Be Careful What Kind of Friend You Wish For
Lana Del Rey’s Romanticization of Harry Nilsson Might Not Sit Well With John Lennon
by Genna Rivieccio (Paris, France)
LANA Del Rey is no stranger to name-checking white male musicians from the 60s and 70s in her work. It’s become something of a barometer for whether or not the song in question is truly “Del Rey-crafted.” From Bob Dylan to Dennis Wilson to Crosby, Stills and Nash, Del Rey has exhibited her reverence for these white male “gods” time and time again. With no signs of slowing down, either. After all, two of her latest singles, “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd” (also the name of her ninth record) and “The Grants,” refer to Harry Nilsson and John Denver respectively. And while the latter is a slightly more “unbesmirchable” soul (mainly because of his humanitarian efforts), Nilsson was nothing if not “problematic” by today’s standards. But everything was so much more forgivable back then when one was a “genius.” A word doled out far too easily for people who spin a poetic turn of phrase more effortlessly than the average.
Of course, a person’s underlying “badness” can’t truly be invoked without some sort of catalyst. In Nilsson’s case, that was John Lennon in the years of 1973 and 1974. Or maybe it was Nilsson who brought out the worst in Lennon—it depends on who you ask. Having descended upon L.A. after a rift with Yoko Ono, Lennon would later refer to that eighteen-month period as his “Lost Weekend.” But it didn’t take him very long to find a constant companion in Nilsson, a man as fond of drinking as most British “working class heroes.” Along for the ride was Yoko Ono’s former personal assistant, May Pang, given the sanction by Ono to be Lennon’s de facto concubine. Night after night, it was Pang who bore witness to the duo’s social gracelessness / enjoyment of the privilege that came with being not just a white man, but a famous white man. For few other sects of humanity could have gotten away with their brazen hijinks, most of which occurred at the Troubadour in West Hollywood.
The collision of Nilsson and Lennon was perhaps first decided by the Fates in 1967 when Nilsson attracted the attention of The Beatles’ publicist, Derek Taylor, with his song, “1941,” which Taylor heard on his car radio while waiting for his wife to finish shopping in a supermarket. Compelled to buy “a case” of the album from which “1941” hailed, Pandemonium Shadow Show, Taylor added the Fab Four to the list of recipients to whom he felt obliged to distribute the record as an unasked advocate for Nilsson. Fittingly, Nilsson had covered two Beatles tracks on that album: “You Can’t Do That” (incorporating other songs from The Beatles’ œuvre to make for the first “mashup” before anyone knew what that was) and “She’s Leaving Home” (the original from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being released in May of the same year as Nilsson’s cover). From the moment The Beatles heard Nilsson’s music, his status as the “the American Beatle” was all but assured. Especially for John, who was looking for someone to lean on while Yoko insisted he sow some oats away from her for a while (she being the more “progressive” one and all).
Nilsson was only too happy to accommodate Lennon’s need for a jovial “good-time boy.” But that didn’t come without its worrisome caveats. As Larry Kane, the author of Lennon Revealed, wrote, “Harry drank, a lot. But Harry was the type of guy that if you go out drinking with him, he’d be sure at the end of the night that there would be a big brawl and that you are the one who’s in trouble, even though he started it. Harry would keep feeding John drinks until it was too late.” This included the illustrious Brandy Alexanders that Lennon was supposedly introduced to by Nilsson on their apex night of “acting a fool in L.A.” The combination of milk and alcohol in the beverage perhaps made Lennon and Nilsson feel like it was an especially fun idea to heckle the Smothers Brothers at their show at the Troubadour on March 12, 1974. This was after Lennon had already been embarrassed on a recent evening out prior to this random Tuesday, so drunk out of his gourd he emerged from the bathroom (presumably the women’s) of a Santa Monica restaurant with a Kotex pad stuck to his forehead.1 The lore goes that it managed to stay on all the way through to the next stop of the night: the Troubadour, where else.
At said establishment, Lennon was reported to have snapped at his server, who called him out for not leaving a tip, “Do you know who I am?” Allegedly, she retorted, “You’re some asshole with a Kotex on his head.” But that was positively dignified compared to March 12, 1974, when the heckling of the Smothers Brothers prompted both Nilsson and Lennon’s ejection from the club. Lennon would later defend, “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders, that’s brandy and milk, folks. I was with Harry Nilsson, who didn’t get as much coverage as me, the bum. He encouraged me. I usually have someone there who says ‘Okay, Lennon. Shut up.’” Presumably, Yoko would have been that person, but she was taking a break. Lennon also added, “So I was drunk. When it’s Errol Flynn, the showbiz writers say: ‘Those were the days, when men were men.’ When I do it, I’m a bum.”
Talking of the days “when men were men,” as men clinging to the past like to call it, this is the very ilk that someone like Del Rey still can’t help but romanticize in her music (not to mention manifest in real life with her dating track record, e.g., Sean Larkin, Jack Donoghue). Drawn to the “bad men” that make for such interesting lyrical fodder, Del Rey has also allowed that to bleed into her work via the name-checking of musical icons with polarizing personal backgrounds. Incidentally, she never had to mention John Lennon because she effectively did so by collaborating with his (more beloved) son, Sean, on 2017’s “Tomorrow Never Came.” Oh, the sting Julian must have felt to be further reminded that he was somehow the “bastard” child despite being Lennon’s legitimate firstborn.
Bearing all of this in mind, Del Rey is a former alcoholic. And the last thing she would probably need is a friend like Nilsson. Despite expressing on the aforementioned “Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd”:
Something about the way he says, “Don’t forget me”
Makes me feel like
I just wish I had a friend like him, someone to get me by
Leaning in my back, whispering in my ear, “Come on, baby, you can drive”
Likely encouraging her to do so while she’s drunk. The “Come on, baby, you can drive” line may allude to Nilsson’s cover of the Shirley and Lee song, “Let the Good Times Roll,” from his seventh studio album, Nilsson Schmilsson, during which he sings:
C’mon baby, let’s ride some more
C’mon baby, let the good times roll
Or even “Driving Along,” from the same record, for the only thing honorary West Coastian Del Rey loves more than a white male reference is a reference to cars and driving.
As for the song by Nilsson that Del Rey specifically talks about, “Don’t Forget Me,” it was on the Pussy Cats record, produced by none other than Lennon himself and released during the duo’s ignominious year of 1974. The title of the album was undeniably tongue-in-cheek, designed to negate the rowdy, perpetually inebriated image they had cultivated during their numerous nights of debauchery over the course of that infamous “Lost Weekend.” That might not have come across, however, if the label had allowed them to keep the album’s original title, Strange Pussies. Luckily, even back then, corporations had no gumption when it came to letting artists run amok with their creative decisions. The same way Del Rey’s original creative decision for titling Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd was Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd Pearl Watch Me on Ring a Bell Psycho Lifeguard. Like, whaaaat? There’s being an esoteric genius and just being full-stop esoteric for the sake of it. This, effectively, is what Nilsson and Lennon decided to be for almost two years as they caroused together through L.A.’s nightlife like a pair of garish vampires.
Once more, the question arises, was Nilsson truly the “bad influence”? Or was Lennon just so ready to let the dark side take hold that he only needed the excuse of a “bad seed” of a friend to allow him to let loose? One must admit it was fairly convenient for Lennon to say, as a defense to evade personal responsibility, “It was my first night on Brandy Alexanders, and they tasted like milkshakes. The first thing I knew I was out of me gourd. Of course, Harry Nilsson was no help feeding them to me, saying ‘Go ahead, John.’” Sure, on the one hand, each of us is culpable for the choices we make, yet on the other, Del Rey saying, “I just wish I had a friend like him” sounds incongruous, especially if it could have been soundtracked against these nights of drunken spiraling toward the lowest depths of one’s emotional nadir. The irony of Nilsson singing, “Don’t forget me,” of course, is that he probably forgot just about everything as he delved further into a relationship with alcohol. Perhaps the same might have happened to Del Rey had she not been a millennial, and had her parents not shown the good sense to send her to boarding school to dry out at the age of fourteen. Del Rey would reflect in 2012 on her kicked addiction, “My parents were worried, I was worried. I knew it was a problem when I liked it more than I liked doing anything else. I was like, ‘I’m fucked. I am totally fucked.’” As was Lennon with Nilsson at his side, and vice versa.
Del Rey would add in the same NME piece, “Like, at first it’s fine and you think you have a dark side—it’s exciting—and then you realize the dark side wins every time if you decide to indulge in it. It’s also a completely different way of living when you know that…a different species of person. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me.” Which leads one to inquire as to whether or not Del Rey put much consideration into wishing for a friend like Nilsson to “get her by.”