Co-written by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, ‘Old Dirt Road’ was a product of their chaotic collaboration on Nilsson’s Pussy Cats album, and evocative of their Lost Weekend in Los Angeles in late 1973 and early 1974.
[It was done] just to write a song. You know, ‘Seein’ as we’re stuck in this bottle of vodka together, we might as well try and do something.’
All We Are Saying, David Sheff
Here's a cool find! original handwritten lyrics for Old Dirt Road. -kn pic.twitter.com/8RKwO1fRIA
— Harry Nilsson (@OfficialNilsson) September 15, 2017
Although John Lennon’s famous Lost Weekend wasn’t always as drug and alcohol fuelled as the Lennon legend has since suggested, there were indeed dark days. He and May Pang rented a beach house in Santa Monica, where for a while they lived with Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon and Ringo Starr in a bid to ensure the musicians all turned up to the recording studio on time.
Such company was never likely to result in productive work, and Lennon was the first to pull back. At the time he was working on Pussy Cats, the album he was producing for Nilsson, and realised he needed to leave Los Angeles for his own wellbeing.
Suddenly I was the straight one in the middle of these mad, mad people. I was suddenly not one of them and I pulled myself back and finished off the album as best I could.
Lennon returned to New York City with May Pang to complete Pussy Cats and begin work on Walls And Bridges. Nilsson accompanied him for some of the time, and the pair wrote ‘Old Dirt Road’ together in New York.
Lennon greatly admired Nilsson’s singing and songwriting talents, having been a fan since his 1967 debut Pandemonium Shadow Show. By 1974, however, heavy drinking had permanently affected his voice.
When you said something that was either clever or good, he woud just jump on it. When he was writing ‘Old Dirt Road’ he’d started the tune, and he was up past the first verse, I guess, and some ‘suit people’ came in, and he said, ‘Harry, what’s a good Americanism?’ And why this came about [I don’t know], it came into my mind, but ‘It was like trying to shovel smoke with a pitchfork in the wind.’ And he said, ‘Oh great, great, fantastic! You’re burning, man, go for it!’ And he talked to the suits over the piano, and we wrote another verse, and I’d check in with him every few minutes like a secretary, go back to the piano, and he’d be going, ‘Yeah, yeah, you’re on fire now.’
A rehearsal, later released on the posthumous collection Menlove Ave, was recorded in July 1974, shortly before recording began for Walls And Bridges.
The 1998 box set John Lennon Anthology contained an alternative version from the album sessions, including a brief false start.
Nilsson recorded his own version of ‘Old Dirt Road’ in 1979, and was released in the UK and Japan on the following year’s Flash Harry, his final album.