Lee Hazelwood: Ready to Die

By Sia Michel, NY Times - January 28, 2007

           Suffering excruciating pain from renal cancer, Mr. Hazlewood, the reclusive singer, songwriter and producer doesn't have much time left, maybe a year if he's lucky. So he has been preparing for what he calls his impending "dirt nap."
           He has decided he wants to be cremated, and to have his ashes strewn on a Swedish island where he composed some of his favorite songs. He has chosen his epitaph: "Didn't he ramble," referring to his loner-drifter nature. He has already given away most of his gold and platinum records, which he earned making hits for Duane Eddy, Dean Martin and Nancy Sinatra, including "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," one of the most famous pop songs of all time. He has released his swan song, the quirky album "Cake or Death," which hit stores last week. And he married his longtime girlfriend, Jeane Kelley, in a drive-through ceremony in Las Vegas.
           "It was like going to McDonald's," Mr. Hazlewood said of their November wedding, sitting in his living room in a small, tidy house. "You stay in the car and go up to the window. The preacher was a Frenchman. Afterwards my granddaughter threw rose petals on the hood."
           Mrs. Hazlewood, smiling, said: "He just wanted to make me a legal woman. After 15 years together."
           Mr. Hazlewood, who was married twice before, kept cracking dark jokes about his health ("Dying really drives your price up"), though he stressed that being "ready to go doesn't mean you're through with your life." He dotes on his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whose pictures adorn a wall in the TV room, next to a huge portrait of himself, wearing shades. But, he said: "I'm 77. I've been around long enough now. I've lived a pretty interesting life - not too much sadness, a lot of happiness, lots of fun. And I didn't do much of anything I didn't want to do."
           True, he is one of the more iconoclastic figures of 20th-century pop, a cantankerous, hard-living innovator who walked away from fame and fortune whenever he felt like it. One of the major hitmakers of the '50s and '60s, he helped Duane Eddy shape twang-rock, transformed Nancy Sinatra into a megastar and, on his LHI label, released what is widely considered the first country-rock record, by Gram Parsons's International Submarine Band. And he made a series of beautifully oddball solo albums that were mostly unheard in America, until a member of Sonic Youth reissued them in the '90s.
           Today Mr. Hazlewood is sadly unsung, which is partly his own fault. He spent decades trying to disappear, flitting between Europe and the United States - particularly those states with no personal income tax. "I'm kind of a bum," he said.
           His quirky genius stems from a desire to make sounds he never heard before; he summed it up as "not normal" music. In the '50s he was inspired to stick a microphone and an amp in a grain elevator, to capture the spooky reverb effect heard on Mr. Eddy's classics. Some conspiracy theorists think he inspired Phil Spector's "wall of sound" (the two men briefly worked together), or that Mr. Spector even stole the production technique from him.
           "Phil was not influenced by me at all," Mr. Hazlewood said emphatically. "His records were just genius, and if you think I would have come up with the wall of sound and given it to Phil Spector, you're out of your mind."
           Mr. Hazlewood's own music grew increasingly experimental over the years. Born in the tiny town of Mannford, Okla., he favors vaguely country-western pop with sweet melodies and symphonic orchestration, sung in a stunning baritone as deep and sticky as a tar pit. "I think his voice has the kind of stature that Johnny Cash's had," Beck said. "It has a gravity that allows him to be sincere and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. It's that immense voice of experience, not expecting any kindness from humanity other than a spare cigarette."
           Mr. Hazlewood's wry tales feature boozers and misfits, stooges and undertakers, summer wine and dames on death row. There are O. Henry endings, cheesy voice-overs and concept albums about Loserville ("Trouble Is a Lonesome Town," 1963) and bad breakups ("Requiem for an Almost Lady," 1971). Today his sound is often called cowboy psychedelia, best represented by the trippy "Some Velvet Morning." But it's a genre of one: no one else has ever sounded quite like him.
           He had a knack for mainstream pop too. Dean Martin interpreted his jaunty wandering-man lark "Houston," a huge hit in the mid-'60s. They bonded over a love of scotch: Mr. Martin was a J&B man, Mr. Hazlewood drank Chivas Regal. "Here's Dean Martin drinking J&B and I'm drinking something which is twice as much money and twice as good," he said, shaking his head with mild disgust. "I didn't drink to get drunk. I drank as a reward, and I only drank the good stuff."
           Soon Frank Sinatra wanted him to fix the floundering career of his daughter Nancy. Despite a decade-plus age difference, Mr. Hazlewood and Ms. Sinatra hit it off; they remain close friends. He thought that she was too cutesy, that she needed to seem more like truck-driver-dating jailbait. "He was part Henry Higgins and part Sigmund Freud," Ms. Sinatra said by telephone. "He was far from the country bumpkin people considered him at the time. I had a horrible crush on him, but he was married then."
           Romance rumors swirled, but they never had an affair, Mr. Hazlewood said, "and now we're old enough to tell you if we did."
           When he played her "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'," a song he'd written in 1963, she knew it could be huge as soon as she heard the descending, quarter-tone bass line. By 1966 it was a No. 1 hit, and she was known as a sassy go-go-boot-wearing sexpot who doesn't let any man push her around. She and Mr. Hazlewood recorded a long string of chart-hogging duets - "Sundown, Sundown," "Jackson" - transforming a short 30-something with a bushy mustache into an unlikely pop star. "He called us the beauty and the beast," Ms. Sinatra said.
           She hated being alone, so they shared a dressing room during tours. The problem was, Mr. Hazlewood walked around naked, which was fine with her but didn't sit well with visiting journalists. She begged him to put on some underwear.
           "In those days I didn't wear shorts, ever," Mr. Hazlewood recalled. "Showing my butt is not any big thing with me, never has been."
           Ms. Sinatra said: "Nature boy. He was proud of his assets."
           Luckily her father didn't mind. "We got along great," Mr. Hazlewood said. "Frank thought I was about two-thirds funny, and I thought he was about 90 percent clever. He had names for everyone. He called me Country. But I could never get used to hearing someone call Frank Sinatra Daddy." The two men worked together on "This Town" and "Somethin' Stupid," a hit duet with Nancy.
           In 1969 Mr. Hazlewood was asked to work his magic on the bombshell actress-singer Ann-Margret. They posed naked for the artwork of the album "The Cowboy & the Lady." Well, almost: she's wearing a strategically placed umbrella, and he's wearing a gun.
           "We were extremely cold," Ann-Margret said in a telephone interview, "but we had such fun. He had that darling, aw-shucks demeanor, but he was sharp - and a bad, bad boy." (No affair, Mr. Hazlewood said: she was married.)
           Then, at the height of his success, Mr. Hazlewood shocked everyone in 1970 by suddenly moving to Sweden, where he lived for much of the following decade. He recorded some of his finest solo work there (like the gorgeous "Cowboy in Sweden") but his career never regained momentum.
           "It was crazy," Ms. Sinatra said. "And he really left me in the lurch. He kept shooting himself in the foot all the time, and I never knew why. He was always his own worst enemy."
           He could barely sleep the night before his interview, wracked with organ-deep aches that even "doping up" didn't ease. He was told he had cancer about a year and a half ago, and has since lost a kidney. The operation left him with a large, unsightly bump on his side. "If you're going to die of cancer, you might as well have a hump," he said.
           Nonetheless he looked and sounded surprisingly good, dressed like a young rocker in baggy black pants, tinted shades and a baseball cap with an embroidered dragon. He seemed much younger than 77, given his sarcastic asides and tales of Viking skeletons and fights at Hollywood restaurants. Far from prickly, he was charismatic and self-deprecating, asking his wife to finish some stories because "she tells 'em much better."
           He doesn't listen to much music anymore, though he said he loved Beck "before I even knew that he was a fan." Beck was turned on to his music by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, who gave him a tape in the early '90s. Meanwhile rockers like Pulp's Jarvis Cocker were saluting his music as forgotten art, not kitsch. A few years later Mr. Shelley got permission to reissue some of Mr. Hazlewood's out-of-print albums on Smells Like Records, his indie label; they sell about 5,000 to 10,000 copies each per year, according to the label.
           "This all surprised the hell out of me," Mr. Hazlewood recalled. In 1999 he released a comeback record with a self-sabotaging title: "Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! and Me."
           "I don't know if I was born to be in this business or not," he said.
           He originally wanted to be a doctor. He was raised "like a Gypsy," as his father was an oil wildcatter and the family followed him around Arkansas, Kansas and Texas, settling in Port Neches, Tex., during Mr. Hazlewood's high school years. One grandfather was a judge, married to a teacher who was half American Indian; the other was a rancher who taught him how to ride horses and herd cows.
           "I had the happiest childhood on record," Mr. Hazlewood said. "People tell me I'd have been a much better songwriter if I had a sad one."
           Mr. Hazlewood studied medicine, but left school to serve in the Korean War. Later a stint at broadcasting school led to a songwriting hobby and a radio D.J. gig in Arizona. By the mid-'50s he was championing an unknown guitar virtuoso named Duane Eddy.
           Mr. Eddy appears on "Cake or Death," reinterpreting the original, pre-Nancy version of "These Boots," which has a ghostlier melody few have heard before. An eccentric collection of new songs, covers and reworkings of Hazlewood classics, the album is far from a soft-focus, navel-gazing meditation on death. Mr. Hazlewood is going out the way he lived, fearless and cranky: he slams the Iraq war on "Baghdad Nights," mocks gated-community types in "White People Thing" and proudly salutes his liberal beliefs - "I never did vote Republican" - in the bluesy "Anthem." "Fred Freud" imagines Sigmund Freud's down-home American brother and features Mr. Hazlewood's favorite lyric: "No kisses or posies can kill your neuroses."
           But at the end he suddenly grabs for the heart: the melancholy, string-driven ballad "T.O.M. (The Old Man)" presents a dying singer who accepts that the world will be just as beautiful without him. He wrote it for his new wife, the only woman he said he was ever in "real love" with. A former military police officer, she is no-nonsense and extremely kind. "I kept waiting for love to get boring, and it never did," he said.
           In the song he wonders "what forever will be like." And he's still not sure. "I think that any part of you that's good or interesting might go back to this collective something that started it all off," he said. "And that's as deep of an explanation as I can give you."
           Suddenly he shouted out to Mark Hazlewood, his son: "Are you up there eavesdropping? Well, you should be, because you're going to have to do this for me when I'm dead."
           Everyone started laughing. Black humor is the family's coping mechanism. "We all joke about my death in this house," Mr. Hazlewood said. "Even the grandkids."
           But later, as Mrs. Hazlewood drove a reporter to a taxi stand at a nearby casino, she confessed: "This is so hard on all of us. I really don't want to lose him. I can't even imagine living without him."
           "I've been thinking of getting a glass vial of his blood," she added. "So I can clone him when the time and technology is right." One day 21st-century pop could get a lot stranger.

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