Lee Hazlewood: cynical cowboy bard

September 27, 2007

by Skylaire Alfvegren

Not long before he died, the man who wrote "These Boots Are Made for Walkin' " and much, much more sat down for a wide-ranging, freewheeling interview.

Lee Hazlewood spent half a century fooling around with the business of music. He wrote hits for Dean Martin, Petula Clark and Elvis, was covered by Beck and Einstuerzende Neubauten and was blasted by the ATF at Waco to flush rock-star-wannabe David Koresh from his compound.

Instantly famous after penning the 1966 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” for Nancy Sinatra, he employed imaginative production and a droll lyrical sensibility that produced a string of hits that flipped the formulaic boy/girl duet: “Some Velvet Morning,” “Summer Wine,” “I’ve Been Down So Long,” “Sand.” Sinatra’s kicky go-go vixen was a perfect complement to Hazlewood’s mustachioed, hangdog visage and world-weary baritone. Their collection, Lee and Nancy (1969), went platinum.

But hit songs are the least interesting aspect of Hazlewood’s career. The work of the legendary singer/songwriter/producer, wide as the prairie sky, always howled America, even when it was recorded in Sweden.

In 1999, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth began rereleasing a number of Hazlewood’s wildly diverse and highly influential solo albums on his Smells Like Records label, the same year Hazlewood brought a septuagenarian back-up duo to perform at Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival in London.

Trouble is a Lonesome Town (1963) debuted Hazlewood’s distinctive narrative style; described as “baroquely American,” the dusty, sparse character portraits were prefaced with the spoken interludes that would become his trademark. Hazlewood doused Lee Hazlewood-ism: Its Cause and Cure (1966) with Billy Strange’s spaghetti-Western arrangements. The bawdy cowpoke tinsel of The Cowboy and the Lady (1969), a collaboration with Ann-Margret, spawned cowboy psychedelia. Some of his most interesting albums have only recently seen the light of day in his home country. Shelved by MGM, Something Special (1967) was only released in Germany some 20 years later, and was finally released stateside by Water Records last month.

MGM considered the pastiche of country, pop, jazz and blues too off-kilter for a recording artist already considered eccentric.

At 78, the Henderson resident was still deadpan, droll and sharp as a tack, having recorded his farewell album in the throes of terminal illness. Cake or Death is a big-sounding collection of promises kept and decades-old in-jokes. Behind his give-a-damn façade, Hazlewood was a man of profound depth and integrity. Renal cancer “doesn’t lead into remission, it leads into death,” he chuckled during our interview, one of his last: Hazlewood passed away August 4, having enjoyed one of the most idiosyncratic careers in music.

You’re the son of an Oklahoma oil-field wildcatter and came of age in rural Texas. How did you develop your enthusiasm for music?

When I was in high school, I listened to blues because a friend of my dad’s owned a blues club. An all-black blues club, where I had to sit in the back. My favorite outside of listenin’ to the blues was Stan Kenton’s band. In later years, I got to use them on some sessions. It was fun to use ’em on rock dates.

You have a very distinct, dry lyrical sensibility. How did it come about?

You have to be very careful in the South, where I grew up, if you’re the least bit creative. Because, you know, all of a sudden, you might just be a sissy. I didn’t know it until I was older, of course, but the way I conquered it was I started writing. You didn’t write about the beautiful rain falling on the morning flowers and all that, you wrote about falling off the back of a wagon. Funny, never serious—so the girls thought you were cute and the boys thought you were clever. Most Southern writers, not necessarily songwriters, but writers, they kind of have that in ’em. When I read ’em, I kinda go, “Uh-oh. He coulda softened this up a little bit, but he wouldn’t do it.”

Consequently, when I went to university, I wrote for the school paper. “That’s Lee, he writes funny stuff. You know, he’s all right. We can accept him because he makes fun of what should be made fun of,” in a place where creativity will certainly be criticized. So that’s how you sneak through that. I knew you shouldn’t go in certain areas, because there were guys who did. And they certainly failed at it. “Oh God, that’s awful, why’s he writin’ about that stuff?” So I stayed away from “that stuff,” whatever that is.

You’ve been described as a “romantic fatalist.” Here’s an interlude from Requiem for an Almost Lady: “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.”

If it’s a great love song, I probably didn’t write it!

You wrote hits for everyone from Nancy Sinatra to Elvis, Dean Martin and Dusty Springfield ...

You’ve gotta take gold records for what they’re worth. And they’re worth about $1.30. Years ago, I kept all that junk in my house, in the bathroom. They were everywhere. 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.

Phil Spector studied your studio techniques; you’re a wizard of a producer.

I may be a nervous wreck outside of those eight notes, [but] when those sharps and flats go out and the words go in ... I know my language pretty well. I’m real secure in my world. But, you know, if something’s wrong with one of the cars, or something like that, I get pretty insecure askin’ the son of a bitch to fix it. See, when I grew up, you could fix a car with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers!

Going back to your first solo album, Trouble is a Lonesome Town, it’s apparent you’re a very keen observer of the world and the characters around you.

I didn’t notice that her dress was pretty, but I did notice that there was a slight run in her hose. Whenever I’m with people, I listen more than talk. And every so often, they’ll come up with a line I’ll write down and keep. Sometimes as far as a year or two later, I’ll go, “Oh, I should write somethin’ about that.” And I do.

How do you write songs?

Someone once asked Al [Casey, Hazlewood’s longtime guitarist] what the process was behind my songwriting. And he says, “I’ve been around Lee for years, and I don’t understand him at all. I know he writes some good songs, but you’ve never heard of them. He’ll write 9,000 verses and throw it all away, and then write another song around two lines of it.” He said, “I’ve seen him do that. It makes me sick.”

Your solo albums have been wildly diverse; you used Billy Strange’s
spaghetti-Western arrangements on Lee Hazlewood-ism: Its Cause and Cure, big brass on 13, you invented “cowboy psychedelia” with The Cowboy and the Lady ... MGM didn’t even release Something Special, and your masterpiece, Requiem for an Almost Lady, was only released stateside in 2000.

Ah ... you don’t know where a person comes from by what kind of music they listen to. You think, I’m a Southerner, it’s got to be blues—and certainly, I love the blues and cowboy music ... or if someone’s Northern, it’s gotta be jazz, or something like that. I’ve found that not ever to be true. Whatever music pulls your ear to it.

Decades later, your compositions would be covered by Beck, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth; it seems like every so often, you’ve been rediscovered, with no effort on your part. In 1999, a number of your solo albums were rereleased ...

I was never rediscovered—I was discovered. If you’re a collector, and you’re a little bit mad, and you’re under 30, then I guess I sell records here ... I slowly started finding out that these records that were 15, 20 years old, that had been rereleased, the kids—and everybody that’s still in their 30s is still a kid to me—the kids were buyin’ ’em.

And that same year, you played some dates in Europe.

And there wasn’t a gray head in the house. We’d start to play a song, an obscure song, and they’d start applauding. So I just stopped the band and said, “How in the hell do you know this song?” And one of the kids held up his hand and said, “My grandma, Lee.” And I said, “Your grandma?” And he says, “Yeah, she had the record, and she played it for me, and that’s where I learned the song.” And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing: From now on, grandma PR is all I’m using throughout the world.” They liked that. It was like playin’ for your grandchildren, for Chrissakes! Only there’s a few thousand of ’em.

How did your first new album in 20 years [1999’s Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!! & Me, standards by the likes of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington] come about?

Al Casey, he 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.

On Cake or Death, you refrained from collaborating with your hip rock-star fans, dueting with your granddaughter Phaedra on “Some Velvet Morning,” and Scandinavian jazz singer Ann Kristin Hedmark, for instance.

The question I’ve been asked the most is, “Why no stars, Lee?” Because I didn’t ask any names, any big record-selling people. I think some people figured, oh, well, Lee did that because he knows he’ll [not] get to be the boss if he gets somebody too big, but that’s not true. I picked people I like. Tommy Parsons—he literally saved my life some years ago. “She’s Gonna Break Some Heart Tonight,” that’s a promise made, and a promise kept.

There’s a definite warmth and love that comes through, with every song, even though stylistically it’s very diverse. You voice your political opinions, as well, with “Baghdad Knights” and “Anthem.”

You hate the war, but you respect the warriors. I can be proud of the young people, but not proud of why they’re over there. Why can’t we get things through other means than violence? English is such a rich language—Russian, French, they’re all rich languages to negotiate in. I’m super-liberal; violence bothers the hell out of me. A couple of songs here and there—there’s no other way for me to make a difference.

The waltzy “Fred Freud” pokes fun at psychiatrists. What’s your take on psychiatry?

There were six, seven of us that went to university together; they call me the historian of the group, and two of them became shrinks. So when I’d go home, they’d introduce me—and honest to God, I was better known than they were—but they’d always say, “This is so-and-so, he’s a druggist, he’s a dentist, he’s a psychiatrist. Oh Lee, he writes songs, you never heard of him.” We’d tease each other; I’d say I didn’t think too much of their profession, either. They’d tease me back about never having written a love song.

You worked with Ann Kristin Hedmark in Sweden.

When I first heard “Please Come to Boston,” I thought, God, this is the greatest loser song I’ve ever heard in my life! But it would be more of a loser song if it were a duet. When we were in the studio, someone asked her, “Why would you sing with Lee?” And she said, “Oh, because he’s funny.” And that’s as good a reason to sing with me as any I can think of.

Do you see the humor first in a situation, or use humor to get around the horror of a situation?

If you throw humor in it, about the time they’re about to put the knife in, they’ll break up, they’ll laugh at it. I know you can hear a beautiful love song—but I probably didn’t write it—and know that it’s great. Like you can take a beautiful death song and say it’s great, too, but you don’t have to go do it! I’ve got a song nobody’s ever heard in America called “Dirt Nap Stories.” This was written way before I had cancer. Texans say, “He’s takin’ a dirt nap,” meaning he’s dead, he’s in the ground. So when I was writing this song about these things that happen to these various people ... it came out way too serious. It bothered me to death. And then I came up with a line that I really like, but I wondered if they would take that as meaning too much; the last line of each verse is, “He died on Christmas day, before all the gifts were open.” And I thought that is funny. That is funny to me. And surprisingly, more kids have come up in Europe and said, “That’s a funny time to die, Lee, that is really funny. That sounds like old Lee.” And I said, well, thank you very much, I’m glad you didn’t take it serious. They don’t even play it in America, but in Europe, it’s just an excuse for my dark humor.

Have you given any thought to the afterlife?

First of all, I’d like to go out the way I came in—quietly. No great, real serious thoughts about that, or else probably I wouldn’t be cremated. That was one of the stipulations in my trust, that I be cremated. My grandmother was a half-blood Creek Indian, and they cremated people all the time. So I thought, it was my grandmother that taught me to read and write when I was 4 years old. 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!

Skylaire Alfvegren is a local freelance writer.

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