The Greatest Artist You Never Heard Of

There was a scene with prostitutes and homeless kids that we were trying to film for the 3am pilot where we were trying to get them all to fight each other. Jon Alpert, who had produced a bunch of documentaries for HBO was hired to be  my chaperone on this part of the project. Some of his documentaries include  “High on Crack Street” and its sequel “High on Crack Street 2”, which, believe it or not, I think is one of the best documentaries ever.

We were in the East village on St Marks and A where all the kids hang out. It was 1997. Jon was running around trying to do high school crap like “did you hear what this drug addict just said about you? Are you going to take that?” His whole technique was to keep the camera as hidden as possible and to just show up day after day so people would just think he was part of the scene and would forget all about the camera. And then he would get them to fight each other so he could film it. “Never do a documentary with someone just talking to the camera,” he told me, “that’s boring. Get them to fight until they bleed or die. And never move the camera away.”


I spent part of each of these nights talking to one girl with dreadlocks. She told me she was sick from cancer. She was lying to me. She told me some rich guy was “helping” her. Every now and then she’d disappear because the rich guy was around. But then we’d talk again. All her friends were prostitutes. But she said she wasn’t one. I, of course, believed her. I kept thinking about the cancer she said she had.

There was another guy who was on methadone and lived in a box with his girlfriend, who was sometimes a guy and sometimes a girl. There was another guy who had tourettes syndrome and a pet rat that would just sit in a cage on his shoulder.

But I would always talk to that girl with the dread locks. I thought that if I wasn’t married I could “save her” from his mess. From the 3am world where everyone had cancer, where the night slammed everyone into the wall and forced them to confess and cry and blame and forgive until sending them out into the world unprepared, unknown, used up before they were even twenty years old. I wanted to save her because I had the ego to think I didn’t need saving. In other words, I had enough ego to think I was in love.

I’d get home around 4 or 5am. The scenes we shot in the East village with the homeless kids were the most intense we had shot. Except for the transvestite in the meat packing district where we put a mike on his shirt while he was giving blowjobs. That was disturbing. Particularly when we saw the type of people pulling over to hire him.

When I got home I’d always put on the same song, for some reason. It made me feel lonely even though I had a wife, friends, family, coworkers I liked, a job I loved, a business on the side that made me work hard and provided money – I had everything going for me but I wanted to feel lonely because the night sometimes did that.

I’d put on “One” by “Three Dog Night”  [Youtube link to “One” by Three Dog Night]. My ex-wife would be sleeping in the other room. I’d get home and feel like I was cheating just by playing that song in the other room until I fell asleep.

Only now I realize that was bullshit. “Three Dog Night” was bullshit.

Harry Nillson wrote and sang “One”. I didn’t even know who he was until a little invention called youtube put 2 and 2 together and realized that’s who I really wanted to listen to when I wanted to relive this memory.

His rendition is much better. “One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.” In the background, is a monotonic beat that apparently was inspired by a busy signal. That’s a feeling I can relate to. “Now I just spend my time making rhymes of yesterday”. Three Dog Night was over-produced. Harry Nilsson just gets right down into it. He’s lonely, he’s sad, and he never gets better (his heart eventually killed him after all his friends died and all his money stolen).

So I read up more about Harry Nilsson and realized some more things:

A)     When Lennon and McCartney were each asked, independently, who their favorite singer/songwriter was in the US they both said, “Nilsson”. I had never even heard of him before.

B)      One of my favorite opening songs to a movie since I was a kid was the song “Sweethaven” from the 1980 movie “Popeye”, starring Robin Williams, directed by Robert Altman. I’ve listened to the opening theme song over 100 times since then. I actually got the soundtrack. Guess who wrote it. Nilsson. I just found this out two days ago. He wrote all the songs in the movie.  [Here’s the youtube link of sweethaven]

C)      He didn’t finish high school but lied on his job application for a job as a computer engineer (in the late 50s!) that he did.  He was so good with computers they let him keep his job after they found out he lied. He kept his job until 1965, even after the Beatles were calling him the best songwriter in the US.

D)     Some guy in 1960 bought songs from him for $5 a track. When Nilsson blew up and became huge the guy was going to re-release them and generously offered Nilsson a better deal when he didn’t have to. Nillson replied, “Don’t worry about it. You already paid for the songs. $5 a track.”

E)      For months I’ve been trying to remember the name of a TV show that I had loved as a kid but I just couldn’t remember. It turns out that Nilsson appeared in it AND sang a song in it. “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” What a beautiful show that was. Nilsson sings about a love that could never happen and the Ghost says to Mrs. Muir its how he felt about her .They don’t make shows like that anymore. [here’s the youtube link – “it’s just no good anymore when you walk into an empty room”]

F)      Another great movie theme song (“Midnight Cowboy”) featured Nilsson “Everyone’s Talking” which became a #1 hit. [here’s the youtube link]

G)     Nillson died broke. In the last year or so of his life he realized his financial adviser stole everything he had. She spent two years in jail. He died of a massive heart attack. A guy who was so conservative with his money (not quitting his computer job until he had already produced several #1 hits) and such an amazing artist died completely broke. Financial advisers suck. From Madoff down to this woman, all I hear is about how they screw everyone over all the time.

Jon Alpert and I finished that segment. We then did the Riker’s Island segment. The meat packing district segment (we followed around a dozen transvestite prostitutes for weeks) . We did a segment where a bunch of famous authors would play hockey every Thursday at three in the morning. I spent hundreds of hours editing. Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO’s Family Programming said, “I love it. But for HBO you need to either show your neighbors fucking or someone shooting their mother while naked.” So it didn’t make it to the air.

But that’s ok. It worked out for the best. I left HBO and started “Reset”, my first successful company. And I had that girl with the dreadlocks in my memory. I know its stupid to think I felt anything for her. But every night we were down there I played that song “One” afterwards. What a corny thing. So clichéd. Only now I wished I had played Harry Nilsson “One”.

I didn’t know many things back then.


  • I assume you act as your own financial advisor?

    • Hee.
                      Are you James’s brother, ragging at him with a pseudonym??

    • Yeah, funny. Similar name. I don’t know if I act as my own financial advisor but I definitely don’t let anyone else do it.

  • ron b

    Me and My Arrow.  

    • Lucky Tucky

      You’ve got a point there!

  • Anonymous

    from the powers that be in the YouTube world:  “Absolutely amazing talent. To learn more check out the documentary ‘Who Was Harry Nilsson and Why is Everybody Talking About Him’ on Netflix. Fascinating story.”  
    Financial Advisors suck…yeah the ones that steal your money and/or offer nothing for the fee you pay…I know a lot of very hard working, honest, CARING FAs…they out weight the scum by thousands, and every time a scumbag comes out of the pond it makes our job 10,000x harder.  Hold everyone to a fiduciary duty and dump the brokers.  People have to look past marketing BS

    • Right, I should not have blanketed it. Its just something i’ve seen so many times it makes me sick.

      • Chris Gabel

        Nobody should ever give someone else actual access to your funds. Advisor is one thing, money-handler is another. Any “professional” who wants access to your funds is highly likely to rip you off. I’m a CPA & also did a stint as a broker. Again – never, ever, allow someone to access your accounts, no matter how much you think you trust them. There’s really no reason to ever do that.

  • Songs I play when I feel alone: 

    The Blowers Daughter:

    You Are My Face:

    English Girls Approximately:

    Out to Get You:

    Song I listen to when I want to dance, but cannot imagine finding the energy or joy to do so:


    • Now I am going to listen to each of the above songs in that order. 

      • I’m going to check them out also. I haven’t heard of any of them. I feel musically illiterate.

        • Thanks to my brother I have an excellent supply of music for every mood. 

        • Tonight I listened to all of the “feeling alone” songs. What did you think of them, by the way? 

  • Songs I play when I feel alone: 

    The Blowers Daughter:

    You Are My Face:

    English Girls Approximately:

    Out to Get You:

    Song I listen to when I want to dance, but cannot imagine finding the energy or joy to do so:


  • jim

    There’s a great documentary about Nilsson’s life called “Who’s Harry Nillson and Why is Everybody Talking About Him?” (or something like that).  It’s available on streaming Netflix.

  • James, I just read the post on Mark Cuban. It made me wonder if you had ever dealt with Ted Leonsis. Another guy who made a fortune during the internet bubble, and a sports franchise (multiple) owner.

    • I did deal with him once. Perhaps another post’s worth.

  • Oh, great blog BTW!  My son sent it my way.

  • I think ideas and art and talent and fame can be compared with chemistry.

    In many chemical reactions there need to be catalysts that speed up the reaction to make it do what it needs to do.
    When the reaction is over and you see something cool at the end like purple smoke or flashes of  orange fire light, you no longer care what started it you just want to say what you see.

    And with chemistry there is this thing called reaction rate.
    Things do not happen instantaneously, they take time.
    When something reaches a saturation point, whatever is at that point is what you think about.
    No one cares about the causation factor.  they want a quick answer, a quick word, whatever comes to mind, something popular.
    Then some smart person comes along and rebrands the whole thing as their image and pretty soon you wind up with a really distorted view of what the whole process was in the first place.
    Maybe those smart people are simply the best gatherers and the best transmitters of ideas.
    Nothing wrong with that.

    Some people perfect the work of someone else and then take all the credit and all the market-share in an instant.

    I am not sure where I fit in anywhere in this world.  Maybe I am a genius. Maybe I am a delusional, indolent fuck. No idea anymore.

    Nikola Tesla was a genius way ahead of his time.
    Could have been the first billionaire, chose not too.
    Also died with very little money.
    The US government swooped down and confiscated all his trunks, which were filled with his brilliant notebooks and who knows how many would-be patents.

    • That’s a fascinating analogy. I think similar things happen in almost every field. And it IS like a chemical reaction. You can be doing the right thing but be in the wrong part of the chemical reaction (e.g. before the saturation point). Was just having this conversation with someone over whether or not Yahoo made a good acquisition when they bought Of course they did, I said. Because if they executed and held on they would’ve turned it into youtube. But, alas, perhaps it wasnt the saturation point yet.

  • Three Dog Night gets a bad rap here. It’s not that they tried to fool you. Clearly they give credit to the MANY songs they have performed but not written.

    Calling them out as ‘total bullshit’ because of your inability to read a record sleeve is inexcusable.

    • I like them, I just like the Harry Nilsson version better. And I liked it more when I read more of his story (and realized he also did “sweethaven”).

  • “I didn’t know many things back then.” 

    When I was younger I thought I knew more, so much more.
    Now, with complete confidence I can say, I know absolutely nothing.

    (I did know some, not much, about Nillson)

    • I know what you mean. Its also a cliche but i feel like the older I get the less I know.

  • Anonymous

    have you ever heard his album The Point? it’s an incredibly poignant story about a kid who doesn’t fit in, with story and songs by him. it was originally a TV Special for kids with voice acting and singing by ringo starr and dustin hoffman but he released it as an album with all the acting and singing performed by him. it was my favorite record as a kid and is still great now almost 40 years later.

    • Wow, I did not. I’m going to try to get it on itunes.

      • Isaac

        I don’t see it on iTunes, though it is on Spotify.

    • Tim A

      Indeed, “The Point” is utterly fantastic.  A good story for children, and spectacular music.  If you haven’t seen/heard it, please do.

  • Alan L

    The first time I heard of Harry Nilsson was at a Marianne Faithful concert.  She told a funny story about him dying during a root canal and then his funeral being ruined by an earthquake.  I promise it was funny.  What I can remember of it.  Anyway, there’s a shorter and less funny version of the story at the beginning of this clip, where she sings Harry’s song, “Don’t Forget Me.”  Good stuff.  The visual part of the video is a bit too on the nose for me but the music is wonderful.

  • I paid $32.67 for a XBOX 360 and my mom got a 17 inch Toshiba laptop for $94.83 being delivered to our house tomorrow by FedEX. I will never again pay expensive retail prices at stores. I even sold a 46 inch HDTV to my boss for $650 and it only cost me $52.78 to get. Here is the website we using to get all this stuff,

  • Bill

    Your story about the girl with the dreadlocks reminds me of this song:

  • Syren

    I can’t believe you hadn’t heard of Harry Nillson until 1997.  What about “Put The Lime In The Coconut”?  Or Jump Into the Fire?  I love you, James, and love your blog…but you most definitely spent too much time on chess as a kid if you missed out on Nillson.  On the upside, you discovered him when you could truly appreciate his genius, so that’s all good.

  • Anonymous

    LOL.  “Popeye” was a bomb. Critics savaged it. Still makes some of those “worst films of all time” lists.

    I always loved it. Can’t tell you why. For me it just worked. What else would a live action film based on a campy cartoon look like?

    Thanks, James. Now I’ve got to rent the thing and pay attention to the soundtrack.

    • Anonymous

      a little relevant trivia: a nilsson song from popeye was used in the movie Punch-Drunk Love

  • John Mieras

    I loved the movie Popeye; even though it was weird.  I especially loved the music too.  Thanks for info about Nillson.  Isn’t it funny that Lennon and McCartney would rave about him?  I know they were friends and all, but to be as big as they were at the time, to have them as your fans… amazing.

  • Close 2nd: Aimee Mann’s version from the movie, “Magnolia”:

  • Catwood2

    Ah Nillson. What never fails to pick me up is Nillson Schmilson…fantastic. There are a few stories I’ve read about Lennon’s lost weekend that he was a party to. Thanks for this post.

  • I harassed my parents into buying me the Popeye soundtrack album (an actual vinyl LP!) after seeing that movie. Always loved the songs more than the movie itself. Now it makes sense.
    Also, I developed a huge crush on Shelley Duvall (Olive Oyl?) after hearing “He Needs Me.” Perhaps that explains why I’ve been looking for a codependent relationship ever since!

  • Oh contemptuous hindsight.

  • Jake

    My life feels empty most of the time and I have all of the “right” things, wife, kids, job, friends, etc.  It doesn’t mean you can’t be or feel lonely.  That may seem ridiculous to most everyone who is on the outside looking in.  But it is my reality.  I am aware of it, though, which I feel is important.  Is it depression?  Maybe.  Seems there has to be a concrete diagnosis, a name, a disorder for everything these days.  I just know how I feel,  how I think others must feel sometimes, and what I do to control the emotions.

    And your posts help me day to day.  I love the realism.  Thank you.  And sorry for the dark post.

    • I feel sad sometimes and I can feel it when its coming on just like a common cold. Recently, I have recognized it’s always -without fail-  when I stop exercising.  If I keep really active, meaning a substantial work out every other day, the blues stay far away. 

      Wishing you better times.

      • It’s great you can recognize the leak – exercising is a simple one.  Best way to make it a regular part of your life, do it first thing in the morning, make it part of that routine – no breakfast, no life until after exercising.  Great way to get the body and mind going.

    •  No prolem, Jake. Its very hard actually for anyone in your situation to diagnose, let alone self-diagnose. The key is to keep talking to people, perhaps seek some guidance, keep in very good physical shape, eat well, sleep well, breathe well (consciously breathe deeply whenever you get a few spare minutes – we all too often take breathing for granted when its our true life force), laugh when you can (movies, books, etc), and study random spiritual texts (buddha, lao tzu, jesus, whoever). All of these together can help move things closer.

    • nysepete

      You’re not the only one Jake.
      I have had a TOUGH few years in more ways than I ever imagined, and like James says – talking about it is the thing that helps most.  Or medication – if that’s what it takes.

      Ah that I had stronger friendships and could talk endlessly – but that isn’t so.  I’m fated to have a million buddies – not many true friends.

      And sometimes people look at me and think I have it made… but often I feel incredibly lonely.  The answer is out there for each of us – somewhere – the trick to lie is finding it and going for it.   I think I am too torn between my options right now and afraid I might be on auto-pilot going down paths that I think I should try or those around me think I MUST do — when in my heart I just ain’t sure.

      And the loneliness is worst when I tell someone and they either don;t understand or feel the need to tell me their own story instead.

      Good friends though…  goes a long way.

  • Quidnog

    Nailed it.  Thanks for bring Harry back to life!

  • Patrick

    By coincidence there was a documentary about Harry Nilsson on BBC last night. Not sure if you can watch it from the US…?

  • Anita

    How spooky Harry Nillson came into my life yesterday and now you have introduced me to him too. Documentary from the BBC on Harry Nillson.. (Or buy it on itunes)

  • Anita

    How spooky Harry Nillson came into my life yesterday andn now you have introducted me to him too. Watch this (or buy from itunes) This documentary was aired on the BBC yesterday.

  • Anita

    Get Spotify, its has launched in the US. Search Harry Nilsson l isten to you hearts content.

  • nysepete

    I was never a huge fan of 3 Dog Night — always kinda irked somehow that I could never put my finger on.  Kinda cheesy or something.  “Overproduced” possibly like you said.

    This version of the song is so much better and I thank you for introducing it to me.

    I always like the Aimee Mann version a lot also — but I think it really affected me because of its being a part of the movie Magnolia – which I LOVE.  And it’s just synched so well.
    However – I saw Aimee live in Brooklyn once, and she botched several of her songs, started a couple over, messed up words, and laughed about it like we were all over for a Sunday BBQ and hadn’t paid money to see her show.  

    So now Nilsson [who I admit to having heard of long ago] is now my reigning champ for this song.

  • Sooz

    “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.” …I,too, believe they do not make shows like that anymore.
    Thanks for sharing the scene with Harry Nillson. Very sweet poetic lyric and tune.
    Such fond memories..  

  • Penny

    Met Harry Nilsson long ago in London.  At WB Records UK office, thanks to an English colleague.  Five of us drinking brandy and quizzing each other on the composers of classic pop songs.  The one I remember Nilsson and my friend answered simultaneously: Who wrote “As Time Goes By”  Answer: Herman Hupfeld.  Question: What else did he write” Answer: no one knew.
    Nilsson seemed like a very sweet, soft-spoken man.  And, as dreadful as it is that he died much too young, like Herman Hupfeld, he lives on in his unforgettable music.

    • Thinking of him today, given that he wrote “Sweethaven” the opening theme for Robin Williams’ first movie.

  • Anonymous

    Nilsson Son of Schmilson – I thought was on of his best.

  • Anonymous

    Have you ever listened to Leon Russell or Warren Zevon? They both have a certain something that speaks to you. -Zevon, when you want to eat what you kill, Russell when you want to just let it go.

    Their originality and their contribution to modern music is really incredible and they are known by very few people outside their community.