A few days back there was the birthday of Harry Nilsson (the 15th to be exact) and he’s one who should not be passed over. Nilsson was an incredibly musical person with an amazing vocal range. I always admire anyone who has such gifts. Nilsson, admittedly, may have squandered his a bit, but those were the times.
His career really got started with the two albums he released on RCA in the Sixties: Pandemonium Shadow Show (1967) and Aerial Ballet (1968)—Nilsson’s grandparents were actually circus performers so he comes by that carnivalesque air legitimately. Today’s song is from the second album. I first heard most of the Nilsson songs I know best on a Best of Harry compilation I picked up used at Cutler’s not too long after first moving to New Haven. I always associate it, and today’s song in particular, with that first blast of solo time. And I've recently picked up the re-issued mono vinyl versions of both LPs.
“Good Old Desk”—Nilsson has pointed out that the initials spell “god”—is a little ditty that commemorates what was certainly my strongest relationship at the time and, it seems, Nilsson’s as well. His early employment was as a computer geek for a bank, so I would imagine the song is meant to acknowledge the peaceful serenity of getting to work at the desk. I know this is often not the perception of working in offices. But. The song, in its very vintage sound—like doo-wop crossed with vaudeville—takes a different tack. All the world may be going to hell (this song was released in 1968, mind you), but you can still get things done at your good old desk.
As to the “god” idea, that’s picked up best in the lines: “It’s always there / It’s the one friend I’ve got / My good old desk.” Elsewhere it just seems to be praised for being that one dependable thing in life: “My old desk never needs a rest / And I’ve never once heard it cry.” What a trooper. “It’s always there to please me between nine and five”—the bounds of the work day are the bounds of the relationship. An office romance!
The song also has a few nice little surrealist touches. First of all, I’ll insist, pace every lyrics page I’ve seen online, that the first line is “My old desk / Does an arabesque / In the morning when I first arrive.” Everyone seems to think it’s “doesn’t arabesque.” Admittedly, it’s very hard to hear the difference between “doesn’t” and “does an” (when the latter is slurred a bit), but that’s not even the point. The point is that the song opens with the charming image of the desk doing a ballet dance move (check out the name of the album) to greet its employer/master. It’s like a dog wagging its tail, but it’s also a fun image of the desk assuming a ballet position to begin the pas de deux that will be working at the desk. And, even if that’s hard to visualize for you, it certainly is how it feels sometimes. If you truly love your good old desk.
I’m very fond of mine and was never fonder of it than when I first became acquainted with this song, and a number of other Nilsson tunes, in 1999. I already knew his Grammy winning “Without You” (one of the great pop vocals of its day) and of course “Everybody’s Talkin’” (ditto). Also “Coconut” and “Jump into the Fire”—I could’ve chosen either of those, from Nilsson Schmilsson (1971), but wanted to get this early Nilsson on here because of its charm and its personal associations. And because the Nilsson of the Seventies, a buddy of John Lennon and Ringo Starr, was a bit dissolute, most notably during Lennon’s “lost weekend” binges during the separation from Yoko. I remember all that making the rock rags in the day. Nilsson’s Shadow Show album has two Beatles tributes, one a cover of “You Can’t Do That” with other Beatles’ tunes/lines interlineated, and the other a cover of “She’s Leaving Home”—his version of the song was released at the end of the year that saw the release of Sgt. Pepper. Nilsson was quite in tune with The Beatles and would’ve been a great collaborator for Lennon after the break-up with McCartney, as Nilsson has many of McCartney’s qualities of a love for music hall tunes and an unending knack for great harmonies. But Lennon and Nilsson didn’t work that well together, and when they did it—on Pussy Cats (1974)—it was mainly to cover others.
Anyway, this week is the week of the harmony and melody men. McCartney’s birthday is tomorrow, and Brian Wilson’s and Ray Davies’ are soon to follow. It’s a Sixties songster’s hat-trick!
Arrangement-wise, Nilsson is always worthwhile too. The strings on this song have a wonderful “interpretive” feel, giving the whole thing a kind of grandeur even though it’s kept very simple. And the other “surrealist” touch (though the technique predates surrealism in the visual arts) is the conclusion: the speaker, “when his heart’s on the floor,” just opens a drawer—“And what do I see / But a picture of me / Working at my good old desk.” It’s a nice mise en abyme touch that lets us savor the representations of work at the desk—the song is one, the picture is another—and then there’s the one the two form in our minds. That, my friends, is an arabesque.