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Bruce, Nilsson, And Those Ever Tightening Heartstrings
By Michael Sigman

I met Bruce Springsteen early in 1972, when legendary music man John Hammond—discoverer of Billie Holiday, Teddy Wilson, Bob Dylan and other musical immortals—brought his newest find to the Manhattan offices of Record World Magazine. A lowly, 22-year-old assistant editor—same age as Bruce—I normally got the dregs of the interview assignments. This time I lucked out.

greetingsBruce was a man of few words, but the material Hammond had sent me on a cassette tape—tracks from Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J—Springsteen and The E Street Band's forthcoming debut album—spoke for itself, with a feel that evoked Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison. It was easy to write a glowing piece, though there was one problem: Having grown up on sheltered “Lawn Guyland,” I thought everyone was Jewish and referred to The Boss throughout as Bruce "Springstein." Which may have encouraged Hammond to begin introducing Bruce as "a good Catholic boy."

schmilssonWhile Bruce and his band were honing their chops, Harry Nilsson, another 20-something Wunderkind and a favorite around the Record World offices, was already burnishing his pop star credentials. His cover of Badfinger's "Without You" topped the singles chart in February 1972, while the album Nilsson Schmilsson—featuring such self-penned mini-masterpieces as "Gotta Get Up," "Coconut" and "Jump Into The Fire"—rose to Number 3. Call it coincidence or synchronicity, but now, nearly 40 years later, fascinating documentaries about these two artists have recently been released.

The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, directed by Thom Zimny and recently aired on HBO, will be part of Springsteen's The Promise package set for a November 16 release. It transcends the typical rock-doc by virtue of the amazing footage of the 1976-1978 recording of Darkness, the long-awaited follow up to 1975's Born To Run, which landed Springsteen on the covers of Newsweek, Time and Record World simultaneously.

Bruce, ‘Badlands,’ the lead track on Darkness On the Edge of Town, live, Capitol Center, Landover, MD, November 24, 1980

An impossibly youthful, utterly driven Bruce and such key partners in crime as guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and manager/co-producer Jon Landau are depicted in various stages of elation and frustration as they work through some 70 songs with only, according to Bruce, "the 10 toughest songs I had" making the final cut. The Boss's relentlessness leaves the group with little life beyond realizing his vision of Darkness as a creative leap from Born To Run. The result: In place of Born's nearly overwhelming, often joyful wall of sound, we get in Darkness a spare, almost naked expression of working-class suffering mixed with the barest hope of redemption.

The Boss and company may not have had much of a non-musical life between Born To Run and Darkness, but they did find time for a bit of competitive softball. In the summer of '76, two years before Darkness saw the light, our company softball team, the Record World Flashmakers, lost all three games of an epic triple-header to Bruce and Miami Steve's E Street Kings on a high school field in Red Bank, New Jersey. The Flashmakers' intrepid captain and left fielder David McGee, who happens to be the founder/editor of this publication, reports that he has Super 8 footage of Bruce's diving backhand stab of a line drive at second base in Game 1.

NPR, First Listen: Bruce Springsteen, ‘The Promise’

Who Is Harry Nilsson And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?, directed by John Scheinfeld and produced by Scheinfeld and David Leaf, is a bittersweet look at the life and music of a man whose extraordinary potential was cut short by living the rock 'n' roll life in extremis. The film contrasts the subject's early successes with the deterioration of his voice, his ever-increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol and, ultimately, the massive heart attack that killed him the day of the great California earthquake of 1994.

Nilsson aspired to be, singlehandedly, the American Beatles, and his best work comes as close as anyone's to matching Paul McCartney's lyrical whimsy and romanticism and, at times, John Lennon's edgy challenge to the status quo. In fact, Nilsson's sublime harmonies, constructed by overdubbing his own superb vocal instrument, prompted John, when asked to name his favorite American group, to reply, "Nilsson." Paul agreed.

The thrill of this film is the soundtrack—50 songs from all periods of Nilsson's career are sampled. Vintage clips from Harry, Lennon, producer Richard Perry and others are interspersed with recent comments from close friends, ex-wives, offspring and such musical giants/friends as Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb and Van Dyke Parks. They paint a picture of a musical genius brought down by his own insecurities and substance abuse

Harry Nilsson on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour

To underscore Nilsson's all-around brilliance, Parks, himself no slouch in the genius department, told me this story: "Once, after a concert in Tokyo, I ran into Tokugen Yamamoto, the President of Warner Brothers Records there, in the parking lot. I was lost and he offered me a ride back to my hotel in his limo.

"‘Who's among your favorite colleagues?’ he asked.

“I told him that'd be Harry. Toguken was astonished. He gasped, ‘Harry is the most intelligent man I've ever met in the music business.’ Tokugen, whose father was the admiral who reluctantly orchestrated the attack on Pearl Harbor, became animated: ‘Do you know that calculation Harry does to tell you what date your birthday landed on? It takes seven computations, and Harry does it in under 10 seconds!’

“Having been to many bars with Harry, I replied, ‘Yes, Mr. Yamamoto. I know.’”

Springsteen and Nilsson were two of the very best singer-songwriters of the early '70s, artists whose trajectories were mirror images of one another: Springsteen has toured relentlessly and impressively, while Nilsson's stage fright kept him from playing live; Springsteen stayed healthy, while Nilsson burned out on drugs and booze; Springsteen had a difficult dad who was around, while Nilsson's father abandoned him and his mother when Nilsson was three; Springsteen integrated progressive activism into his musical career, while Nilsson, bizarrely, forsook music altogether after his close friend John Lennon was murdered—to work full-time for gun control legislation.

Harry Nilsson, ‘You’re Breakin’ My Heart’

Springsteen has maintained a huge footprint on the pop/rock musical stage, but Nilsson hasn't completely faded from the picture. Thought there's a mystery about him—especially for those who loved him, but hadn't followed his life closely—his biggest hits are still widely heard and many of his songs hold up with the best pop music of the past half-century. And the opening lines of his Lennonesque "You're Breakin' My Heart"—“You're breakin' my heart/You're tearing it apart/ So fuck you," from 1973's Son Of Schmilsson—presaged Cee-Lo's even more brazen "Fuck You," the best single of 2010.

In his terrific new memoir Life, Rolling Stone Keith Richards, miraculous survivor of countless drug-related brushes with death, describes songwriting as "tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack." Both Bruce Springsteen and Harry Nilsson have tightened our heartstrings for four decades. Harry, sadly, brought on his own heart attack, which breaks our hearts.

Who Is Harry Nilsson (documentary) trailer

Writer/editor, media consultant, music publisher Michael Sigman is a regular Huffington Post blogger. Follow Michael Sigman on Twitter:

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