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Lee Hazlewood cuts an imposing figure on the cover of the 2012 collection The LHI Years: Singles, Nudes, & Backsides (1968-71). Clad in undertaker black (with a white turtleneck under his coat), he stands with his head cocked slightly, a shaggy bowl-cut hairdo adorning his famously mustachioed face. He's surrounded by 10 topless women, each impossibly gorgeous in that late-'60s way, each one sporting a fake mustache as they gaze up at Hazlewood from plush, white carpet.
As improbable as it sounds, the music found in the collection is every bit as idiosyncratic, sexually mystifying, poignant, and funny as the cover implies. Recorded during Hazlewood's "Cowboy in Sweden" days, the record is one of the two re-issued by Seattle record label Light in the Attic in 2012. It's joined by the baffling original soundtrack recording A House Safe for Tigers, and in early 2013, the label will re-issue Hazlewood's debut, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town, recorded at Audio Recorders in Phoenix, where the songwriter/arranger/producer got his start before finding massive success with Nancy Sinatra with hits like "These Boots Are Made for Walking."
The string of re-released records not only shines new light on some of Hazlewood's less-heralded moments but demonstrates the remarkable scope of his work. Trouble Is a Lonesome Town acts something like a psychedelic children's record, LHI Years features whiskey-soaked compositions and duets with Suzi Jane Hokum, Nina Lizell, and Ann-Margret that rival his work with Sinatra while spanning the gap between country, folk, and pop, and A House Safe for Tigers (or Må Vårt Hus Förskonas Från Tigrar), named for the half-English, half-Swedish "semi-documentary" by director Torbjörn Axelman, veers off wildly in any direction it pleases, from the sweeping, string-draped "Souls Island" to the crushing "The Nights" to the straight-up dirty funk of "Las Vegas."
"[A House Safe for Tigers] is arguably one of the great masterpieces of his career," says Wyndham Wallace, who acted as Hazlewood's unofficial "manager" (he's hesitant to use the term) from 1999 until Hazlewood's death in 2007.
"It's a surreal, slightly offbeat one," Wallace laughs. "But then again, what did Lee make that wasn't slightly surreal and offbeat?"
The singular sounds find a nice home in the Light in the Attic catalog, which features overlooked gems from raspy funk songstress Betty Davis, agit-proto punk from The Monks (comprising U.S. GIs stationed in Germany during the late 1960s), the beatifically stoned freak-folk of Michael Chapman, and revolutionary soul-pop from Rodriguez (plus dozens of other worthy records). But originally, the sounds were issued on a variety of labels, including Mercury Records, Reprise Records, and Hazlewood's own LHI (Lee Hazlewood Industries).
By the time Trouble Is a Lonesome Town was released in 1963, Hazlewood already was something of an industry star. Born in Mannford, Oklahoma, Hazlewood spent his youth moving around the South. After military deployment in Korea, Hazlewood and his then wife Naomi settled in Coolidge in 1953. He landed a job spinning records at radio station KCKY when he wasn't honing his songwriting craft. A move to Phoenix followed, where Hazlewood would DJ at Mesa radio station KTYL and Phoenix's KRUX (where he reportedly was the first to play Elvis Presley in Arizona) and begin crafting his signature "twangy" sound at Audio Recorders Studios with artists like Sanford Clark, Duane Eddy, Al Casey, producer Lester Sill, and Audio Recorders owner Floyd Ramsey.
"[Hazlewood] basically invented the 'Wall of Sound,' by [recording in a] grain tank outside the studio," Wallace says, "sticking an amplifier on one end and a microphone at the other, running that into the desk, and sending somebody out to shoot the birds off the grain tank so that you wouldn't hear the tweeting when the musicians were playing."
Hazlewood finally scored a hit in 1956, with the "The Fool," featuring vocals from Clark. 1956's "Rebel Rouser," featuring the slinky, early rock 'n' roll "twangy guitar" of Duane Eddy, followed. Hazlewood moved to Los Angles in 1957, serving as a staff producer at Dot Records. He traveled back and forth between Phoenix and Los Angeles, working on what would become his solo debut, Trouble Is a Lonesome Town.
"In his mind, [Trouble Is a Lonesome Town] was a demo," says John "Johnny D" Dixon, an Arizona music historian, DJ, and author of the extensive liner notes in Light in the Attic's reissue of the record. "But Jack Tracy at Mercury Records [heard it and] said, 'That's it. I think we're going to put it out like this.'"
The "like this" of the equation still puzzles Dixon, and the record's linear, single-free format (with clear nods to the Sun Records sound, though Hazlewood adamantly denied such connections) is indeed one strange trip, darkly funny and filled with oddball characters (the tragic Emery Zickafoos Brown in "Ugly Brown," the warring brothers of "Six Feet of Chain," Sleepy Gilloreeth and his "embalming fluid"-drinking Native American assistant Charlie Flood in "We All Make the Flowers Grow") and spoken-word narration from Hazlewood that recalled his cast of various on-air voices and characters he'd employ during radio broadcasts.
"There was no single released," Dixon says. "Why would you put an album out without a single unless you were doing a favor for someone? It's a concept album — it stands out on its own as a concept album — but it's so stark. It wasn't like your normal album, with three or four singles. This was a total concept from beginning to end. Maybe Tracy was a genius and he figured this was something completely different, so hopefully people will listen to it as a total as opposed to a bunch of single 45s. But they must have known nobody was going to play this on AM radio."
His second record, The N.S.V.I.P.s, followed the same song/narration format and didn't expand Hazlewood's audience much. But the debut and sophomore records showcase Hazlewood as a fully formed songwriter and hint at the cosmic Americana his catalog would eventually include.
"By '63, he was his own man," Dixon says. "He'd already burned his bridge with Duane. If Duane didn't want to do it, screw him — the Astronauts can do it, or Al Casey can do it. Because I'm Lee Hazlewood and these are the things, the songs I'm writing, and anybody can do them."
In the mid-'60s, Hazlewood began working with Frank Sinatra's blond bombshell of a daughter, Nancy, and their hits "These Boots Are Made for Walking," "Sugar Town," "How Does That Grab You Darlin'?," "Jackson," and "Some Velvet Morning" would define his legacy and make him a star.
But Hazlewood wasn't entirely comfortable with the life of a celebrity (though he didn't complain much about his "swimming pool and a nice little stockpile of Chivas Regal," according to his official biography).
In the early 1970s, he retreated to Sweden, where he recorded a chunk of the songs that appear on The LHI Years, and embarked on a series of early music films and albums with Axelman, including Cowboy in Sweden, Smoke, and A House Safe for Tigers. "In the U.S., you can sit next to an American for five minutes and know the person's whole life," Hazlewood is quoted by Wallace in the liner notes of the AHSFT re-issue. "You can sit next to a Swede for five hours and no one says a thing. That's why I like the Swedes."
"I think he had a very strong affinity with the stuff that he recorded in Sweden, because that was, I think, the first time he'd been able to record stuff after he had success with Nancy [Sinatra], without any particular interference from anyone," Wallace says. "He was able to sort of live in this small country, in which he would be a star, [though] he was uncomfortable being a star on a small scale, because it's a small country. And he would indulge himself in his creative whims."
The songs are some of the strongest and most musically powerful of his career, but they failed to make a commercial impact. It wasn't until decades later — when artists like Nick Cave, Pulp, Sonic Youth (drummer Steve Shelley would reissue many of his albums via his Smells Like Records imprint in the late '90s), Beck, and even Megadeth would tout his influence — that some attention was paid to his unheralded classics.
"I think he had a very ambivalent relationship with most of his work," Wallace says. "I think, on one hand, that he was enormously proud of it, and he knew that he'd written a lot of songs that, as he would have put it, paid for his 'kids to go to the best schools in America.' And I think he staked a lot of pride in the fact that these songs had made a great deal of money for him.
"But I think he also had this sort of sense that his best work was the stuff that had been least successful. He was enormously dismissive of this work, I think, because it hadn't made him a lot of money, and that was how he was able to quantify success. So there was this weird thing that happened during the time I knew him, where he went from judging things by the royalty statements he would get to seeing the profound affection and respect for this work that he had previously never considered to be terribly valuable."
Working with Wallace, Hazlewood secured a spot at the 1999 Meltdown Festival in London. "It's always curated by an artist who tries to put together sort of their dream lineup, and that year Nick Cave was doing it," Wallace says. "I knew that Nick was obviously a huge fan of Lee's, and had recorded — or certainly performed — Lee's songs in the past, certainly 'These Boots Are Made for Walking.' So I approached the guy who booked the [festival], and said 'Hey, you think Nick would want this?' and so we negotiated the deal, and Lee came over and played this triumphant show." Wallace and Hazlewood embarked on a "series of very Lee-style projects" in the years that followed, including his final record, Cake or Death, in 2007.
Devoted record hounds and music fans continue to discover Hazlewood's work. Both Wallace and Dixon agree it was the man's powerful dedication to his singular muse that make him an enduring figure.
"He had a very, very dark sense of humor." Wallace says. "At times, you couldn't help but feel like you were chatting with your granddad. Because, you know, he'd be cracking jokes, and they'd often be jokes that I'd heard before . . . He was a very funny guy. He loved to be provocative as well, which is something I always found entertaining."
"As a business, LHI was nothing but stiffs," Dixon says. "There wasn't one hit . . . but he was all Lee. He knew how to keep things going. It's about volume, volume, volume, and eventually something will happen, and eventually, it did. Lee Hazlewood Industries — what a great image: an industry. Listening to this body of work, it's amazing. There's a lot of songs in there."
"He was a very strong personality and also very stubborn about maintaining the truth of that personality," Wallace says. "He didn't compromise for anyone."