Of all the various versions of “Vine Street” that I’ve heard – and, as a Randy Newman fanboy, I’ve heard a lot – Harry Nilsson’s take, from the Nilsson Sings Newman album that is otherwise surprisingly missable considering the people involved, is by far my favorite. It’s not just that it starts with “Anita,” a really spectacular little pop song that’s not attached to any other version (and something that I wish Newman would expand into a full song at some point), although that’s a massive mark in its favor; instead, it’s the texture and complexity of vocals that Nilsson brings to it, the swooping loveliness that bolsters and emboldens what starts (from the actual beginning of “Vine Street” itself, the “That’s a tape/that we made”) as tired and reticent and ends up as something… what? “Happy,” perhaps, or at least something that’s stronger and more alive when remembering the past than considering the present. Listen to the power in the vocals, the way Nilsson fearlessly throws himself around the melody when he remembers his group “sitting out on the stoop/and we’d play for her/the songs she liked best to have us play” (The showmanship, the showing off, when he gets to that second “play,” it’s so wonderful), and compare that to either the timid “That’s a tape…” earlier or the end of the song, as the harmonies fall away and he’s left alone again, the voice faltering slightly… It’s an incredible performance, a complete story just in its aural quality even ignoring Newman’s lyrics.
Compare this to Newman’s demo – written, I think, for Van Dyke Parks – and, unsurprisingly, the song feels entirely different, in part because Newman at his best could never perform the same kind of vocal acrobatics that Nilsson excelled in, but there’s a tenderness in there that Nilsson is missing because he was so fucking amazing and swinging from word to word when he really got going. The end of the demo, with Newman just vamping a dramatic ending, works for me too – a kind of “fuck you, I’m done” that feels honest and in keeping with the “I’m old and I know it” nature of the rest of the song.
Here’s the version of the song that was, I think, first released, Van Dyke Parks’ version from Song Cycle… It’s filled with what we’ll call his “trademark orchestral touches,” but I can’t help but feel that it’s too orchestrated, and the song itself gets entirely lost in there, distended in prettiness and melodrama until it falls apart:
Give me Harry Nilsson any day. I can believe that that man would sit on a stoop and play, if nothing else. If only he’d played more of that “Anita” song…