Friday, 10 April 2020

Plague Times Diary (8) - Rod Bishop pays tribute to musician Hal Willner, a victim of Covid-19

Hal Willner (1957-2020)

A couple of days ago, Covid-19 killed Hal Willner, the acclaimed 64-year-old New York music producer, writer and composer. 
Ten years ago, Hal Willner was in Sydney as part of the Vivid Festival, curated by Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson. They had brought a sort-of downtown Manhattan version of The Rolling Thunder Revue to the Harbour City.
Known acts such as Reed and Anderson, Rickie Lee Jones, the Metal Machine Trio, Emily Haines, Blind Boys of Alabama, Holly Miranda, Marc Ribot and David Hidalgo were joined by the lesser known heavy metal Boris (Japan), Chilgirchin (Tuvan throat singers), US psychedelic rockers Bardo Pond; Japanese grindcore-noise outfit Melt-Banana; Indo-Canadian garage duo King Khan and the BBQ Show and others.
There was a theatre group (Young Jean Lee); an 8-hour Bill Morrison-curated film marathon; a high frequency musical performance for dogs on the Opera House steps, photographic exhibitions, talks and tai chi lessons.
And 14 radio programs broadcast on Radio National hosted by Hal Willner and Lou Reed. 
It was a transplant of their on-going satellite radio show New York Shufflerenamed Sydney Shuffle- outstanding collections of well-known classics (including Ray Davies, Ricky Nelson, Miles Davis, Van Morrison, The Beatles, Paul Robeson, Al Green) and cutting-edge contemporary music (including Dinosaur Pile-Up, Thee Oh Sees, How to Destroy Angels, Babyshambles, The Tallest Man on Earth and Eat Skull) . 
Peter Garrett was a guest on one show, playing a few of his own selections. Willner and Reed treated him graciously and with the upmost respect.
Willner spent much of his working life as a sketch music producer for Saturday Night Liveand produced records for Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs.
His multi-artist concept albums included interpretations of the music of Charles Mingus, Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk, Nino Roto’s Fellini films and the film scores from Disney. 
The artists he used included Leonard Cohen, Elvis Costello, Charlie Watts, Robbie Robertson, Keith Richards (on Mingus); Johnny Depp with Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Anjelica Huston, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and Shane McGowen (pirate songs); Marianne Faithfull, Sting, Charlie Haden and Lou Reed (on Weill); Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Aaron Neville, James Taylor, SinĂ©ad O’Conner and Sun Ra (Disney) and Wynton Marsalis, Bill Frisell, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein (on Roto/Fellini).
He produced the album Lulu for Lou Reed and Metallica. The band paid tribute on hearing of his death:
“…someone who through his unique combination of musical knowledge and warm personality, invigorated every project he touched…Hal expertly helped guide us all to a project we loved, and remain fiercely proud of, to this day.”
Willner’s copious film and television credits include Gangs of New YorkFinding ForresterAnchormanShort Cuts,Tower of SongThe Million Dollar HotelKansas City and Mala Noche.
Hal Willner - a talented, idiosyncratic, original.

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