Lee Hazlewood R.I.P.: Cake, Death, and a Requiem for One of the Greats

An Obituary and Record Guide

Nancy and Lee

Yesterday we lost one of post-war America’s coolest, most prolific, and secretly important pop artists/composers/producers. While Lee Hazlewood will perhaps always be best remembered for his work with Nancy Sinatra, writing and producing “These Boots Were Made For Walking” as well as their hit duet “Some Velvet Morning,” to his growing cult, which definitely includes me and a number of my friends and acquaintances, Lee Hazlewood is an everything man of pop music – up there with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and David Axelrod in terms of visionary production, Lou Reed, Chris Christopherson, and Leonard Cohen in poignant songwriting, and Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, and Serge Gainsbourg in distinctive delivery.

I had the good fortune of seeing the man speak at an Anthology Film Archives presentation of his films about a decade ago that featured a documentary about his Las Vegas stint with Nancy, a collection of videos from his under-rated and flawless Cowboy in Sweden album, and an odd collection of late 1970s videos in which he interpreted the songs of Harry Chapin. He showed up wearing cowboy boots with his beautiful younger wife and blatantly disregarded the theater’s request that he not smoke. A short man with a big voice, Lee was everything in person that you would have expected from his recordings – a heroic rebel, a friendly mensch, and a badass in general.

And this charming combination of contrarianism, humanism, and cool, when combined with his brilliant aesthetics and poetic imagination, are exactly what distinguishes Hazlewood from the greatest generation… of contemporary pop. His work, a synthesis of the rustic and the urbane, chock full of signifiers of both high art and populism, evolved across the years through his battles with the music industry – remaining, for the most part, give or take a Chapin cover, uncompromising, unique, and even timelessly hip all the way up until his self-conscious swan song Cake or Death last year.

There are a number of documents of Hazlewood’s early career as a producer and songwriter that are well worth checking out. Born in Oklahoma, and raised primarily in Texas, after serving in Korea, and DJ-ing on Armed Forces Radio, he wound up in Phoenix where he wasn’t only a disc jockey, but started writing and producing tracks for his own Viv Records imprint. Sanford Clark’s 1955 country hit “The Fool” not only exhibits Hazlewood’s trademark work in the echo realm, but also hints at his ability to throw together a melodramatic pop song early on. In the later 1950s you hear Hazlewood’s unseen hand in the sound of the super-reverbed-out guitar tone of Duane Eddy (literally in a grain silo). The success of Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser” made Hazlewood a bit of a name in the industry and brought a young Phil Spector to Phoenix to check out his game. Some of Spector’s earliest productions wound up on the label he co-founded with Coaster’s manager Lester Sill, Trey Records, and both were early partners in Spector’s Phillies imprint. As Spector’s star rose, his mentor’s fell.

Trouble is a lonesome townDespite a lack of recent commercial success in his productions, Mercury funded Hazlewood’s first solo album, Trouble is a Lonesome Town (1963) – a sort Western take on Our Town bristling with rustic narration. The next year found him scraping the pop charts a couple of times with the singles “I’m a Fool” and “Our Time’s Coming.” His next album N.S.V.I.P. (1965) was yet another surprisingly likeable portrait of a small town’s grotesques.

During this period he recorded Dino, Desi and Billy, including Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz’s kids, wrote Dean Martin’s stellar hit “Houston” (with the line “I’m so hungry when I walk I squeak”), and reached the commercial pinnacle of his career writing and producing the Nanci Sinatra’s mega hits “So Long Babe” (1965), “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (1966), and her duet with her papa “Somethin’ Stupid.” While these productions amounted to some of the better pop music of its time, the quality solo material he recorded in these prolific years exceeded them all.

Very Special World of Lee HazlewoodIn addition to Friday’s Child (1966) the next couple of years saw the release of two albums that introduced the Hazlewood’s golden age of cinematic, highly orchestrated, extremely stylized Western-tinged pop, Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood (1966) and Lee Hazlewood-ism: Its Cause and Cure (1967). The baroque arrangements are courtesy of session guitarist Billy Strange, who later went on to produce the Partridge Family Album and many other sweet delights. These two classics were only the beginning of an artistic winning streak.

Nancy and LeeA Nancy Sinatra B-side from this period, the duet with Lee, “Some Velvet Morning,” became a flip-over hit sensation – resulting in Hazlewood’s brightest moment in pop culture, an album that is universally regarded as one of the best albums ever pressed on wax, the million-plus seller, Nancy and Lee (1968). Creating an odd intersection of the lush crooner pop he was producing, the country vocal stylings of his roots, the beat literature on his mind, and the surreal psychedelic pop of its time, all bounced through his trademark echo, this unforgettable collection includes a number of other rubies for which Hazlewood’s typically best remembered – including “Sand,” “Summer Wine,” “Greenwich Village Folk Song Salesman,” and “I’ve Been Down for So Long (It Looks Like up to Me).”

The quirky yet patchy next one, Love and Other Crimes (1968), includes a couple of exceptional somber classics “Pour Man” and “Forget Marie.” Then, once again working with a gorgeous blonde celebrity, but with less success, Hazlewood’s excessively baroque The Cowboy and the Lady (1969) features the fine “Sleep in the Grass.”

Cowboy in SwedenAfter this bit of a lull, our hero moved to Sweden and entered the 1970s with some of his finest hours on record – most of which weren’t pressed in the United States until Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley re-released them on his Smells Like Records imprint in the late-1990s. The first, the hazy masterpiece, Cowboy in Sweden (1970), doesn’t have a dinger in the bunch and includes the superior impressionistic flights “Pray Them Bars Away,” “Leather and Lace,” “Hey Cowboy,” “No Train to Stockholm,” and “For a Day Like Today.” Never has he sounded this good or had such perfect production – in terms of both utility and invention. A definite contender for his best work ever.

Despite somewhat hokey spoken intros a‘la Trouble is a Lonesome Town and his homespun sense of humor, Requiem for an Almost Lady (1971) is his saddest hour on wax and another one approaching perfection. Hinting at a more sophisticated version of Barry Maguire or Mamas and Papas, Requiem includes “I’m Glad I Never,” “L.A. Lady,” and “I’ll Live Yesterdays.”

Poet, Fool or Bum
(1973) is another canonical near-perfect collection. They’re all good – the title track, “Heaven Is My Woman’s Love,” “Kari,” “Feathers,” “Nancy and Me,” “Wind, Sky, and Sand, etc. plus covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Spend the Morning” or Tom Waits’ “Those Were Days of Roses” (“Martha”).

Cake or DeathHazlewood had a number of other albums but after this point I get a bit lost on his catalog. While he seldom performed live, and is truly one artist I regret missing, he appeared with Nancy on her 1995 comeback tour. He also made a pair of lovely final albums – the eclectic oddball Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! Me… (1999) and last year’s and Cake or Death (2006).

Lee knew that he had cancer, was still smoking, was ready to go, and had an incredibly philosophical outlook in interviews from the last couple of years. Let’s use his death as an opportunity to go back through all of his outstanding catalog and explore his many avenues we’ve yet to travel… Let’s also use his life as an example of uncompromising artist who not only managed to find a wealth of adventure, experience, and even happiness in this world, but also of one of the rare birds who persevered and continued to produce vital work until the end – dignity intact.

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