Very few people got to know the real Lee Hazlewood, who died of renal cancer in 2007 at age 78. Though the Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter/producer/label owner sold millions of records (most of them copies of Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 single, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” which he wrote and produced), he remained a cult figure in his own country. And he was okay with that, as long as he had a steady supply of cigarettes and Chivas Regal, and a good woman nearby.
Hazlewood’s fervent cult—which includes hundreds of your favorite underground and mainstream musicians and the owners Seattle’s Hazlewood Bar—was drawn to his self-deprecating wit, deadpan vocals, and impeccable skill for songwriting and arranging in several pop idioms. His albums abound with memorable tunes that seemingly are sung from mountaintops or gutters, depending on Lee’s mood. And they’re full of piquant storytelling that reflects Hazlewood’s slanted, enchanted way with a tall tale. Hazlewood became a less dour Leonard Cohen, a wry troubadour with a flair for duets with female singers, including Ann-Margret, Suzi Jane Hokom, and Nina Lizell. The zenith of this format is the Nancy duet “Some Velvet Morning,” which set the bar for lysergic orch-pop very high.
British writer Wyndham Wallace was one of the few outsiders to gain access to Hazlewood’s inner sanctum. Although 42 years younger than Lee, Wallace gained his trust first as his publicist, then as manager, and eventually as friend. Wallace spent much time with the hermit-like curmudgeon and reaped the rewards of the older man’s numerous anecdotes about his travails and successes in the music biz. Their tumultuous and endearing relationship comes to life in Wallace’s 2015 memoir/biography Lee, Myself & I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood.
The book captures Hazlewood in a late-career resurgence, spurred partially by Smells Like Records label reissuing several out-of-print Lee LPs in 1999. As publicist for those releases and Wallace convinced Hazlewood to play a few London shows, including the Nick Cave–curated Meltdown Festival. Tasked with arranging interviews for his artist, who was antagonistic toward the press, Wallace received several faxes from Hazlewood detailing his loathing of music journalists and the punctilious measures he required in order to agree to meeting them. “I’m not a fan of journalists,” one fax read. “They’re proof that not all horse’s asses are on horses. You could offer me all the pussy in the world and I wouldn’t like critics any more.”
Hazlewood’s fans are obsessive, and Lee, Myself & I has many treasures and obscure facts for them to savor. Did you know Hazlewood stuttered up until the third grade? Or that he was friends with tennis great Björn Borg while living in exile in Sweden? Or that he rejected Sub Pop’s offer to release a tribute album in the early ‘90s? Or turned down Cynthia Plaster Caster’s request to immortalize his cock? Neither did I.
Now based in Berlin, Wallace fielded my questions about Lee, Myself & I via e-mail.
Despite the warts-and-all approach, was there anything Wallace omitted from the book because he thought it too much for Hazlewood’s fans to bear? “I never really held back information that I thought would be too much for his fans to bear, no,” Wallace said. “There are stories that I felt didn’t have a place in the book, or certainly didn’t add anything to what was already there. Also, for the most part, I didn’t feel comfortable discussing his family in any depth, especially since I spent little time with any of them asides from Jeane, who became his wife. But I don’t think there’s a great deal I left out for any other reason than that I wanted the book to be concise as well as honest.”
There’s an anecdote about Lee’s penis swinging six inches from Wallace’s face that is, um, weirdly left hanging. Any further details?
“It was something I considered dropping,” Wallace said, “but it seemed to encapsulate the growing intimacy of our relationship. I doubt he’d thank me for keeping it, but more because I admit that he was six sheets to the wind than because I relate how careless he was with his bathrobe.”
One wonders if Wallace’s dissimilar background helped or hindered the process of dealing with Hazlewood both professionally and personally. The culture and generation gaps seem like obstacles, but maybe they played in his favor? “Lee was a fan of the absurd,” the author explained. “It was perhaps as unlikely to him that he’d ended up working with a young, private school educated Englishman with a ridiculous name as it was to me that I’d ended up working with a gravel-voiced musical hero of mine who for some years I’d actually thought was dead, whose records I’d spent significant amounts of time tracking down and even more falling in love with.”
Hazlewood was curiously absent from the culture from the late 1970s to the early ’90s. How did a songwriter with so much charisma and talent (not to mention so many hits) fade so dramatically from the public consciousness? “Two reasons,” Wallace said. “One is that Lee himself shrunk from the spotlight. You need to remember that he’d already ‘retired’ when he was approached to work with Nancy. His solo career had started by accident when he recorded a collection of demos for other singers that were then picked up for release in their original form as Trouble Is a Lonesome Town. Earlier singles, too, had been released under a pseudonym. So I don’t think he felt comfortable with all the attention that comes with success, and that also helps explain his relocation to Sweden in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where he was perhaps able to enjoy fame on a more manageable scale.
“Second, I think that it’s natural for each generation to reject the music that came before. Lee was so associated with Nancy and the music of that whole era that there was little room for him afterwards, however talented and charismatic he was. If I’d heard his records while growing up in the ‘80s, even I would no doubt have dismissed them as kitsch easy listening in a ‘guilt by association’ fashion. ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ was probably my only brush with his work, and it didn’t seem relevant to a world that had since lived through prog, punk, synth pop, and indie. But when other musicians started to ‘reclaim’ him I began to take notice, and enough time had passed for a little perspective to emerge, something that revealed subtleties I might have previously overlooked.”
Because Wallace is one of the few people who’ve heard (almost) everything Hazlewood recorded—he wrote the liner notes for Light in the Attic’s The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes & Backsides [1968-1971] comp—I had to ask him about his favorite Hazlewood song.
“I find [this question] hard to answer,” he said, “I’ve gone through phases where I think ‘Some Velvet Morning’ is his finest work, and for a while I believed ‘Souls Island’ (from A House Safe for Tigers) represented the pinnacle, perhaps for the sentimental reason that I visited its inspiration, Gotland, Sweden, soon after I first heard it. But at the moment I tend towards ‘My Autumn’s Done Come,’ for the simple reason that it reminds me of the dignity of his final years, while also epitomizing his stubborn nature. That it was written when he was in his 30s, and therefore exhibits a rare sensitivity toward what it’s like to be older, underlines his genius.”