Harry Nilsson embodied the best traits of every individual Beatle. Like John Lennon, he was shrewd, singular and bolshy when it suited him; like Paul McCartney, he was tuneful, handsome and incredibly good-natured; and much like the other two, he was workmanlike, warm-hearted and reluctant to acquiesce to the demands of fame.
The Beatles adored Nilsson, although Ringo Starr was his closest chum of the lot, which wasn’t surprising considering their shared desire to act as well as sing. Their feature Son of Dracula, a ram-shackle horror-comedy, might not have blown the critics away, but it does show how much the men enjoyed each other’s company.
Starr played the percussion on ‘Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga’, a Lennon-Nilsson co-write that demonstrated the best of ’70s Los Angeles rock, and Nilsson was one of the many contributors to Goodnight Vienna, Starr’s fourth record, and his last coherent quality until the nineties.
By 1978, Starr had developed a drinking routine that was pivoting dangerously towards addiction, which gradually worsened by the ’80s. “It got progressively worse, and the blackouts got worse, and I didn’t know where I’d been, what I’d done,” Starr admitted to People. “I knew I had the problem for years. But it plays tricks with your head. Very cunning and baffling is alcohol,” he added.
Mercifully, he’s been sober since the ’90s, although he was still in recovery in 1992 when he decided to ask an old friend up to sing with him. “Harry was something of an enabler and had previously gotten Ringo into a lot of trouble,” admitted Todd Rundgren, who was touring with Starr’s backup band at the time in question. “It was surprising because Ringo had built a whole new lifestyle around getting into AA and cleaning up. Not that their friendship had been off-limits, but hanging out with Harry was one of the things he wasn’t supposed to do.”
What was even more remarkable was the fact that Nilsson agreed to sing with the band, making it the first time he’d sung ‘Without You’ to the public. Famously shy of the spotlight, Nilsson refused to sing onstage, preferring to use the studio as his vehicle to multi-track several vocal harmonies. For Nilsson to sing with Starr wasn’t just unusual, it was virtually miraculous. “To be a member of this band you have to have had a hit some time this century,” Starr announced to the audience at Caesar’s Palace. “And [Nilsson] had probably the biggest, most beautiful hit of the ’70s: ‘Without You.’”
Although Nilsson did not pen the tune himself (it was first recorded by Badfinger, a band many assumed would carry the mantle of The Beatles into the 1970s), it was his most popular number and the one that audiences associated his voice with. Listening to the performance in 2022, there’s no denying the bum notes he hits before hitting the chorus, but the crowd are generous enough to lead him there, and boy does he go for it, swooping through the sustained notes with trembling vulnerability and heroic restraint.
It’s not a happy song, not least because of its two writers’ tragic fate, both of whom died by their own hands in their private homes. The sadness is compounded further when you realise that Nilsson suffered from a heart attack shortly after giving the live performance, and died in January 1994. But there’s something a sincerity to the track that echoes Nilsson’s pain, Badfinger’s pain, and the malaise felt by everyone on the planet.
And contrary to the chorus line, there is much to live for in life, such as sobriety, recovery and good friendships. Listening to Nilsson’s rendition of the seventies standards, Ringo Starr – former Beatle, future knight – must have realised how good he had it in life.
“We all felt that we were a part of musical history right there,” Rundgren told Pitchfork. Boy, was he right!