Bonaventure Hotel Los Angeles, July 1982
While tidying some boxes and stacked books at home, a 45rpm record in a paper sleeve tumbled out from between half a dozen of my old vinyl albums. I hadn’t seen it for about 30 years.
It is red vinyl with a silver label and the paper sleeve is signed “To Hugh, love Harry ‘82”.
My record collection could best be described as bland. It’s fearfully mainstream with too many Greatest Hits albums but at uni in the late 1970s I did own Nilsson Schmilsson and on lonely evenings at college my friend Peter Chatburn and I would harmonise heroically with Harry’s dizzying vocals on Without You (when we weren’t tackling Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell).
In 1982, Harry was long past his prime. Two decades of hard partying with the likes of John Lennon and Keith Moon, three marriages and many children had brought a mellowness to his life even though he was just 41.
I was coming to the end of a six-week swing through America. It was my first attempt at independent adult travel and I’d found it hard work. For much of the time I had been travelling alone and had made some rookie backpacker errors: too many dirty and expensive hotels, too much money on food and organised tours, and too many silly souvenirs. I was terrified of being mugged, or of being seduced by Moonies and Mormons.
In Washington DC I paid a fortune to see Joel Grey and Diahann Carroll in concert, then overpaid again to see Mickey Rooney on Broadway. In New Orleans I queued up for more than two hours to see 86-year-old jazz legend Kid Thomas Valentine at Preservation Hall, only to be pushed out the back door after just two numbers.
By the time I reached Los Angeles I was broke and weary of all things American. I checked into a cheap and grubby motel in Wilshire Boulevard and headed to the biggest nearby hotel for some comfort and company. For me that night, the mirror glass and external lifts of the Bonaventure Hotel was an Emerald City. Alluring.
Oddly, the lobby wasn’t furnished with leather sofas, newspaper stands, stern tourists and bellboys, as I had expected. Instead it was disheveled like an airport arrivals hall when planes have been delayed. In every corner tired and happy young people were lounging, exhausted from three days of Beatlefest, a music convention dedicated entirely to, well, The Beatles.
The convention had been staged in several big US cities that year, feeding the insatiable interest in the Fab Four more than 10 years disbanded. Speakers included those who had worked with or knew John, Paul, George and Ringo; memorabilia was available for sale; a covers band called Liverpool was the headline act.
In a quiet corner I found a stand for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, a small lobby group. A young couple were manning the stand, on which was the sign: “Harry Nilsson signing autographs here, 5pm.”
Nilsson had become active in the US gun control movement following John Lennon’s death in 1980. At the beginning of 1982, his friend Mark Lapidos recruited Harry to join the touring cast of Beatlefest and make public appearances to push the need for gun control.
It was almost 5pm and I was the only one in line when Harry shuffled into the room and took a seat at the stand. “G’day Harry,” I began, “I’m from Tasmania …”
“I’ve been there,” he cut in, “great place.”
Apparently Harry had been to Australia quite recently and was considering buying property there. Probably Queensland but Tasmania was a possibility, he said. He was looking, so he said, for an island of his own. I didn’t know if there were any Tasmanian islands for sale.
We talked about his travels in Queensland, and how he had loved the Barrier Reef and Cairns. He was looking forward to returning.
I bought a copy of Harry’s charity record With a Bullet and he signed the sleeve for me. It had been recorded in one take on June 27, 1982, barely three weeks earlier. Harry had made up the melody and words as he went along.
The B Side was a song called Judy, dedicated to a woman who gave $500 to the anti-handgun movement.
I was unable to play the record until I was home in Australia about a week later.
I’m no music critic but I don’t think even the greatest Nilsson fan would consider the songs anything special. Harry barely sings on With a Bullet, he just rambles chattily through a litany of statistics about gun crime in America while trying to talk himself out of being mugged. Judy is more recognisable as a Nilsson tune but nothing to inspire the late-night karaoke participant.
All up, Harry and I spent about 10 minutes in each other’s company. The meeting provided a nice punctuation point for my American trip that summer.
Nilsson died of heart failure in 1994 aged just 52. Commentators seem to agree he was a flawed genius. Despite having the voice of an angel, he never had the confidence to perform live, at least on his own.
Perhaps my record is a collectors’ item. Anybody want to make an offer?