3 August 2011

Nilsson

Nilsson and Una on their wedding day in 1976 with
Ringo Starr as best man.

A couple of weeks ago, I tuned into a late night BBC 4 programme about the life of Harry Nilsson. Remember him? He had such a sweet voice and he performed* classics like "Without You" even though he refused to participate in live concerts. For a time he was John Lennon's best buddy.

In his thirties, after his first marriage had broken up and when he had given in to the twin demons of drink and drugs, he found himself, one day, walking past an ice cream parlour in New York City. I believe the year was 1975. He stood in the doorway and spotted a pretty young temporary worker called Una O'Keeffe. She was from Ireland. Nilsson more or less confronted her and to her embarrassment said she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and that he would always love her. How could he prove his love for her?

Off the cuff, and probably still blushing with embarrassment, Una said - bring me flowers and melons. She continued her shift in the ice cream parlour while unbeknownst to her, Harry Nilsson sought flowers and melons. When Una's shift ended, there was Harry at the side-walk, standing beside a limousine and in front of him, buckets of flowers from the docks and baskets of melons from a local fruiterer. Young Una was bowled over.

They married in 1976. Una was already pregnant. She gave Nilsson six kids - Annie, Beau, Ben, Kief, Olivia and Oscar. Beautiful children. Una remained the loveliest element in his entire and much-troubled life and certainly prolonged it.

In the documentary, she reported that on the night Nilsson died - in January 1994 - they were lying in bed together watching a film - "Enchanted April". She said she was feeling tired and needed to sleep. Nilsson held her hand and told her how much he loved her and then in the morning he lay cold and dead beside her.

I was struck by Una's demeanour as she related the story of her marriage. There was something definitely beatific about her expression and in spite of Nilsson's waywardness, it was clear that she had loved him very much indeed. I found the story of their meeting and separation through death very moving and I sincerely hope that this reaction was not entirely because I had seen so very little television in South East Asia.

* Thanks to Steve (Occupied Country) who correctly pointed out that Nilsson didn't actually write the song.

9 comments:

  1. Now then! Don't turn soft on us lad!

    Actually, it's quite a touching story and made me look up Harry on the web. Poor Una gets barely a mention on his Wikipedia entry.

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  2. A very touching story. Thanks for sharing it, YP.

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  4. He didn't write 'Without You' YP, that was the two songwriters out of Badfinger. One was Pete Ham and the other Tom Evans. A very talented and tragic pair. After being screwed by the industry Ham hung himself and three years later poor old Tom Evans did the same.

    I saw the doc and you're right she seemed somehow 'centred'.

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  5. Enjoyed the story - - and the bathos at the end. (Yup, I used to be an English teacher too and can't help noticing such things.) I've recorded the Nilsson programme - - looking forward to watching it now!

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  6. SHOOTING P We Yorkshire lads are not afraid to get in touch with our feminine sides!
    JENNY My pleasure
    STEVE (OC) Thanks. I am happy to stand corrected. And yes "centred" is a good word for Una Nilsson.
    DAPHNE I saw you on "Eggheads" again earlier on this evening! You're so clever!

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  7. Well. I never knew that. I wish I could see that show. Daphne, if I send you the postage...?
    Harry Nilsson is my third favourite musician, after L. V Beethoven and M Knopfler.

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  8. Now that is a lovely love story ~ and I will look for some Nisson music now to acquaint myself with his music.

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    1. Sorry, typo ~ Nilsson ~ there's another hit.

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