Remembering Hal Willner

Original Story by Aaron J. Sams (2022-04-06)

U2 paid tribute to Hal Willner after his death in 2020 from Covid. The Edge called him a “close friend” and “one of the greatest music men of all time.” Bono called him “an extraordinary man, what a gigantic soul.” Willner was born on April 6, 1956 and passed away on April 7, 2020, the day after his 64th birthday. A memorial is being held this week in New York for Willner to mark both his birthday, and the anniversary of his passing. Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Nick Cave, and other musicians will be in attendance.

Willner was an acclaimed music producer and musician. He was the music supervisor on Saturday Night Live since 1981, and has produced material for a wide range of musicians over the years. With a special memorial being planned for this week in New York, we wanted to take a moment to look back at his work with the band.

Short Cuts Soundtrack Album (1993)

Short Cuts was a 1993 by Robert Altman, inspired by short stories written by Raymond Carver. The film was scored by Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer, working with Hal Willner. Bono and The Edge contributed a song for use in the film, “Conversation on A Barstool.” The song was written for Marianne Faithfull, but at this point she had not yet released a version of the song. In the film it is performed by Annie Ross, and produced by Willner.

Willner explained in the liner notes, “This song was originally written for Marianne Faithfull by Bono and the Edge. For various reasons, a recording never came of it though Marianne has occasionally sung it live. We thought it would be a perfect song for Annie to perform as one of the main music performances in Short Cuts. Being huge Altman fans, U2 and Marianne enthusiastically gave their blessing. ‘Conversation’ runs through a few sequences in the film, beginning as a performance in the Low Note Club during which Earl (Tom Waits) almost gets into a fight. The song continues switching effectively from background music to live performance.”

A Perfect Stranger: The Island Anthology Album – Marianne Faithfull

“Conversation on a Barstool” made another appearance in 1998 on the collection A Perfect Stranger looking back at Marianne Faithfull’s career with Island Records. The song, written by Bono and The Edge, was originally intended for Faithfull but had been recorded by others before this release. In 1993 it was performed by Annie Ross and the Low Note Quintet for the Short Cuts soundtrack, and in 1995 it was released by Hazel O’Connor for her album Private Wars. Faithfull had performed the song live in concert a number of times, but this recording was the first release.

The song was recorded by Marianne in New York in February 1998. The producer? Hal Willner, who had also worked with Annie Ross on her version of the song back in 1993.

Million Dollar Hotel Soundtrack Album (2000)

Bono wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Hotel. The film was directed by Wim Wenders, and released in early 2000. Bono also put together the soundtrack for the film. It was Willner who stepped in as a member of the Million Dollar Hotel Band, and also helped develop the music and produce songs on the album. Willner co-produced songs with Daniel Lanois, Bono and also worked as the solo producer on a number of songs. From Milla Jovovich’s “Satellite of Love” to the instrumentals from the Million Dollar Hotel Band, to “Anarchy in the USA” by Tito Larriva with Larry Mullen and Adam Clayton, Willner was producer for them all with the exception of the songs credited to U2 on the album.

Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys Album (2006)

The idea for an album of pirate songs came about when Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp were working on Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Hal Willner was “captain of the vessel” according to Verbinski, and went out and brought in many of the artists that would appear on the album.

Bono makes an appearance on “A Dying Sailor to his Shipmates”. The song was recorded in Dublin. Along with Bono, others from Ireland appear on the album, with songs by Andrea Corr, Gavin Friday, and Three Pruned Men, the last being three former members of the Virgin Prunes.

Willner explained the process to record the album, “We’d go up to London or Dublin or to New York and L.A., with just a sketch and one or two things planned. And then we got on the phone. Most of the time people just came into the studio. We picked a song, and they went for it. Basically there were a number of house bands: one in London, one in Dublin, one in New York, two separate ones in L.A., one in Seattle. We would camp and people would come in and leave or join in for the whole day.”

“An Evening with Gavin Friday and Friends” (October 4, 2009)

Gavin Friday’s 50th birthday called for a party. And a party it was! In October 2009, a special evening was held at Carnegie Hall to celebrate Gavin Friday. The concert was put together by Hal Willner and Gavin Friday, and the event was held to raise awareness of Product (RED).

The show followed two acts featuring a house band put together by Willner. U2 participated in a number of performances. Bono and The Edge joined Gavin, Flo & Eddie, and Herb Macken for “Children of the Revolution”. U2 were joined by Flo & Eddie and Maurice Seezer for “I Want to Live”, and would later return to perform “King of Trash” and “21st Century Boy” without Seezer. The Edge appeared with Gavin for “Another Blow on the Bruise”. And Bono and Maurice Seezer performed “The Last Song I’ll Ever Sing”. At the end of the night The Edge and Larry Mullen joined the band, Gavin, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, John Zorn and Shane MacGowan for Sonnet 40. Bono joined the assembled cast for the next song “Sweet Jane” and stayed around for the last song of the night, David Bowie’s “Jean Genie.”

The evening was a celebration of Gavin’s life, and his catalog, and beyond those mentioned above also featured Scarlett Johannson, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Courtney Love, Lady Gaga, Andrea Corr, members of the Virgin Prunes including Guggi and Dik, and others.

MusiCares Benefit to honour Adam Clayton (June 26, 2017)

MusiCares honored Adam Clayton with an Addiction Recovery Award in 2017. The award, named for Stevie Ray Vaughn recognized Clayton’s dedication and support of MusiCares, as well as his “commitment to helping others with the addiction recovery process.” The evening was organized at the PlayStation Theater in New York City, and featured a number of performers singing both their own songs as well as performing U2 songs. Many of the musicians were requested by Clayton. Hal Willner was the musical director for the evening and actress Cat Deeley hosted the night.

Of the impending show, Clayton said, “We have Hal Willner as our musical director and he’s pulled together a great roster of people. One of my favorite new artists – I wanted to have some new artists on – is Jack Garratt, he’s a phenomenal force of nature, he’s going to be with us on the night and so will The Lumineers, who are opening some shows with us. There are a few other people who are unconfirmed at this stage but I think they’re gonna come in and make it an interesting, eclectic evening. I think an event like this has to have some newer, younger artists, some new blood; it can’t just be established people turning up.”

Performances included The Lumineers performing “One”, Michael Franti performing “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, Macy Gray performing “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and Jack Garratt performing “Sweetest Thing.” Also included in the performances was a string bass duet of “All I Want is You”, a performance which Hal Willner was particularly proud of. U2 closed the evening performing “Stuck in A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Vertigo”, and “I Will Follow”.

U2 at the Apollo (2018)

The band’s last big work with Willner was the show they held at the Apollo Theatre in June 2018. Willner was the musical director for the segment which featured the Sun Ra Arkestra joining U2 on stage during the concert. The 2021 fan club release of the Apollo concert on CD includes a dedication to Willner who had passed away the previous year.

The concert itself was a special show for SiriusXM Radio. U2 had signed up for an exclusive radio station on the service, and part of that two month run was a special contest for contest winners at the world-famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. The concert was done for approximately 1500 guests, attending through contests via SiriusXM and U2.Com. Mid-way through the show, the backdrop to the stage opened and the Sun Ra Arkestra came into view behind the band. They performed with U2 on “Angel of Harlem”, “Desire”, “When Love Comes to Town” and “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”. Willner watched the performance from the side of the stage.

“Bang A Gong (Get It On)” – U2 with Elton John (2020)

Although U2’s last work with Willner was the concert at the Apollo, their recording of “Bang A Gong (Get It On)” appeared on a tribute album to Marc Bolan / T. Rex, that was released after Willner’s passing. The U2 song was recorded with Willner in New Orleans while the band was visiting during the 2017 Joshua Tree tour. The album, AngelHeaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan & T.Rex was released in August 2020. U2 are joined on the track by Elton John. Although Elton did not play piano on the original, he did appear with T.Rex in 1971 on Top of the Pops in that role when the band performed the song.

Willner was a friend of the band and often was involved in projects surrounding the band. He was the producer on both of Gavin Friday’s early albums, Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves and Adam ‘n’ Eve. The concerts that Willner curated to celebrate Leonard Cohen were filmed by Lian Lunson, and became the film Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. Although not appearing at the Willner curated shows, U2 did contribute a track to the film, being filmed by Lunson performing with Cohen on his song “Tower of Song”.

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