Week 22: Lee Hazlewood, space cowboy/peculiar guy

Week 22: Lee Hazlewood, space cowboy/peculiar guy

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

I first remember reading about Lee Hazlewood in one of the British music magazines I devoured rapaciously during my sorry stint as a teenybopper music obsessive. That’s how friendless folks found out about cool music in the pre-Internet days: we relied on New Music Express, Melody Maker, and Mojo to direct us to bands that, to borrow the title of Michael Azerrad’s essential music book, could be our lives, not just the soundtrack to them. 

It was an awfully passive way of getting turned on to music—following the dictates of strangers thousands of miles away—but also a safe one. There was no chance that Melody Maker would call me a fucking poser because I only got into The Kinks by hearing Damon Albarn duet with Ray Davies on “Waterloo Sunset.” Mojo wouldn’t tell me I was an idiot for thinking that Supergrass was anything more than The Monkees for hipsters.

I was both lucky and unlucky to come of age pop-culture-wise before the era of Internet message boards and virtual friendships. I would love to have had access to avclub.com or YouTube or nahright.com or the IMDB as a painfully insecure, pop-culture-mad 15-year-old, but I don’t think my fragile adolescent psyche could have handled the rhetorical warfare of message boards. Unkind words from a stranger with a nifty avatar and cool screen name undoubtedly would have reduced my younger self to tears.

So there was something comforting about getting the big-picture pop-culture scoop from Greil Marcus, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, or the writing staffs of Melody Maker or Mojo. As much as I appreciate the interactive nature of the Internet, there’s something refreshingly uncomplicated about reading an article about a fascinating, too-strange-for-fiction figure like Lee Hazlewood that isn’t immediately followed by an online Tower Of Babel angrily insisting that Lee Hazlewood was a lame poser who only appeals to hipsters. 

Here’s my question for you, A.V. Club commenters: has contributing to Internet message boards made you more self-conscious and defensive about expressing your opinions publicly? Has it made your skin thicker? I know that the implementation of message boards has radically changed the way I see my writing. Almost overnight, the A.V. Club readership went from being an amorphous, almost theoretical entity to a concrete reality. 

That said, I am continually impressed by the level of discourse in the comments of Nashville Or Bust. Last week, my dad and my girlfriend both praised the insight and passion of commenters on this column, and praised me effusively for never pandering or sucking up to my readers. Oh sure, at first, the column attracted various nattering nabobs of negativity bitching about how I was just trying to impress hipsters by sneering derisively at country in the form of earnest, overwhelmingly complimentary, incredibly time- and labor-intensive 2,000-word essays, but that contingent seems to have left a while ago.

Mojo exists to extol the virtues of preposterous cult icons like Lee Hazlewood. He made for terrific copy. He still does. Born in 1929, Hazlewood served in the Army during the Korean War, became a disc jockey during the embryonic beginnings of rock ’n’ roll, then teamed up with legendary rock guitarist Duane Eddy to co-write and produce a series of hit instrumentals, most notably a cover of Henry Mancini’s theme from Peter Gunn. (If you’ve ever played Spy Hunter, you’ve got that one committed to memory.) He went on to reestablish himself as a solo artist with the staggeringly odd, utterly delightful 1963 concept album Trouble Is A Lonesome Town.

Trouble’s spoken-word opening (oh sweet blessed Lord, does Lee ever love his spoken-word intros) indelibly establishes Lee Hazlewood’s persona as a plainspoken mystic, a casual philosopher who invites us all to revert back to the creepiest recesses of childhood and enjoy hot cocoa spiked with absinthe, while creepy Uncle Lee talk-sings us stories about the colorful inhabitants of a town called Trouble. 

Hazlewood’s music blasted off into the psychedelic, flower-power stratosphere as the ’60s progressed. But Trouble Is A Lonesome Town is steeped in warped, Gothic Americana of a much earlier vintage. It’s full of cheerful ditties about morbid subjects. Hazlewood introduces us to Trouble’s sharply dressed undertaker in “We All Make The Flowers Grow,” an upbeat number about how time and the lurking shadow of the Grim Reaper will soon reduce us all to plant food. But the tone is cheeky and irreverent, not despairing:

Hazlewood delights in playing the folksy trickster, the cosmic joker. “Six Feet Of Chain” is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Trouble’s most incorrigible pair of brothers. They’re inveterate scoundrels who steal only from each other, then take turns going to jail for their crimes. Hazlewood’s dry-witted narrator asks one of the battling duo if he feels bad about constantly sending his brother to jail. He replies, with Hazlewoodian warped logic, that he doesn’t feel the faintest trickle of remorse, since his brother can do anything—as long as he doesn’t mind doing it while weighed down by six feet of chain. Hazlewood delivers his grim cowboy tales with a wink and a smile, and more than a soupçon of irony. 

Between Trouble Is A Lonesome Town and 1968’s Nancy & Lee, Lee Hazlewood turned Nancy Sinatra into a star. Of course, it could be argued that being Frank Sinatra’s progeny greased her path to pop stardom, but the sad saga of Frank Sinatra Jr. suggests otherwise. Like Sonny Bono, Serge Gainsbourg, Kim Fowley, and Phil Spector, Hazlewood was one of what Randy Newman calls “froggish men, unpleasant to see,” who wisely hooked up with an attractive young woman who would serve as his muse and ticket to the big time. 

Hazlewood led a curious dual life. He was simultaneously a savvy pop Svengali who wrote and produced smash hits like “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’” for his protégé Sinatra, and a cult weirdo who plugged into the drug and sex-saturated excess and decadence of the nascent counterculture with the zeal of a convert. 

These two weirdly complementary sides of Hazlewood’s persona unite on “Some Velvet Morning,” a standout track from Nancy & Lee. On that track, Hazlewood and Sinatra sound like they don’t inhabit the same universe, let alone the same song. Over loping spaghetti-Western guitar, Hazlewood sings of Greek mythology and “some velvet morning when I’m straight,” while Sinatra coos about flowers and daffodils in a stoned haze against a backdrop of bubblegum psychedelia. “Some Velvet Morning” sounds like two songs spliced together by a madman, or an avant-garde short film in song form. 

Hazlewood is Humbert Humbert to Sinatra’s cooing Lolita, the disturbingly mustachioed beast to her beauty. After the first verse of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” the opening duet on Nancy & Lee, I wanted to call up the California police and tell them to reopen the Tate-LaBianca case, because surely the sinister figure singing male vocals in an ominous, darker-than-hell baritone committed those crimes, instead of poor, blameless Charles Manson. 

Nancy, meanwhile, oozes pure sex. Their dynamic on Nancy & Lee is playful, loose, frisky, and post-coital. Isn’t that’s the secret to a great duet? That’s what made David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy” and my album with Tiny Tim so morbidly compelling. 

Hazlewood and Sinatra spend half of “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman” flirting, giggling, and ad-libbing, and the other half smartly satirizing the mercenary desperation and self-delusion bubbling just under the hippie good vibes of the New York beatnik/folk/coffeehouse scene. Yet the goofy good humor and mellow vibes that make “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman” such a hoot also render their take on “Jackson” into a Hee Haw-ridiculous experiment. Lee and Nancy aren’t the type to do anything in a fever; they’re more liable to get married in a stoned languor.

After Nancy & Lee and an album-length collaboration with Ann-Margret called The Cowboy & The Lady, Hazlewood traveled to Sweden to record an album/television special called Cowboy In Sweden. As always, Hazlewood is a stranger in a strange land, a debauched cowpoke in the land of the midnight sun. 

It’s tempting to conceive of Hazlewood’s oeuvre in cinematic terms. In that sense, Cowboy In Sweden is Hazlewood’s The Hired Hand or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a druggy, downbeat revisionist Western that doubles as a haunting mood piece. Country thrives on emotional directness, but Hazlewood is often deliberately detached. On Trouble and Nancy & Lee, that detachment comes from irony and dark humor. On Cowboy In Sweden and Requiem For An Almost Lady, that comes from seeing the world through a druggy, bleary, melancholy haze.

Hazlewood’s humor is in fine form on Cowboy In Sweden—“Hey Cowboy” is every bit as playful and goofy a duet as anything he recorded with Nancy—but it’s also characterized by unmistakable darkness, as a savvy old pro happy to hide behind the roles of troubadour, goofball, storyteller, and crackpot philosopher lets more and more of his anguish slip into his music, as on the harrowing morning-after lament “The Night Before.”

1971’s mournful, elegiac masterpiece Requiem For An Almost Lady finds Hazlewood brilliantly synthesizing dark, absurdist humor with bruised emotion and autumnal sadness. The album surveys a doomed romance through a world of heartbreak and remorse. The tone, both funny and deeply sad, is established by the 64-second opening track, which ends with the morbid lines, “’Til you, I never had any fun / But I’m sure glad I never / Ain't you glad I never / Be glad I never owned a gun.”

Hazlewood begins each track with a spoken-word intro. Even when he was singing, he was still pretty much just talking: His voice wasn’t a particularly powerful or subtle instrument, but he got the most out of it. “I’ll Live Yesterdays” has one of the strangest, funniest, most unexpectedly affecting intros I’ve ever heard, as Hazlewood reasons, with exquisite world-weariness, “Seems we’re always doing something to hurt each other / But you know, you never really hurt me until the fourth verse of this song.”

It’s an utterly ridiculous opening. Hazlewood once again seems to be fucking with us but “I’ll Live Yesterdays” really is a heartrending ballad about a man who’d rather linger morosely in memories than face a future without hope. But it doesn’t get truly heartbreaking until that fourth verse, which goes “Dark is the canyon where life is beginning, and secrets are easy to keep / Soft is the baby that’s resting inside you, so take it please while it’s asleep / Knives that have touched you when others have touched you have taken our children away / If there’s no tomorrow for us, then I’ll live yesterdays.” 

It’s almost prohibitively difficult to write a song about the termination of a pregnancy that isn’t shrill, maudlin, creepy, or heavy-handed, but Hazlewood has done just that, honing in on a child that was not to be as the defining trauma of a failed romance with infinite sadness and regret but not judgment. Requiem unblinkingly chronicles the emotional fallout when love goes dark. On “I’d Rather Be Your Enemy,” Hazlewood would rather live in hate than settle for mere friendship. 

It took me something like 15 years to finally catch up with Hazlewood, but it was worth the wait. In the parlance of “Hey, Cowboy,” it was a pleasure having Hazlewood undo my mind. Madman, mystic, joker, mogul: Hazlewood contained multitudes. 

Oh, and incidentally, Hazlewood’s LHI label (Lee Hazlewood Industries) released The International Submarine Band’s Safe At Home, but Hazlewood’s relationship with International Submarine Band frontman Gram Parsons was frosty at best; their professional bond was characterized by legal skirmishes instead of warmth. Yet in his seminal ’60s and early-’70s work, Hazlewood embodied Parsons’ conception of a “cosmic American music” that filtered country, folk, and pop through a highly personal, idiosyncratic, poetic sensibility. In this, he mirrored a couple other artists: Bob Dylan during his Nashville Skyline phase, and someone I’ve been getting into, and very much look forward to writing about in a few weeks: Townes Van Zandt. 

Up Next on Nashville Or Bust: 
George Strait 
Townes Van Zandt
Loretta Lynn 
Waylon Jennings
Buck Owens 
Kris Kristofferson 
Mindy McCready?

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