It's always sad to see great talent squandered, to look back at the ruins of a once-promising career and muse on the glories of what might have been. It isn't just the sense of wasted potential that pains us; there's usually a bit of selfish anger in there, too, as if we in the audience were somehow being shortchanged by the fact that some stars never shone as bright as they should have.
Harry Nilsson, who died at 52 of an apparent heart attack Saturday, was one such wasted talent. In his prime, he was everything a pop star should be -- sweet-voiced, smart and sensitive, a good songwriter and inspired interpreter whose best work was engagingly tuneful and deeply emotional.
He had hits -- "Everybody's Talkin'," "Coconut" and the dramatic, lovelorn "Without You" -- but that was only part of the story. Fact is, Harry Nilsson could sing almost anything, from hard rock to classic pop. More to the point, his singing got to the heart of a song.
John Lennon knew. A devoted friend and admirer, Lennon went to bat for Nilsson when the latter was trying to renegotiate his contract with RCA Records. "You've only had two [expletive] artists in the history of your label -- Elvis and Harry," Lennon was reputed to have told the RCA brass. "Pay him."
Yet for all Lennon's enthusiasm and support, his association with Nilsson is probably better remembered for drunken escapades in Los Angeles (Nilsson was a key player during Lennon's "lost weekend" period in the mid-'70s) than for "Pussy Cats," the album they made together. And for good reason -- "Pussy Cats" may have been a good laugh in the recording studio, but it wasn't funny at all on the home stereo.
Nilsson wasn't always so cavalier about career opportunities. He started out young and ambitious, selling songs to Phil Spector -- The Ronettes recorded his "Paradise" and "Here I Sit" -- before Three Dog Night put his "One" in the Top Five in 1969.
Later that same year, Nilsson had a smash of his own with Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'," the theme from "Midnight Cowboy." (Ironically, Nilsson had pitched a song of his own for the film; "I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City" didn't make the movie, but it did crack the Top 40.) He also scored the Otto Preminger film "Skidoo" and provided TV's "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" with its playfully catchy theme.
Then, in 1972, he remade the Badfinger ballad "Without You," slowing down the melody and pumping the chorus full of romantic bereavement and vocal heroics. It spent four weeks at No. 1.
"Nilsson Schmilsson," the album "Without You" called home, was easily Nilsson's greatest moment. It offered a little bit of everything, from Caribbean whimsy ("Coconut") to down-and-dirty guitar rock ("Jump Into the Fire"), and remains as listenable today as it was when it was new.
Somehow, though, Nilsson never quite followed through on that success. "Son of Schmilsson" produced another hit, "Spaceman," while "Son of Dracula," a horror-spoof musical that featured Ringo Starr, got "Daybreak" into the charts. But as time passed, Nilsson's albums got more self-indulgent and non-commercial, sliding from the inspired balladry of "A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night," recorded with Sinatra arranger Gordon Jenkins, to the pun-filled prattlings of "Duit on Mon Dei."
His last album, "Flash Harry," came out in 1980; it did nothing, and he soon followed course, sitting out almost the entire decade. He wrote a couple of songs for the "Popeye" soundtrack, and a couple more for "The Fisher King." He gained weight, he stopped drinking, he laid low. Finally, he died.
It's entirely possible Nilsson was happy with the way he spent his last dozen years; certainly, he could have done more had he wanted. But from a fan's perspective, it's hard not to look back at what he did and wish there had been more.
Maybe that's being selfish. But to tell the truth, it's hard to imagine how anybody could listen to the best of his music and not feel cheated by his death.