Hal Willner, Pete Seeger and the Resurrection of Artists as Tribunes For Change

News Apr 12, 2020 No Comments

An #EasterSunday, a #Passover, a #resurrection, a gleaming rebirth message! Wake up! All that is creative in the universe, all that is creative in each and everyone of us, rise! The ability to make gold from nothing, to save humanity from its own, man-made abyss, is what we need today.

 

Yesterday, broken hearted by the loss of one of my dearest friends and collaborators, legendary music producer and friend to many, Hal Willner, I was sifting through dozens of photos, recordings, performances, memories I had with Hal, who died needlessly from the coronavirus this past week. Yes. I declare needlessly. There is no excuse for the leadership of the “first country” of the world to have stridently ignored all warnings against the virus, delaying the imperative response of locking down by 2 critical months.

 

By becoming the country with the highest number of infections and deaths months after the deaths in China, Italy, and Iran should have made it easy for subsequent countries to avoid such levels of pandemic, the current US administration is single-handedly to blame for the innocent and avoidable deaths of tens of thousands of American citizens. Our loved ones like Hal included. A president that has assigned a record trillions for defense but cannot provide ventilators, doctor’s masks, or food enough for our own people, somehow, still has time for his tanning booth.

 

As I was sifting through files, photos, and recordings, I couldn’t find my favorite photographs with Hal anywhere, photos taken by great photographer, Aaron Fedor. After scrambling through archives proved unsuccessful, I resorted at last to going through old emails from a decade ago when the photos would have been taken, to see if, somehow, by some unbelievable stroke of luck, I might find them there still, as if from the ether.

 

What I found was a bonecrusher. I found the photos with Hal in an email from Aaron, attached, to my tearful surprise, with some photos taken around the same time of me with civil rights and folk music legend Pete Seeger. And, there they were, with no advance notice, my last two great confidants, champions, mentors and collaborators staring me in the face, both gone. I bawled. I cried a river. I cried a Fukushima meltdown pounding in my head.

 

The poetic realism was hard to miss – it was as though Tweety bird just flew out of a cartoon sky and dropped excrement on the top of my head. Wake.the.hell.up. Your mentors are dead. Step to the plate. The world’s mentors are dead. We must all become the answer we seek. Each and everyone of us.

 

Hal was a legend on the same level as Pete, and if of lesser popular renown, of no less renown or impact. As everyone who knew or worked with him knew, and the list of those he touched is large and wide from Miles Davis to Paul McCartney, Lou Reed to Bono, Leonard Cohen, Marianne Faithfull, Sun Ra, Sonny Rollins, Allen Ginsberg, Pavarotti, William S. Burroughs, Robert Altman, Lucinda Williams, to generations of crews on Saturday Night Live, where for decades he was the wizard behind the curtain – the list is endless – Hal was an oracle. You can get an idea of his impact and reach just reading posts by Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Questlove, Jimmy FallonSeth Meyers, Stephen Colbert, or of SNL cast members in April 11′ths tribute to him.

 

Hal’s high regard was manifest in a Kaddish (Jewish memorial/wake) zoom call we held the day after his death, which, on only 1.5 hours notice, included some 70 family and friends, including his esteemed wife, producer Sheila Rogers, and award winning artists, producers, directors, authors, from Steve Earle to Rufus Wainwright, Don Was, and more. The call was filled with immense shared grief at the loss of this giant guy, but also with unbelievable stories, intimate performances, prayer, and, of course, comedic anecdotes about Hal Willner.

 

Hal had the best ears in the music industry. He was perhaps the only person left in his position who still knew how to hear real greatness anymore. As I wrote in a facebook/IG post immediately after he died, if there is an ear at the center of heart, it was Hal’s. And, Hal.was.hilarious. No one could make you laugh at the absurdity of life as deeply as Hal. He was a walking encyclopedia of creative expression in all its forms.

 

But, back to the uncanny pairing of Pete Seeger and Hal in the photos that fell out of my proverbial closet to laugh at me – As friend, performance artist Penny Arcade discussed with me on the phone after the Kaddish call, Hal was perhaps the last bridge between, on one side, real artists who upheld the ancient legacy of art as tribune of the people, saving humanity from the boring but certain death of mediocrity with nothing but their sheer creative will, and on the other, the trillion-dollar modern entertainment industry oligarchy which has become a fake, fame-seeking, corporate sell-out saccharine society-killing Monsanto, spewing a genetically modified terminator seed crap culture soundtrack while our world has careened off an irreversible cliff.

 

Real, great art, music, humor, theater, TV, writing, has the power to steer the ship of humankind away from self-destruction, but only if we are listening, only if it isn’t censored by a mediocre monopolized corporate entertainment industry, and only if we continue to make that great art to begin with and refuse to self-censor for ignorant gatekeepers. As Hal would often say to me and others close to him in close encounters, we are all that’s left, we have to make it happen. And he meant it. What we do, every day, how we lift our voices or not, matters. And it matters now more than ever.

 

So here we are on Easter Sunday, in Passover, at the crepuscular start of spring – and we have a choice. This global pandemic is like a fantastic trick played on all of humankind by no more than a tiny protein to bring us all together in the same boat across borders.  We have the chance to seize this global moment to build a new, more equal world. Great art can lead the way – but only if we make it, and only if we listen to what matters most, and only if we create it, from nothing, refusing to silence ourselves before without the vision. In the name of Hal and Pete, and all the greats before, in the name of us all -

 

Go forth and create, be the answer, and damn the torpedoes! I feel these guys smiling down on everyone, and I’m smiling on all of you. Happy Easter, happy resurrections, unstoppable risings, deep redemptions, and love. Stephan

 

p.s. Here are the photos:

 

 

 

 

 

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