Monday, October 5, 2015

Safe Travels: A lovely goodbye from Randy to Harry?

By Lars Trodson

I hope this story is true, but I have no way of knowing. I'd like it to be true.

From the very first time I heard the song “I will go sailing no more” from the movie “Toy Story,” I had always wondered why Randy Newman, who wrote the lyrics and the score for the movie, used the word “sailing” rather than “flying" to describe what was happening to the character Buzz Lightyear.

Buzz is a flier not a sailor, after all. But Buzz realizes, after accidentally seeing a commercial on TV that flashes “Not a flying toy,” that he is only a toy and cannot, in fact, fly. So why did Newman use the word "sailing" to describe what Buzz couldn't do? Was it simply Newman being poetic, or just trying to mix up his lyric a little bit? I never could quite figure it out, and every time I came across the film I was reminded of this nagging question. I know it’s not important, it was just simply something that struck me. I’m always interested in why writers choose the words they do.

Then one day I was thinking about Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman because I was listening to Nilsson sing Newman's great song, "Sail Away."  In 1970, Nilsson gave Newman a huge boost when he released the album "Nilsson Sings Newman.” 

That album was not a hit, but even so Newman was grateful for the exposure that Nilsson, who was a huge star at the time, gave him. (This was right after Nilsson had won a Grammy for singing "Everybody's Talking" from the movie "Midnight Cowboy.") I don’t know if the two were friends, but Newman has some lovely insights about Nilsson in a 2005 documentary called “Who Is Nilsson (and why is everyone talking about him?)”

So this got me thinking again about the use of the word “sailing” in “Toy Story.” 

And then I remembered a Harry Nilsson song from the movie "Popeye." In a quiet, tender moment in that film, Popeye (Robin Williams) and Olive Oyl (Shelly Duvall) sing a duet "Sailin'." Olive sings the refrain "stay with me" while Popeye sings "sail with me" to Swee' Pea (and to each other). It's a lovely moment and a lovely little song by Nilsson. Popeye's greatest joy is sailing, and he wants that little boy to go out on the water with him.

Suddenly, Buzz's statement in "I will go sailing no more" seemed to make a little sense. Maybe Randy Newman was remembering his old pal, who had died in early 1994, just a year before "Toy Story" was released. There's another line in the "Toy Story" song: "I know exactly who I am," which echoes Popeye's declaration of "I am what I am." Another line, "a dream that ended too soon" could be a reference to Harry Nilsson himself, who was just 53 when he died.

Maybe. It's nice to think so, anyway. Randy Newman is alive and well, but Harry? Harry Nilsson deserves to be remembered every now and again, even if this song isn't the tribute I think it is.