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
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
"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
"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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