenth studio album Pussy Cats, a record released in 1974 and saw the former Beatle take up the producing duties. One particular highlight, it has to be said, was the appropriate cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’.
The somewhat dark period of time that the two spent together as kindred spirits lasted around 18 months and is often described as Lennon’s ‘Lost Weekend’, a period which saw the duo cram more wild antics in a brief spell than most people manage in a lifetime. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono separated and the former Beatle spent most of his time loaded with some narcotic or another.
During this era, the bespectacled Beatle spent a lot of his time with rebels such as Keith Moon and the aforementioned Harry Nilsson. It was reported that the latter had become an increasingly bad influence on Lennon. “John loved Harry,” May Pang, Lennon and Ono’s assistant with whom John was having an authorised affair, confessed in Lennon Revealed.
“He loved his energy; he loved his writing. What he loved in Harry were the beauty of his friendship and relaxed personality,” she added. “That’s what he saw. Harry drank, a lot. But Harry was the type of guy that if you go out drinking with him, he’d be sure at the end of the night that there would be a big brawl and that you are the one who’s in trouble, even though he started it. Harry would keep feeding John drinks until it was too late.”
This hedonistic groundhog day that Lennon and Nilsson found themselves trapped within did see them come together creatively for Pussy Cats. Fittingly, the front cover included an inside joke with the children’s letter blocks ‘D’ and ‘S’ on either side of a rug under a table—to spell out “drugs under the table” as a rebus.
The album was started in Los Angeles but Lennon ultimately finished producing it in New York, a location where he could better control the sessions. During recording, Nilsson ruptured one of his vocal cords but chose to keep this from Lennon, a factor which caused his voice so much strain that many believed it never quite recovered. Half of the album’s original ten tracks were covers while the rest were written by Nilsson, apart from two tracks that his old drinking buddy co-wrote with him.
Nilsson’s Lennon-assisted cover of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ is a furious three minutes that sees John get to unleash some of his rockier side and provides the perfect soundtrack for a period of the former Beatle genius’ life. The track references the widespread use of recreational drugs which had spiralled throughout the ’60s amid the turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War, these were two subjects that he felt a great deal of passion about and the song was one that resonated greatly with him.
Dylan was a figure of influence over quite a large chunk of Lennon’s career with the former member of The Fab Four once admitting, “That’s me in my Dylan period,” laughed Lennon when speaking to David Sheff about the song ‘I’m A Loser’. “Part of me suspects I’m a loser and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty. [Laughs]” Prior to this in 1974, Lennon also recognised the song’s strong links back to Dylan, “‘I’m A Loser’ is me in my Dylan period, because the word ‘clown’ is in it. I objected to the word ‘clown’, because that was always artsy-fartsy, but Dylan had used it so I thought it was all right, and it rhymed with whatever I was doing.”
The cover that Nilsson and Lennon concocted together is sublime but even they both would have admitted that it doesn’t quite match the greatness of Dylan’s original. However, the track paints a picture of Lennon’s 18-month long ‘Lost Weekend’ in less than three-and-a-half-minutes in the most succinct manner imaginable.