Lee Hazlewood was the ultimate dude’s dude. Uncompromising, stylish, a ladies-man and a loner, he was one of the last cowboys and one of the first beatniks. Poised with a nasally baritone full of wit and darkness but firstly an ingenious songwriter, Hazlewood was the man behind not only some of the greatest American pop hits of the last fifty years, but also some of its strangest and unlikely concept albums. When I learned of his passing this past weekend after a long bout with cancer I became deeply saddened and was instantly taken back to the memories I’ve had with Lee’s songs as the soundtrack.
If I were to create my own personal list of the greatest songs ever, Lee Hazlewood would make it twice in the top ten. “These Boots are Made For Walking” has been a favorite since childhood and has only gotten better with a proper understanding of Hazlewood’s life. The fact that he, a thick-mustached, reefer-smoking loner wrote the song with Frank Sinatra’s daughter in mind (not to mention that he infamously asked that she sing it “like a 16-year old girl who fucks truck drivers”) made it just perfect. It was his only #1 hit. “Some Velvet Morning”, though, is Hazlewood’s true masterpiece and probably my favorite song in the history of pop music, a psychedelic anti-pop duet (again with Sinatra), drenched in his trademark echo and woozy from the Man vs. Phaedra dialogue, that somehow managed to reach #26 in the Hot 100 back in early ’68.
Despite these brief moments of success and a slew of other minor hits, Hazlewood managed to stay well below the radar throughout his career.
By the 90’s Hazlewood had gained a whole new cult following thanks in part to Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, who began reissuing Lee’s records on his Smells Like imprint. At least that’s when my friends and I (and surely countless others) really began digging into the mysterious world of records like Cowboy In Sweden, an album recorded while he left the U.S. for Europe so that his son could avoid the draft, and Requiem for an Almost Lady, where Hazlewood introduces each song with a brief glimpse of its theme. Each and every record he did had its own unique charm and no-bullshit attitude. Not bad for an Oklahoman boy (b. 1929) who considered retiring from music in 1964.
Hazlewood was the original psychedelic cowboy. His music and spirit will undoubtedly continue to affect those who look a little left-of-center for inspiration. R.I.P. Lee.