Friday, October 10, 2014

ON THE 35th ANNIVERSARY OF THE DEATH OF LOWELL GEORGE (6/29/1979) costarring Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson

Almost certainly in no one’s mind but my own, there is an alternative universe in which Harry Nilsson’s last album, Flash Harry, had a song on it by Michael Dare, catapulting me into a new career path as songwriter deluxe because what on earth could be fucking cooler than Harry Nilsson covering one of your songs. I would have been on a very short list of songwriters including Fred Neil, Randy Newman, and John Lennon. Once again, you’re going to have to trust me on this one, and once again, it’s a pathetic tale of how I coulda been a contender. I’m as sick of them as you are, and yet when people ask me Mr. Dare, you were born in Beverly Hills, how did you end up in subsidized housing in Seattle, one of the answers that invariably pops to mind is Well, Lowell George could have lived at least an hour longer. And by the time you’re done reading this, that last sentence will make perfect sense.

Before I became a journalist in the 1980s, I spent the 1970s doing nothing but theater, sometimes acting, sometimes as a musician, and sometimes as a composer. One day Alice Cooper hired me to score a musical called Ward 22 that took place in an insane asylum. I was given a complete libretto, wrote a score, and the production reached the point where they asked me who I’d like as an arranger. The first name that popped out of my head was Van Dyke Parks, my hero at the time. Go get ‘em, they said, and that I did.

It turned out Van Dyke Parks lived around the corner from me in West Hollywood. I played him the songs, he said yes, and we started hangin’. So what if the play didn’t happen. Nothing in Hollywood ever happens unless it magically does.

We remained pals. We hung out backstage with Steve Martin and the Blues Brothers. I was the photographer at his wedding.

Tony Martin Jr., Van Dyke Parks, Sally Parks, Harry Nilsson, Jack Nicholson, plus two ladies and a bishop.

One day I played him a chorus for a song I’d written called Small Favors. He liked it. A couple days later, he brought by Martin Kibbee, Lowell George’s songwriting partner on Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor and Dixie Chicken, both Little Feat classics. He asked me to play him the chorus. Martin went into a corner with a pad of paper and 10 minutes later, magically, had two verses that worked perfectly. We had a song that ended up in the queue of songs for Little Feat to potentially cover.

Then Van Dyke advocated for me in the most amazing possible way. He had produced Randy Newman and Ry Cooder’s first albums, both of which tanked, presumably because neither could sing very well. Van Dyke introduced Randy Newman to Harry Nilsson, who could sing VERY well. The result was Nilsson Sings Newman, one of the greatest albums ever.

On June 29, 1979, 35 years ago today, Van Dyke decided to do something similar for me. He showed up unannounced and said “I’m on my way to do some recording with Harry Nilsson. Wanna come?”

My brain exploded. Harry Nilsson never did a concert. Not one. Ever. He appeared on some TV shows and made some movies himself, all of which you can see in the excellent documentary Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), but as far as seeing him at the Troubadour, unless you were there the night he was thrown out with John Lennon (I was.), impossible. He did not perform in public. The only way to actually see him sing in person was to be there in the recording studio with him. A dream was about to come true.

On the way over, Van Dyke just said to play it cool, we were there to work with him, and if the timing was right, he would ask me to play a few songs for him.

I’m pretty sure it was Wally Heider Studios but I may be wrong. A small studio, a piano and guitar but mainly a mike. Today was for vocals. Harry was recording his version of Let’s All Look on the Bright Side of Life from Monty Python’s Life of Brian when we stepped into the control room. He finished, took off his headphones, and switched rooms. Van Dyke introduced us, I pulled out a joint, and we sat back to listen to playback.

We had just started talking when the phone rang and Van Dyke answered it. His face went pale. Lowell George was dead. I had never met him but that didn’t make me any less depressed than Harry and Van Dyke. Harry pulled out a bottle of cognac and we started drinking. They told their Lowell George stories but I had no stories to share other than my love of his talent.

I can only explain it like this. Let’s say you had been there with Paul McCartney the instant he found out John Lennon was shot. It would not have been the time to say Hey man, listen to THIS.

The timing was not right and it would never be right. To the best of my knowledge, that was Harry Nilsson’s last recording session, and the album, Flash Harry, wasn’t even issued in the United States until 2013, years after his death. He just fucking gave up.

Years later, I was covering some Science Fiction Award show for the LA Weekly, got bored, went outside to smoke a joint, and found myself alone on the roof of the Hollywood Palace with Harry Nilsson. I asked him what he was doing there. Turned out he produced the show. Why? Why not? I asked if I could take his picture. He said no. We had a nice talk but I didn’t sing him any songs and I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me from the recording session. I wasn’t going to bring up the last time I saw him.

Can you blame my psychiatrist for diagnosing me with delusions of grandeur when I mention there could have been an album called Nilsson Sings Dare? How many people ever got close to a shot at such a thing? Nobody, so I guess I should be grateful for having the memory, for knowing that Van Dyke believed in me, but still, it’s like a brain worm, considering how fucked up my life turned out to be, there was a moment when that dream was in my grasp. If only Lowell George had died at least an hour later.

Here are some of the songs I might have played for Harry, performed 35 years later on pianos in public parks in Seattle.

Have a Happy Childhood


The Pick of the Litter

Cannabis Rising