One night saw John Lennon and Harry Nilsson thrown out of a well-respected Hollywood haunt only to fight with the staff and be shamed like schoolchildren.
17 November 2020 | Jack Whatley | Far Out
John Lennon can be a divisive character. Far from being without his faults his indiscretions and moments of shame largely stem from two areas of the Beatle’s life. First of all, his known and unstoppable temper, secondly his penchant for partying.
When coupled together, there was always a recipe for disaster. One such night saw John Lennon and Harry Nilsson thrown out of a well-respected Hollywood haunt only to fight with the staff and be shame like schoolchildren. Largely, because of one drink.
Note to self: Brandy Alexander’s are a contentious cocktail. The brandy and milk mixture has caught many a drinker off guard, one more famous than most.
Back in 1974, Lennon fell victim to the drink after being introduced to the cocktail by Nilsson, arguably the biggest drinker in the whole of rock ‘n’ roll. Such was the ferocity with which Lennon fell into a belligerent stupor, that he and Nilsson on that night in ’74 were escorted from the iconic Troubadour nightclub after they spent much of their evening heckling comedy act the Smothers Brothers.
The moment came during Lennon’s infamous ‘Lost Weekend’. It’s a period of time, around 18 months, in which Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono separated and the former Beatle spent most of his time loaded with some narcotic or another.
It’s some of the darkest moments in Lennon’s career and personal life which see him pursuing only the matters of debauchery and decadence, cut adrift from the artistic drive that had kept him on a comparatively straight and narrow path to glory.
During this time he spent a lot of his time with rebels such as The Who drummer Keith Moon and the aforementioned Harry Nilsson. The latter had become a growing bad influence on Lennon throughout this period. “John loved Harry,” May Pang, Lennon and Ono’s assistant with whom John was having an authorised affair, confessed in Lennon Revealed.
“He loved his energy; he loved his writing. What he loved in Harry was the beauty of his friendship and relaxed personality. That’s what he saw. 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.”
That’s exactly what happened when the duo visited the Troubadour on that fateful night. Filled to the eyeballs with Brandy Alexanders, things got ugly really quickly and soon saw the two men red-faced. After some serious heckling and a bit of back and forth with the Smothers Brothers, the pair were soon asked to leave the show as they were disrupting the good time the audience were having. When they refused things turned a little violent.
Security arrived and became physical with the singers. Lennon was becoming more and more surly as the drinks began to set in and soon enough a full-blown scuffle ensued, with Lennon losing his trademark specs in the furore. “My wife ended up with Lennon’s glasses because of the punches that were thrown,” Smothers said.
Famed actress, Pam Grier also somehow ended up in the kerfuffle and was ejected alongside the troublesome twosome. During the scrap, one waitress alleged Lennon had assaulted while a valet attendant suggested the same thing, but both cases were quickly dismissed and swept away under the carpet.
The Smothers Brothers were quick to leap to the defence of Lennon who suffered heavily in the media for his role in the fracas.
“It was a big Hollywood opening. During our first set, I heard someone yelling about pigs…it was fairly disgusting. I couldn’t figure out who it was. But I knew Harry and John were there. The heckling got so bad that our show was going downhill rapidly,” Smothers added. “No one cared, because it was just a happening anyway, but there was a scuffle going on and we stopped the show. Flowers came the next day apologizing.”
Late on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975 Lennon said, “I got drunk and shouted…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.’
“There was some girl who claimed that I hit her, but I didn’t hit her at all, you know. She just wanted some money and I had to pay her off, because I thought it would harm my immigration,” claimed the former Beatle.
Eventually, Lennon exasperated by his own fame, said, “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. So it was a mistake, but hell, I’m human. I was drunk in Liverpool and I smashed up phone boxes, but it didn’t get into the papers then.”
While the contradiction of fame continues to plague the musicians and rock stars of today, Lennon can be glad of one thing; that iPhones didn’t exist in 1974 as we think he may have found himself in hot water more often than not. It’s not the best side of Lennon but it’s one we must all accept along with the good sides too.
03 August 2013 | ALYN SHIPTON | Daily Mail
Epic brandy binges. Guns in the studio. The famous ‘Lost Weekend’. How Harry Nilsson, the hellraising singer of Without You, befriended and bewitched the Fab Four – and drove himself into an early grave
One long party: During the infamous ‘lost weekend’ Harry Nilsson with John Lennon and May Pang. Nilsson always slightly hero-worshipped Lennon, and there was a shared love of the outrageous
Somewhere between three and four o’clock on a Monday morning in April 1968, the telephone rang in the little office at RCA Records in Los Angeles where an obscure singer-songwriter named Harry Nilsson was keeping his usual nocturnal hours.
‘I was half asleep,’ Nilsson recalled. ‘A voice says: “Hello, Harry. This is John. Man you’re too f***ing much, you’re just great. We’ve got to get together and do something.”
‘I said, “Who is this?”
‘I said: “Yeah, right, who is this?”
‘“It’s John Lennon. I’m just trying to say you’re fantastic. Have a good night’s sleep. Speak to you soon. Goodbye.”
‘I thought, “Was that a dream?”’ Not a dream, but the start of an association that would change Nilsson’s life.
The year before, Nilsson recorded The Beatles’ You Can’t Do That, cleverly using quotes from 14 other Beatles songs.
That had led to an invitation to a party at George Harrison’s rented house in the Hollywood Hills.
Harry recalled that the Beatle, ‘in a white windblown robe with a beard and long hair, looking like Christ with a camcorder’, had listened to his songs and been ‘very complimentary’.
Nilsson was described as ‘the finest white male singer on the planet’, and was an accomplished songwriter who happened to have huge hits with two songs he did not write: Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You
Harrison took Nilsson’s demos away and played them to the other Beatles, who were now calling Harry in the middle of the night.
The Monday after Lennon’s call, Paul McCartney rang. ‘Hello, Harry. Yeah, this is Paul. Just wanted to say you’re great, man! John gave me the album. It’s great; you’re terrific. Look forward to seeing you.’
The next Monday, Nilsson dressed and waited for a four o’clock call from Ringo. It didn’t come. But on May 14, Lennon and McCartney appeared at a press conference in New York.
Asked to name their favourite American artist, Lennon replied ‘Nilsson’. The two gave the same response when asked their favourite group.
Later that day, when a journalist wondered what they thought about American music, Lennon replied, ‘Nilsson! Nilsson for president!’
A unique relationship would form between Nilsson and The Beatles. He would write a song for McCartney, make films and party through the 1970s with Ringo Starr, and record and raise hell with Lennon in the notorious 18-month ‘lost weekend’ period in 1973 and 1974, when John left Yoko Ono for a wild life in Los Angeles.
There was, it should be said, much more to Nilsson than his Beatles associations.
He was described by his producer Richard Perry as ‘the finest white male singer on the planet’, and was an accomplished songwriter who happened to have huge hits with two songs he did not write: Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You.
Not long after Lennon and McCartney returned from New York, Derek Taylor, The Beatles’ press officer at Apple, made a call to Harry.
‘Derek says: “The lads, the boys, the Fabs would like you to come over and join them at a session,”’ Nilsson remembered. ‘“They’re recording at Abbey Road. They’re dying to see you.”’
Nilsson with Ringo Starr and Lynsey de Paul. ‘When he got to make records with John Lennon and be friends with Ringo Starr, his life was complete,’ said legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb
Within a few days, Nilsson was sitting on a plane crossing the Atlantic.
Arriving at Heathrow, he found that Ringo had kindly left his Daimler limousine at the airport for him.
Suddenly famous, having been endorsed by the world’s biggest band, Nilsson went straight to a reception for his own record, where the other three Beatles were the stars of a guest list that included everybody who was anybody in swinging London.
That afternoon, another limo arrived to take Harry out to Lennon’s home in the Surrey commuter belt.
Nilsson was greeted warmly by Lennon, and a single look between them was the start of a lifelong friendship.
‘We spent the entire night talking until dawn,’ said Nilsson.
‘Yoko ended up like a kitten at John’s feet, curled up. And John and I are on about marriage, life, death, divorce, women. And I’m thinking, “This is it! This is truthful. This is good. This is honest. This is exciting. It’s inspirational.”’
Lennon gave Nilsson an Indian gold braided jacket with fur trim lining he had worn in Magical Mystery Tour.
The following day McCartney announced he was coming over to Nilsson’s hotel, and he ran through rough versions of several of his newly written songs.
Nilsson sent down for a bottle or two of the best wine on the hotel’s room service list, and they carried on singing songs for one another into the small hours, until there was a thunderous banging on the door from the occupants of the room next door: ‘What the hell do you people think you’re doing? Don’t you know some people work for a living? Some people have to get up in the morning!’
Nilsson calmly introduced them to his visitors, and Paul gently apologised. The neighbours were impressed to find that the disturbance had been created by so famous a guest and made no further complaints. The evening ended with McCartney driving Nilsson around London in his Aston Martin.
It laid the groundwork for future collaborations between Nilsson and all four members of the group.
The song Everybody’s Talkin’ had made Nilsson a star in his own right by the time his friendship with Ringo – soon to be one of the cornerstones of Nilsson’s life – blossomed in the early 1970s.
‘Ringo and I spent a thousand hours laughing,’ said Nilsson.
Lennon and Nilsson are thrown out of the Troubador in LA on March 13, 1974, for heckling
Ringo, often sporting mirrored sunglasses that disguised the effects of the night before, was at the heart of a social set that enjoyed late nights, exclusive bars, nightclubs and brandy.
Along with Nilsson and Ringo, there would be Marc Bolan of T Rex, Keith Moon, and Graham Chapman of Monty Python.
When in London, they would meet in the afternoon, drinking brandy and swapping yarns, each new arrival dropping in with the catchphrase: ‘I hope I’m not interrupting anything?’
‘We would drink until 9pm,’ Nilsson recalled. ‘That’s six hours of brandy. Then between 9 and 10, we would usually end up at Tramp, the most uproarious, exclusive disco-restaurant in the world.
‘Royalty, movie stars, world champions all frequented the place. It was a ride, meeting luminaries and having blow-outs every night.’
Nilsson was back in Los Angeles by the time of John Lennon’s arrival in the city in the autumn of 1973.
Ever since their time together at Lennon’s home, there had been a strong bond of friendship between the two of them.
However, unlike the camaraderie he enjoyed with Ringo, Nilsson always slightly hero-worshipped Lennon, and there was a shared love of the outrageous. This could, and often did, prove to be a destructive force.
Lennon was at a crossroads. His album Mind Games would be released in October to indifferent reviews, and in June he had split from Yoko. He and Ono’s former personal assistant, May Pang, eloped to the West Coast, where Lennon planned to make an album of rock classics, to be produced by Phil Spector.
Lennon’s drinking was under control in New York, but in Los Angeles, away from Yoko, it increased dramatically as he began socialising with Nilsson.
As she watched Lennon match Nilsson’s intake of brandy and cocaine, May Pang felt powerless: ‘(Nilsson) had charm. We loved him. But he went to extremes.’
Nilsson and Micky Dolenz at the Rainbow
According to Spector, Nilsson was a hindrance to the sessions, and one of his more extreme pranks involved suggesting holding up a 7-Eleven store.Spector was no less outrageous.
He started arriving at the studio dressed up in various costumes, first as a doctor, then a karate instructor, and finally a cowboy, complete with loaded revolver.
Trying to assert his authority, Spector fired the gun into the air.
Covering his ears, Lennon quipped, ‘Listen Phil, if you’re going to kill me, kill me. But don’t f*** with me ears – I need ’em.’
The sessions broke down, leaving Lennon to spend more time with Nilsson, who introduced him to all his nocturnal haunts.
These included the Rainbow Bar and Grill in Hollywood, where the upstairs room still has a plaque on the wall commemorating their late-night drinking club, ‘the Hollywood Vampires’, which included Micky Dolenz of The Monkees, Keith Moon and Alice Cooper.
On March 13, 1974, Nilsson took his friend to see comedians the Smothers Brothers at the Troubadour club. Lennon proceeded to get seriously drunk on Brandy Alexanders.
The press the next day reported: ‘Customers in the jammed nightclub complained Lennon made sarcastic comments and shouted obscenities during the show.
Said the Smothers’ manager, Ken Fritz: ‘I went over and asked Harry to try to shut up Lennon. Harry said: “I’m trying – don’t blame me!”
‘When Lennon continued, I told him to keep quiet. He swung and hit me in the jaw.’
The bouncers had Lennon out in seconds.
Photographer Brenda Mary Perkins tried to snap him, but the enraged Lennon took a swing and his fist allegedly hit her right eye.
The Nixon administration had tried to have Lennon returned to Britain because of an ancient drug charge. When Perkins filed charges at the sheriff’s office, a Nilsson cover-up and charm campaign quelled an investigation that could have got Lennon deported.
Lennon and Nilsson agreed they had to do something more positive than going out on wild benders. John announced his intention of producing an album for Nilsson, and they decided they and the musicians should rent a beach house close to Santa Monica.
The sessions yielded the disappointing Pussy Cats, but were notable for a rare reunion of the principal Beatles.
Round midnight on the first night, McCartney appeared with Stevie Wonder. Lennon was passing cocaine around, and his offer of a ‘toot’ to Stevie gave the subsequent bootleg album its title: A Toot And A Snore In ’74. It was the last time the two ex-Beatles would ever play together in a studio.
On December 8, 1980, Nilsson was in the studio when he heard Lennon had been shot – it brought his professional life to a complete stop.
He would never make another completed studio album of his own. But by the early 1990s, his weight, his drinking, and the years of cocaine intake had taken a serious toll on his wellbeing.
A business venture resulted in bankruptcy, and Ringo had to step in to provide Harry and his family with a house and spending money. Beset by ill health, Nilsson died on January 15, 1994, aged 52.
In most obituaries, Nilsson’s career was summed up by his two Grammy-winning records, with the suggestion that the rest was an inexorable downturn into self-destruction.
Nilsson seemed to agree: ‘Being relegated to Everybody’s Talkin’ and Without You ain’t exactly what I set out to do.’
‘When he got to make records with John Lennon and be friends with Ringo Starr, his life was complete,’ said close friend and legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb.
‘That’s all he ever wanted. He wanted to know those people, to be admired by them. Everything else was the small print.’
From ‘Nilsson’ by Alyn Shipton, published by OUP USA, £18.99.
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