An anti-gun song that Harry Nilsson wrote after the death of his good friend John Lennon may have been inspired by a tune on a Beatles bootleg that a journalist says he was the first to tell the singer about, he told Beatles Examiner.
Rip Rense, who was then a writer for the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, said the story, which he first mentioned on Facebook and expanded later by email, dates back to the early '80s, when Nilsson was to be a guest at Beatlefest (now the Fest for Beatles Fans) in Los Angeles.
“When I heard Nilsson was going to be at L.A. Beatlefest in 1982 (or 83, I don't recall), I made a tape from a bootleg album of The Beatles singing "Soldier of Love (Lay Down Your Arms)" from the BBC broadcasts, and took it to him. I had a thought that Nilsson might persuade the parties of Apple to release the song, on which Lennon sings lead, with all proceeds going to ban handguns.”
Rense himself was very familiar with the Beatles' BBC broadcasts, having written an illuminating series on them for the now defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner.
“Nilsson was extremely gracious when I met him signing autographs at Beatlefest, seated at an anti-handguns campaign table. He suggested we go to his room at the Bonaventure, where in between snorting line after line of cocaine, he listened to the idea,” he says. “He had never heard of the song. He said he liked the idea and would follow up. I figured the odds of any of this happening were slim and none, never mind what a wonderful idea it was.
“I'm pretty sure I played him the song, which he had never heard of, but I can't recall definitely,” Rense says. “He liked the idea, seemed keen to do it, but again, I didn't hold my breath.”
He thought the release of the song would have made an important contribution.
“It would have made for an incredibly powerful and poignant message in the wake of Lennon's fiendish killing. It would have underscored the loss in an almost unbearable way. It would have gotten enormous attention to the anti-handgun campaign. But given the complexities of Apple at that time, let alone the feelings of the principal parties, I figured the idea had little chance. Still, I wanted to suggest it.”
As it turned out, the Beatles did release it in 1994 on the “Live at the BBC” album. And while Rense doesn't know if Nilsson ever suggested his idea to the Beatles, something interesting did happen after their meeting.
“He did write his own anti-handguns song, which became the theme music for his campaign. The title: 'Lay Down Your Arms.'”
As anyone who has heard “Soldier of Love” knows, the words “Lay Down Your Arms” make up the first four words of the song. Nilsson's version of his song was included in the soundtrack to a movie, “Deep in the Heart,” but not otherwise released, according to the fan website For the Love of Harry Nilsson.
As Rense noted and as was mentioned in the excellent documentary “Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?”, “Nilsson stopped his career entirely to devote all energies to banning handguns for several years. It was a thoroughly noble act on his part, never mind how futile it proved to be in this gun-crazed society.
“I felt like my efforts had not been in vain,” he says of the Nilsson song. "So I'll take some responsibility of (the song's) existence. Later, Ringo recorded it with Stevie Nicks.
"What a fine guy Nilsson was.”
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