Hal Willner: music producer and SNL supervisor dies aged 64

Willner, who produced albums for Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull, was said to be experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus

The music producer and long-term Saturday Night Live music supervisor Hal Willner has died aged 64. No cause of death has been confirmed, but he was said to be experiencing symptoms consistent with the coronavirus.

“Some people are such a gift to the world,” Judd Apatow tweeted in tribute. “They just put good stuff out there and make our lives better.”

Willner started work as sketch music producer at SNL in 1981. Seinfeld and Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was an SNL cast member from 1982-85, paid tribute to Willner on Twitter: “Absolutely devastated to get this news about my weird and lovely pal, Hal. We are heartbroken.”

Paula Pell, an SNL writer from 1993-2003, tweeted: “Hal Willner was the gentlest genius at SNL. He bemoaned artists abandoning weirdness and authenticity but never gave up searching for it. We love you forever. Fuck off this disease and especially its enablers.”

As a producer, Willner worked on albums by Lou Reed (Ecstasy, The Raven, Lulu), which led to the pair becoming “kind of best friends”, Willner told the New York Times in 2017. “[Reed] did not accept that he was going to die. Bowie did. Leonard [Cohen] did. Lou just ranted. He just loved being alive.”

Willner also produced the album Strange Weather for Marianne Faithfull – who was recently hospitalised with symptoms of the coronavirus. His work on the record led Americana star Lucinda Williams to ask Willner to produce her 2007 album, West.

He was also known for his idiosyncratic covers albums. In 1980, he produced Amarcord Nino Rota, an album of jazz covers of music from Fellini films, featuring artists including Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and guitarist Bill Frisell.

Sinéad O’Connor, Sun Ra and His Arkestra, and the Replacements played on 1988’s Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. Leonard Cohen, Chuck D, Diamanda Galás, Keith Richard and Charlie Watts were among the stars who performed on 1992’s Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus, which featured instruments designed and built by the American composer Harry Partch.

Joan Jett, who performed on an as-yet-unreleased T-Rex tribute album curated by Willner, tweeted that he was a great producer: “The music industry has lost an incredible member of our community.”

He was said to have played a key role in the career of Jeff Buckley, inviting him to a 1991 tribute concert for Buckley’s father, Tim, which introduced him to the New York music scene that would launch his career.

In 2017, he told the New York Times he was worried the culture that had defined his life was becoming less important. “I don’t know what inspires people now,” he said. “Maybe they don’t need to be inspired in that way. Do these last two generations have heroes? I’m not sure they do. I go to Avenue A now and listen to what people are talking about, and it isn’t culture.

“When John Lennon died, I couldn’t go to work for two days. I wonder if they have someone that they look at like that – an author, a poet, whatever. Those are people who made us what we are.”


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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