Amarcord: Hal Willner by Francesco Lombardi

Francesco Lombardi & Hal Willner
Francesco Lombardi & Hal Willner

I met Hal a long time ago at the beginning of the eighties. It was in Rome, Hal came there for presenting his first tribute recording, focused on the Nino Rota’s music for the Federico Fellini’s films. Fellini had given Hal the generous permission to publish in the sleeve notes a beautiful text he wrote in memory of his friend Nino, a buddy of many terrific artistic trips. So Hal felt the obligation to give a copy of the LP personally to the Italian director. Years later, he told me about a sort of funny, and in a certain sense, embarrassing sketch happened in the director apartment. The LP, we were still in the Vinyl Era, had on the cover a beautiful photo of the actress Sandra Milo, colorful and brightly. When Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife, and actress, came in the living room where the recording was in good exposition over a table, the director with a sudden move making it away from the view. Hal was unable to make a reason for this reaction, apparently absurd and inexplicable, also considering the appreciation and the generosity showed him by Fellini till that moment. Everything was cleared years later when a friend was able to explain to him that Sandra Milo has been something more than one of the actresses that worked with Fellini. The relationship between Milo and Masina wasn’t properly a friendly one. He told me this story with the happy pleasure of someone that, despite him, was casually fallen in a cinematic sketch in the home of one of the greatest director of the world. In the years, this easiness and bonhomie in the human relationships gave Hal the chance to enter in variegate and good friendships with many artists – above all musicians – around the world. But it is very important to consider one issue related to this kind of relationship: the artists and musicians are mainly quite often “difficult people.” Beware, they’re not bad people but humans beings tuned differently from the rest of humanity. An Italian artist who, during his life has been a musician, a painter, a writer, and a music critic, was able to explain the peculiarity of the musician brilliantly. His name was Alberto Savinio.

“[…] the musician does not participate in the common human species, but he is among us earthlings as an aquatic animal or as an air animal. Its element is not one of those in which we live, but music, which in itself is not an art, as we are used to saying, but a real element: the furthest away from us, the more foreign. And the musician, therefore, makes a continuous effort a “painful” effort to live among us, like a fish exiled from the sea and condemned to breathe our air, struggling the gills and panting. “

So Hal not only loved music like many of us, but he was able to love and understand musicians, even the most difficult. Thanks to this scarce gift – in my long experience in the world of music business, those like Hal can be counted on the fingers of one hand – he could guide them on unexplored and original paths. They felt that he fully understood how difficult it could be to live the musical dimension, and they trusted him, confident that in the end, everything would be harmoniously composed. 

I saw Hal the last time last July in NYC in his studio, we talked as usual about music and then about dogs. An Australian Shepherd puppy had just arrived at his house. He had never had dogs in his life; he was very inquisitive and excited to understand what relationships could be established with a being so empathetic with the man but without speech…

Hal Willner in approx 1985
Hal in approximately 1985