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Lee Hazlewood: Stranger in This Land

The renaissance cowboy cut a wide swath through the West, and inspired a generation of songwriters

At 78, retired and living in Las Vegas, Lee Hazlewood was as deadpan and droll as ever, having recorded his farewell album fully aware of his impending demise. Renal cancer "doesn't lead into remission, it leads into death," he chuckled during one of his last interviews, adding that "Even the cats laugh at it." Hazlewood died August 4, having enjoyed one of the most idiosyncratic careers in American music — one that's only likely to grow.

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."

Lee Hazlewood: Pride of Port Neches
Jakob Axelman
Lee Hazlewood: Pride of Port Neches

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 near Beaumont in Port Neches, 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 — Dean Martin's "Houston" was a Hazlewood number, 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 wasn't Hazlewood's favorite achievement, although "it's made millions of dollars." (Mentioning Billy Ray Cyrus's $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, before eventually 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."

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