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January 15–22, 1998

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Edgar Allan Poe


Someone Wicked This Way Comes

Hal Wilner does a devilish job recording the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Kathy Acker and Terry Southern.

by a.d. amorosi

You wouldn't think a man who popularized tribute records or composed sketch music for Saturday Night Live would be best friend to The Word. In particular, the oft-maligned art known as The Spoken Word Record. Yet Philly-born, Lower Merion-raised producer Hal Wilner has done for the words of Edgar Allan Poe, Lenny Bruce and Kathy Acker what he did with the music of Kurt Weill, Thelonious Monk and Walt Disney—create a sonic journey that soars and dips with the kind of peaks and valleys you'd expect to find in fantastic film noir. His recent product for the Mouth Almighty label includes readings of Poe (Closed On Account Of Rabies), Acker (My Mother Demonology) and Terry Southern (Give Me Your Hump). You can also find Wilner's work on Rhino Records' upcoming Lenny Bruce box, Let The Buyer Beware, and his own sample-heavy solo record, Whoops I'm An Indian (on Howie B.'s Pussyfoot label).

In the early '70s Wilner—admittedly "no Art Tatum" when it comes to playing music—fell in love with shaping sound. He got his biggest boost from Joel Dorn, the Philly radio-jock-turned-Atlantic-label-producer.

"In one afternoon I saw Dorn work with Peter Allen, Leon Redbone, Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk," recalls Wilner. From watching the relationship between Dorn and Kirk, Hal learned that production is collaboration, no different than when he worked on the soundtracks of Kansas City and Short Cuts for Robert Altman.

Paraphrasing Stravinsky, Wilner says, "As a producer you have to be a psychologist and a liar. You must create a framework for the artist that frees him to go wherever he has to go. You must do it with total seriousness and a sense of humor—the words 'control' and 'no' do not exist."

With that motto Wilner segued into having avant-garde musical types contribute to theme records, the first being the 1981's Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal), an homage to Nino Rota (Federico Fellini's composer) that featured the likes of the Marsalis Brothers, Carla Bley and Debbie Harry. From there, he assembled an eclectic cast of musicians to cover the wild musical waterfront of Monk (That's The Way I Feel Now), Kurt Weill (Lost In The Stars), Disney (Stay Awake) and Charles Mingus (Weird Nightmare). (These records, all released by A&M except the Mingus, which was on Columbia, might be a little hard to track down now.)

"The Disney thing," says Wilner, "was my Cecil B. DeMille epic, my El Topo of sound, with an amazing cast and an adult look at cartoon themes. I wound up taking my childhood out on the whole world since cartoons affect me very personally." But, in the late '80s, multi-artist tributes began appearing like the plague. "If I ask an artist to contribute to one of my things and I hear they're busy doing stuff like a Buddy Greco tribute and two other projects, I know I gotta move on."

Realizing this, he delved into more serious material: the written word, especially the works of then-resurging beats Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. He made The Lion For Real with Ginsberg and the Burroughs double dose, Spare Ass Annie and Dead City Radio. " I was working with them through a time when they were getting their due. It was amazing to see. They got to see their place in history. They had lots of sex. They became gods in their lifetime."

The fruitfulness of those efforts inspired Wilner to record the works of Poe—about whose work Ginsberg has said all modern literature leads back to. "Poe's the ultimate middleman, someone everyone is familiar with and distanced from," says Wilner of his echo-laden trip through Poe's scarred psyche on Closed for Rabies. Artists like Diamanda Galas, Christopher Walken and Iggy Pop intone "The Black Cat," "The Raven" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" with eerie intent as opposed to flowery, spooky drama.

"What's special about the Poe record is that the background sounds drift from classical to feedback guitar," says Wilner. He thrives on merging such bizarre combinations.

"You're not just throwing stuff against a wall," explains Wilner. "Intentional chance is important. You basically know going in that having Gabriel Byrne or Christopher Walken read Poe could be amazing, while having Jeff Buckley—someone who had never read poetry aloud—read "Ulalume" is going to be a fascinating journey, if not a knockout punch. That's where the surprise comes in, most importantly to myself."

This spring, Wilner will be devoting some of his time to talking about his production work on Terry Southern's Hump, a motley bunch of black humor from his works Flesh & Filigree and Candy. Some of the recordings feature Southern, while others are read by Marianne Faithfull and Jonathan Winter, backed by the likes of Wagner and Handel. Acker's Mother was recorded with two different improvisational percussion ensembles.

Wilner is busy putting the finishing touches on the project he's been working on for two years—the miasma of unreleased live tapes, court recordings, studio outtakes and phone conversations which will become the Lenny Bruce box set.

"It occurred to me that since all of these live nightclub appearances have gone unheard, Lenny is nothing more than a rumor to most comics," says Wilner of the '60s post-bop comedian known for his liberation of language who has spiritually influenced every comedian since. But Bruce, like Poe, Burroughs and Ginsberg, is the ghost in the machine. "Ultimate bad boys who enter everyone's collective psyche," says Wilner. If anyone can raise a ghost, Hal Wilner can.

SPACEJUNK: If you've seen Fallen, the Philly-filmed flick starring Denzel Washington and Philly actors as visual support, have you caught yourself singing "Time Is On My Side" (a spooky plot device) walking down the street? If you're looking for a big gaffe in the movie, look for the moment when killer Robert Joy buys a cheesesteak from Geno's only to carry out a wrapped one from Pat's!… Seems like God's got no juice with the Liquor Control Board. Egypt's Joe Grasso 'n' Barry Gutin's restaurant on the 200 block of Market Street was supposedly approved by the LCB over the holidays. However, rumor has it that Old City Condo honchos have been giving them grief over their plan to add a back deck that's about 6 feet from the condos. Gutin promised everyone would eat quietly. But what about their other neighbor, Christ Church? Isn't there a law stating you can't have a bar near a church even though they have wine inside? Grasso talked to God and told Him He could have His own table. God is supposedly holding out for drinks… Love Revolution opens for Aerosmith at the latter's club in Boston, Mama Kin, on Friday, Jan. 16, the same night that SugarSmack Daddy makes cane at the Firenze… Tiki, master of mirthful macabre, will host his Halloween bash at the RUBA Hall (416 Green St.) on Saturday, Jan. 17… The Hard Rock Cafe will open with a benefit bash for the Philadelphia Employment Project and Historic Philadelphia, Inc. on Thursday, Jan. 15, with performances by Cheap Trick, Billy Paul, The Intruders and fresh from Jackie Brown, The Delfonics. But Friday's opening to the public will feature the First Hamburger, so it's a hard choice.

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