Pussy Cats is good

Stephen King pissed me off the other day. Now he’s a fabulous author and storyteller so there is no doubting his narrative brilliance. In fact, he probably doesn’t care that he pissed me off and that is just how the world turns. But I will explain the key statement he made that has so incensed me that I have taken to my Blog to write a rebuttal (my Blog which lies dormant for months and then explodes with rhetoric over the most obscure issues). In an article in a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly,  King writes about the release of the documentary film Who is Harry Nilsson (and Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?). King writes “if you see one rock doc this year … make it Harry Nilsson” and has several words of praise for Nilsson’s genius and the film. But he emphasizes the negative elements of Nilsson’s life and says “A heavy smoker, he blows his voice mostly because he screams his lungs out with John Lennon while making a totally forgettable album called Pussy Cats.”

“Totally forgettable”?? Those are fighting words! I have been a Nilsson fan for so long that I was fortunate enough to be able to purchase his later albums when he was alive and recording them. For a few years there I lived with the happy expectation that a “new Nilsson album” was in the works and coming out soon. It is to his credit that I didn’t always like the albums because they were different and sometimes a bit challenging. Many artists get in a groove and essentially write and record the same kind of music for the duration of their career. Nilsson didn’t do that. His early work appeals to fans of the Beach Boys and the Beatles because of his amazing voice (overdubbed to produce remarkable harmonies) and wry lyrics. His middle phase was the most well known, producing the platinum and gold albums Nilsson Schmillson and Son of Schmillson. But for me the final phase of his recording career produced the most interesting collection of albums: Pussy Cats, Sandman, Duit on Mon Dei, …That’s the Way it Is and Knnillssonn. When these were originally released my reaction to them was mixed, though generally positive. Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate them more and more. In order to prevent this Blog entry from becoming a novel, I’ll restrict my comments to Pussy Cats.

Stephen King is not the only one to dismiss Pussy Cats as an artistic failure. The reviews and stories usually focus on the fact it was made with John Lenon during the famous “lost weekend” (which also produced Walls and Bridges, my favorite Lennon album). There was apparently a lot of drinking and partying during the sessions and Harry ruptured his vocal chords during the recording process. This last action caused most of us listening to the album when it came out to wonder “what happened to his voice??” (a reaction Curtis Armstrong eloquently describes in his liner notes for the Buddha Pussy Cats reissue). I can still remember my confusion when first hearing the album that these were not the same strong virtuosic rock pipes that are heard on Jump into the Fire or Take 54 (ok, or on Without You as well!). But I liked the tunes and the arrangements and gradually the voice grew on me. But let’s get down to brass tacks here, I’m tired of King and others dumping on this album and this is my defense, appreciation, homage etc. to Pussy Cats.

I’m going to go through all of the tracks and describe why I think Pussy Cats is fabulous, not only from a musical perspective, but from a pop-archeological point of view as well. I should mention that many of Nilsson’s albums were also mixed and released as Quad versions and some of these featured slightly different arrangements. The amazing thing about the Quad version of Pussy Cats is that most of the vocals are “pre-rupture”. Of course, being a dedicated Nilsson fan (or “Harryhead” as we are sometimes known) I have purchased all the Quad versions of his albums from eBay. In some cases I will be comparing my impressions of both versions of the songs.

Many Rivers to Cross: The Lennon/Nilsson version of this song totally rocks. There are a lot of Nilsson fans who are not crazy about Pussy Cats, but most everyone agrees this is a terrific track. The song has been slowed down and, like many of the tracks, has the dual drum sound of Jim Keltner and Ringo Starr which gives it this incredibly solid beat (they were nicknamed “Thunder and Lightening” when they recorded together). There are very few fills, but each one is perfectly timed. Harry’s voice is strong and gives the song an enormous gravity and pain (“my woman left me, and she wouldn’t say why….”). The guitar solo just “bubbles” through with an echo/flange effect and elaborate syncopation. There is a great little echoing vocal with the “MANY many Rivers to cross near the end” and the scream on “wondering I am LOST” is, well, just crazy intense.

The production is vintage Lennon with a lot of echo (I played some of the tracks for a friend a few years back and she commented “wow, I had no idea how much this sounds like a Lennon album!”). Many people regard this as a negative element but I see it differently: I think change is what makes life interesting and it’s what made Nilsson a great artist. Nilsson had previous producers and arrangers like George Tipton and Richard Perry who certainly influenced his sound, but Lennon really dominates the arrangements on this album. But how can it be a bad thing to have half of the main Beatles songwriting team in the studio with you? It is a unique sound for Nilsson and I like the orchestration overall.

Subterranean Homesick Blues: There are a lot of covers on this album which, I guess, is part of the “Lost Weekend” ethos: “hey, we’ve been partying for a while and I have a couple of songs, why don’t we just fly to New York and record an album?” So of the ten songs on the original LP, five were covers which is fine since Harry was a great interpreter and his most famous two hits, Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You, were covers. This is a pretty funky version of the Dylan Song with a great clavinet part played by Harry. When I listen to the Dylan version now I find it kind of “thin”. The song begins with a kind of jungle drum beat that sounds like toms with some kind of “treatment” and the bass throughout is really low and slappy. The vocals are doubled but more to add strength than for harmony. This is not an amazing cover like Many Rivers to Cross but it manages to be messy, funky and urgent sounding with a decent, but short, sax solo from Bobby Keys. I like the way the guitars kind of clang together for the backing melody.

Don’t Forget Me: The first original and probably the most touching song on the album. It’s a beautiful and restrained arrangement with piano and strings. The opening is simple yet grand as the piano states the melody over the background orchestration. “In the wintertime, keep your feet warm, but keep your clothes on and don’t forget me….”. The song is about keeping memories alive which is a topic of many great Nilsson songs (Remember (Christmas), Old Forgotten Soldier, Nobody Cares about the Railroads Anymore). It could be self-referential since no artist wants to be forgotten. I find Nilsson’s voice to be really effective here because it is a bit cracked and you can really hear the texture of the lyrics. The younger Nilsson could not have sung the song with as much heart and effect. In fact, for the sake of this Blog I just listened to the Quad version and the vocal is much stronger and closer to his sound on Nilsson Schmilsson. It is a great version,  but for the song’s sentiment and lyrics I think the released version is better.

According to the Album cover notes, Harry plays the piano part on Don’t Forget Me and I think it points out that although he was self-taught, and primarily a singer-songwriter, he managed to play some nice subtle piano on a number of albums (of course he had keyboard greats like Nicky Hopkins to play the complex stuff when needed).

All My Life: Another original. I have many “favorite Nilsson songs” and this is one of them. It’s not so well known but I think it pretty much describes Harry and John’s frequent state of being during the “lost weekend” and many other periods in their lives. Hey, it probably describes a few periods in my own life. Again, the “all right” and various grunts at the song’s beginning  benefit from Harry’s more gutteral vocal sound.

“Well I’ve had my share of bad times, / I’ve been shooting ‘em up, / Drinking ‘em down, / Taking them pills, Fooling around,/  All my Life. / But I’m so tired of bad times / I’ll have to change my way.”

Just looking at the lyrics on the album now I noticed it is written in a kind of “mini sonnet” format. The Elizabethan sonnet has a 12 line “argument” and the last couplet is a counter-argument or “turn”. The two main verses, which are repeated at the end, have a similar structure with the main argument about the hard living, and then final couplet “But I’m so tired of bad times / I’ll have to change my way” and “But I’m so sore from laughing / I haven’t got the will to fight”.

An interesting element of this album is the consistent use of strings (the Masked Alberts Orchestra is credited and Ken Ascher did the arrangements). For example, with All My Life, the versus have that funky, slightly decadent, feel but when it moves into the chorus (“All my life I have been waiting to find a reason to give it up for, do a lot more, every day of my life”) the beat changes and the strings become smoother and soaring. This change reinforces the song’s dichotomy between the verse’s rough and ready party life, and the chorus which depicts a more refined and noble life. Overall, a great song!

Old Forgotten Soldier: This song is similar in mood and sentiment to Don’t Forget Me with its references to the past and forgetfulness. Again, Harry’s cracked and bleeding voice is quite effective as he spins one military image after another to metaphorize his decay (“I’m an old forgotten railroad / an empty ammo train / and my rusty ammunition / has been left out in the rain”). I think his singing of the phrase “I tried to save the world” is especially poignant: vowel sounds in “tried” are held until the voice practically breaks which reinforces the frailty of man and of Harry at the same time.

I’ve always liked the arrangement of this song. We get Harry playing lounge piano with Jesse Ed Davis on guitar and Klaus Voormann on bass, a classic jazz trio in the style of Nat King Cole (Harry must also have had Nat in mind when he quoted from Paper Moon in his song Puget Sound on Duit on Mon Dei). This arrangement is truly intimate and unique in Nilsson’s oeuvre.

Save the Last Dance for Me: Another cover and it’s similar to Many River to Cross in how it slows down a well known song but here the re-arrangement is more exaggerated and romantic. There are a few subtle touches on this song including some mumbled words like lovers exchanging intimate talk (they come around the “sparkling wine” section). Nilsson’s voice is quite powerful and effective: it’s not the high, powerful voice we are used to, but it is fuller and a bit more anguished. The Quad recording of this song doesn’t differ very much from the stereo release although I believe it has more background harmonies. On the Bhudda release there is a bonus track that has the “old” Nilsson voice and is certainly effective and when he ends on a high, sweet note, it is thrilling. But the released version has its own raw power.

Mucho Mungo / Mt. Elga: This is an original song, a “co write” by Lennon and Nilsson. In this respect it parallels Old Dirt Road, recorded by Lennon for Walls and Bridges and re-recorded by Nilsson for Flash Harry. It is a good song but not remarkable. The fact that it has two halves with a different feel for each reminds me of some of the Lennon/McCartney compositions Day in the Life where they each had about half a song and slapped them together.

Loop de Loop and Rock Around the Clock are definitely the two “party tracks” of the Album. If one were unkind one might call these versions “loose,” “sloppy” etc. etc. But the backbone of the tracks are the session players who are all pros so it’s never going to get too discordant. Loop de Loop is pretty much a party song anyway, so it’s only fitting it gets this treatment. The backing chorus, the sax section, the rocking drum fills, all work pretty well. Harry’s voice certainly sounds like he’s been up all night looping the loops. So I’d say this track is simply a lot of fun and is presented in the spirit of the things.

Black Sails: A very still, suspenseful song effectively presented in a stark arrangement of vocal and strings. It reminds me of I’ll Never Leave You from the Nilsson Schmilsson album and prefigures Knillssonn which is entirely vocal and strings. The vocal is great: tense and subdued but with a quiet strength. My only criticism is that the solemn mood is slightly undercut by the lyrics which are very punny: “You shiver your timbers baby, and I’ll shiver mine” “But you’re so veiny, you probably think this map belongs to you”. But one could argue that the juxtaposition of the arrangement and melody with the slyly humorous lyrics is intentional.

Rock Around the Clock: As I said previously, this and Loop de Loop are the genuine party tracks on the album. There is nothing too innovative about this, but it is definitely fun. With Harry’s “radio announcer” voice I always had a vision of a big hall, or roller rink, and bands rocking it out late at night while the live DJ got the audience riled up. Its selection probably had something to do with the fact that Lennon would record Rock ‘n’ Roll the next year (1975) with many of the same session players. I always liked the false ending and then the double-time section. How appropriate to have Keith Moon pounding away with Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner.

So there you have it, not a brilliant album, but a lot of fun with some genuinely touching performances and writing. Several of the songs have had great covers including Neko Case’s and Marianne Faithful’s versions of Don’t Forget Me. I guess neither of them thought Pussy Cats was “forgettable”. The most remarkable cover/tribute was by The Walkmen who recorded their version of the entire album. I’m not a Walkmen fan, but I bought this album (because I’m a Nilsson “completist” I guess) and it’s pretty cool how faithful they are to the arrangements given their much more limited budget.

So Pussy Cats is a fascinating pop experiment, a “buddy” album that shows some depth but is also not afraid to party. There are excesses to be sure, and harm was certainly done in its making. But it is definitely not “totally forgettable” and King does us all a disservice by suggesting so. I have enjoyed listening to it many times and comparing the quad and stereo mixes has given me even more appreciation for it. Thanks John and Harry.

4 responses to “Pussy Cats is good

  1. Laverne Rasmuson

    Ted … I believe you and feel your pain. Even if I didn’t I would still say so because you are my favourite brother!
    Hugs, Lavene

  2. Well said Ted!

  3. i know i’m late to the party here, but i’m really glad to know there are other people who appreciate what a great album this is. i think it’s a better aural document of the “lost weekend” than anything lennon was doing at the time. and i think a lot of harry’s later work doesn’t get the respect it deserves. yeah, his voice was never quite as insanely elastic and pure again after the abuse it suffered during the recording of “pussy cats”, but a song like “easier for me” is so much more effective because of the added grit, and i think the “messier” albums like “sandman” are some of the most honest things harry ever did. he was completely himself musically at that time, doing whatever he wanted, no matter how odd an impulse he might have, not even giving a passing thought to coming up with something that would sell.

    i’ve enjoyed some of stephen king’s books, but perhaps he should stay away from reviewing music-related things…”pussy cats” is pretty far away from being “totally forgettable”. even the people who don’t like it have some strong things to say about it, so the music obviously has staying power no matter what the listener makes of it.

  4. Thanks Johnny, you make some great points. I love Harry’s later stuff as well, and listen to it more than I do the earlier ones.

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