I went to see the exhibition Lou Reed: Between the Twisted Stars at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on the last day it was up. The galleries were filled with people taking in the spectacle of artifacts, handwritten song lyrics, interviews, and filmed performances, all of them shedding some kind of light on this world-class artist who somehow remained our hometown hero; the particular cadence of this Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised, New York-always musician and bard plays on. Like Dylan, but even more so, his was a voice you connected with because of its imperfections, which made its authority both more disarming and complete.
In the middle of the show was a gallery devoted to his close friend and collaborator in the later decades of his life, Hal Willner. Reed and Willner first collaborated on a Kurt Weill tribute, Lost in the Stars, in 1985, then Willner went on to produce two Reed solo records (Ecstasy and The Raven). Willner believed in some artists completely, and Reed was one; he showed great care in compiling a definitive version of Reed’s post-1970 recordings, which showed the various manifestations of Reed’s increasingly iconic personality. In the last few years of Reed’s life, they hosted a radio show called New York Shuffle, a perfect expression of their love for a very wide range of music, pulling in all kinds of new sounds while dipping back to the Everly Brothers and the Shangri-Las. Their sensibilities remained married, or at least aligned, for a long time, and Willner helped shepherd Reed through the final years of his life with abundant devotion.
The Willner gallery in the show was a direct transfer of his working space: a creative nerve center and complete mess. His collection of puppets, reel-to-reels, mixing consoles, stacks of books and records are exactly as he left them when, shockingly, he died of COVID-19 in April of 2020. There seemed to be messages lurking in the mounds of stuff: one was something about the ”yes, and” instead of “no, but” approach he maintained; another was simply an all-embracing love of music and culture, of songs and movies as gateways to another world. Finally, there was his distinctive urban profile and status as a hardcore New Yorker, one summed up by the poet Delmore Schwartz (an early Reed mentor): “It is the city consciousness / Which sees and says: more: more and more: always more.”
Willner was raised in Philadelphia, the son of a Holocaust survivor. He remembers popular culture as the escape route from that legacy. The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously said, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” and I recall a friend passionately responding, “No, it is Auschwitz that makes poetry necessary.” Willner seemed to dive into the possibilities of musical expression with a similar outlook, with an intuitive understanding that cross-pollinating music across genres, across perceived boundaries, would open hearts and provide necessary connections in a widening world.
Willner accomplished so much that there’s a need to disentangle it a bit even to understand it. His first credits were as a record producer, working first for Joel Dorn at Atlantic and meeting people across the jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock spectrum. It was in these early years that he came up with his first concept for a tribute record: different artists interpreting the music of Nino Rota, the composer of the evocative soundtracks for several of Federico Fellini’s movies. It clicked, and over the years Willner made several more tribute albums; besides Rota, he paid homage to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill, the music of Disney movies, Charles Mingus, Leonard Cohen, Marc Bolan, and others. All were marked by his imagination and daring, expanding our appreciation of the artists who participated, and the ones being honored with diverse interpretations of their work.
Throughout this time, Willner maintained a career as the principal music supervisor for Saturday Night Live, something that helped keep him close to a broad range of premier talent. He took what he had learned in television and, in 1988, created one of the best, most original music shows ever aired, known first as Sunday Night, then as Night Music. In its three years, the show hosted artists of every possible persuasion, often on the same show; one famously featured The Residents, Conway Twitty, and the Kronos Quartet. Then he would take this an enormous step further and get the acts to perform together. The mash-ups often worked brilliantly, recalling Whitney Balliett’s definition of jazz as “the sound of surprise.”
Stepping outside the studio, Willner produced some of the most brilliant tribute concerts I have ever seen. One for the amazing singer and songwriter Bill Withers saw the artist jump onstage midway through, though it was understood that he would not perform. Withers was simply carried away by the passionate interpretations of his music, in that case “Grandma’s Hands” performed by guitarist Cornell Dupree. Another concert was devoted to the songwriter Doc Pomus, weaving his life story—his affliction with polio, the aching songs he wrote—into a rich piece of theater, especially Janine Nichols’s gorgeous reading of “Just to Walk That Little Girl Home.” Lou Reed performed at the show, as did Howard Tate, Teddy Thompson, Jim James, and many more. It was a magical night, conceived and realized by Willner.
Given the sadness of his sudden passing, I was especially thrilled to see that Roulette would honor Willner’s first tribute record, Amarcord Nino Rota, with a concert this April. Willner had planned to stage a concert version at Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 2018, but bad weather kept it from happening. This time it worked, with a superb orchestra, led mostly by longtime Willner collaborator Steven Bernstein, bringing the sly and tender music of Rota to life. Over the course of three hours, the concert strolled down several paths, from straight readings of the composer’s work to reimagined ones that incorporated elements ranging from New Orleans shuffle to an electronica outlier from Willner’s pal Laurie Anderson. The distinctive sound of the orchestra called to mind something that Bernstein had observed: no matter who the different artists were on his projects, Willner was always somehow realizing his own vision.
Through his work, Willner showed us a sometimes hidden, but always-needs-to-be-revealed fact, that we contain multitudes. People of all stripes dig music of all stripes. If one person loves Monk or Weill, another may for similar reasons, whether we have other things in common or not. Yet from this simple premise, he took musicians, whom the demands of the industry have pulled apart, and reunited them—not just with each other, but with listeners, who also want their beauty in many different forms. It’s all a mixtape culture now, but Willner was crucial in democratizing our common love of music across categories. It presaged the best of our current condition, where we are the interpreters, the compilers, where access to wide swaths of sound allow us to sample the range and depth of the possibilities. I never met Willner, but as with any great interpreter, it’s easy to feel a kind of kinship with him. It starts with the music lover’s implied entreaty: you’ve got to hear this.