We are collecting quotes from the people who have worked with Hal and posting them here in alphabetical order. A lot of these quotes also appeared on the All About Jazz article by Ludovico Granvassu.
There are a few Giants who walk the Earth, and beyond a doubt, Hal Willner was absolutely at the top. Since his passing I have thought a lot about him. He was a Gentle Giant. At first glance you might have missed his brilliance, his amazing depth, all those kinds of things. And beyond that he made what he did look easy. He just did it!
I am fortunate to have worked for him since 1989, starting with Weird Nightmare (Meditations on Mingus). At the time I was too busy to notice, but now I have the time to, that he brought together the most outrageous groups of musicians, singers, spoken artists and engineers. He had a gift for this, and he gave the right people music to arrange, create and live in a Hal kind of world.
At first, I did wonder what he actually was doing, sitting quietly in the control room of the recording studio; really quiet, indeed! And when things weren’t moving he would gently chortle “C’mon, ya bastaaaads.”
But now I get it. He was the most “hands-on” type of producer, in the most subtle of ways. He was a remarkable catalyst in creating a multitude of works, an incredible body of work for one man to have been the major force in creating. What brilliance, having Elvis Costello singing the title song “Weird Nightmare” or Leonard Cohen reading Mingus poetry on “Eclipse” or Lou Reed and James Carter playing together, enticing each other to go to the next level, and the next, and the next…
I do have one final request; a couple of summers ago we rehearsed the music for the concert version of his Amarcord Nino Rota recording. Yet again, it was an astonishing group of artists gathered together for this beautiful experience. Some came in from Europe as well! There were rehearsals, and then the Lincoln Center Out of Doors soundcheck. During the soundcheck (outdoors) the skies were darkening, and the stage manager was monitoring the coming storm, a big electrical storm. We were hastened off the stage. We waited and waited. Some rain fell, and we finally were told we would not be playing. Everyone felt beyond dismayed. The core orchestra got amazingly tight in a short period of time. What a let-down, not to perform. The line to get into the event went around the block… We were so saddened, and Hal was so fired up he wanted us to get a studio and record it that night! It didn’t happen, yet we all held hope that it would. So here is my wish: that somehow, some way this project be put back together, and as an homage to Hal, we have a stellar performance, just one last time…
The life of Hal Willner is something we all can learn from, for a really, really long time.
I first started working with Hal 31 years ago, playing on the TV show Night Music in 1989 with Karen Mantler, Carla Bley, Allen Toussaint and Bootsy. Hal came up and told me he had been hearing me at the Knitting Factory, and enjoyed the cooperative trio I was in, Spanish Fly. This led to him producing our first two records, and a working relationship that included numerous recordings and live shows often with me in the role of “musical director.”
In the last five years our relationship changed, and I always told Hal that he was more important to me as a friend than as an employer.
One thing that never changed was my admiration for Hal as an artist, and the place I feel he occupies in our culture. I heard Amarcord Nino Rota when it came out in 1981, and it completely changed the way I heard music, and what I thought the possibilities of a recording could be. Hal was stretching the boundaries more on each recording that followed. Thats the Way I Feel Now—A Tribute to Thelonious Monk included Barry Harris, Randy Weston and Steve Lacy… but also Peter Frampton and Todd Rundgren. Next up was Lost in the Stars, his homage to Kurt Weill, which had Carla Bley, Charlie Haden and John Zorn, as well as Sting, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful. But It was Stay Awake (Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films) where Hal pushed the bubble until it burst! Betty Carter, Garth Hudson, Sun Ra, James Taylor, Yma Sumac, Aaron Nevillestev, Bill Frisell, Harry Nilsson with Arto Lindsay and an all-star Hollywood session orchestra arranged by Lennie Niehaus… and so many more amazing musicians and bands, until the album ends with Ringo Starr and Herb Alpert… After that came Weird Nightmare (Meditations on Mingus) 180 degrees away from his last project. Wild clouds of Harry Partch instruments creating a vision of Mingus through Hal’s unique lens, performed by an amazing and unique ensemble. And of course, members of the Rolling Stones, Chuck D., Leonard Cohen, and Diamanda Galás… because Hal…
In the 21st century everyone gets their information from one source… the computer has your music, your movies, your newspaper, your politics, your dirty pictures. Whether you are searching for Husker Du or Jimmy Lunceford it’s still just a click. But before all of this technology we went to record stores. You walked in and the pop/rock section was up front. Jazz, R&B and Blues was behind that. You went to the back for classical, comedy, and “International.” A friend said that Hal “Could see around corners.” Hal saw a world where it was all one shared expression. Not sections in a record store, the vision of one large community, and he created and nourished a community. A word that keeps coming up when people describe Hal is “generous.” His generous vision changed our culture for the better. Thank you Hal… I’ll be seeing you. xxoosb
I don’t have just one memory of Hal to share. I have, at least, 12:
Woodstock, 1988. It took us 24 hours to mix Garth Hudson’s “Feed the Birds” for Stay Awake (Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films) (A&M). Joe Ferla, Hal and me.
Los Angeles 1985. Mixing Lost in the Stars at A+M. We went to Club Lingerie to see Thelonious Monster. The waitress had a name tag that said “Aidszilla.” Hal tried to get her to give it to him. She refused.
Los Angeles, 1999. I’m down and out after my 19-year marriage ends. Broke. Hal “hires” me, uncredited, to watch the movie Finding Forrester with him and “help” him choose music for the soundtrack. He pays me when he didn’t have to. We take bike rides from Venice Beach to Sunset Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway and back.
New Orleans, 2017. U2 is ready to record “Bang a Gong.” With Marc Urselli engineering, we try to use the old Piety Street studio, which is now a private studio. It’s my first recording session with alleged ex-Mossad agents protecting the studio. I bring mics and help get players. Hal pulls it off.
New York, 1988. We record a version of “Alice in Wonderland” for Stay Awake using porn stars as vocalists. Disney has been hard to deal with and we are foolishly trying to fuck with them. The track is great but in the mastering process, Bob Ludwig convinced Hal not to include it. Hal ended up calling one of the medleys “3 inches is such a wretched height.”
Los Angeles, Summer of 1987—Stay Awake sessions. Hal lives an entire week on challah bread, mustard and Hebrew National Salami. Throw in a few Pink’s hot dogs.
Summer 1987. Hal and I share a 2AM “Festive Fruit Cup” with Allen Ginsberg at Vim and Vigor, a 24-hour health food place which no longer exists, gearing up for the recording session of The Lion For Real.
New York, 1985. Crashing at Hal’s 58th Street apartment while he’s gone, I discover the old dude sleeping on the couch is Terry Southern.
New York, 2005. Hal picks the Davell Crawford song “Gather by the River” as the “hit” from the Our New Orleans record. He was right.
New York, 1983. Hal lets me do a track for the Monk tribute album That’s the Way I Feel Now: A Tribute to Thelonious Monk. “Brilliant Corners” is well received, which changes my life forever.
New Orleans, 2010. Hal asks about local hip-hop. He wisely includes Big Freedia and Katey Red on Son of Rogues Gallery: (Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs, & Chanteys).
Los Angeles, August 1987. After a harrowing day recording Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson, we unwind by breaking into the South Pasadena High football field. We spend two hours looking up at the sky. Not a star to be found.
My friendship with Hal was one of the most enduring I have had. 40 years of crossing paths. Always glad we existed on earth at the same time.
I first met Hal on the set of Night Music where I was somehow convinced to sing a cover of “Hey Joe” with harmonica player Toots Thielemans and jazz giant Charlie Haden. No one knew what we were doing, but there was a perverse and unexpected glory in the whole thing that I was to learn was pure Hal.
This kicked off a 30-year collaboration, where I found myself regularly and blindly drawn into Hal’s limitless imagination — the eternal Leonard Cohen travelling circus, the five-hour Harry Smith tribute at the Festival Hall in London, the two Rogue’s Gallery albums, the bizarre and deeply moving recording sessions with his beloved friend Marianne Faithful, the Kurt Weill project, the Marc Bolan record, the soundtracks, all characterized by a weird and eclectic mismatch of musicians who played their hearts out, under Hal’s wayward direction.
No challenge was too strange or great for Hal. I once watched him attempt to coax irascible bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley into singing the Velvet Underground song “White Light, White Heat” for the soundtrack of Lawless, the musical score Hal, Warren Ellis and I were producing at the time. It was a deranged idea that should never have worked, but Hal grimaced and grumbled his way through and walked away with one of the most extraordinarily moving performance I have ever heard — a performance that Hal’s dear friend Lou Reed listened to in our studio and openly wept.
Hal was our visionary, our ringleader, always working against reason itself, armed with a deep love and bottomless knowledge of music, an incredible generosity and reverence for those forgotten and discarded, an eccentric and screwball vision, and a perverse love of chaos, and who produced some of the most moving and unforgettable spectacles I have ever witnessed, or had the honour to be involved in.
Beyond a collaborator he was a dear friend, part of a small group of people I would meet when I visited New York, where we would eat and talk — the freewheeling conversation, occasionally serious, often confusing, but mostly very, very funny.
My heart goes out to his family — Sheila and his beloved son, Arlo, and Hal’s father too, and the vast community that circled around him. His passing will leave a gaping hole at the centre of a huge network of friends and colleagues, the dimensions of which we can barely fathom. He was a great man and we will miss him very much.
I met Hal in early 1989 when he was producing his first Night Music. On the show were jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins, popular R&B band Was Not Was, Ken Nordine (“Word Jazz,”) and Leonard Cohen (accompanied by Perla Batalla, myself and Robben Ford, and then, by all of the above except Nordine on “Who By Fire”) That’s Hal, for ya! For the obvious eclectic genius of his casting powers, he was asked to do the remainder of those revered shows. In 1993, Hal brought his great friend Allen Ginsberg backstage at The Beacon to converse with us after Leonard’s performance.
Hal and I stayed in touch and I was honored to help record Hubert Selby for Hal’s Mingus project, Weird Nightmare. His energy just inspired us to create: I wrote a vocalese to a Mingus song the night I met him… In the cab on the way to see NRBQ after one of the rehearsals for Night Music, I’d had the nerve to say, “Hey, do I have to be famous to be on that record? Because I wanna write a vocalese to “Orange Was The Color Of Her Dress!” Of course, he went a different way, but I had a song to sing.
We both were the same age, and came up when FM was king. It brought us all genres of music simultaneously. We often lamented the compartmentalization of music, and had great listening sessions. I’m one of the many grateful recipients of the pre-loaded Willner iPods.
I have had the great pleasure and good fortune of watching Hal work his magic, as one of the participants on Came So Far For Beauty, the Cohen evenings that became the feature film about Cohen, and on Hal’s evenings at Royce Hall dedicated to Randy Newman and to Firesign Theater. I was present and accounted for at the beautiful 4+ hour memorial listening party Hal curated after Leonard’s passing, at The Getty.
When I last saw him, Hal had come out to see the “punk supergroup” in which I performed at the Bowery Ballroom last March. The next day we spent a few hours at his studio chatting and listening to his T Rex project. I had no clue it would be the last time I’d see him. Let’s all cherish one another, and stay creative and open in every moment. For Hal.
When I think back to the adventures I went on with Hal Willner, it’s dizzying! There was never a dull moment, with portals opening into a fathomless ocean of ideas.
It was during the production of Weird Nightmare that I got a call from Hal. He wanted me to go with him to Madrid, Spain. At the last minute, he got Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and the musicians playing with the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour, including their horn section, the Uptown Horns, to clear a few days and go into the studio and record wherever they happened to be on those days. Madrid as it turned out. We cut “Oh Lord, Don’t Drop that Atomic Bomb on Me” featuring Keith, and “Tonight at Noon” featuring Charlie.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time. The trip all happened on a day’s notice. The next morning I found myself in a studio with these nine legendary figures. Keith and Charlie were two of my biggest influences in my formative years. There was only one person on the planet that could have tossed me into a room with them… Hal! I will miss him as a dear friend, as a mentor and inspiration to reach for the stars at all times.
Car service, 1AM, after a long night in the studio. At the last minute, Hal had invited me to observe some recordings, so I’d changed my return airline ticket and tagged along. Now we were on our way back from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Hal’s approach to recording has been described as controlled chaos, and nothing on this day contradicted that. Two additional sessions, one of them involving a Salvation Army Band, had been scrapped for one reason or another, but not without numerous contingency plans being hatched and ditched, alternative venues contacted, complex personalities attended to, charts reorganized, the possibility explored of calling in one or two of the unlimited supply of favors owed him, a small pit crew spiking and dipping adrenaline along the way.
The evening with Todd Rundgren had gone smoothly, however. Easy setup. Crack band helmed by Steven Bernstein. Donald Fagen. Takes and playbacks and new approaches and more playbacks. Hal in a porkpie hat, T-shirt and unbuttoned overshirt, peering through the control room glass, stealing into the live room for a huddle with the musicians or a conference with Bernstein. A case study in improvised record production.
Waiting for the car, exhaustion had washed over me. I tried to imagine how tired Hal must have been. We were quiet in the back seat. Seemed like time for a nap. Hal took out his iPad. End of day email check, I figured. He scrolled a little then leaned toward me. “What do you think of the new Odean Pope record?” Hal pressed play. “It’s pretty great. And that Jim O’Rourke solo record, you dig it? Oh, and what about this…have you heard this?”
Words are a very poor carriage for the way I am feeling today at the sudden passing of my dear friend, Hal Willner. Nobody could put themselves to the front of a line of Hal’s many friends but Diana and I are only comforted by the thought that his wife, Sheila Rogers and their son, Arlo must know of the depth and breadth of love that people have for Hal. It is my belief that beloved people always dwell in the present tense.Not very long ago, Hal and I sat for a while listening to a wonderful record that he was making with an extraordinary cast based on the songs of Marc Bolan. His studio was like a living collage of his love of music, art and other fascinations; record albums, artwork, puppets, tiny books of arcane facts once owned by Stan Laurel were among his wonders.After the new record was over, we listened to a few selections from an album by the actor, Albert Finney, made for the Motown label. Only a few people probably know this record even exists, Hal would be among the even smaller group of curious souls who sought out an actual copy. Listeners are sometimes confused by the role of a record producer, as many of the most successful or infamous producers apply their own vision to the music like a veneer or lens through which the original intentions may be only dimly perceived. Hal’s approach better resembled the beautiful chaos of a childhood chemistry set, in which all of the substances and elements were mixed with joyous but determined abandon to render coloured smoke, a delightful explosion or something of unlikely and uncommon beauty. I arrived to one of my most memorable sessions with Hal, directly off a plane to NYC from Barbados, where I had been cutting rock and soul sides with what I thought of as an experimental line-up of players with an ample supply of rum cocktails. In these terms being, “experimental”, I was a mere novice. The band Hal had assembled consisted of, guitarist, Bill Frisell, bassist, Greg Cohen and a horn section of Henry Threadgill and Art Baron with percussionist, Don Alias, smiting what looked like a giant railway sleeper with a huge felt mallet, the “Marimba Eroica” which resonated to your very innards. The studio was filled with an array of remarkable percussion instruments, each with similarly extraordinary names given to them by the composer, inventor and musical theorist, Harry Partch. It was indicative of Hal’s mischief that he had had musicians, Marc Ribot, Michael Blair and Francis Thumm addressing these microtonal devices alongside conventionally tuned instruments as a foundation for performing Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare”, a beautiful ballad with Mingus’ own lyric. The resulting album of Mingus interpretations had contributions by people as contrasting as Dr. John, Henry Rollins, Keith Richards, Leonard Cohen and Chuck D. This range of artists was not by any means unique in Hal’s work, nor was it a matter of marquee billing or stunt casting. To engage with the gentle and curious assemblies of his productions was to surrender your fears and doubts, like discovering a box of paints full of previously unseen colours. Listen to any one of Hal’s extraordinary investigations, whether into the music of Nino Rota or Thelonius Monk, his record of Disney songs, “Stay Awake” with performances by Tom Waits, Betty Carter, Sun Ra, NRBQ, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson and Bonnie Raitt or his productions of albums by Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull, Lucinda Williams and “The Lion For Real” by Allen Ginsberg. Hal also worked with the director, Robert Altman, producing the extraordinary soundtrack for “Kansas City” or also the film, “Short Cuts” for which he was kind enough to ask me to write the song “Punishing Kiss” which was sung by Annie Ross. Hal’s live events rightly live in legend, my favourites being a concert during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, performing the songs of Neil Young or “The Harry Smith Project”, an investigation into the “Anthology Of American Folk Music”, a more than three-hour concert at Royce Hall, UCLA, including performances and contributions from Garth Hudson, David Thomas, The Folksmen, Steve Earle, Kate and Anne McGarrigle, EIiza Carthy, Percy Heath and Philip Glass and of course, his direction of the Montreal concert one year after the passing of Leonard Cohen. As heartfelt as many of the performances on that evening were, Hal had already produced an unmatchable moment with Leonard Cohen and Sonny Rollins collaborating on a performance of “Who By Fire” on the NBC show, “Night Music”, the standard by which we hoped to measure any successes during the two seasons of the television show, “Spectacle”. I could go on to name all of the elusive moments of alchemy and records on which Hal conjured gentle magic but I will close by expressing my deep gratitude for every door he walked me through and all the simple kindness and humour of his regular but always unexpected texts, whether during a moment of crisis in our family, while hard at work at his regular musical supervising job at SNL or in the midst of producing music for theatre director Robert Wilson at an anniversary event for Solidarność in Gdansk. I wrote to Hal two nights ago when it seemed he had come through the worst of this dreadfully, cruel contagion. I said it seemed as if we had woken in the plot of a poorly realized film adaptation of a futuristic story by Philip K. Dick, with savage asides that might have invited the editorial red pen by even a writer like Hunter S. Thompson. Whether or not there was time to still laugh or smile, I will miss my friend’s reply for the rest of my days. “Condolences” seems a word of insufficient depth for the way many of us feel today but we must not be selfish or feel alone but rather look to the light and imagination with which we will perhaps emerge from this dark and melancholy hour. I send my love and that of my wife, Diana with a wish for every possible strength to Sheila and Arlo.
I’ve never not known Hal. This is just such a shock for me. Hal has been a constant presence in my personal and professional life. For 40 years.
Hal was a student of my father (Joel Dorn) and his very close dear friend. In turn Hal returned that favor with me, and I owe him so much for it. 23-plus years of magical live shows, recording sessions, SNL spot work and film scores. He always found a way when it made sense to involve me on projects.
More than the art. More than the music. More than the work, the thing I loved the most about Hal was the laughter. So many inside jokes. So much appreciation for comedy from 100 years ago. So many in-depth conversations about Shemp.
I wish this amount of joy and laughter that we shared on everyone. It’s the sort of thing that makes the world a better place. Hal Willner made this world a far, far better place.
Hal’s sudden passing was a kick in the stomach for us all, whether we knew him well or not. It struck me shortly after attending the online “Easter Parade for Hal” (arranged by Pamela Esterson and Ed Harcourt on Easter Sunday), that whilst I can only be described as a minnow amongst the big fish in Hal’s weird and wonderful aquarium, my experience was Hal’s world in microcosm.
We met on the occasion of David Sefton and Amanda Hogg’s wedding at the bride’s parents’ home, east of Edinburgh. Whenever I looked up Hal was staring through me. Lord knows why… I got to work with him three times. The Disney night for Jarvis Cocker’s Meltdown at London’s Royal Festival Hall where I played second trumpet amongst a roll-call of astonishing and odd bedfellows (the norm for these productions, as others here will testify), then a day in a recording studio in Los Angeles in 2006 where several tracks were made for the Rogues Gallery double album, and lastly in Adelaide in 2015 for Eric Mingus’s visionary take on The Who’s Tommy.”
I’ll not go through the Rolodex of astonishing people involved in all three productions, but it strikes me that Edinburgh-London-Los Angeles-Adelaide, with four disparate reasons to be there, might give an inkling of what Mr. Willner got up to with the heavy hitters. I’m but a footnote to his output.
I always thought I’d get to do something with him again. I guess everyone did.
I’ve known Hal since frogs ruled the world. Once, in the late ’80s, he approached me at an SNL after-party and said he’d just got back from William Burroughs’ home in Kansas. He’d persuaded Bill to record some word jazz, and he was now calling in various people to create backing tracks for the routines.
A week later, at a midtown studio, Hal played me the recording. Although Burroughs’ performance was adequate, the sound quality of the tape was just horrible. It sounded as though Burroughs had droned out the bits while frying himself up some liver and eggs, with Hal following him around the kitchen with a miserable, cheap little cassette machine.
The thing is, I knew that Hal not only didn’t care, but probably loved the fact that he’d caught the old hipster in his natural habitat. The track came out pretty nice, crackle and all.
That was Willner, working to document something he loved while accepting the world in all its messy, authentic suchness. That’s a rare quality these days, and it seems at the point of extinction. With the culture in steep decline, I’ve been missing all that, a lot. And I’ll be missing Hal.
I loved Hal very much. I’ve known him for about 45 years. He was close to my dad, Doc Pomus, by way of Joel Dorn. He opened my world to countless friends, shared hilarious joyful memories, and many gutting funerals (Lou Reed, Jimmy Scott, Joel Dorn and Mac Rebennack).
I will end here with one beautiful memory of introducing Hal and his gorgeous new puppy River to the East Hampton Springs dog park. I was blown away by how prepared Hal was as a new dog father with every possible puppy accoutrement in his shoulder bag (collapsible water bowl, back up bottled waters, balls, toys, dog treats, whistle, towel etc.). It was very tender. He was eager to send pictures of River to his wife Sheila and his son Arlo.
We walked on the dog path talking obscure comedians and the life of Paul Winchell that day…
We mourn the loss of our dear friend Hal Willner, music producer extraordinaire, unbounded creative force, consummate aficionado of eclectic, exquisite musical taste and 1950’s TV. From our beginnings he worked a wondrous alchemy of artists and concepts in Halloween and tribute concerts of lasting and elegant impact. Harry Smith Project, Greetings from Tim Buckley, among many, changed lives. A seeming chaos was always the special sauce in a Hal Willner show. We will miss you, dear soul.
With a friendship that spanned four decades, it is very difficult to recall just one episode with Hal. A lot of the memories have nothing to do with music or our work in a recording studio. For instance, I can think of the time spent together outside of the recording studio when we worked on my album Unspeakable. It was pure joy for me. Just being together all the time during those days in Los Angeles.
Often when you do a recording session in a city where you don’t live, you go to a hotel. For that session we decided that, in order to save money, Hal and I would stay in this tiny one-room beach house he had in Venice, California. Every day we would wake up around seven o’clock. Hal had two bicycles and we would ride all the way up to Malibu. Sometimes we’d go for a hike up the canyons, and then ride back, before going to the studio later in the day. Then we would go to movies or we would watch videos all night. These kinds of memories can be even stronger that the studio ones. It was so amazing just to hang out and hear what Hal had to say. His mind was going, going, going. All the time. Just trying to keep up with the enthusiasm that he had for things was tremendous.
In a world that regales mediocrity, the king of jesters has been taken. This kind soul often placed himself in the corner of a table, like an outcast, and listened to the proceedings.
Or, with a trusted friend, he would be zealous: he would regale with tales, jokes, and anecdotes that reflected his endless travels and curiosities – a repository from the jester’s box.
This repository also made him safe among strangers, but more than two’s a crowd; and Hal was placed awkwardly upon this planet.
There was so much tenderness in his voice, in his eyes, in his love for an impossible amount of things!
But there was much suffering, as well, and exhaustion. In the last years I could see something that had changed him: one could say he was worked to death.
In the hard world of an artist whose brain is hot with ideas, payment comes slow, or not at all. Hal had to do other work which left him physically vulnerable.
I am angry at a world that does not remunerate genius, while placing fortune in the hands of a game show hostess.
I am angry that a scientist like this was insulted by art pragmatists: “Well, if you wanted to make a buck, you sure wouldn’t be doing this!”
“There’s a dime around the corner. Run and get it!”
A second picture makes me smile, however. I am recording the vocal solo to “Eclipse“ by Mingus for Hal’s Weird Nightmare. I finish it and go back to the mixing console.
There is a silence.
I have done a truly great job and I know it. Silence.
The air is too delicate.
“Well, that was great.”
Art Baron says something and there is an unintelligible murmur from Hal. I ask what’s going on. “Well,” says Art… “the solo is great except for the last part.”
“What do you mean ‘the last part?'” I ask, annoyed.
“It is not of this piece” he responds. Later it became a saying with us.
Of course Hal was also behind that, but was just quietly murmuring. I redid the solo and, of course they were right, but I will never forgot how Hal worked that day. I smile about it. Subterranean.
We did Poe and De Sade together. He asked me to the studio to review takes of Patti La Belle; we were always talking about projects we would do together and I am shocked that we will not be able to do them.
His laugh, laughs, laughing, laughter was a hearth for me. My father once told me, “Beware of the man who cannot laugh; he is sick.” Hal’s open fire protected me and so many. He was a great comfort; he gave my soul a place to rest.
And each laugh communicated emotion, opinion, or new information. Like the finest vaudevillian.
I am not ready to say goodbye to Hal.
I will not be able to say goodbye for a long time. For many years I will curse the missed phone calls; I will curse myself for thinking he was immortal. I will curse myself, who thought he would never leave me here, alone, on this planet.
The world is too large to be without friends like Hal. We are held together on a spider’s web until the end, and we know it.
But I will stop complaining. It is time to say thank you. So I will thank you with blinding tears, Hal, so adored by all.
I loved getting calls from Hal to perform in one project or another. I always reconfigured whichever songs we chose, which I think amused him. He would ask, “Are you ready for more of this mayhem?” Following hair-raising rehearsals, the epic shows always came together beautifully and dangerously, with many riveting performances. Hal had enormous faith in the music.
I miss him and miss knowing he is out there doing his thing. I met and played with many wonderful musicians because of him and his alchemy. He was such a delight.
Hal Willner and Joan Wasser turned up to a show of mine in New York City in December of 2002. I’d just gotten off stage when my publicist introduced us. I said, “Nice to meet you!” and hurried off with someone I’d just met.
The next day, my publicist gave me a scolding. “You could have been a little nicer to him. Do you know who that was? That was Hal Willner. He works for Saturday Night Live and promotes a lot of great concerts!” I said, “Shit. I had no idea it was him!” I thought we’d never hear from him again.
It wasn’t long after when I learned that Hal, as accomplished and legendary as he was, didn’t have an ego. He invited me to play a Neil Young Tribute at Prospect Park in Brooklyn that included Joan Wasser, Sean Marshall, Antony, Stan Ridgway and Sam Beam. It was a fun night. When the rain started pouring, Hal kept it going until the police turned up and and ordered him to shut it down. Hal didn’t think anything of pushing the boundaries and I’ll never forget how nonchalant he was when the police turned up. I loved his style, his was of carrying himself. From that point on, I was invited to play a handful of Hal Willner events every few years.
For some reason, Hal believed in me and put me on bills with stellar artists and singers; many of whom I’d been inspired by for decades; Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Bill Murray, Larry Sloman, Steve Buscemi, and Elvis Costello, to name a few. When Hal decided you had talent, that was it. He included you and was loyal to the end.
All of my conversations with Hal were about music and nothing but. I tried to talk sports with him once and it fell flat. The funniest memory I have of Hal is a conversation we had one night during a get-together after a Lou Reed tribute. He was raving about the Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration, ‘Lulu.’I said, “Really? I never heard much about that one.” He said, “Well, give it a chance.” I said, “Really?” We went back and forth about it until he shook his head and walked in another direction.
I went home, bought the CD, and to my embarrassment, saw that Hal produced the album. That was Hal’s way. He never mentioned his involvement in the album. The next time I saw him I told him how embarrassed I was, and that he was right, ”Lulu’was a great album! He said, “So, what songs are you going to be singing tonight?”
My most beautiful memories of Hal were when I’d walk into the doors of the rehearsal rooms. When I arrived, he always stood up and walked across the room to greet me. Hal always stood up to greet the artists who performed on his bills. Always.But the last time I saw him, May, 2018, in New York City, he didn’t stand up. I walked over to him and gave him a hug. He said, “Mark! We’re still alive!” I sat down next to him and we talked about Bob Dylan’s music and who was on the bill. And yeah, we’d both gotten a little older. The event – a Bob Dylan tribute – was the best of all of the Hal Willner events I was part of; Steven Bernstein was the conductor and Nels Cline played guitar. Hal knew how to get the best out of all of us. He was my muse. He was everyone’s muse. When Hal was in the room, we played better.
This past March, I was part of a group on Hal’s email list. He was showing us rough cuts of a home-made video he was working on for a Larry Sloman/Nick Cave duet. Like all of us, he was shut-in due to the virus. The last email came on March 18 and was the final cut of a colorful, surreal video with puppets. I told him, “Nice work, Hal!” and never heard back.
Not long after, I was working in my garden when I got a call from a mutual friend of ours, Petra Haden. I’d just planted a cactus when she told me that Hal had died from the coronavirus. Losing my tour dates hurt, hearing of Adam Schlesinger’s passing hurt even more, but hearing about Hal’s passing had me pacing in a world of sorrow that I never saw coming.
I dropped my shovel, thanked Petra for the call, and walked into my home in a state of shock. My girlfriend asked what was wrong. I told her that I had a horrible nightmare. She asked what I meant. I told her that I dreamed that a virus hit the USA, that people were dying, that everyone lost their jobs, that everyone’s tour dates were cancelled, that Adam Schlesinger got the virus and died, that Hal Willner was sending me home-made videos, and that I’d just gotten a call that he died of coronavirus, but that this was a nightmare I’d never wake up from.
I walked to my room, laid down in bed and sobbed. I lost my friend, my muse, a person who gave me some of the best memories I’ll ever have in music. I can still hear Hal’s voice saying, “Mark, we’re still alive!”
Hal knew everybody in New York City, and half of London and LA. His taste in music was epicurean; he was a hipster’s hipster you might say. Although he had very strong opinions, I never saw him frown at anybody. At the end of the day, he was a good person.
Mary Lee Kortes
I am loath to talk about Hal Willner in the past tense. He is a great and gifted artist. But here it goes: a few years back, Hal produced an album of mine, Will Anybody Know That I Was Here: The Songs of Beulah Rowley. This is a record we’d been wanting to make together for quite a long time. At first, I was very self-conscious being around him. He’d worked with so many legendary people, and now me. But he’s all about music and art and what people have to say. He loved my project from the moment he heard about it, even though he’d barely heard of me (I may be wrong about that. What music ever escaped him?).
As a songwriter, I loved how he worked from my lyric sheets. He didn’t say, “Banjo should come in two bars into the second verse.” No, he looked at the lyric sheet and said, “Banjo should come in when Mary Lee says ‘Stolen gold and spirits drown.'” There was something about that, everyone focused on the words, the story.
One particularly vivid memory of Hal comes from when we were doing the basic tracks for the song “Big Things.” He was trying to get something out of us he wasn’t fully feeling. As the band was playing, he got up from his seat amidst them all in the tracking room. He ambled about, circling his right hand around in the air and said, simply, “New Orleans.” It might not sound like such a genius direction, but it created a short-hand gear shift and everyone fell into a groove, into place, into the new moment. That’s was Hal does. He creates moments, all of them new, fresh, and unlike any you’ve ever heard before. I hope he’s circling above us all now, still waving that arm, giving us genius direction whether we know it or not.
Hal and I were pals for 40 years, but it just wasn’t long enough. I need more.
The memories are drowning me. In 1980, Hal invited my band SHOCKABILLY to contribute a song for his Thelonius Monk tribute LP. A few years after that, he called me up on a Wednesday and said, “Hey, can you get your band BONGWATER together this weekend? Cuz nobody at the network is paying attention right now, and I think i can sneak you in the back door
and get you on the last episode of Night Music before the assholes in charge fucking cancel it.”
“Wow. Hal. Holy shit. Can I choose any song I want? Like, can we play a Roky Erickson song? That’d be a first, for national TV.”
A few days later I was on NBC-TV playing a Roky Erickson song with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Bob Weir, Hiram Bullockand and Rob Wasserman as backup musicians. It was completely ridiculous. And it worked. And my mother was watching from her condo in Florida. Thanks, Hal.
As I read all these other heartfelt tributes, I‘m trying to think of a personal story that offers a different perspective than those already here in such loving detail. but it’s hard. Everyone here knew the same man I knew; a lovely, gentle and uber-generous man who always made time for you, no matter how busy he was. Hal was the sweetest guy on earth, to everybody. No one escaped his open spirit and giving nature. And his honesty. Oh yes indeed. Hal would always tell you how he felt, and he felt it was his duty to do so. The Truth meant everything to him. And he could smell Bullshit a mile away.
But I do recall there was one huge lie he would tell, over and over again. He really loved to say…
“I have no fucking idea what I‘m doing.”
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Hal may never have known exactly what was going to happen in the recording studio, but he sure knew what to do once it was happening. In his mind, if the idea was good enough, and the musicians he brought together were talented enough, then there was just no reason on earth for it NOT to work. Hal’s process emanated from the center of that universe; a universe in which anything assembled without pretense could be spun into audio gold, if the idea was great. And for Hal, those great ideas just never stopped coming. They never even slowed down. He was that generous, and that inspired.
Here’s a story that may provide a unique view into the mind of Hal Willner. Just weeks ago, in the dead of winter, I visited Hal at his little mixing room on 9th Avenue to have one of the hundreds of “listening sessions” we’d enjoyed together over the years. We were always sharing our respective works, bouncing ideas off each other, etc… he’d play whatever he’d just finished, and i’d play mine. on this particular day, I’d brought the debut LP by my new band, LET IT COME DOWN, and he had some of the finished tracks from his upcoming T. Rex/Marc Bolan tribute LP.
“Ya gotta hear U2 doing ‘Bang a Gong’ with Elton John”, he told me on the phone earlier that afternoon. I’m still not sure I even heard that right. Was he kidding? Probably not, knowing Hal.
So there he was at his mixing console when I opened the door and walked in. He turned to me with a dead serious look on his face. I’d barely pulled my coat and scarf off when he hit me with it.
“OK, Kramer. Tell me who you think did the best Hitler impersonation. I mean, like, of all time. Who’s the best ever?”
“OK, well, Chaplin is the obvious choice, and an obviously WRONG choice, so I‘d have to say, I guess it’d have to be Bruno Ganz. Hands down.”
“WRONG! Try again!”
“OK, who’s YOUR favorite?”
“Nope. Guess again.”
“Wait a minute! you tell me who YOU think was the best!”
“No way. Keep guessing.”
This went on for a while (Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, even Noah Taylor), til I insisted he spill the beans.
He looks straight into my soul (Hal was really good at that), grins, leans into his desk, and presses PLAY on his iMac.
He had it all cued up and waiting for me:
Moe Howard, in The Three Stooges short, “You Nazty Spy”.
I’ll miss a billion things about Hal, but the thing I‘ll miss most of all, is Hal. And this was Hal.
This was Hal telling me for the thousandth time that we were all just kids, and we were gonna be kids forever.
He had a beautiful way of reminding you of that. We were all at our very best, when we were at play.
Kids forever, til the day we die, and for every day that follows. Play on, Hal Willner. Dear friend.
The last I time I saw Hal was when we were seated near each other at David Byrne’s Broadway show American Utopia. After the performance, we lingered and talked as the crowd emptied out and we began serpertining through numerous staircases to the backstage area. I introduced him to my 10-year-old son, Milo, who I had taken to the show for a little father & son music hang.
With his infectious and ageless curiosity, Hal started gently interviewing Milo, asking what he thought about the show and music in general. As they talked, a spark grew in Hal’s eyes. He began reminiscing about his teenage son Arlo, and how much he had loved taking him to shows when Arlo was Milo’s age.
In great detail, Hal passionately described his Marc Bolan/T. Rex project to me, and we began brainstorming about the possibility of bringing the project to life with my orchestra in the future.
Hal’s encyclopedic knowledge and voracious appetite for music and art was legendary. His musical choices were fearless.
Thank you, Hal, for making the world a more beautiful place.
I remember receiving a phone call from Hal around March 1991 in which he invited me to take part in his planned Tribute to Tim Buckley at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. I was a big Tim Buckley fan so of course I said yes. Then causally Hal said: “Tim’s son Jeff has contacted us about wanting to perform at this Tribute to his Dad.” “I didn’t know Tim had a son!” I replied. “Neither did we… but now he’s come forward, and I think you two guys would be good working together.” “Sure, Hal, I’m always up for collaborating…”
The rest is history. I owe Hal so much for having the vision to suggest this hookup, which had a profound effect on both Jeff and myself and our subsequent musical adventures. You can read full details about my subsequent meeting and tempestuous collaboration with Jeff in my book “Touched by Grace: My Time with Jeff Buckley” (Jawbone Books). There is a lot more about Hal in that book too. Hal had the sensitivity and the genius to foresee that Jeff and I would be ideal collaborators, which we were for about a year before the music biz got in the way.
Hal had exceptionally good taste in music and musicians and had the gift of putting them together artfully, and he didn’t give a fuck about commerciality, he only cared about whether the resulting music was excellent. I owe this guy so much! I’ve been in shock since I heard the news—there will never be another Hal, he was one of a kind and irreplaceable. If you are on Facebook, please check out my Tribute to Hal Willner here.
I always felt lucky to know Hal. He put me in many interesting situations. I didn’t realize until now that he was only 10 years older than me. He is the first and hopefully the last friend of mine to be taken by the COVID-19 virus. I still can’t believe it’s true.
The entire Metallica family was shocked and saddened to hear of producer, writer, and composer Hal Willner’s passing earlier today. He was a truly inspirational collaborator, someone who through his unique combination of musical knowledge and warm personality, invigorated every project he touched, including co-producing our very own collaboration with Lou Reed, 2011’s “Lulu”; Hal expertly helped to guide us all to a project we loved, and remain fiercely proud of, to this day.
His breadth and scope within the world of music was incredible. From being the sketch music producer of Saturday Night Live since 1981 to producing albums for Lou, Marianne Faithfull, William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson, Hal’s love and appreciation of all styles of cutting-edge music and art made him a man in high demand. “I will always treasure the time I spent with Hal in those most inspiring and collaborative environments. He was such a warm, open, and communicative person, and as Lou’s right-hand man, he was absolutely essential in pushing “Lulu” forward. I’ll never forget him, and I know I speak for the entire Metallica family when I say he will be greatly missed.” — Lars
Hal never saw genre in music, never saw a line between one kind of expression of art or another. The things that seemed an odd creative blending to most, were very obvious to him. If you followed him down that path, even if you were unsure of it, you were shown an amazing world. There was a tremendous amount of trust, love, respect, faith, care and kindness in what he did. Sometimes it was unnerving and uncomfortable. But that brought out the best in those of us that created with him. He really set us up to do our best and something we didn’t expect from our own selves. A setup man.
The last time I saw Hal, we listened to hours of old comedy records for a project we were thinking about putting together. Pigmeat Markham was one I recall. There was some music too. Watched footage of Lenny Bruce and some William Boroughs… Amazing! To get to sit in that studio and have Hal Willner choosing videos and records! Shit man, that’s fucking heaven right there! He always brought me back to the joy of it all.
I’m sitting here in the middle of this crazy dark time listening to a Theodore Bikel version of a Yiddish folk song, now on YouTube, that after diligent research 20-some years ago, I thought no one knew about. My great-uncle sang the song, while the other alta kakas lounged on pillows and banged their hands along on the giant table in an old Brooklyn world of Passover. It’s the kind of moment from a memory netherworld that Hal would score with Sun Ra, John Kelly and Debbie Harry all blasting over some kind of post-bop groove he’d have us Jazz Passengers play. And that would be before Hal had his 2PM breakfast.
I know because years ago, Hal spent several months rethinking our whole record of arrangements of songs for our album Jazz Passengers in Love. Hal had taken me a year or so before that recording to hear Tim Buckley’s son Jeff in a little cafe on St. Marks Place between 1st and 2nd Ave., and I couldn’t believe Jeff’s voice. I got to know Jeff a bit through Hal and by the time Hal started producing the Jazz Passengers record a year later, no one could believe Jeff’s voice either! So Hal insisted we get Jeff to sing “Jolly Street,” a song Curtis Fowlkes, Ray Dobbins and I wrote. But by then, Jeff was holed up in a motel somewhere in New Jersey working on his own fancy new album. Hal called around everywhere and found where he was and sent me there in the middle of a blizzard. By then Hal had brought in Debbie Harry, who has become a lifelong friend, to sing “Dog in Sand” and Jimmy Scott to grace us with his floating magic. But how the hell to get Jeff to come out of that Motel 7 hole?
Some kind of how, I found Jeff, and Hal talked him into coming down to that studio. Jeff’s energy was all over the place, but Hal had a way of focusing random energy into something so cohesive and other that an incredible thing happened, and it’s on that record. Now both Jeff and Hal are gone.
Halvin (as I always called him), you brought that kind of magic into my life as you did to so, so many others on this particular planet and any number of other spheres. We can listen to these incredible recordings you were the maestro of but we will all miss you so much…
Once I was complaining to Hal about an earworm that had gotten hold of me, the chorus of some ubiquitous pop mega-hit. He said he didn’t know it. I said, “How could you not know it? It’s playing in every fucking grocery store, I can hear it in the headphones of the person sitting next to me on the subway. It’s inescapable!” He said, “I don’t remember music I don’t like.” One of his gifts…
I am certain that among all the musicians who leaned toward an eclectic mix of musical styles, Hal was regarded as “One of Us.” To this day I think that the show Night Music with David Sanborn was one of the best music shows ever created!!
I was very fortunate to work with Hal in 1988, on the record Stay Awake, which featured all kinds of great singers, reinterpreting music from Disney films. Because of my dear friends, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist and producer Don Was, I was asked to be part of a wonderful session with Bonnie Raitt and Don Was and his band, Was (Not Was). The song was “Baby Mine” from the film “Dumbo.” I was a session musician and jazz musician living in LA in my late 20s, and I was thrilled to be there! I was, and have always been, a great fan of Bonnie’s singing and guitar playing, and I had just gotten to work with Don in 1987 on a track called “Wedding Vows in Vegas” for Was (Not Was) on the hit album What Up, Dog?. I think Hal Willner had that perfect combination of gathering the right mix of people together, having the vision to make it creative and special, and giving the musicians the freedom to do their best work.”
Hal was one of the most unique spirits to have ever graced the planet. We were all very lucky to be around him and his artistic sensibilities. A man with a huge heart and an incredibly creative sense of vision. Who else could bring together such a wide range of artists from Ringo to Sun Ra to Chuck D.
There will never be anyone like him. He is deeply missed.
A memory that immediately jumps out when I think of Hal, is mixing my cut on Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus and Hal just insisting that I get it exactly where I wanted it, no matter how long it took. Usually that interaction is the other way around! Dedication… Goodbye, friend.
Thinking about Hal.
Bill Frisell wrote:
I’m very sad about Hal.
Can’t imagine this world without him in it.
I wrote back
…It’s like waking up and finding the Empire State Building gone.
But I guess we in NYC should know by now that this too is possible.
We can’t take one minute of time with the people we love for granted.
Love and Acoustics. In the studio, most producers sit in the control room, where the expensive speakers allow them to hear what’s being recorded with the highest fidelity. Hal did that sometimes.
But other times, he liked to sit with the musicians, in the middle of the rhythm section, or the string section, or near the bell of a saxophone during a wild solo, with his headphones on like the rest of us, his head down and his eyes closed “feeling the music.” What ineffable spirit was Hal chasing there, beyond EQ, balance, and the thousand controllable parameters of the “control room”? Was it some god or essence? Some spiritual core? I don’t know. But I know that Hal loved music like few others, and that what he heard in it was something he deeply needed, something transcendent, something miraculous. And I know that we, the musicians, loved Hal.
Time. So many called, and wrote, when they heard. Spent all day on the phone. People spoke/cried at Zoom gatherings, some of us played. But it hurt, almost physically, to be so “close” to other musicians who knew Hal, and not be able to play together, Albert Ayler‘s “Bells” or “Didn’t He Ramble…” or the theme song from the Three Stooges. Whatever.
That’s our tradition: when a musician dies, we play our brother or sister home. But there’s a time lag in digital communications that makes really playing together impossible: “latency,” one of the many snakes in the digital Eden. In music, these details of time matter.
Big “Time” mattered to Hal too. Not so much “history” as memory. Hal and I shared ghosts—Hitler was always in the mix, muted, but still pinging the VU meter; Lenny Bruce and Allen Ginsberg too, and the others who tried to make “poetry possible after…” by laughing, fucking, loving, shooting up—LIVING, as much, if not as long, as they could.
I’m writing code now, but you can read me, can’t you Mr. Jones? ’cause that’s what “we” do, write code, read it, become it… it’s what “our” world is made of, and reading is our life: Downtown no-wavers, post punks, loft jazz geniuses, and occasional lost in the rock stars reading Disney, Monk, Mingus, Weill… etc etc. Hal’s genius was to make those readings happen.
Of course, Hal was a hustler too. He had to be, in order to make his crazy projects happen. He knew how to harmonize bios as well as notes, and had a finely calibrated sense of the exact ratio of “rock star to avant” needed to make the powers that be cough up a budget. Sometimes this got Hal into arguments with his Downtown friends, possibly even me. But in the end my sympathies were with Hal. Maybe because I’m a bit of a hustler myself. But what really ends all debate is this: Hal got a show in which Al fuckin’ Green and Syd Straw danced in a fuckin’ mambo line to Sun Ra’s Arkestra playing “Space Is the Place” on national fuckin network TV.
And you didn’t…, right?
When Hal passed, everyone knew instantly that a member of the family was gone. Zorn called me first. I knew from the minute I heard the pain in his voice. But precisely who that family is may be hard to define.
Sometimes Hal seemed like my comrade in some crypto commie sect so secret that even its own cadres didn’t know it existed. Or maybe we were fellow worshippers in a heretical branch of Judaism whose weird set of sacraments and (Black musical) Saints masked our orthodoxy. But yeah, although inclusive of people from all over the geographical and social map (and a few beyond it), Hal’s mysterious project had something to do with the Jew thing.
I remember Hal in his bad old days, in the apartment on the East side of Tompkin’s Square Park, literally on “Charlie Parker Place” (too ironic for irony? or too sad?), sleeping literally surrounded by stacks of Lenny Bruce live tapes (yes, literally tapes)… before it literally burnt down. Hal really dug Lenny Bruce, and, through his work, created a tunnel between Bruce’s world—its TV shows, jazz, obsessions, Yiddishisms—and our own, locking old Beats and hippies into studios together with young post-punks, jazzers, and aesthetic radicals who hadn’t yet figured out who their Lower East Side parents were. What the Cairo Geniza library was for ancient history, Hal was for the history of the ’40s through the ’70s pop and jazz culture: his archives and memory held details of the past that no one else had (and few would want).
But all together, those details mapped a language.
Lenny Bruce’s parents spoke Yiddish. So did Hal’s… so did mine (at least, when they didn’t want me to understand). But they were the last generation who cursed in Yiddish when they stubbed their toe (or at least, who cursed in Yiddish on the tenor sax). I curse mostly in English, and, beyond a few Yiddish phrases and some broken Italian, speak it. But even if I learned… it would signify “Jew,” not “NYC.”
Lenny Bruce’s language was particularly NY, and it signified NY—a particular Black, Latino, Jewish etc. NY in which Yiddish was taken for granted as part of the mix: “If you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish… even if you’re Catholic… If you live in Butte, Montana, you’re going to be goyish even if you’re Jewish.”
As you can see, Bruce’s “Jewish” was also particular: not generic, not sanctioned, inclusive of all NYC, producing Hallelujahs from sex, drugs and post-bop.
Hal dug a time tunnel to Lenny Bruce’s world. Maybe he can be accused of loving that world to the point of nostalgia—forgetting its sexism, casual homophobia (even among some of its gay writers), racial codes, and other not so sweet etc’s. But I think Hal’s real love was for its language—and his deep project was to preserve and translate.
Will people be able to comprehend a Lenny Bruce monologue in 50 years? What will our music mean when they can’t?
It’s hard not to feel, with Hal’s passing, a piece of our own language going with him.
In the very late ’80s and early ’90s Spanish Fly began playing at the old Knitting Factory on Houston street. We usually played the late set and sometimes there would be as few as six to seven people in the audience. On several of those gigs a bearded, almost homeless-looking guy would sit towards the back and seem to fall asleep during the set.
I don’t remember exactly when, but one of my Spanish Fly comrades, David Tronzo or Steven Bernstein, mentioned that Hal Willner wanted to record and produce the band. I honestly didn’t know who that was, but after a few meetings with him, I realized he was one of the strangest, most curious New York characters I had ever met and the same bearded cat at our gigs. Being a New Yorker myself, he seemed like so many weirdos I knew growing up, but his obvious love for old schtick and the references that he mumbled incessantly made me realize that there was a lot more to this guy, and that I had no idea what he was actually talking about half the time.
He proposed recording a live Spanish Fly record which seemed crazy because it was a group that seemed like it would not be able to be captured live. We were so about doing whatever occurred to us in the moment. Very “stream-of-consciousness.” The recording process was unlike any I had done before.
What I realize is that he saw something in us that I didn’t even know was there. The result, Rags to Britches, was a truly unique capturing of the amazing sound world we created with that undeniably Hal thing. The record feels like a psychedelic dream with a pinch of nightmare thrown in there.
Over the years, I’d get to know Hal much better. He’d always show up at Fly gigs, which were very rare, or he’d hire us for different projects, like the Kurt Weil PBS special where Spanish Fly backed up Nick Cave covering “Mack the Knife.”
Hal in the studio was a trip, especially in what he called “the dark period.” Half the time I thought he wasn’t paying attention or was actually just asleep, then he’d “wake up” and say “I think there’s something special in the third take.” At first I thought he was full of shit but it was uncanny. He was always right. Even when he picked takes when you weren’t “playing your best shit.” He’d always find the magic and the ugly beauty in a performance. It had a profound impact on me.
I always thought that Hal was a closet performer, and he showed that with gigs like , City Suite, which I saw him do with the Town Hall Ensemble, where he just blew everyone away with his funny, irreverent shocking performance. We recently finally did a project we’d been talking about for a while: Spanish Fly playing while he read Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs and Ginsberg. It felt so good. The packed audience laughed, gasped, was confused and off kilter and they loved it. Another once-in-a-lifetime Hal experience.
The last time I saw him, he was excited in that Hal droll way, about doing some more with Spanish Fly. He even talked about us doing some duo stuff together. His passing leaves a giant hole. His amazing perspective, audaciousness, and love of what could happen live, like old radio, old TV and seat-of-your-pants live performances, is something that is so missing from most pre-packaged stuff that goes on now. I hope that all of us that knew him will double down now and continue this tradition that he so loved.
The essence of live performance, pushing the limits and doing what we’re not sure we can pull off, which Hal lived for, has never been more obviously important than now, as I sit here writing this during this Coronavirus horror that has taken away so many of our artistic heroes.
Love you Hal. I’ll miss you…a lot.
Without a doubt, the strongest memories of Hal are those associated with the first episode of Night Music that he produced, with Leonard Cohen with Sonny Rollins and Was (Not Was). That show to me epitomizes all that was great about Hal. One of those things that didn’t seem like it was going to work on paper, but then it came across beautifully. To this day, it remains as one of my favorite episodes of Night Music. After that, I lobbied very hard to get Hal on the second season of the show as the music producer.
Hal and I went to elementary school together. Merion Elementary School outside of Philadelphia. I remember him then. Gentle, kind with prescient musical interests and the roots of championing musical outsiders. When we’d both come to New York, I marveled at his tremendous talent, a wicked, iconoclastic wit, his curiosity and good humor.
We re-connected in NY when I worked at Disney. It was a film screening with Jeff Bridges in “Against All Odds” (better to see Hal, than the movie). But afterwards, he tapped me on the shoulder and said hello. What a great surprise. I loved his work and the creative explorations he took in sketch music for SNL, as well as a music and record producing projects.
I remember him when we were kids, his family – and his father Carl, who started a Main Line landmark – a delicatessen – with his younger brother. The brothers were both survivors of multiple work camps and death camps during WWII. Nearly 80 members of their family perished in the holocaust. Both brothers came to Philadelphia – and in 1955, started Hymie’s, the delicatessen named after their father. It’s still a popular institution in Bala Cynwyd.
Growing up, I knew fragments of the story. His concentration camp tatoo was the first I ever saw. And I remember him so clearly – even today. Here’s a bit of his story from a 2016 post about Carl (Kalman) Willner from Temple Beth El in West Palm Beach Florida.
“Carl was born in 1923 in a shtetl called Dombrowa-Tarnowska in southern Poland. Carl survived two Ghettos, four Labor Camps and three Death Camps – Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau. Upon arrival in Auschwitz he was hit in the face with the butt of a rifle. That wound is clearly visible today, even after eight operations. His younger brother, Chiel also survived and they eventually made their way to America. Carl arrived in this country with $2 in his pocket. The brothers moved to Philadelphia and opened Hymie’s delicatessen (named after their late father) in 1955. Hymie’s became one of the most popular restaurants in the area. The deli employed 82 people before they sold it.”
Here’s to Hal. Love to his wife, my longtime friend, Sheila Rogers, and their son Arlo. Condolences to Hal’s father Carl, his sister Chari, and the extended Willner and Rogers families. Happy to remember Hal and his gentle, expansive, funny and terrifically creative spirit. Glad to share some more of the story. Devastating to have to do so today.
Even though I have been thinking about Hal constantly this past week, it is now hard to put anything into words that capture my memory of Him. It seems that the more I focus on him the blurrier he gets. But when I step back I’m flooded with a collage of memories: his altar of an office stuffed with dolls and records; his marveling at iPod technology when it first came out (he loved making playlists for his friends); he and Lou Reed making a pilgrimage to some predecessor of Grey’s Papaya to introduce me to the best hot dogs in NYC; a month with him in LA ostensibly making a Lucinda Williams album but mostly watching Laurel and Hardy movies and shopping for ventriloquy dolls; his twinkling eyes; his muttering rambling hilarious stories; his exasperating creative process which was all now and no plan; how upset he was when critics panned Lulu—the album he produced for Lou and Metallica—as well as his comrade’s smile when I said “well fuck ’em all!;” and how we met, he called me up after listening to 12 Songs and said “You make great music Jenny. ‘Home on the Range’ is my favorite song too.” He was funny. And true. He knew us so well. He connected. He was real magic.
There have been so many wonderful quotes about him in the news. Two that went straight to my journal were from Tom Waits, a friend of 45 years, talking about his crowded office—”These were his talismans, his vestments, because his heart was like a reliquary”—and Laurie Anderson: “Hilarious, so tender and compassionate,” and “a soulful prince.” And Bill Frisell’s private letter to those of us who worked with him and Hal in Kaddish started with “This has been so hard. I just can’t imagine the world without Hal in it.” We were all so deeply connected through him and loved him so dearly.
Hal was a champion of esoteric musics and brought many artists into the public eye through his fascinating compilations.
Hal Willner. Just about the most unique man you could’ve ever met, and as I read what so many are writing about him tonight, I realize they had the same experience as I did at SNL, which is that Hal Willner made you feel like you belonged and that you had something special to offer. I hate the virus (and I hate the monster who is using it)
Hal Willner shared all of his gifts with the world, and his gift of musical vision gave so many of us musicians the best and most unimaginably wonderful days of our lives. I’m grateful everyday for my time in Hal’s world.
musician, recording engineer, producer
Hal was one of my mentors and greatest inspirations. If I had to sum up my last 20 years in New York around three or four key figures, Hal would certainly be one of them. I have learned so much from him and he has exposed me to so much great music, changing my life forever. Most importantly, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He always had, or made, time for everyone, even if he was late, and he maintained the curiosity of a child.
My bond with Hal solidified with every session or project we worked on. I met Hal about 13 years ago on a Courtney Love session, and we started working together on tour productions for Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed. I think I worked on at least three or four Lou Reed tours that Hal was co-producing and I spent over a week in the studio with Hal mixing Lou Reed’s last concert video footage. Shortly thereafter, we started doing more sessions in the studio (some large, some small, but mostly all large and with guests thrown at me in the 11th hour) and several of his tribute concerts at Town Hall, Lincoln Center and other places (with guests thrown at me in the 12th hour).
Hal thrived on spontaneity and loved to make things happen in the spur of the moment. One day I got a call from him and he told me he wanted me to go record Nick Cave with him in Los Angeles the next day. I booked a flight and flew to LA. I loved and feared every call I’d get from Hal because when he called, usually, something was going to happen in the next 24-48 hours, whether I was already booked or not. But, as Steven Bernstein once told me after he got a traffic ticket for being on the phone with Hal while driving, “when Hal calls, you answer.”
In the last four years Hal and I saw each other a lot as we were working on what will be the last record he produced, which should be released this year. I cherish every moment I spent with him on this record, and we loved and trusted each other. That trust and mutual respect was instrumental in building our relationship. We’ve travelled the world together, spent countless hours in recording studios, drove around in rental cars, shared apartments, had dinners and talked about music for hours sometimes.
His knowledge ran deep and often times he’d reference things I didn’t know and I’d secretly scribble down notes so I could research them later… In 2016 I helped Hal with his own residency at John Zorn’s venue, The Stone, and night after night after our bond became even stronger.
I have countless anecdotes of rehearsals or sessions with Hal, but one of the things I miss the most is being in his office and listening to records he would play for me… He loved weird, obscure vinyl… When I went on trips to remote countries like China, Russia or India I would always bring him back a few strange, local or hard-to-find records I had found and I had just scored some that were about puppetry, which he loved…
In 2018, we had one such beautiful afternoon. He called me and invited me over to talk about something we were working on and he put on one of his favorite co-star records: they come with a script you follow and so he proceeded to recite his lines to co-star with the speaker on the vinyl… we giggled a lot… as we were doing this, my eye wondered around his amazing shelves filled with incredible records, memorabilia, dolls, tapes, hard drives etc. and I couldn’t help but notice that there would be a pile of more recent purchases with names like Scott Walker right next to names like Kendrick Lamar… I was always amazed and in awe of how all-encompassing his taste was and by the fact that he maintained this avid curiosity for all music, which defined or heightened his eclecticism, his versatility and his knowledge of music. That alone is a testament of who Hal was, and that barely even scratches the surface!
I’ve always aspired to be like Hal, and the only way I know how to pay tribute to his legacy is to attempt to be half the man he was, and in doing so helping as many musicians as I can and supporting the community that Hal helped create.
I’ll never be able to fill Hal’s shoes but but I’ll try to walk in them and honor his memory and legacy by continuing to make great music with great humans. As Hal said when one of the greats would pass: “It’s Up to Us Now!”. I take that to heart!
I have been thinking a lot about Hal Willner since his death. I met him in 1988 when we recorded the title track for Stay Awake, his album of Disney covers. Last time I saw him was last July. I sang “Stay Awake” again, for a film that the poet Bob Holman made for his wife who had a painting with that same name. An acquaintance of 31 years.
I was always honored if he chose me for anything. Sometimes upset if he didn’t. He was funny, kind, wildly idiosyncratic. I always thought of him as being in the sky somehow, a bright light in the firmament that would always be there as an inspiration, a reminder to be fearless, to be weird, to laugh and play. When I heard the news I couldn’t believe it. It’s not that we were close. It is that his vision and generosity were so expansive I thought he would always be around, cackling away with Lou Reed in their boys club in Long Island, or grinning at me from beyond the footlights as I sang Cruella De Ville. “Play it like Bobby Womack!” he shouted to the band that day.
The last time I saw him he reminded me that I sang “Stay Awake” in one take. It had been 30 years and yet he remembered! Afterwards I sat in his office and he showed me his puppet collection and clips of things he found funny. I felt shy and appreciative at this glimpse of his inner world. I still feel stunned that he is gone.
Hal. Dear Hal. Brother. Uncle. Father. Son. Husband. Godfather. Friend. Wise and reckless. Lamb and black sheep. Lover of the afflicted and the blessed. More than kin and more than kind, more than friend and more than fiendish in his daunting and devoted pursuit of the lost and the buried, long may his coattails run and long may we now ride, and those that follow us continue to ride upon them.
Hal was the wry and soulful and mysterious historical rememberer. He specialized in staging strange musical bedfellows like Betty Carter and the Replacements or The Residents backing up Conway Twitty. Oh, the wild seeds of Impresario Hal. He was drawn equally to the danger of a fiasco and the magical power of illumination that his legendary productions held. Many years ago he bought Jimmy Durante’s piano along with Bela Lugosi’s wristwatch and a headscarf worn by Karen Carpenter. Some say he also owned Sarah Bernhardt’s wooden leg. He had a variety of hand and string puppets, dummies, busts of Laurel and Hardy, duck whistles and scary Jerry Mahoney dolls and a free ranging collection of vinyl and rare books. These were his talismans and his vestments because his heart was a reliquary. Hal spoke regularly in asides and mumbling footnotes no doubt to dense tomes no one had heard about or read. Every story he told was followed by several inaudible and impossible to decipher remarks, (as if he was heckling himself), that were only intended for him. He frequently kvetched. He could conjure up the past like a crystal ball or Ouija board. He reminded us of a bumblebee crawling out of a calla lily… He was a furtive and clandestine and crafty treasure seeker and archeologist of forgotten islands in popular culture.
His laugh. Well, it was an inside pocket and an impish rumpelstiltskin delight dance of laughter that offered refuge to those suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the slights of a critic’s pen. He encouraged mayhem and folly and celebrated all things genuinely weird and spooky from Soupy Sales to Ella Fitzgerald singing “Sunshine of your Love.”
I (Tom) met him after one of my shows in 1974. He was 18 and I was 24 and he looked like he was already retired. He wanted to show me around the town and get me into some of the clubs. Hal applauded riptides and deviants of musical, literary and human behavior. And, of course, he loved the exceptions to every rule. He loved to pull back the curtain of artifice and say…ta-dah…look at this pageant of crumbling beauty and human disaster…this is the heart that is truly beating…. To Hal, Vaudeville was Valhalla…and his bottomless knowledge was a great spreading tree.
How did Hal get poets, actors, musicians, performers, directors, magicians, puppeteers, madmen, politicians, pundits, tv, radio and film studios from every era and pocket of the world to accompany him? We can’t tell you.
Hal wasn’t what you would call a smooth talker or a hustler, but one night we followed him to a street corner in Chinatown at 3 am where together we witnessed a homeless man singing a passionate one-word aria to Bacteria. “BAC-Ter-I-A ..Bac Ter- I – A” with a heartbreaking tenor voice that equaled anyone we had heard at the Met, it was unforgettable.
If you took a cross section of Hal’s heart… you would see the rings of a wise old tree. Above all, let’s remember that Hal loved music… and from all appearances it seems very much to have loved him right back big time. We share our love and sympathy, as do our children, with his wife Sheila and his son Arlo and Hal’s extended family and all the many friends and colluders who loved him.
Aside from Hal being my cherished mentor and true friend for the last 35 years, I had the honor and privilege of arranging and musical-directing many Willner productions, both studio and live.
There was always a component of wizardry and alchemy involved.
Arrangements and their execution often involved adding unexpected ingredients, culminating in a musical reaction that resulted in that wonderful outcome uniquely Willner.
Maybe it was the addition of a musician working in a genre completely foreign to them; or a vocalist bringing newfound meaning to a song that went against his/her type; or finding just the right combination of musical personalities.
He steered the sessions with his trademark understated hand, finding ways to nudge us into a place that more often than not would culminate in something that was truly magical! Something that would be impossible to create with any other producer at the helm.
There are so many memorable moments… Like the marathon Sun Ra session to record “Pink Elephants on Parade” for the Stay Awake album, when the band arrived at midnight for a 7pm call! Operating from scribblings on a single sheet of notation paper, Sunny brought the musicians to the piano, one by one, to show them their parts for each section of this very long suite, threatening to play their part on his synthesizer if they didn’t get it right. After 10 hours of recording each segment of that epic track, and lots of editing, the result is, in my humble opinion, inarguably a masterpiece!
So much of Hal’s work remains undiscovered for many. Few know about the amazing Stormy Weather tribute to Harold Arlen, which we recorded in 2001. It was made into a Canadian film by Rhombus Media, who also did Hal’s better-known Kurt Weill film production.
Live shows operated in the realm of controlled chaos. Hal was so used to the Saturday Night Live turnaround schedules, that he treated his live shows in a similar way. Usually minimally rehearsed and with everyone knowing that they had to be at the top of their game to avoid a train wreck!
Sometimes programming order would change on the fly in the middle of a show, sending everyone into wild panic, contributing to the electricity that would create those moments of transcendence. Mixed in was the occasional fumble, to which Hal would respond: “It’s only music, it’s not like we’re doing brain surgery here.” These shows were nothing short of thrilling, and the atmosphere off stage was equally exciting for musicians and audience alike!
Few are aware that Willner created many large shows that were performed once, and never captured, celebrating artists like Randy Newman, Bill Withers, Neil Young, Shel Silverstein, Doc Pomus, Edgar Allan Poe, and Firesign Theater to name just a few.
Hal’s process sometimes pissed off the people trying to oversee these shows. But for him it was always about the music, the creation and the art, foremost. Most of these spectaculars went overtime and many over-budget… but to him it was worth every penny, which he would end up paying out his own pocket. And certainly, worth it to those who had the good fortune to attend one of these incredible events!
It was always the journey that mattered to Hal.
It was always musical integrity first.
It was always about compromising polish for baring the soul…
And much is out there for everyone to hear in its uniquely Willner genius!
I live in eternal gratitude for the roads we travelled together.
I’m at Manhattan Center conducting a 30-piece orchestra for a recording.
This was for a piece that Robert Wilson was putting together for the 2005 Expo in Nagoya, Japan where Hal had me co-ordinate many strands and layers of music. This is after staying up for a week straight, working with Eyvind Kang on arranging his orchestral pieces and ideas for this project. They were based on improvisations that Eyvind, myself and Bill Frisell had recorded a few weeks before. We’d done a couple of takes on this one piece and it wasn’t quite working.
Hal walks up to me and mumbles something about taking it slower. It was the perfect suggestion as it then all came together. He would often make these mumbled suggestions that would make all the difference. So many things—listening back to takes of Martha Wainwright’s Piaf record that I was involved with while watching Georges Méliès silent movies… and having some image sync perfectly with what we were listening to…
Caption: My deAr ANd cLoSE FrIeNd ANd COLLABORATOR HAS PASSEd AWAy 4.7.20. HAL WAS AN ORigiNAL HiS MuSiC KNOwLEdge ANd LiBraRy WENT FroM disNey CARtooNS tO BeetHoVEN. 4.9.20 RoberRt WiLSON berLIN