Neil Watson is the writer of a new book, Harry & Me, which collects remembrances from fans of Harry Nilsson and stories from people who knew and worked with Harry. I spent weeks badgering Neil for an interview. Finally, he gave in. Then I spent more weeks badgering him to let me interview him. Eventually, I had the pleasure of sitting down and interviewing Neil.
Sitting down was a pleasure. Interviewing Neil took some effort. Adhering to social distancing constraints, Neil chose to remain 4,336 miles away from me for the duration of the interview. But, somehow, I managed.
-- Roger Smith (August, 2021)
RS: First of all, thanks for agreeing to this interview. In the past, you've been compared to J. D. Salinger - not because of your writing, of course, but because of your reclusiveness. While your novels have been read by hundreds, and enjoyed by dozens, your personal life has remained a mystery. Why have you decided to open up now?
NW: Well Roger - may I call you Roger? - it's been tough being a multi-singular-selling writer, hiding under a bushel most of the time - so I thought I'd try a new approach and experiment with different ideas out in the open. A sort of coming out of the closet, so to speak, but not in a literal sense, you understand. I thought it was about time I tried something more meaningful with less waffle.
RS: Yes, Roger is fine. Better than fine. Roger is nearly perfect. Setting aside your inexplicable hostility toward waffles (for now), is it safe to say that you haven't always been a writer (assuming, of course, that it is safe to say that you are one now)? What were you doing before writing Muddy Water?
NW: Yes Roger - I'd heard that you were nearing perfection. Just give another little push and you'll get there. And talking about waffles, you should try my pancakes. They're 'awesome' in America, and 'jolly good' in England.
RS: Pancakes are just wannabe waffles.
NW: But, enough of this tomfoolery, I'll briefly explain what led me to writing ...
NW: My early career, after leaving school and an initial disastrous two months as a trainee accountant, was 15 years in the sales and marketing of home-consumer electronics, and then car audio. Towards the end of that era, I had an idea to publish a lifestyle magazine for fellow sales reps that travelled up and down the country. That led to the publication of a book, Bite Size Sales Tips that was full of my words of practical wisdom (for example "Don't forget to ask for the order").
RS: And, I believe, you also wrote in that book that ... "a towel is about the most massively useful thing
an interstellar hitchhiker a seller and marketer of home-consumer electronics (then car audio) can have."
NW: It was during that time when I bought an Apple Macintosh, plugged it in, connected the dial-up modem, and the first thing I typed into Google was 'Harry Nilsson,' and up popped you and details about your "Everybody's Talkin'" publication. I was so excited to discover that there was another Nilsson fan out there, I phoned you up, spewing ridiculous words like "this is amazing", and "how fantastic."
RS: Go on ... I'm starting to warm to you.
NW: And that's when you told me about a forthcoming gathering of even more Harry fans being planned for in Los Angeles. I said to my wife at the time that I have to go.
We got divorced soon after the '98 Harryfest, but I'm sure that had nothing to do with it, and besides, she's forgiven me now. But, at the time, my Nilsson record and CD collection were NOT up for negotiation.
RS: So, what did you do for, say, the next 20 years or so?
NW: So, for the next 20 years or so, I had left the corporate world and became self-employed as a painter-decorator-handyman, during which time I also became a self-described music 'mogul'. I managed Joanna Eden, a remarkable singer-songwriter who sang at my second wedding in 2003. When I say 'managing', it was more like 'championing,' getting her gigs, doing her marketing and getting her slots on BBC radio and filling in PRS forms. She was also the singing teacher for Sam Smith, who was about 14 at the time, and I began championing him as well. I'm not sure how well he's known over there, but here he's become a big star with number one singles and albums to his name. If only I'd stuck with him!
RS: Didn't you say "briefly?"
NW: Then a chance meeting occurred with a local writer-editor-publisher, David Roberts, who offered to mentor me with writing something when we first became friends. I'd been to his house to buy a copy of his excellent Rock Atlas book - all about the UK and Ireland locations of where music events had occurred. Things like where Wings photographed their London Town cover (Wapping) or where The Grateful Dead played their first gig outside the US (Little Madeley).
We instantly clicked, sharing a mutual interest in music. And when I expressed an interest in writing, he suggested we meet down the pub and for me to come along with a few different book ideas. One idea was a book about 'Harry and me,' following my life in context with my music hero. David didn't know much about Nilsson, although he had been to Valley Oaks Memorial Park in relation to his other locations book, Rock Atlas USA.
Because all his professional life he'd written about music, he was more interested in helping me write a novel - something he hadn't done before. He wanted to experience storytelling vicariously through me, he later told me. By that time, I'd acquired an old boat that was (conveniently) permanently moored outside our local pub in Wivenhoe that I write a blog about (https://www.aboatformypotplants.blogspot.com).
David and I would meet on it regularly every Wednesday evening, me feeding him with the latest chapter while he chose the music to play on the solar-powered sound system. Some food and a little wine were also involved.
After a few months, Muddy Water (his choice of title about the love story set in our muddy waters of our tidal estuary) was finished, and he announced that his newly formed publishing company, Hornet Books, would be bringing it out as their first offering to the public. It sold a few copies, enough to lead to Hornet then going on to publish my second novel, a murder mystery, that was loosely based on a cycle ride I'd done across the US in 1981, Florida Key. I mean loosely based on my bike ride, not that I'd killed anyone.
RS: So you say ...
NW: The third novel, Mr. Tap is all done and dusted and was due out last year, set around our adopted second home in south France - but the pandemic brought a halt to its publication (I like to have a bit of a launch party and invite lots of good people along, many of whom are paying characters in the stories).
RS: Okay ... but what about Harry Nilsson?
NW: Meanwhile, David and I had nothing better to do on the boat than plan a music book about yours and my favorite group, Harry Nilsson. I can't remember whose concept it was to do a book based on other peoples' anecdotes and stories and call it 'Harry And Me.' I think initially I offered a wisp of an idea the previous year and it led to David writing Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy about Paul Rodgers, Free, and Bad Company with stories told by the fans. It was pretty successful, and I think, with him knowing of my love for Harry, he suggested that Nilsson could be the subject of another book along the same lines. There was also probably an element of shutting me up from constantly going on about Harry during our weekly 'book-club' meetings on the boat.
RS: So, as I understand the concept, your plan was to let a bunch of other people write the Nilsson book for you. How did that work out?
NW: Yeah, that was the idea, but in fact it wasn't as easy as I'd first thought it would be. Firstly, I didn't feel comfortable about doing ANYTHING unless I had the thumbs up from Zak Nilsson. He'd had been so kind and full of welcoming zeal when I first came to the Harryfest and met him in '98, and I really thought he was a great bloke, as we'd say in the UK, probably you'd say 'cool dude' in the US. I didn't want to do the book unless he approved.
I was very nervous about contacting him because of his illness at the time, but it was also coinciding with my father's similar condition - and Zak's openness was very helpful to me in that regard.
Anyway, he said he'd be "honored" to have the book dedicated to him. Of course, I had to correct his spelling. I said I'd be honoured that he was honored!
From then on it was 'easier for me.'
I dearly wanted to include those folks I'd had the pleasure to meet at the Harryfest - but I couldn't remember some of the names. I trawled through my old notes, and recalled Randy Hoffman, Ted Parkinson, Bob Borgen, among many others - and of course Curtis Armstrong and your goodself, Roger.
Almost embarrassed, quite shy, I one-by-one sent out sheepish messages, hoping they'd respond positively to my conceptual idea of them writing my book for me.
At the same time as me contacting me old muckers (English slang) from the US, there was one guy I hoped I could contact in the UK – Mark Richardson, the only other English attendee at the Harryfest. I found an address for him, I tried to Google him, I tried everything but with no luck. Then, one day out of the blue, he got in touch with me. Mark's help with Harry & Me has been invaluable. I thought I was a Harry fan. I pale into insignificance, compared to Mark. He seemed to know everything and had an abundance of Harry-related items that he actually posted to me. I couldn't believe that he'd entrust one of our courier services with his priceless collection of items, but he did.
So, once I'd got some positive responses from all these lovely people, I thought the rest would be easy. I was wrong!
RS: What kind of unexpected challenges did you encounter writing Harry & Me?
NW: The first challenge was overcoming a certain fear of failure about working on a project that was so close to the heart. What if nobody wanted to participate? What if I was considered 'a journalist' trying to write negatively about Harry and falling foul of other fans? What if my ideas about the book didn't correspond with those of the publisher? I suppose the most worrying; what if this project became overburdening and leading me to going off Harry's music? Fortunately, none of those concerns raised their heads.
But there were practical difficulties too; the same ones that most people have the world over - time versus money. I still needed to go out and earn my living and that of course squeezed any available time I had, and the squeeze became greater. The more I did, the more I needed to do. At one point I was juggling the correspondences of well over 50 different Harry & Me contributors, all at their various stages of completion.
The next unexpected challenge was in the form of deadlines. Harry & Me wasn't like writing a novel when the launch-date became whenever it, or I, was ready. This was different; I was now working with others, and there was a joint commitment between myself and them. My friend and co-author David Roberts; Neil Cossar, the publisher at This Day In Music Books; and all the back-room boys and girls behind the scenes; the Editor; the page-layout person; the proof-reader; the graphic artist - and a clock that was ticking towards a publication date of September so that Harry & Me could come out before the 50th anniversary of Nilsson Schmilsson.
Apparently, it's par for the course that publishers want the work submitted sooner, while authors try to extend their completion dates. As one wise man once said, "deadlines schmeadlines!"
RS: Do you have any special plans for celebrating after Harry & Me is published later this year? (Besides purchasing that Porsche, of course.)
NW: Ha! I wish! I doubt I'll make any more than what a Dinky or Corgi toy Porsche would cost, like the ones I used to play with as a kid. But financial gain has very much not been my motivation for doing this project. First and foremost, it has been as a Harry-enthusiast. The publisher knew of my passion for Harry, but I very nearly declined the invitation as I knew it would set me on an emotional roller-coaster, lurching between having masses of work to do for little gain, and the euphoria of possibly linking up with folks associated with my music hero, as well as reacquainting myself with fans that I'd met back at the first Harryfest in '98.
How will I celebrate after the book is finished? Well firstly I will read through the actual physical copy, very alone, on my boat moored outside the pub in Wivenhoe - the same boat where co-author David and I have spent the last six months meeting up to discuss the latest twists and turns of how the book has been panning out. Where we talked about the excitement of receiving our first quote from an A-lister - none other than Micky Dolenz. Would we be able to top that? My goal was Randy Newman, so I had a smile as big as a Cheshire cat when we got that one. When I'm there with my head buried in the book, I'm hoping that I will be ecstatic as to how it's all turned out, and not cringing because of some error or other that slipped through the net. All I can say is that I've absolutely done my best to portray Harry in a positive and interesting way that all his fans will enjoy.
We also had some wonderment after having received Alyssandra Nighswonger's excellent Harry tribute LP. We were only able to listen to her music via Spotify on my phone as the boat's battery had ceased to function - so I'll also be celebrating by buying a new one for the boat's stereo system so we can play the actual vinyl, and other Harry LPs at full volume, with Champagne on tap.
But my biggest special celebratory plan will be in coming to the US, to California, to take up my seat as an honorary invitee at one of the regular gatherings of Harry's friends in a diner in Hollywood. At that table will be contributors to the book, possibly including Lee Newman, Laurence Juber, Stanley Dorfman, John Scheinfeld, Lee Blackman - and maybe even Micky Dolenz or Van Dyke Parks. I recently asked Mr. Blackman how I can get a temporary membership and he told me to consider myself invited. So that's what I'll do! The Virgin Airlines website is up on my screen right now!
RS: Thanks, Neil!
Harry & Me
Neil's book, Harry & Me, is available from Amazon.com (hardcover and Kindle):
And directly from the publisher's UK website (hardcover):