John Prine, Hal Willner Succumb to COVID-19
April 7 was an especially shitty day in the coronavirus crisis currently plaguing the planet. Revered singer-songwriter John Prine (pictured) and eclectic music producer Hal Willner both died from what were termed “complications from COVID-19.”
Deftly balancing humor with protest and poignancy, Prine, 73, may have been the quintessential songwriter’s songwriter, highly respected by peers such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. Starting out in the Chicago folk scene while working as a mailman in the late 1960s, Prine crafted a slew of classics such as “Angel From Montgomery,” “Sam Stone,” “Paradise” and “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” (the latter with Steve Goodman) that were later covered by the varied likes of Bonnie Raitt, David Allan Coe, Swamp Dogg, the Dave Matthews Band, John Fogerty, Jackie DeShannon and Evan Dando. Released in 2010 on his independent Oh Boy record label, the tribute album Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows includes renditions of his songs by a younger generation of famous fans including Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver, Deer Tick and Those Darlins. In 2018, Prine released his first new album of original material in 13 years, The Tree of Forgiveness, produced by Dave Cobb.
Cancer afflicted Prine as he aged. In 1998, squamous cell cancer necessitated surgery that removed a piece of his neck, affecting his singing voice. In 2013, Prine had surgery to remove cancer in his left lung.
Prine’s wife and manager Fiona tested positive for the Chinese coronavirus in mid-March and was quarantined apart from John in their Nashville home, however he developed symptoms and was hospitalized March 26. Fiona recovered but John’s condition worsened, and he came down with pneumonia and other peripheral issues.
“In spite of the incredible skill and care of his medical team at Vanderbilt, he could not overcome the damage this virus inflicted on his body,” Fiona Prine said in a note released on April 8. “I sat with John – who was deeply sedated – in the hours before he passed and will be forever grateful for that opportunity… Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for the outpouring of love we have received from family, friends, and fans all over the world. John will be so missed but he will continue to comfort us with his words and music and the gifts of kindness, humor and love he left for all of us to share.”
Willner produced albums by Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithfull, Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, Bill Frisell and many others. He was behind numerous offbeat tribute albums, which featured an array of musicians such as Van Dyke Parks, Tom Waits, John Zorn, Keith Richards, Carla Bley, Leonard Cohen, Diamanda Galas, Debbie Harry, Sun Ra, Elvis Costello and Chuck D (often in various combinations) honoring the far-flung likes of Kurt Weill, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk and Italian composer Nino Rota. Such adventurous spirit and love of music extended to a number of live multi-act themed/tribute events and his wide-ranging musical performance TV show Sunday Night/Night Music, which aired for two seasons between 1988 and 1990. He oversaw the sketch music for Saturday Night Live beginning in 1980 through the most recent season.
Willner first alluded to being ill on March 28. He experienced symptoms consistent with COVID-19, but was never formally diagnosed with the virus. He died a day after his 64th birthday.
Prine and Willner weren’t the only musical figures that have perished in the past week from the Chinese virus or complications from it. Drummer Patrick Francfort of the French disco act The Gibson Brothers was 64 when he died of it on April 4. Additionally, Christopher Cross has been diagnosed with coronavirus and Marianne Faithfull is in the hospital with it, stable and reportedly responding to treatment.