You may not know the name “Lee Hazlewood”, but you’ve most certainly heard his songs. Whether for his production and studio skills – along with helping Duane Eddy perfect his signature guitar sound, he also mentored a certain Harvey Phillip Spector in the early Sixties – his writing ability – he co-authored Nancy Sinatra’s breakthrough hit ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’ – or his distinctive solo work that he dubbed “cowboy psychedelia”, Hazlewood shaped the cultural landscape and inspired generations of artists for over six decades, a musical legacy that is almost without equal.
That Hazlewood is not talked about in the same, hushed tones as a Dylan or Cash is a source of great sadness (and some bafflement) to writer and fellow journalist Wyndham Wallace. A jobbing music PR and avowed Hazlewood fan back in 1999, Wallace ended up, through several chance encounters, working the release of a number of re-issues before becoming Hazlewood’s friend, manager, and confidant until the singer’s untimely death from cancer in 2007. The book he has written about their time together, Lee, Myself & I, charts the ups and downs of their relationship and delves deep into Hazlewood’s rich, dark, and complicated life.
The memoir, detailed and respectful, reads like a manifesto for the re-appraisal of a great talent; the picture that emerges is one of a proud, stubborn, self-effacing man who, if it hadn’t been for the tireless efforts of Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and a few other celebrity fans, would have been quite happy to live out his life by the side of a pool, sipping on a glass of his beloved Chivas Regal. And through his re-birth as a latter day icon, Wallace is by his side; cajoling, supporting, ever-eager to give advice and nudge Hazlewood towards the spotlight that he seemed so determined to avoid.
I spoke to Wallace via Skype as he prepares to embark on a book tour about the whirlwind eight years he spent with one of his, and one of the great unsung, musical heroes.
DiS: From the first part of the book, it seems like Hazlewood wasn't particularly bothered about re-releasing stuff or playing that much, even though he had this massive back catalogue that he could call on. Why do you think he just disappeared from the limelight and was laying low, not really doing much?
Wyndham Wallace: He just didn't think anyone was interested. Since his Swedish heyday in the 1970’s, I assume he had enough money to live on, and he wasn't comfortable with the idea of being in the spotlight or terribly interested in going into the studio. I think he was perfectly happy drinking himself into bed every evening, having fun with friends, travelling around and keeping a low profile. He put out a couple of records, neither of which were terribly distinguished, and I don’t think there had been a great deal of interest in him. I think he even felt that people thought he was slightly kitsch and lounge-y, and they didn't take him seriously as a musician or writer. He probably felt that his time had been and gone, and when the interest first started to arise in his back catalogue, I don’t think he took it seriously. My suspicion is that when Sub Pop approached him in the early 90’s with bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana and Sonic Youth, who all wanted to partake in his covers album, he thought it was kind of going to be a joke at his expense. So he didn't want to be any part of it and, because so many of his solo records had sold so few copies to begin with, I don’t really think he felt there was any chance that that was ever going to change. He thought it was going to be a whole headache for very little recompense, so to speak. He would judge everything by how much money he had made out of the songs anyway, and while a record like Cowboy in Sweden might have been a big seller in Sweden, it’d never done much business anywhere else, because it was barely released anywhere else. So I think he felt it just wasn't real, and that any interest in him was just purely marginally and not worth worrying about.
Do you think part of it was him realising that he had this legacy and not wanting to taint it in anyway, essentially saying: “Well, I've got this body of work that’s kind of sitting there, I don’t want to come out and be 50 year old me, and people think: ‘Oh God!’ What’s going on with him?’”
I had never thought of it like that, but I don’t think so. I don’t think he actually, genuinely, valued a lot of his work. He may have valued it privately, to himself, and believed that he had done good things, but I don’t think that he felt that the world at large had ever really appreciated what he had done. So I don’t think that he really felt that he had a great legacy to taint.
That’s pretty sad, that he felt that way.
I mean, it took Steve Shelley a long time to persuade him to do the re-issues, like a couple of years. So that in itself suggests that he didn’t really take it very seriously; to me anyway. When I approached him about playing a show in London, his concerns were not about tainting his reputation particularly – it was definitely important to him that he worked with his choice of musicians – but he was significantly more concerned about how much money he was going to earn out of it, and whether it was going to be worth the effort that he was going to put into it.
So I don’t think he understood that he had this legacy, and I don’t think it sank in until he played the Meltdown Festival basically. And there was this great exchange where someone shouted out “We love you, Lee!”, he replied “Where the hell were you?” and they said “We weren't even born yet!” He said he had goosebumps when he heard that, because it hadn't struck him at all that there were all these young people who cared about his work.
It is quite interesting the way he seemed overly focused about money and the business side of things, which I thought went against the idea of people being artists and caring more about their work.
Yeah, a number of people have picked up on that, and it’s definitely something that I noticed very early on. The thing is, I think he suffered from a lack of security in himself and so a royalty cheque was something that was basically a physical representation of what his work meant, and it was the only thing he really grasped. I think that he felt that most of the people he was dealing with in the music industry were fakes, so he didn't take them terribly seriously, or had a whole lot of respect for them; money was really the only measurement he could grasp. It may have been that behind the scenes he did value his work, but I don’t think he really ever felt that other people had that same sense that what he had achieved was art, so what was the point of him considering it art either? Also, to him, it really was a day job; literally just a day job. He felt: ‘I am a song writer, I am a producer and I can be a music business guy’. He called what he did ‘pulp’; it was just cheap song writing to him and while he had a true gift for it, that was all it was, a job.
So he suffered from a lot of self-doubt?
Well, he definitely suffered from depression. I was told at his memorial party that he had been prescribed Lithium at an early age, and this had made him so lethargic and dulled his creativity to such an extent that he decided not to pursue that medication. That was also one of the reasons he became such a moody man; his temper was so short. That was definitely a problem for him, and I think he lacked self-belief in what he was doing to a degree. At the same time, he was also very, very stubborn and very, very full of his own self, so it was a massive contradiction with him, and that was hard to get to grips with. That was the thing about Lee, you never really know where you stood with him on pretty much anything. Did he like you? Did he not? Did he like his own records? Did he not? You could never really be sure.
At what point did you realise that you were more than just one of his business associates, or more than just working on his behalf, and had become a friend, become somewhat of a confidant to him?
It was a gradual process and, when I look back on it, I realise there were certain things that happened that meant that subconsciously I was getting closer to him but, at the time, didn't necessarily register with me. I joke in the book about the time he got changed in front of me; I was sitting on the edge of his bed and looked up, and he was just standing naked in front of me with his penis swinging six inches from my nose! That was definitely a significant moment in realising we had become fairly close. But, soon after I had started working with him and we had done the Meltdown Festival, he insisted I come to Sweden to do a show there; those five days we spent together were fairly significant in realising: ‘We certainly get on, we certainly have fun together’. After I had moved to Berlin and we set up this deal for him to sing, to re-record ‘Jackson’ with a Eurovision Song Contest winner, we spent five days in Oslo at his insistence. He literally wouldn't do the deal unless they paid for me to be there with him. Looking back on it, it meant he really enjoyed my company as much as I enjoyed his. Even then, I don’t think I realised just how significant it was until he was actually dying and repeatedly asked me to come and stay with him in Las Vegas and spend time with him. It was at that point that I thought this was definitely way, way more than just a business relationship in which we get on well and like having a drink together occasionally. At that point, that there was something more to it, like we had some kind of connection.
He seemed like quite a difficult man too, perhaps not to get on with, but to win his trust, and that he had an uneasy relationship with some of the famous people who professed to be fans or influenced by him, like the very awkward meeting with Nick Cave you describe in the book.
(Laughs) Yes. The funny thing is, he was really looking forward to meeting Nick and in general he had a lot of time for musicians. Just before the end of his life he did an interview with Richard Hawley, it was the first interview that Richard had ever done, and I think it is still the only interview that Richard has ever done. After that Lee just had nothing but wonderful words to say about Richard. I've just done an interview as well with Dean Wareham from Galaxie 500 and Luna; Dean was talking about how he’d been warned just how difficult Lee could be and yet when they met, Lee was utterly charming! I think Lee actually liked musicians because it meant that he could actually talk to them about music, whereas journalists didn't necessarily know what they were talking about. He had very little patience for that.
To be honest, we often don’t generally know what we are talking about…
(Laughs) Yeah! I wouldn't like to pursue that line of questioning terribly because otherwise I will just end up sounding awful….
No, he was not an easy person to get on with, but musicians – particularly musicians he didn't have to work with – he got on very well with. There was also the band that he toured Europe with on his last ever tour of Europe, when the demos album, For Every Solution There’s a Problem, came out. That was made of a few members of the High Llamas and various other players, and he had a whale of a time with those people; he loved them. It was hard for him to trust people but, somehow, once somebody had won his trust he very rarely withdrew it.
Did he find it difficult after all those years to slip back into song writing mode and being creative again? There was obviously quite a big gap where he didn't do very much and then all of a sudden it was: ‘OK, let's go do an album’, with all that pressure because you've suddenly become a big deal again and lots of people are anticipating the new material. Did he just go: ‘Right, OK. I’ll sit down and do it’ or was he thinking that: ‘This has got to be good, it can't be rubbish.’
Oh, I don’t think he cared remotely what other people thought. I really do not think it crossed his mind. The last two proper albums he released, one was in 1999, called Origami Arf!!! And Me, and was a collection of what he called ‘beer songs’ that he said his Dad sang when he came back from the pub. He loved those songs and nobody expected him to come back with, effectively, a ‘lounge’ album, a supper club record. And he didn't care what anybody thought! Over time I thought it was him failing to understand what his stature was and where he sat in popular culture but, looking back, I realise that he just didn't care about that; these were just songs that he loved and he wanted to record them. Then when he recorded Cake or Death a few years later it was the same thing, he just felt like he wanted to make one last statement; he wasn't interested in working with hip producers or taking the Johnny Cash approach, talking to Rick Rubin. I had a few conversations with him about working with other bands that I thought would be really good, like Lambchop or Calexico – bands I had been working with – and I suggested he collaborate with them. But he wasn't interested in that, he just wanted to make a record his way and that’s what he did. He did ask me to try and sort him out to work with the Pet Shop Boys though…
Yeah, there’s a track on Cake or Death called ‘Baghdad Nights’ and he wanted that to be recorded with the Pet Shop Boys. The funny thing is, it wasn't that he thought it was a cool idea or anything like that, he just thought that they were fantastic song writers. That would have been the most fantastically cool thing that he could have done; I mean, put that and the Dusty Springfield song that they’d done together alongside one another, and it would have been amazing. But that wasn't his motivation, he just thought that they were great and I don’t think he really gave a damn about what anyone else thought; as long as he found somebody who would license it off him and pay for his costs – which he did quite well - he was happy.
I was going to mention the whole Johnny Cash, American Man thing. I would have thought his back catalogue was ripe for doing something a little bit similar.
Oh, honestly, I would tear my hair out sometimes, just thinking about how we could have done this in comparison to how he chose to do it. And with Cake or Death – I really liked that record, without a doubt – but there is this part of me that wonders what would it have been like if we’d have put him in the studio with Richard Hawley, in the same way that Richard went on to work with Duane Eddy. Imagine if they had done that! Imagine if Jarvis Cocker had come in and collaborated with him, and he was a big fan of Jarvis’...
The Johnny Cash way, he could have done that, and he was friends with Cash for a while. So I don’t know whether he looked at that and just thought: ‘OK, I’m never going to be the guy that can pull that off’ or whether he just thought: ‘I’m not interested.’ I don’t know, I really don’t know. But it was frustrating for me because I really felt that were he to go into the studio and make that kind of record, we would not be having this conversation about a small book that I had written; we would be talking about a legend, this book would be coming out with a massive publisher, and Lee would be on every t-shirt in Shoreditch!
I remember buying Cake or Death when it came out having read something he did in the….was it the Sunday Times?
Well, there were a number of pieces, but, yeah probably. I forget exactly what we did because there was a hell of a lot of press around that record as he was aware of the fact that he was going to be dead within a year or so; he was really trying to do as much press as he possibly could to support that record.
I wasn't massively familiar with his stuff, and I remember putting it on and being somewhat puzzled and underwhelmed by it. Thinking: ‘This is not really what I expected.’ Though I’m not sure what I did expect, to be honest.
It was a strange way to go out, I agree. I mean, there are some fabulous songs on it, but what it lacks, I think, is the touch of somebody who was contemporary to the times that the record came out. As a result, it doesn't sound either like his earlier work or like the kind of records that were coming out at that stage. I think there was a hell of a lot of good will, which meant that he got some great reviews, but a lot of those great reviews were driven because they were written by people who loved Lee and knew it was the last record he was going to make. It’s not quite the swan song that I would've liked, but at the same time, it does have some absolutely fabulous stuff on it; ‘The Old Man’ for example, which is as schmaltzy as any song you are ever going to hear, and is the final closing song, is just ridiculously beautiful.
Do you think he’ll be remembered more as a song writer and producer of others, or more for his actual solo work? Delve around online and it seems he’s more noted and famous for the stuff he wrote and produced for other people, as opposed to his own material.
There’s a split. You basically have the mainstream music fans, old and young, who are familiar with ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’, and the older generation who are familiar with other songs like ‘Sand’, ‘Summer Wine’, and ‘Some Velvet Morning’. So you have those people who don’t really delve into music terribly, but the people who tend to explore music in more depth like you and I, I think they are going to look back on Lee’s work – Lee’s solo work that is - being the pinnacle of his achievement. Personally, I think that ‘Some Velvet Morning’ is one of the greatest tunes ever written or recorded, but in general Lee’s solo work is what really illustrates what he had done, and what he could do, because that was when he was least compromised by commercial means. That’s reflected in the way that people look at Lee’s work these days. People think all the pop stuff’s great and they love hearing it, but listening to something like ‘A House Safe for Tigers’ or ‘Cowboy in Sweden’, those types of records, that’s where the real passion is aroused.
What made him so great? What was his unique gift?
I think it is that refusal to compromise, and his desire to do something his own way. He always did things his own way. And he found this technique that made his records sound like no one else’s, something that Phil Spector kind of, let’s put it this way, “borrowed” off him, having worked as his intern briefly. He changed the way music sounded; you listen to Duane Eddy’s work, you listen to what he did with Sanford Clark, you listen to his solo work, and there’s this space in those records that you just don’t hear very often. Everyone else is so busy cramming stuff into their records – and he was even able to have lots of stuff going on his record too – but there always felt like there was this vast space, like they had been recording in a desert. That, and his voice of course; his voice was just incredible, no one sings like him. Probably no one ever will. There are loads of people who try, but that voice is just unforgettable; once you’d heard it, it just reached right down into your soul, and anybody else that sounds like Lee Hazlewood, they sound like Lee Hazlewood, you know? They don’t sound like themselves.
After he passed away, were there any lost recordings or hidden stuff that he’d done but never released that you stumbled across? Or work that at some point will be found, then it’ll see the light of day?
Funnily enough, after he died I took a trip over to his publishing company in LA to try and find out if there was any unreleased material, but their cataloguing system at that point was not terribly efficient, if I can put it like that – and I mean that with the greatest of respect. Soon after that, I stopped working with them, so I wasn't able to delve into it with any more depth, but there were some things there, and Light in the Attic, who have been re-issuing Lee’s work over the last few years, they've also uncovered one or two things. But I don’t think there’s a huge amount of stuff. Lee being the journey-man that he was, constantly moving, and never really living in the same place for a terribly long time – he travelled very light – he didn't archive his own material either. I’m sure there is stuff out there; stuff hidden in some vault in Arizona, from his very, very early days, or out-takes buried in some record company vault that no one remembers is there, and from time to time over the years somebody is going to stumble on it. But I don’t know how much there is, and my attempts to uncover them were unfortunately curtailed because I stopped working with the family about eighteen months after he died, so I couldn't explore any further. Honestly, if anyone’s going to find it, Light in the Attic will. I think their re-issue campaign for Lee is just immaculate – I’m so, so impressed with what they've done – so I know if anyone’s going to find it, they will.
Lee, Myself & I is out now through Jawbone Press, and is available online and through all good bookshops. More information can be found here
Re-issues of Hazlewood's albums, and more information on his back catalogue, can be found here