Tom Waits and collaborator and wife Kathleen Brennan penned a tribute to late producer and longtime friend, Hal Willner. Willner died last week at the age of 64. The cause of death has not yet been publicly confirmed, but he was reportedly suffering from symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.
In 1974, the pair met after one of Waits’ shows when he was 24 and Willner was 18. Calling the producer “more than kin and more than kind, more than friend and more than fiendish in his daunting pursuit of the lost and buried,” Waits remembered Willner’s knack for recalling the past and orchestrating unusual pairings.
“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,” Waits wrote. “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 frequently kvetched. He could conjure up the past like a crystal ball or Ouija board,” Waits also added. “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.”
Among Waits’ recollections of Willner’s memorable traits was that he “spoke regularly in asides” and he had “an impish rumpelstilskin delight dance of laughter that offered refuge to those suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on the slights of a critic’s pen” and that “Hal applauded riptides and deviants of musical, literary and human behavior. And, of course, he loved the exceptions to every rule.”
“If you took a cross section of Hal’s heart… you would see the rings of a wise old tree,” Waits said. “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.”
Waits joins a long list of admirers and friends who have paid homage to Willner in the wake of his death. Saturday Night Live cast members and alumni covered Willner’s good friend Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” last weekend in remembrance of the show’s longtime music producer. Nick Cave and Elvis Costello are also among his friends to recently pen tributes.