My Dad loved Harry Nilsson. More specifically, my Dad loved the album Nilsson Schmilsson. It was one of his favorite albums, a trait that has been passed down from father to son as it is easily in my Top 5 Favorite Albums of All Time. I have had a recurring internal argument with myself over whether it is Harry’s beautifully tenored voice or his brilliantly abstract songwriting that has driven my obsession with him all of these years, but that argument is just foolish drivel. I love Harry Nilsson because my Dad loved Harry Nilsson.
One of his favorite songs from Nilsson Schmilsson that has recently found itself a bit of a resurgence is its opening track, “Gotta Get Up.” Originally released as the B-Side to Harry’s monster hit, “Without You,” “Gotta Get Up” was featured last year in the Netflix series, Russian Doll, starring the show’s co-creator Natasha Lyonne. So, that’s where you might know it from. But that’s not where my sister and I know it from. No, Natalie* and I know it because my Dad would sing “Gotta Get Up” to us every single morning that he had to wake us up. And would continue to sing, until we got up.
(* – yes, my sister’s name is Natalie and my name is Nathan. No, our parents didn’t do this to be cute. Actually, it was my doing. Our parents let me name my sister. And I chose Natalie. Not because of the alliteratory nature of the coupling of our names, but because I was a fan of Mindy Cohn’s character, Natalie, on the Facts of Life. To be honest, the Nate and Nat thing never crossed my mind. I feel like that story should tell you as much about me as you need to know to confirm any preconceived notions you may have already had about me. But I digress…)
Our Dad didn’t just sing “Gotta Get Up” to us when we were children. It continued into our adult lives. I was in my thirties, and if I kept hitting the snooze button, not yet wanting to open my eyes for work and let either my alarm clock or responsibility win, I would hear from the doorway of my bedroom my father’s voice. “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes…”. He loved that song. And Nat and I loved that song. And we loved to hear him sing that song, no matter how annoyed we would pretend to be at his attempt to get us up. So much so that when I finally moved out, I set my alarm clock to “Gotta Get Up“ because it reminded me of home. It reminded me of him.
My father passed away a year ago this week. My sister and I were there with him until the very end. And on that last day that we spent by his side in the hospital room, knowing that it was the end but secretly hoping that the doctors were wrong and that he would come to and show them just how wrong they were, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone. I opened up Apple Music and I loaded up Nilsson Schmilsson and, as I placed my phone on his chest, I hit play. Side one, track one. And Harry’s wonderful voice began to fill the hospital room, “Gotta get up, gotta get out, gotta get home before the morning comes” just as my father’s voice would ring out every morning that he would wake my sister and I from our slumber. And I hoped that it would work here. That those words would awaken my father from the inevitable, just like he woke my sister and I countless times, and that I would hear him sing along.
It didn’t. He didn’t. But it wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. I know it can be chalked up to an involuntary movement (and who knows, maybe it was), but as Harry sang, I am sure that my father tapped his feet. And I know that he had tapped his feet because he could hear one of his favorite songs from one of his favorite albums, and he knew we were there with him. He knew. But he had to run, run, yeah…
I think about my father a lot. Recently, I’ve been wondering to myself what he would make of the COVID-19 pandemic. I know that he’d be worried for me. And I know that he’d be tremendously worried for my sister, who is immunodeficient. But most of all, I know that early on in all of this, before the guidelines and before the Stay at Home edicts, I know that he would have asked me,” Are you buying all of this? You think it’s real?” He would ask me a version of that sentiment about challenging topics from time to time, and I would answer him, trying to hide my confusion on how you could not believe it, when all of the evidence would point to things being real. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized that he wasn’t challenging the narrative in those instances. If he had asked me those questions about the coronavirus outbreak, it wasn’t necessarily that he didn’t “buy it.” It was that he valued my opinion, and he wanted to know what I thought. Because he knew that I would be honest with him.
Below is the eulogy I gave for my father at his memorial service. I know that this post is a bit of a downer, so I don’t expect you to listen to it, nor do expect that you have read this far. But if you do listen to it and you have read this far, at the end of the recording, you can hear me sing “Gotta Get Up” for my Dad.
I don’t use “Gotta Get Up” as my alarm clock song anymore. I can’t. When I hear that song, I don’t want to hear Harry’s voice. I want to hear my Dad’s.
I love you and I miss you very much, Dad.