The renaissance cowboy cut a wide swath through the West, and inspired a generation of songwriters
Stitch the talents of Serge Gainsbourg, Joe Meek, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen into a cowboy, and you’d have an approximation of this singer/songwriter/producer, whose work, wide as the prairie sky, always howled “America” — even when it was recorded in Sweden. Hazlewood’s work was interpreted by Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, covered by artists as diverse as Beck, Megadeth, Primal Scream and Einstürzende Neubauten and blasted by the ATF at Waco to flush rock-star-wannabe David Koresh from his compound. For a time, recalled Hazlewood, he hung his collection of gold records in his bathroom. “When you turned on the light, it was just blinding. People would forget to zip up their pants and everything else. They’d come out and say, ‘What is that, Lee?’ I’d tell ’em and they’d go look. ‘Oh, I know that song, and I know that song.’ But I quit doing that, because it annoyed the housekeeper.”
Hazlewood’s wit permeated not only his conversations but his songs. He opens “Poet, Fool or Bum” with a classic couplet, one of dozens over the years: “She came running down the highway, naked as the sun/Said she ‘Are you going my way, poet, fool or bum?’ ” His style was born, he says, very early, mostly as a defense mechanism.
“You had to be very careful in the South, where I grew up, if you were the least bit creative,” he recalled. “Because, you know, you might just be a sissy. You didn’t write about the beautiful rain falling on the morning flowers. You wrote about falling off the back of a wagon. Funny, nothing ever serious — so the girls thought you were cute and the boys thought you were clever.”
Hazlewood, who grew up in Port Neches, Texas, served in the Korean War, where he wrote songs while a DJ for the troops. Upon discharge, he headed to Los Angeles to study broadcasting. He landed a job as a country DJ in Phoenix, and schemed to create the West Coast’s answer to Sun Studios. He wrote songs, contemplated making “non-normal” music and experimented with production techniques. One of these tricks involved harnessing a grain silo as a makeshift echo chamber. Hazlewood used it to create a distinctive twang for local teenager Duane Eddy’s guitar. (Phil Spector was reportedly inspired by Hazlewood’s studio techniques.)
Before returning to Los Angeles in the mid-’50s, the restless Hazlewood would “take the $9.99 round-trip Greyhound” from Phoenix to shop his songs to the labels. The few he sold, “they didn’t do them right,” so he became a producer, went on to release a slew of hits for other artists, coppered his bets and retired to his back porch.
But the Rat Pack had taken a shine to Hazlewood’s sly, countrified humor, and when Frank Sinatra wanted to revive the career of his young, recently divorced daughter Nancy, he coaxed the 35-year-old Hazlewood from retirement. The songwriter scored after penning her 1966 hit, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” — which Hazlewood advised Nancy to sing “like a 14-year-old girl who messes with truck drivers.” The song isn’t Hazlewood’s favorite achievement, although “it’s made millions of dollars.” (Mentioning Billy Ray Cyrus’ $14-million-selling cover, or Jessica Simpson’s Dukes of Hazzard blasphemy, he noted gleefully, “I got a lot of songs in movies. We rob ‘em blind!”)
Hazlewood’s imaginative production and droll lyrical sensibility produced a string of hits with Nancy that flipped the formulaic boy/girl duet: “Some Velvet Morning,” “Summer Wine,” “I’ve Been Down So Long” and “Sand.” Her kicky go-go vixen was a perfect complement to Hazlewood’s mustachioed, hangdog visage and world-weary baritone. Lee and Nancy (1969) went platinum. Hardly “love” songs, the lyrics are sardonic, knowing, forlorn, and often dark. “If it’s a great love song, I probably didn’t write it,” he laughed.
But hit songs are the least interesting aspect of Hazlewood’s career. Once the success of the Sinatra duets dried up, he flitted from Barcelona to Helsinki, landing in Sweden for the better part of a decade. While overseas, he continued to innovate. Shelved by MGM for simply being too bizarre, Something Special (1967) was only released in Germany some 20 years later, and was finally reissued stateside by Water Records in September. The bawdy cowpoke tinsel of The Cowboy and the Lady (1969), a collaboration with Ann–Margret, spawned cowboy psychedelia. Sounding as though it was recorded on the warped wooden porch of a prairie lean-to, 1971’s Requiem for an Almost Lady wasn’t released stateside for 28 years. Hazlewood employed a syrupy croon to deliver his philosophy of love: “It’s been said that all good things are made in Heaven/But I have a feeling that the first time we said ‘I love you’ to each other/The Gods must’ve turned their backs and laughed out loud.”
Through the ’70s and ’80s, Hazlewood remained low-key, but his creations continued to percolate and draw admirers. In 1999, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth reissued on his Smells Like Records label a number of Hazlewood’s wildly diverse solo albums. That same year, Lee and a back-up duo performed at Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival in London. “I slowly started finding out that these records that were 15, 20 years old, that had been re-released, the kids were buyin’ ’em.”
A handful of European dates followed, “and there wasn’t a gray head in the house,” recalled Hazlewood. “We’d start to play a song, an obscure song, and they’d start applauding.” At one point he wondered aloud to his audience how they knew his obscurities. “One of the kids held up his hand and said, ‘My grandma, Lee — she played it for me.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you one thing: From now on, grandma PR is all I’m using throughout the world.’ ”
Still living abroad, Hazlewood came out of retirement yet again to deliver a low-tempo collection of well-chosen standards by the likes of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington with Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!! & Me (1999).
“Al Casey [longtime Hazlewood guitarist], he had said, ‘I want you to do those songs that you always whistled around the studio.’ I said, ‘You’re talkin’ about my dad’s two-beer songs, aren’t you?’ Two beers, and you sing one of these songs.”
Behind the don’t-give-a-damn façade, Hazlewood was a man of profound integrity. Cake or Death, which was recorded after his cancer diagnosis, is a collection of promises kept, of 50-year-old in-jokes, of a life spun with warmth and dark humor. (The album’s title is a reference to an Eddie Izzard stand-up bit.) It’s a big-sounding collection, bereft of the marquee names with whom Hazlewood could’ve collaborated. His granddaughter, Phaedra, brought her “third-grade enthusiasm” to a reworked “Some Velvet Morning.” On “Baghdad Knights,” Hazlewood addresses the situation in the Middle East. “You hate the war, but you respect the warriors,” he said.
“First of all, I’d like to go out the way I came in,” he said, when asked about his send-off plans. “Quietly.” With an eye on cremation, he had an idea of the afterlife. “I don’t believe in an old gray-headed man who sits on a mountain and every time you do anything bad, he hits you on the head with a hammer... or streets paved with gold. I figure you just go back to the stack. But if you have to come back a second time, I think you should come back as a cockroach. You can’t kill those sons of bitches!”