Elvis Costello, so often eloquent as a eulogist for the legends with whom he’s worked, has posted an eloquent and detailed appreciation of his friend Hal Willner, the music producer who died this week of health complications believed to be associated with the coronavirus.
Costello writes on Facebook that the eclecticism of Willner’s way of operating “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 colored smoke, a delightful explosion or something of unlikely and uncommon beauty.”
On the most mundane and amusing level, he shares that, as they visited together recently to listen to a T. Rex tribute album the producer had recently wrapped up, they bonded over their shared knowledge of a very obscure pop album recorded by actor Albert Finney.
“‘Condolences’ seems a word of insufficient depth for the way many of us feel today,” Costello writes, “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.”
Over the last four decades, the two had worked together on at least three recorded projects — including tributes to Kurt Weill and Charles Mingus and the “Short Cuts” soundtrack — as well as two all-star concert performances, as detailed in Costello’s essay.
Willner’s death at 64 was reported Tuesday; it is believed he had contracted the virus — the late producer indicated as much in one of his final tweets — although he died at home and was never actually diagnosed, according to a spokesperson. The producer is survived by his wife, Sheila Rogers, and his 15-year-old son, Arlo, to whom Costello and his wife, Diana Krall, sent love at the end of the missive.;
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 lineup 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 Thelonious 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,” and 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 [Costello-hosted] 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.
Here is a song by Kurt Weill recorded with the Brodsky Quartet in Toronto in 1995 for Hal’s album of Weill interpretations and re-imaginings, also entitled “Lost In The Stars.”
Elvis Costello. 7/4/20
Here, also, is their aforementioned collaboration on Charles Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare”: