Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about music and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the music urban legends featured so far.
MUSIC URBAN LEGEND: Harry Nilsson’s coffin was lost during an earthquake
Harry Nilsson (he usually went by just Nilsson as a performer) was an acclaimed American singer and songwriter, with his most famous songs (either as a performer or as a songwriter or as both) probably being “Everybody’s Talkin'” (as in the theme song to Midnight Cowboy), “Without You” (as in “I can’t liiiiive if living is without you”), “Coconut” (as in “you put the lime in the coconut”) and “One” (as in “one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know”).
However great Nilsson was, he most likely did not have the career, popularity-wise, that his talent “deserved” and was actually in rough financial straits (at least partially due to a crooked financial advisor who ended up going to prison for what she did to Nilsson’s finances) when he had a heart attack in 1993.
He was pushing RCA to put out a box set of his music, and he was just finishing up a new album (which I don’t believe has ever been released) when he died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 54.
Let’s leave Nilsson for a moment and turn to our next player in this story.
Marianne Faithfull burst on to the scene in 1964 with a song penned by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones’ manager) called “As Tears Go By.”
Soon Faithfull was involved in a much-publicized romance with Jagger, which lasted until 1970.
By the time she split with Jagger, Faithfull was heavily addicted to drugs, specifically cocaine.
During the 70s, while her singing career was in ruins, she developed a bout of laryngitis that, coupled with her constant drug abuse, rendered her once soprano voice to practically a complete 180 degree turn, and she is now a gravelly Deep contralto, but she is an acclaimed musician nowadays, despite her gruff voice.
Why do I bring Faithfull up?
Well, during the mid to late 90s, a story began circulating that an earthquake had taken place in Los Angeles after Nilsson’s death, and that his coffin had actually fallen from the funeral home into a crevice and was lost. So that when his funeral burial took place, they basically buried an empty coffin (as a replacement for the lost one).
Sounds absurd, right? But is it absurd and true?
Well, it IS absurd and it is patently false.
However, the story originated in one of the more unlikely places – in Faithfull’s concerts!
From a review by Magnus Mills in the British paper, The Independent, discussing a 1997 Faithfull concert:
Then she sits down, lights up, coughs some more and tells us about her friend Harry Nilsson.
She and Harry did drugs together in the Sixties. “Real drugs,” she points out. “Not these modern confections.” Poor Harry survived the Sixties but later had the misfortune to be swindled by his accountant before dying in a dentist’s chair. If this wasn’t bad enough, he then disappeared in his coffin as the earth opened during the Los Angeles quake. Marianne Faithfull sings a song in memory of Harry Nilsson and promises him a line of coke. She likes to talk about Nilsson, Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht and Allen Ginsberg as lost friends. She doesn’t spend time talking about herself.
Faithfull is correct that yes, the famous Northridge earthquake DID take place in Los Angeles in 1994, just a few days after Nilsson died, but that’s about it.
For instance, Harry was finishing work on his album when he went to bed the night he died. His producer was with him that night. Nilsson died in his sleep.
Similarly, the funeral of Nilsson was a matter of public record. Funeral attendees do recall tremors from the aftershocks while at the funeral, but there is no record of any funeral home being destroyed by the earthquake, let alone the one that Nilsson’s coffin was being held in.
The legend is…
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