When Hal Willner died earlier this week after experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, the music producer, Saturday Night Live music supervisor and connoisseur of all things left-field and eccentric left behind more than just a series of offbeat and acclaimed tribute albums. Those collections mixed and matched everyone from Tom Waits and Keith Richards to Sun Ra, the Replacements and Sting. Willner also nurtured deep friendships that resulted from those collaborations, including with Elvis Costello (who called him “my dear friend”) and Bono (who described him as “a gigantic soul” in a tribute post).
Another longtime musical collaborator and ally was Nick Cave, who met Willner in the late Eighties on Night Music, the eclectic music showcase that Willner served as music coordinator. Cave would go on to work with him on numerous projects, including a Marc Bolan tribute album that Willner was wrapping up upon his death. Here, Cave recalls some of his musical adventures with Willner over the decades.
Our dear friend Hal Willner passed away Tuesday. The news came a day after his sixty-fourth birthday, and with it took away one of the strangest and most sustaining friendships I have ever had. It is impossible to exaggerate the devastating effect Hal’s passing will have on the collective of people that circled around him, esoteric artists he would corral together to participate in his rambling, hair-brained schemes, that were always a combination of genius, wonder and near-chaos.
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.