A month after his death, taking stock of Hal Willner’s legacy
As music fans around the world mourned the passing of legendary folk singer-songwriter John Prine on April 7, another coronavirus-related death on the same day also marked the end of an era for the American music industry. . Maverick producer, event planner and scholarly showman Hal Willner had just turned 64 the day before his death in New York City.
Visionary record producer, engineer, and eclectic live event organizer, Willner has consistently collaborated with a stable of the most progressive and quirky recording artists operating on the outskirts of the mainstream establishment: Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Nick Cave , Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Marianne Faithfull, Bryan Ferry, Gavin Friday, Bill Frisell, Allen Ginsberg, Dr. John, Leon Redbone, Lou Reed, Stan Ridgeway, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits and John Zorn, to name but a few some. In the process, Willner became the rare music producer who was also considered a singular artist by his peers and fans. “A Hal Willner Production” on any release has become a must-listen for a generation of musos. In a 2017 interview, Willner told the New York Times, “You create a strong framework and you let people do what they’re doing inside the framework and you watch it. If that sounds good, drop it. A lot of producers don’t do that.
An experimental jazz musician by nature, Willner’s life-long project was to take full advantage of the “concept album’s inherently avant-garde nature” as a cinematic soundscape. Choosing artists and themes close to his heart, he has conjured up a series of surprising tribute albums devoted to his own beloved obsessions and featuring his unique roster of cutting-edge musicians. Lost in the stars (1985) and September songs (1997) featured Cave, Faithfull, Reed, Waits, Zorn and other riffs on Kurt Weill’s Weimar Republic cabaret decadence, while To stay awake (1988) took a similar approach by exploring the strangeness inherent in old Walt Disney film music. Willner’s many other productions included similar tributes to Fellini film scores by Nino Rota, modern jazz pioneers Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk, works by Edgar Allan Poe, cartoon soundtracks from Warner Brothers and The Work. by underground filmmaker, folk music collector and occultist Harry Smith. . In 2006, Willner published Snape Gallery, the first of two sprawling compilations of old sailor and pirate songs recorded by an epic roster of his favorite contemporary artists. Weaving dreamlike tapestries from a collective musical subconscious, these works pay a loving tribute to the legacy of their conceptual subjects and to the legendary artists helping Willner pay homage to the recordings.
In the 1990s, Willner collaborated and produced spoken word albums for aging Beat writers William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg, with live recording sessions and subsequent remixes accompanied by John Cale, Bill Frisell, Phillip Glass, Lenny Kaye, King Khan, M. Lamar, Paul McCartney and Sonic Youth. An engaging and talented writer, Willner was also known for the insightful sleeve notes he wrote for his own quirky concept tribute compilations as well as for releases by The Band, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Marianne Faithfull, Roland Kirk, Kris Kristofferson and Lou Reed. Additionally, Willner has worked behind the scenes on a number of film soundtracks for notable directors such as Robert Altman, Tim Burton, Julian Schnabel, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant and Wim Wenders.
Willner’s distinctive tribute albums have also manifested themselves in the various live events he has directed. Over the years, he has assembled his usual rogue musicians gallery to host live tribute events related to his eclectic compilation recordings. In addition to concerts related to his projects Burroughs, Ginsberg, Poe, Rota, Smith and Weill, he has also hosted music and multimedia concerts developed by stars in homage to cultural innovators like Leonard Cohen, Doc Pomus and the Marquis of Sade among others, and has often produced solo concerts for his friends and regular collaborators.
As avant-garde as his projects often were, Willner was also a creature from another time, or at least from an imagined past. He had the affable air and storytelling gift of an old Vaudevillian or carnival barker, and was obsessed with the esotericism of previous eras of music, technology, and popular culture: ghostly transmissions. the first radios and televisions, the crackle of old 78 records, circus shows, obscure jazz and mid-century folk bohemians, old and ephemeral toys from the early days of popular culture. Like so many of his haunting projects, Willner was both a creator who harnessed the past and an eccentric pioneer ahead of his time.
During the last two decades of the late Lou Reed’s career, Hal Willner has served as the co-creator of New York rock art. In addition to their many collaborations on Willner’s conceptual compilation work, Reed worked with the production and engineering maestro on eight solo releases starting in 1999, a prolific period for Reed that included a climax of his career. Ecstasy In 2000. The crow, a very cinematic and very Willneresque concept double album from 2003, simultaneously celebrated the writing and legacy of Reed and Edgar Allan Poe and explored the common themes of the three artists with a list of special guests. Reed’s last full recording of original material was Louie, a collaboration with Metallica produced by Willner and released in 2011. Reed’s pal and longtime collaborator David Bowie proclaimed the album the best of his career.
When Reed was booked as a keynote speaker at the South by Southwest Film and Music Festival 2007, he brought Willner with him as the most suitable man to interview him about his storied career (the festival also premiered the Reed’s arthouse concert film Berlin, for which Willner produced the music). Since Reed’s death in 2013, Willner has continued to oversee the remastering and re-release of Reed’s catalog and continued his series of collaborations with Reed’s widow, multimedia artist Laurie Anderson. In 2016, Willner worked with Anderson to present what has perhaps been his most touching tribute show, a one-day tribute to their soul mate Reed in the New York City they loved.
In addition to his more progressive projects for the left hand, Willner was also the longtime musical director of Saturday Night Live, and the April 11 “stay at home” iteration featured a moving tribute to Hal that emphasized essential cuteness. of the man as well as his long friendship and his numerous collaborations with Lou Reed.
Reed would have turned 78 on March 2. In the weeks to come, I will occasionally write about Lou Reed’s unexplored relationship with cinema, an aspect of his career that has been intensified by his long collaboration and friendship with the great Hal Willner. . For now, put on Willner and Reed recordings, turn up the volume, and lose yourself in the stars.