Rebel Rouser

The recently rediscovered Lee Hazlewood finds his place among a new generation of fans

"I had been telling the guys that ran SubPop, Bruce [Pavitt] and Jon [Poneman] about all these great records I'd found over the years and they asked me to make them a tape of some Lee Hazlewood songs."

Accompanying Nirvana on a West Coast road trip, Pavitt popped the cassette in the van's tape deck. "I guess he'd been playing it and Kurt [Cobain] really fell in love with it and asked if he could have it," says Pickerel.

Cobain was not the only Hazlewood convert. Up-and-coming folkie Beck became a fan after Pickerel presented the future "Loser" with one of his comps.

Cult icon Lee Hazlewood: Somewhere between 
obscure and infamous.
Cult icon Lee Hazlewood: Somewhere between obscure and infamous.
A young Hazlewood deep in thought.
A young Hazlewood deep in thought.

One thing led to another, and eventually SubPop decided to try and contact Hazlewood about officially reissuing his long-dormant catalogue; Hazlewood bootlegs had become coveted and costly finds among collectors. The archival effort also spawned the notion of a tribute album.

"I thought we should try and sort of connect the reissues with something new," says Pickerel. "So I was the one tapped to handle the tribute."

Pickerel quickly secured interest and commitments from a who's who of underground rock royalty: Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Mazzy Star, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Mark Lanegan, Courtney Love, Beck, the Breeders, etc.

"Unfortunately, when I proposed this to Lee, I wrote to him and said 'I've got the Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Cave, Nirvana and all these wonderful people wanting to do this record," recounts Pickerel. "And he wrote me back completely unaware of who they were."

In fact, instead of being flattered, Hazlewood seemed downright hostile to the idea. Looking back, Pickerel is sympathetic. "[His reaction] makes sense. At the time it was probably so out of left field that it must've seemed like a joke."

Negotiations to reissue Hazlewood's solo LHI material also broke down when the cantankerous producer demanded an exorbitant fee for each song. "He was unwilling to budge and I understand that," says Pickerel. "I mean, he was used to dealing with figures much larger than what [SubPop] could offer."

Though his own dealings with Hazlewood yielded little, Pickerel's efforts were part of a much larger trend.

The Cult of Lee had been growing quietly for some years on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1982, punk queen Lydia Lunch and Birthday Party guitarist Rowland Howard covered "Some Velvet Morning," opening the doors for the underground's gradual awakening to Hazlewood the songwriter.

That successive generations of musicians would record his songs is testament to the enduring legacy of his work. In a career that's now stretched into a sixth decade, Hazlewood is the only man who can say he's had his material covered by Pat Boone andEinstürzende Neubauten, Dusty Springfield and Courtney Love -- not to mention several hundred other artists who've tackled his songbook.

"Over the years you become known for one thing. When people talk about me they say 'famed producer' as opposed to songwriter, even though I was writing the majority of the things I was producing," says Hazlewood. "Well, they may not know who I am, but ASCAP sure does," he adds with a laugh.

By the mid-'90s, a more mellowed Hazlewood had learned to accept the curiosity and adulation being heaped on him by kids young enough to be his grandchildren. Friends and associates say the change was sparked by new girlfriend Jeanie, as well as the very genuine outpouring he received from a fresh generation of fans.

"All these alternative artists started doing [my] songs. People would tell me about it. But then it kind of got serious," says Hazlewood. "Not only did they start doing 'em, but they wanted the guy who did 'em originally to start doing 'em again.

"I was offered opportunities to record with people -- it's a hell of a compliment. I mean, I wouldn't want my grandfather in the studio with me."

In 1995 Hazlewood returned to the stage, making a series of special "surprise" appearances on Nancy Sinatra's One More Time tour. In city after city, the crowd's faces grew younger, as legions of twentysomethings turned up clutching obscure, long out-of-print Hazlewood albums they'd paid hundreds of dollars for.

By the time the tour reached New York City's Limelite, the audience of old Nancy and Lee aficionados had been replaced by a crowd of hipsters and indie-rock celebs.

"It was packed from one end to the other, you couldn't move," recalls Hazlewood. "That's when I met Steve [Shelley] from Sonic Youth and all the rest of them. I remember some kid said, 'If Sonic Youth comes, you've got it made.' And I said, 'Who?' Of course, they all showed up and that was the start of a great thing."

In 1999 Hazlewood handpicked several albums for release on Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley's Smells Like Records. Among the reissued titles were Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, The Cowboy and the Lady(a 1969 duet platter recorded with actress Ann Margaret), Cowboy in Sweden, Requiem for an Almost Lady and 13.

Also part of the Smells Like series was a new disc of jazzy standards featuring Hazlewood backed by the Al Casey Combo. The album, Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! and me . . ., was recorded in the Valley with producer Clarke Rigsby in fits and starts over a three-year period. (Hazlewood ended his relationship with Smells Like earlier this year.)

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