The beloved SNL composer’s production work runs as deep as his love for music
“Everything is permitted because nothing is true. It is all make-believe, illusion, dream, art.” – William S. Burroughs (from “Apocalypse”)
It almost goes without saying that Hal Willner broke down barriers – between collaborators, between genres, and, unfortunately, between record companies. His first tribute album, Amarcord Nino Rota, lists no fewer than a baker’s dozen “companies and record labels” by whose courtesy many of the artists appeared. This is a real problem in the streaming era as no one seems to be lining up to work out the legalities of getting all of his music on Spotify or Apple Music.
So, while many of the extraordinary records he worked are easily available – as proved by our recent playlist – assembling a complete list of his five greatest albums demands we look deeper.
Willner’s conceptual approach as a producer seemed to draw on a fractured nostalgia, indebted to a half-remembered shared history approached in such a way that disgorged the weird in what was once popular and illuminated the popular it what was once thought weird. In the studio, he was structured but highly attuned to the moment, allowing the unexpected to occur on a regular basis. As he told the New York Times in 2017, “You create a strong framework, and you let people do what they do inside the framework, and watch over it. If it sounds good, let it go. A lot of producers don’t do that.” Indeed – very few do, and now another in an already vanishing breed has left us. Listen to Willner’s remarkable achievements see if you can’t help falling in love again.
Lost In The Stars: The Music of Kurt Weill (1985)
The great German composer, who arose in the decadent Weimar era along with Bertolt Brecht and conquered Broadway before dying in 1950, was still big in the 60’s. He was even heard on the AM and FM dials, between Bobby Darin’s swingin’ “Mack The Knife” and The Doors’ lascivious “Alabama Song.” Perhaps in response to the 80’s own kind of decadence, with its big shoulders, bigger hair, and mucho cocaine, Weill surged again. In that decade alone, Teresa Stratas made two definitive art-song albums, The Unknown Kurt Weill (1981) and Stratas Sings Weill (1986), David Bowie made a run at Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (1981), which included a Weill setting, but best of all was Willner’s homage, which featured a murderer’s row of legends from the worlds of underground rock (Lou Reed, Marianne Faithfull) and avant-jazz (Charlie Haden, John Zorn). Under Willner’s careful guidance, everyone involved managed to suffuse the songs with their own personality while staying true to Weill’s style, steeped in cabaret and 30’s jazz.
Sadly, this stellar album was subsumed in 1997 by September Songs, a good if slightly glossy collection that only had Reed and Haden in common with Lost In The Stars. There were many casualties of the transition. For example, “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife,” sung with such pain by Faithfull on the original, gets a typically mannered vocal from P.J. Harvey, and David Johannson’s “Alabama Song” seems superficial next to Richard Butler’s stylish take. To get an idea of the difference between the two records, compare Reed’s recordings of “September Song” from both of them below. Now, get thee to YouTube – or better yet, Discogs – to find the original and revel in the single greatest statement of Willner’s mysterious craft.
AUDIO: Lou Reed “September Song” (original)
AUDIO: Lou Reed “September Song” (redux)
by Gavin Friday (1992)
Gavin Friday’s first solo album, Each Man Kills The Thing He Loves (1989), shocked all of us Virgin Prunes fans with the way it put his colorful and dramatic persona into a new frame influenced by Scott Walker, Jacques Brel, and Brecht/Weill. Willner’s influence was strong as some of his regulars, like guitarist Bill Frisell and percussionist Michael Blair, help define the sound. As staggeringly good as that album is, it was on Adam’N’Eve that Friday’s neo-glam flag flew highest on songs like the epic “Falling Off The Edge of the World” and the raucous “King of Trash.” It felt like a leap for Willner as a producer in that he seemed more comfortable letting the artist take the lead. Perhaps it was here that Willner fell in love with T. Rex and Marc Bolan, who was the subject of the tribute album still unfinished at Willner’s death.
Marianne Faithfull’s Strange Weather (1987) is also essential listening, a remarkable resurrection for a career that had foundered after Broken English (1979). If not for the records Willner made with Friday, this would represent his best work as a single-artist producer.
Dead City Radio
by William S. Burroughs (1989)
Only a mind like Willner’s could have put the transgressive thoughts of Burroughs against a background of 1950’s TV library music performed by the NBC Symphony Orchestra. But it works a treat, no more so than on “Apocalypse,” which stitches together compositions by Eugene Cines, Frank Denning, Bill Giant, and Ray Ellis into a tapestry that perfectly mirrors Burroughs’ phantasmagorical visions. Sonic Youth, Donald Fagen, John Cale and Lenny Pickett are also conscripted and bring Burroughs words to writhing life on album that is compulsively listenable.
Amarcord Nino Rota (1981)
Willner’s first tribute album was a near-perfect realization of an idea that he would extend, with varying results, to Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Harold Arlen, and others. Willner drew together a cast of jazz luminaries, including Jaki Byard, Carla Bley, Muhal Richard Abrams, et al, to interpret Nino Rota’s music from the films of Federico Fellini, transforming the listener’s relationship to both the source material and the talents of the players. Among them was a very young Wynton Marsalis, then still cutting his teeth with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. This was not the last time Willner plucked a star from the heavens – in 1991 he convinced Jeff Buckley to pay tribute to his father in a concert called Greetings from Tim Buckley. The buzz created by that appearance was an important step on the road to Grace and world stardom.
Like Lost In The Stars, Amarcord is desperately in need of a return to easy availability. I got my copy for $3 at a record sale, but it’s trading for more than 10 times that amount on Amazon right now.
AUDIO: The Carla Bley Band “8 1/2”
Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films (1988)
At this late date it seems even more astonishing that Willner got the Sun Ra Arkestra to play “Pink Elephants On Parade” than it did at the time. And that’s just one towering highlight on this impeccably assembled tribute to a canon many would dismiss. In addition to late-career triumphs for Harry Nilsson (“Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”) and Ringo Starr (“When You Wish Upon A Star” with an incandescent Herb Alpert), you had young guns like Los Lobos and The Replacements reviving chestnuts like “I Wan’na Be Like You (The Monkey Song)” and “Cruella De Ville” with delightful results. Then there’s Bonnie Raitt’s blissful take on “Baby Mine,” with its perfect slide guitar solo, and Buster Poindexter’s hilarious romp through “A Castle In Spain” – way more fun than his “Alabama Song” a decade later. Plus, if you’re anything like me, Stay Awakeignited a lifelong passion for the idiosyncratic art of Ken Nordine and Yma Sumac, opening up new universes to explore.
In the end, maybe that’s what Willner’s career is all about: not only providing us with extraordinary music of his own design but offering us a road map to other pleasures beyond our imagination. So don’t stop with these five albums or even all the other Willner projects you can find – use them as guides to discovery. You never know what weird and wonderful treasures you’ll uncover, giving Willner a thrill as he soars past, now eternally lost among the stars.
VIDEO: SNL’s Tribute to Hal Willner