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(Credit: Press / Tore Sætre)

Music

The one Jimmy Webb lyric that enraged Harry Nilsson

The world of music is full of tales of friendships between some of the most iconic musicians of all time. George Harrison and Eric Clapton, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. In fact, the golden era of rock music was brimming with many of these friendships, and in a funny way, Harry Nilsson seemed to be friends with nearly every of the era’s most celebrated icons. He crops up time and time again in discourse from that epoch.

Aside from Lennon, he was friends with Keith Moon, Mama Cass, Ringo Starr, to name but a few, and his life is screaming to be made into a biopic. Sometimes regarded as ‘The American Beatle’, he was right at the beating heart of a counterculture boom where rock reigned supreme.

One of his other glamorous and very close friends was the esteemed songwriter Jimmy Webb. An artist with numerous platinum-selling songs to his name, he has worked with the likes of Glen Campbell, The Supremes, Linda Ronstadt, Art Garfunkel and the late creative genius Richard Harris. Webb would even play on numerous Nilsson songs, most notably ‘Jump into the Fire’ from his 1971 magnum opus Nilsson Schmilsson. The song became such a classic that Martin Scorsese even included it in the climactic scene of GoodfellasThe pair would have a long and fruitful friendship up until Nilsson’s death in 1994.

In 2013, Webb told Rolling Stone: “Harry was a singer from another parallel universe where they grow singers,” he says. “There was no one like him. I may be a little biased, but the only two people I can think of right off-hand, who were around when he was singing, who could touch him, were Paul McCartney and Glen (Campbell) – and Glen was a much more orderly, traditional kind of a singer.”

He opined: “Both Paul and Harry had these kind of athletic, gymnastic-like voices, elastic voices, and could do all kinds [of things] with their voices that ordinary people can’t.”

However, the pair weren’t always friends. They first met in 1970 under a cloud of tension fed by misunderstanding. In his memoir The Cake and The Rain, Webb revealed that it was one of his lyrics that kicked off this brief bout of tension between the two, who up until that point had never met. 

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Webb started off the vignette saying, “David Geffen called and asked me to come over to his place in the Hollywood Hills. Harry Nilsson was over there and he wanted to talk to me. He was pissed.”

He continued: “Geffen greeted me on the porch. He was skinny, with very curly black hair. His Hollywood smile was all-purpose, which is to pay no disrespect. He was quite well adapted to his environment. His eyes glowed as though he knew exactly what you were about to say, considering your mental capacity. I was impressed. He handled Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. That was enough for me.”

“‘Harry’s down at the pool waiting for you,’ he said. And his smile said, ‘Man, are you in for it.'” He recalled. ‘Oh, great,’ I said as casually as I could muster. ‘I’ve always wanted to meet him.'”

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all the fuss was about. It came from a lyric that Webb had attached ‘B.N.’ (Before Nilsson) to on the song ‘Gayla’ from Richard Harris’ album The Yard Went On Forever.

Webb’s line was “skipping like a stone through the garden”. In his memoir, Webb claims that he was referencing Fred Neil’s line “skipping over the ocean like a stone” from ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, the song that Nilsson made his own in 1968 and was made iconic after its use in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy

Increasingly nervous after arriving at Geffen‘s mansion, Webb said: “My original intent was merely to say, ‘Beg your pardon, Mr. Nilsson, I wasn’t copying from your huge hit as my lyric was written first and wasn’t a deliberate rip-off.'”

Webb arrived to find Nilsson at the pool shooting a small basketball into a poolside goal. Allegedly, he shot three hoops before turning around. When he did, he had “a nose going to red, and a scowl on his hawkish features.”

Webb continued: “‘What’s with the B.N.?’ he ordered. ‘Or should I say B.S.?’ I choked, knowing exactly why I had been summoned. ‘Hey, no offence intended…’ I was chopped off at the knees. ‘Listen, I didn’t even write the song! Fred Neil wrote the song!’ he complained while his face reddened.” Webb then recounts how he argued to Nilsson that he was paying homage to ‘Everybody’s Talkin”, not stealing the line. To which Nilsson replied, “I just think you were being a prick!” and then angrily slammed a shot off the backboard through the net. 

Webb, flustered, said he wasn’t doing anything of the sort, but instead: “I was just trying to get your attention because I’m such a huge fan.” To which, the unrelenting Nilsson replied, “Are you sure about your motivations on that?”

Webb concluded: “We stood there face-to-face for thirty seconds before signs of amusement began to break on his face. I smiled back. He tossed me the ball and I put a jump shot through the hoop. ‘Hey, you’re pretty good, you know that?’ Harry grinned and a lifetime friendship began.”

It’s a relief that Nilsson finally relented. His friendship with Webb would go on to be a brilliant one, and without it, we would not have been given one of the best-loved tracks from his extensive back catalogue. Webb even appeared on ‘What Does A Woman See In A Man’ from Nilsson’s posthumous record Losst and Founnd

Listen to ‘Jump into the Fire’ below.