Harry Nilsson Quotes

The following is a collection of quotes from (or about) Harry Nilsson.

Harry Nilsson on Performing Live
I don't know how much I want out of music or how much I'm willing to pay for it. It's acceptance we all want, isn't it? If it's my music that's being played and sung am I accepted? Or do I have to play it and sing it myself? Maybe, that's why I don't perform. I don't feel comfortable before an audience. I don't think I'm afraid to perform, but I'm afraid of becoming a performer. It can be a trap.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969)[1]


Performing is another occupation. Sometimes it is inviting. I like the idea of spontaneity. But you can't change anything in a concert. I may leave my socks on the floor but I'm something of a perfectionist. I can stop the tape in the studio. If I went on stage and things didn't work out I'd probably say let's do it another time and walk off.

-- Harry Nilsson (1972) [2]

Harry Nilsson on John Lennon
The most important thing I learned from him was to follow through, to finish what you start. If you say you’re going to send someone a postcard, send a postcard. He always followed through.

-- Harry Nilsson (1980)[1]


We were good friends. We were roommates twice, once in New York and once in L.A. But all those stories you hear, they were a little blown out of proportion.

-- Harry Nilsson (1981)[2]


Have you ever had a roommate? Did you have good times and laughs? Did you fight over the laundry or anything? That's what it was like. We were pals. We had these amazing arguments. We used to fight over who had more "street." It was at a time when he was separated from Yoko and my wife Una was in Ireland finishing college. We were just a couple of pussycats, like the album. Look, we were human beings and you can't do all that stuff and still come out at the end of it, working and organizing cars and things, and getting to the studio on time and doing the mixing and doing the ads and working out the inside of the album cover and talking seriously about backing musicians - you can't do all that if you're out of your nut That goes without saying, so much for that stuff. We had a great time: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

-- Harry Nilsson (1984)][3]

Harry Nilsson on Songwriting
Songs are vignettes. They are slices of my life. My idea of a song is that it's like a book or movie only you have two or three minutes to convey the idea.

-- Harry Nilsson (1968)[1]


I write from personal experience, personal contact. It's like you experience A and B and come up with C. Basically, they must start with one person, the songwriter, and go to another person, the listener.

-- Harry Nilsson (1968)[2]


I'm not a musician. I manage to write music using the guitar and piano to get chord structures that I put on tape. Someone who knows how transcribes them. That's how it works.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969)[3]


My music is personal in a way. But, I don't really try for nostalgia. I mean I don't study the 1940s or listen to old records. I guess I've picked up a lot of images by going to old movies.

-- Harry Nilsson (1972)[4]


When I write, I try to create an image that gets an immediate response and then let the image do the work. Picasso can get a quick response from a drawing with only a few lines. In the framework of a three-minute song, you can only say so much.

-- Harry Nilsson (1972)[5]


When I started out I was just glad to have my own record out. Then when you get little successful you try to live up to it. It’s getting harder and harder to write songs. I go through periods where I want to drop a whole album I’m working on, where I can’t even listen to my own songs. I seem to recognize more flaws than I used to. Sometimes when I’m in the recording studio - or like now being interviewed - I think to myself "What am I doing here? I don’t belong here." But then I tell myself I do belong. At least everyone else says I do.

-- Harry Nilsson (1972)[6]



Harry Nilsson on Gun Violence
I get nervous when they start shooting piano players.

-- Harry Nilsson (1981)[1]

Harry Nilsson on His Career

Jim Painton in a 2002 post to the Harry Nilsson Mailing List described his belief that Harry Nilsson had just been "begrudgingly fulfilling his contract" with RCA from Pussy Cats through Knnillssonn.


I, however, had the pleasure of meeting the man. Although our conversation was brief, he exhibited a realistic handle on his own rise and fall. My loudmouth friend Herb actually admonished Harry - "You could have been bigger than Billy Joel, you sonuvabitch." Harry laughed and said, "I'm not dead YET."


Harry Nilsson on Fame (or the lack of it)
Y'know, it's a lotta fun being me. I can probably go to anyone in this room and introduce myself. Some of them will know who I am, will have heard of my name; others, I could say, "Well, let me remind you," and sing them four or five songs, and they'll say , "Oh, you're the guy who did that?" It's sort of like an author's fame: "I've heard of John Updike. I thought he was dead!" You're famous if you wanna be, get you the proverbial table at the restaurant. But I never get hassled by people.

-- Harry Nilsson (1989)[1]


Harry Nilsson on his Father
I saw him when I was 9, and again recently, like after 20 years. He remarried and had three more children. He's retired now, after he got hurt in an auto plant. He was a supervisor and got to manage one of the Dodger farm clubs. He used to be a pretty good ballplayer once.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969)[1]

Harry Nilsson's Philosophy on Life
You gotta do it, do It, do it. Get stoned, get laid, get sensible, get stoned, get sane, get fat, get thin - do it all, do it to excess.

-- Harry Nilsson (1976)[1]


Harry Nilsson on Working at a Bank

While working at a bank, Harry had an answer when people asked why he wasn't doing well with the songs he was writing:

The only way I defended myself was by quoting statistics that fewer people in music got into trouble or jail than people in other trades or professions.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969)[1]


Harry continued working at the bank even while starting to have success as a songwriter.

I remember sitting around the Beverly Hills Hotel pool discussing $250000 deals and then speeding to the bank fixing my tie as I drove along. I loved the bank job. It was security. But I couldn't afford to stay. I was making twice as much in music.

-- Harry Nilsson (1973) [2]

Harry Nilsson on Money

Talking to Forbes magazine about his RCA contract guaranteeing Nilsson advances of about $5 million, Harry joked:

Talk fast. Remember my time is worth $10 a minute.

-- Harry Nilsson (1973) [1]


There is more to life than money. But money is the first plateau.

-- Harry Nilsson (1973) [2]


  • [1] "The Rockers are Rolling In It" Forbes (1973-04-15)
  • [2] "The Rockers are Rolling In It" Forbes (1973-04-15)
Harry Nilsson on FM Radio

Asked in 1969 to comment on the programming choices made by "free-form" FM radio stations in New York and Los Angeles, Nilsson replied:


For one thing, the sound is monotonous. After a little while, all the music sounds the same. It's too categorized. The people that run these stations are a lot less liberal than they think they are. They seem to have a phobia against playing any record that has become successful on AM. All they do in that respect is rob their listeners of some good music.
Secondly, the music seems to be standardized into a mixture of acid rock and blues, and every song seems to have a "downer" viewpoint. I don't hear much happy music there. I seem to be hearing blues, blues and more blues to the point where I now identify free-form stations with the blues. Now there's plenty of good blues, but it's not the only valid musical form. I get tired of hearing one form and I'm sure a lot of other people do too. Overall, the sound of FM is boring to listen to and I can't take long periods of it.
One of my biggest objections is the tone of the programs. They're so serious, too serious for my taste. After all, radio is a form of entertainment.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969) [1]


Asked during the same interview how he would program a free-form station, Nilsson replied:


For one thing, there are some fantastic musicians FM doesn't play because they're not heavily electrified. Perhaps the most important are Randy Newman and Laura Nyro. I think they're the most important singer-songwriters today and I can't remember hearing them on FM at all.
If I had a show, I'd play them once an hour each along with Blind Faith, Stones, Beatles, Hendrix, the Youngbloods, Canned Heat, Creedence, Traffic, Aretha and Burt Bacharach. Also, I'd add plenty of comedy - Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Firesign Theater, The Appletree Theater and old radio serials and theme songs.
As far as programming is concerned, I would like to hearvthree, four, even five versions of the same song in a row. I'd like to hear two records back-to-back in the same key that end and begin on the same note. I'd like to hear whole albums all the way through, especially if they're new and not just by the really established artists. I'd like to hear more DJs who stick their neck out and say, "I like this, and you should hear it." Most of them don't do that. They play what's already proven to be popular.
I also think it's time for a change where news and commercials are concerned. FM has a specialized audience, and they don't want to hear wire services copy all the time. There are news items that would be of great interest to these people, but they never get to hear them. I also think FM stations should get better copywriters to do their ads. I love to hear the Jack Poet Volkswagen commercials, but they're the only things I hear that are really new and different.

-- Harry Nilsson (1969) [2]


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