A VERY SPECIAL WORLD: Lee Hazlewood and “Lee, Myself & I”

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Thank God for kids that love obscure things! I never thought anyone would pay attention to those records, and it’s a good feeling. It makes me feel like I really did get to do what I wanted to do.” So said Lee Hazlewood at one point, and thanks to biographer/memoirist Wyndham Wallace we are privy to more of The Bard’s sayings—not to mention too many candid moments to list—in a delightful new book.

BY FRED MILLS

Maverick songwriter, singer and producer Barton Lee Hazlewood passed away on August 4, 2007, having been born on July 9, 1929, leaving behind a legacy of eclectic—and sometimes eccentric—albums, chart-topping productions (most notably for Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra) and near-mythical exploits that are the very definition of a “life lived to the fullest.” Along the way he amassed one of pop’s most dedicated followings, nary a fickle fan to be found among it, the kind of folks who, upon coming across a long out of print Hazlewood album in some thrift store or flea market would scoop it up on sight regardless of whether or not they already had it; because for collectors, Hazlewood vinyl is the analog equivalent of bitcoin, varying wildly in value from one month to the next yet constantly in demand on the underground market and therefore eternally a viable commodity—particularly when it comes to negotiating an exchange for another Hazlewood record that one hadn’t yet acquired. (In that regard, owning multiple copies of his titles can come in rather handy. I speak from experience.)

As Calexico’s Joey Burns, himself a Hazlewood fan and collector of some international regard (his band contributed to the 2002 tribute album Total Lee), put it in a 2007 interview with the Los Angeles Times published shortly before The Bard’s death, “He’s just really creative, and his personal story is very intriguing. And all his classics, they kind of go somewhere. There’s some kind of journey happening with the story. It’s a very imaginative place…. You can tell there’s some drama. And I love his more obscure stuff too. He’s very abstract and kind of out there at times, and a freak, and that’s what my friends and I all love about them. He’s out there.”

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He was out there, that’s for sure. At the time of his death Hazlewood was on the tail end of a latter-day career revival that saw the reissue, by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley’s label Smells Like Records, of several of his albums from the ‘60s and early ‘70s along with the opaquely-titled 1999 comeback album Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me…; the aforementioned tribute rec, which in addition to Calexico featured the likes of St. Etienne, Jarvis Cocker, Lambchop and Tindersticks; a handful of enthusiastically received concerts in England and Europe (including one in Germany in 2002 which can be downloaded for free HERE); and several more “new” releases comprising early demos, a concert disc and freshly-recorded material (2006 swansong Cake or Death). Given the man’s reputation for being somewhat prickly, if not downright combative at times, it’s entirely possible—no, absolutely likely—that he would have taken issue with the notion of a career “revival” since to his way of thinking it was just one long illustrious journey, with all its attendant ups, downs and in-betweens, stretching back to the ‘50s.

Which is certainly any artist’s prerogative. Because more often than not, when we speak of a musician who’s “disappeared from view” or has been “operating under the radar” what we really mean is that we haven’t been paying much attention, or didn’t even know where to look. Speaking personally, I can testify to not following the Hazlewood trajectory myself all that closely for a period of time; this despite the fact that when I first discovered his solo records around the middle of the ‘70s I instantly became a fan and actively started backtracking and seeking out such, er, out there gems as 1966’s The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood, 1967’s Lee Hazlewoodism – Its Cause and Cure, 1973’s Poet, Fool Or Bum and, of course, his long-playing debut from ’63, Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. The Smells Like reissue campaign served to revive my appetite for the man’s singular musical vision, as did Cake or Death even though its arrival was accompanied by sad rumors (subsequently confirmed) of his being in poor health.

2012, however, brought yet another, equally improbable, Hazlewood revival, courtesy the diligent, passionate collectors and archivists at the Light In the Attic label, who have offered bonus tracks-laden reissues of several key titles along with a must-own anthology (The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides 1968-71, featuring hugely informative liner notes from one Wyndham Wallace—remember that name) and a pair of eye-popping box sets (You Turned My Head Around: Industries 1969-1970, a six-disc singles box; There’s A Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966-1971, which contains no less than four CDs and four DVDs, three of which are made up of MP3 and WAV files covering the entire LHI output, some 300+ songs in all). Here and there sundry other labels have also got into the Hazlewood reissue game, in particular focusing on LPs to capitalize on the current vinyl resurgence, and even though some of them are no doubt of dubious legality, they all add up to making this a wonderful time to be a Hazlewood collector. Also worth noting: somewhere in the middle of all this, a musician/producer named Charles Norman (brother of late Christian rocker Larry Norman) decided he was going to re-create Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, track-by-track, using the vocal talents of some of his friends: Frank Black, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, Pete Yorn, Eddie Argos of Art Brut, Courtney Taylor-Taylor from the Dandy Warhols, and Guards Of Metropolis’ Kristin Blix. As Norman told BLURT in an interview promoting the project, he had found a copy of the original LP in a thrift store in Norway some years earlier, but as he didn’t own a turntable at the time he left it in the hands of a friend. “Later,” explained Norman, “he was playing some records and he put on this one record and I was really getting into it and said ‘Whoa, what is this?’ He said, ‘This is the Lee Hazlewood record you bought.’ I was pretty happy to make the double-discovery; I bought it once, forgot about it, and discovered it again. It was a pretty cool record.”

Cool indeed. But I’ll give you some cool. A few months ago London-based Jawbone Press published Lee, Myself & I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood, a 250-page book by German-based/England-born journalist Wyndham Wallace that might be characterized as one part Hazlewood biography, several parts Wallace memoir, and innumerable parts character study. It’s nigh-on impossible to convey just how entertaining the volume will be for anyone with a fondness for Hazlewood, whether born out of a love for his work with Nancy Sinatra (“These Boots Are Made for Walking” is always near the top of any fan’s list, natch) or simply harbors an intermittent appreciation of the man’s own output. If you are a devotee—as I am—if Hazlewood in all his prismic glory and funhouse mirror contradictions, not to mention a lover of music books, it’s among the most captivating page turners you’re likely to encounter in this lifetime. I read it cover to cover over the course of a single weekend, and upon completion I tweeted my appreciation to Wallace (@WyndhamWallace) that it might even be the best music memoir I’ve ever read; he promptly tweeted back his thanks but suggested that it’s possible I haven’t read enough memoirs, to which I assured him, oh yeah, I’ve read a few of ‘em over the years, brother…

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What makes the book so unique, so arresting?

Well, for starters it has as its main topic one of the most, shall we say, colorful personalities ever to grace a concert stage, marshal recording studio or hold court at a drinking establishment. Hazlewood had enough stories to make up ten lifetimes, and Wallace was able to get quite a few of them—some well-worn but absolutely essential for the retelling, others heretofore previously obscured by time, circumstance and legal statute—down on the record. That Hazlewood could be a larger than life character is a given among aficionados; given how at times during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s he attained a certain Zelig-like quality only adds to the myth. Elvis Presley championed early on by a young deejay named Hazlewood? Check. Producer, and accomplice to the pioneering of reverb as a marketable guitar sound via Duane Eddy and “Rebel Rouser”? Check. Mentor to Phil Spector and that future producer’s vaunted Wall Of Sound via Hazlewood’s Trey label? Check. Producer of almost-supergroup offspring outfit Dino, Desi & Billy, along with producer of outright superstar offspring Nancy Sinatra? Check. Champion of future alt-country avatar Gram Parsons via his signing of Parsons’ early group International Submarine Band for their Safe At Home album, despite that group’s failure to hit the public radar until Parsons’ after-the-fact prominence? Double check. Proponent of Hollywood’s premiere sex kitten Ann-Margret as a viable pop singer (for better or for worse)? Double-D check! I’m tempted to include an apocryphal tale I heard once, of Frank Sinatra chancing upon Lee and Nancy blasted on LSD and getting naked in his swimming pool, and subsequently putting a Mafia hit upon his daughter’s companion which prompted a swift relocation to Europe, but perhaps that’s stretching my narrative credibility just a bit… although with Hazlewood, “print the legend” doesn’t seem to be all that unreasonable.

Another compelling element is the essential nature of the story being told here: you can’t go into it without at least some knowledge of Hazlewood’s career (“Boots” is eternally destined to work its way into the first few sentences of any Hazlewood discussion); and of course you know before taking up the book that he died at the age of 78 from renal cancer, so it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that there’s not going to be a happy ending to it. With that in mind, though, it’s still a success story, the proverbial “redemption” crucial to such notions evidenced by the actual publishing of it in the first place, because as Wallace himself puts it at book’s end, “Lee may not have chosen to be my subject, but I like to think he would have approved of what he inspired… Sometimes he would tell me things before adding, with a grin, ‘and don’t put that in your damned book!’” That is, Lee, Myself & I isn’t the kind of mass-audience publication typically greeted by yet another Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Springsteen, Led Zep, Pink Floyd et al volume (or, heaven forbid, some quickie jack-off aimed at exploiting some current social media explosion by Katy Perry, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Drake or Miley Cyrus). Think of it, instead, as the literary equivalent of a Hazlewood compilation, each chapter a key track (or, keeping in mind the story-telling aspect outlined previously, a choice unreleased number) aimed at painting a broader picture of the artist in a specific context—here, the context being the Hazlewood of unguarded moments in the presence of the author during that so-called career revival. If you think I’m reaching here, then maybe you should know that Wallace deliberately gives his hand away by breaking the book into two main sections titled “Side A” and “Side B” with each broken up into four chapters. And hey, I do know that an eight-song album doesn’t sound like much. Maybe 30 minutes at very most, right? But Wallace also includes a revealing “Author’s Note” at the end, followed by “Lee Hazlewood 101: An Inevitably Incomplete Guide to the Vocal Recordings of Lee Hazlewood,” which is basically a selected discography, so with those as “bonus material” you’ve actually got quite a nice little Hazlewood retrospective here.

But without a doubt, this tome’s irresistible selling point is that it represents the fan/collector/aficionado’s ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy: author Wallace was magically transformed from fan into associate, then business partner, and then ultimately an intimate. This is no small detail—let’s say you discovered Captain Beefheart at some point and through a series of events found yourself corresponding with the good Mr. Van Vliet (hello, PJ Harvey, you lucky gal!), and then doing publicity and marketing work for him, and finally hanging out—maybe even drinking—with him, and helping him coordinate all manner of creative and business matters? Here you can insert your favorite artist for the just-rendered scenario… All of us have, at some point, wondered what it would be like to have a celebrity or star as a friend or drinking buddy, but very few of us actually get to live out that fantasy. Wallace did.

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Lee, Myself & I begins with a 27-year old Wallace meeting the 69-year old Hazlewood for the first time, at a New York hotel in 1999. Hazlewood, it turns out, has been, as Wallace writes, “a hero of mine for the best part of a decade.” (His initial exposure to Hazlewood had been a Rough Trade Singles Club 45 by the Tindersticks that features a drawing of him on the picture sleeve and is additionally dedicated to the songwriter.)

“Hi,” says Wallace. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Hazlewood looks Wallace up and down. He’s not impressed with his new UK publicist. “How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?”

Well, with a greeting like that, only direction one can go is up, right? Improbably enough, an actual friendship blossoms between the two. For his part, Hazlewood, who’s seen his share of sycophants, assholes and just plain incompetent idiots over the course of 4 ½ decades in the music business, eventually decides that Wallace can be trusted and is actually a nice chap. Wallace, meanwhile, is simultaneously thrilled and challenged, determined not to let his hero worship get in the way of doing a good job helping market the man, whose Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me… had just been released and, as he had been, er, operating under the radar for a number of years at that point, was actually willing to engage in at least a modicum of promotion for the record. Wallace was even able to convince Hazlewood to return to the concert stage, although as he is quick to point out, the singer seemed far more concerned about how much he would get paid for his efforts than the actual performance.

Publicists typically take on clients for single projects—say, the roll-out of a new album, with maybe a couple of months follow-up and perhaps handling press for the ensuing tour. Occasionally, though, the artist winds up staying with the publicist for subsequent efforts, and a genuine relationship, though on paper “just business,” inevitably evolves over time. In Wallace’s case, he goes on to become Hazlewood’s drinking partner, his confidante and, ultimately, his manager. This is no small matter, because as suggested previously, the man could be downright difficult. I suspect that when I refer to Wallace as “long suffering” with regard to Hazlewood he might not disagree.

But it also was a deep and abiding friendship—Hazlewood even had an affectionate nickname for Wallace, “Bubba”—with all the attendant highs and lows that comes with any long-term friendship. Wallace’s casually intimate anecdotal style here is perfectly suited to his topic, for Hazlewood himself is a walking collection of anecdotes. There’s the one, for example, about the time he turned down Cynthia Plastercaster’s invitation to, ahem, be “cast” following his chart success with Nancy Sinatra: “It certainly wasn’t my morals,” he confides to Wallace. “I’d just be afraid I’d be walking down a Los Angeles street one day and there’d be a sign: Ten Lee Hazlewoods. One Mick Jagger. I just couldn’t handle that…” Or when, as a teenager, he was accused by a policeman of stealing tires from a gas station, but his father declined to let the cop inspect the car trunk after young Lee swore he hadn’t done it: “The one thing you didn’t dare do is, you didn’t lie to my dad. And the cop knew it…” Or how in the ‘60s he was able to slip things past censors thanks to their penchant for only reading lyrics literally; Sinatra’s “Sugar Town” was actually about taking acid (he’d seen kids at a club eating LSD-laced sugar cubes), while the line in “Boots” about “you’ve been messing…” was an overt reference to sex (“messing” turns out to be a synonym for “fucking” in parts of Texas).

The book traces the pair’s friendship through Hazlewood’s decline and death, Wallace setting numerous scenes that are priceless for any Hazlewood fan, such as when Hazlewood is in rehearsals for his appearance at Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival in ’99 in London and Cave, incredibly, comes off as stilted and borderline dismissive when he arrives to meet Hazlewood; or, at what will turn out to be his last birthday party, Hazlewood is sitting in his lounge chair, the center of attention (Nancy Sinatra literally sitting on the floor at his feet), wearing a teeshirt that proclaims, I’m not dead yet.

Spoiler Alert: Their final scene together, though, will put a lump in your throat. Wallace is at Hazlewood’s house, preparing to go catch a plane back home. Sensing that Hazlewood is nearing the end, Wallace wants to hug him goodbye, offer a bunch of emotional things he’d been planning to say, but when the time comes he’s utterly lost for words and has to settle for just exchanging good-byes and shaking hands. Three weeks later he gets an early-a.m. phone call. He sees the number and realizes it’s Hazlewood’s wife Jeane. He instinctively knows why she’s calling.

The book concludes with Wallace attending a memorial party for Hazlewood in Phoenix, with friends and family and of course Wallace toasting the man, telling tall tales, looking at his photos and listening to his music. Just like any other celebration or wake, right?

Well, maybe… but this is Lee fucking Hazlewood we’re talking about. There was nothing even remotely “just like any other…” with regards to the man.

Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing about this delightful book that’s just like any other memoir…

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[Below: author Wyndham Wallace]

Wallace

Lee, Myself & I on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/leemyselfand

Jawbone Press: www.jawbonepress.com

Wyndham Wallace: http://www.wyndhamwallace.com/

 

 

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