“Sometimes we have to wait 30 years to be discovered": Dean Wareham interviews Lee Hazlewood biographer Wyndham Wallace

He produced classic LPs. Spector stole from him. Also, "These Boots Are Made for Walking." Honoring Lee Hazlewood

Published June 6, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

Lee Hazlewood, Nancy Sinatra     (ABC/Wikimedia)
Lee Hazlewood, Nancy Sinatra (ABC/Wikimedia)

Lee Hazlewood is best known for the hits he wrote and produced for Nancy Sinatra in the late ’60s: “These Boots are Made for Walking,” “Summer Wine” and the beautiful “Some Velvet Morning.” He also wrote the Dean Martin hit “Houston” and produced “Something Stupid” for Frank and Nancy Sinatra.

Going further back, to 1957, Hazlewood figures as one of the pioneering producers in rock and roll, discovering and producing hits for guitarist Duane Eddy at a studio in Phoenix. The story goes that this studio had no echo chamber, so Hazlewood had one built from an old grain silo, and used it to great effect on Eddy’s guitar, and later on his own voice. Phil Spector came to study his recording techniques, and lured a few of his musicians to Los Angeles to work for the Wrecking Crew. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s Lee Hazlewood also recorded a string of little-known but very affecting solo albums, with titles like "Hazlewoodism: Its Cause and Cure," "Love & Other Crimes," and"Requiem for An Almost Lady."

In 1999, 20-odd years removed from recording or performing, Hazlewood returned to public view with a series of reissues (on Steve Shelley’s label Smells Like Records), a new album, and a couple of live performances. That year a young English publicist named Wyndham Wallace talked himself into a job working for Hazlewood, and the famously reclusive producer took a liking to him. They became friends, and worked together (with Wallace earning the title of European manager), till Hazlewood’s death in 2007.

Wallace has just published a compelling memoir of those years working together: "Lee, Myself and I: Inside the Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood."

Wyndham, I’m so glad you wrote this book. I’ve been trying for years to discover what I can about Lee Hazlewood’s life, but there is precious little written and so many of these crucial musicians and writers and producers are now slipping away.

A friend warns you early in the book (and in your career in the music business) that you should never try to meet your heroes, for it will only end in tears. Of course you could also advise someone not to fall in love, or bring a puppy home, for the same reason. And certainly your memoir ends in tears, for you, and for the reader. But meeting Lee Hazlewood seems to have been a great gift for you.

Yes, in so many ways, many of which are of course chronicled in the book. He taught me a great deal: about music and its business, about how friendship can cross generational divides, about myself, and all sorts of other things, including a few very filthy Swedish swear words. In a sense, too, he taught me that I could write a book. Getting to know him was definitely a great gift, one of the greatest I think I’ve ever received. That thing about never meeting your heroes isn’t true: You can still meet them, just so long as you’re prepared to accept them for who they are. And I tried to take Lee as he was.

Your first encounter — is it in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in New York, where he asks “how the fuck old are you? Thirteen?” Or is it the fax he sends: “Dear Wyndham Wallace, if I had a name like Wyndham Wallace I would not associate or correspond with someone with a simple name like mine”?

The first exchange we had consisted of a fax from me in which I tentatively introduced myself to him as his British publicist, and the fax I received back, on Valentine’s Day 1999, which seemed to suggest that my unusual name alone was enough to get him on my side. I’ve had that message framed on my apartment wall for many, many years. I’d never been a big fan of my name, having been put through the British private school system from the age of 8, where it provided about the best ammunition any kid could have to bully me. But after that I began to see my name in a rather different way. So in a way, the book is about how Lee taught me to like myself, right down to my name! The meeting in the Grand Hyatt was some weeks later, after I’d flown over to New York to celebrate the first round of reissues of his records and discuss my plans to bring him to London to perform. Inevitably, it involved us getting drunk together. We did that pretty regularly when we met, and he always seems to bear no trace the next day, whereas I’d be stumbling around, ashen-faced and red-eyed, for hours.

Funnily enough, by the way, right toward the end of his life he agreed to work with German star Bela B largely on the basis of the fact that he liked the name Bela. I guess he had a thing about unusual names…

I think it was Mick Brown’s Phil Spector bio, "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound," that details a very young Phil Spector coming down to Arizona to watch Hazlewood work, to see how he gets those sounds that he did on the Duane Eddy records he was producing. Finally Hazlewood says  something like “Get this guy out of here, I don’t want him stealing my secrets.” Spector later hires his arranger, Jack Nitzsche, who worked on so many Spector hits and a couple of his musicians' too (Wrecking Crew stalwarts Al Casey and Larry Knechtel). But Hazlewood seemed to harbor no ill well about it; he points out that Nitzsche and Spector had a lot of hits together and seemed happy for him. Did he ever talk to you about Spector?

That’s interesting: I’ve not heard that quote before. Lee usually refused to talk to me about Phil Spector, apart from the fact that he’d given him what I think was his first studio job as an intern. I told him on a number of occasions that I reckoned Spector had stolen his ideas: you only have to listen to Lee’s early work and then compare it to Spector’s to suspect that they may well be connected. But Lee would dismiss this suggestion with a wave of the hand in the style of Francis Urquhart – the original, BBC, or in fact Michael Dobbs version of Frank Underwood from "House of Cards": “You might say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.” I got the feeling that I was right, but no way was Lee ever going to concede that he’d been ripped off, so it was best to steer clear of the topic.

You mention your feeling that Lee had been overlooked, that he doesn’t get the credit due to him. Financially I’m sure he wasn’t cheated one bit; he seems to have been a clever businessman — most of the time. But Lee Hazlewood is one of the crucial producers in the history of rock and roll, for the string of Duane Eddy hit records he produced, if nothing else. But then add the songs that he wrote, “The Fool” for Sanford Clark, “Houston” for Dean Martin, “These Boots Are Made for Walking” of course. . . Duane Eddy and Phil Spector are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, why not Hazlewood? Did he care about such things?

Lee would most likely say that he didn’t care about such things, and in truth I don’t think this kept him awake at night. He probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the attention that it would have brought anyway. But I did detect an air of wounded pride about him from time to time, and I certainly believe that he’s been overlooked by the establishment. Personally, I find that mysterious. Perhaps his brusque manner burned too many bridges. Perhaps he was overshadowed by the artists with whom he worked. But it doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and it’s really something that needs to be put right. In its own small way, this book tries to do that by reminding people of all these remarkable things he did. There’s a line of his that I quote in the book where he says “Sometimes we have to wait thirty years to be discovered.” Perhaps it’s in fact even longer.

As I think you know, I met him just once; I flew down to Orlando, Florida, to interview him for the College Music Journal in that period where you were working as his UK publicist, and I was rather nervous. I had been told that he hated to talk about his old records, but I showed up with about 10 of his LPs and we drank wine and smoked cigarettes and talked about each one of them. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a real journalist that he went easy on me? I asked how did he come to work with Nancy Sinatra. He said he was basically in retirement (I guess this must be 1965 or 1966), that he had retired largely due to the British Invasion, that all of a sudden you look at the charts, and two-thirds of the artists are English. But he’s living in L.A., next door to A&R man and producer Jimmy Bowen, who kept bugging him to produce Nancy Sinatra. And finally a meeting was scheduled with Nancy at her home, and Frank walked into the room and said “I’m glad you kids are working together,” and that was that.

I’m sure he was more inclined to like musicians than journalists because musicians know what songwriting is about. Far too many music journalists end up writing about music without knowing how it’s made. They have an undeniable passion for it, but the nuts and bolts are entirely unfamiliar. Lee had little patience for talking about music with people who he didn’t think knew what they were talking about, and he was always much quicker to take people under his wing if they were musical. So it doesn’t surprise me that you got on so well, and that he was happy to talk about his music with you.

As for the story of how he ended up working with Nancy, there are different versions – that he told, to be honest – but the one he told you was always my favorite. I picture him eating spaghetti, with tomato sauce dripping off his chin, when Frank walks in and basically tells Lee the deal’s done while Lee’s barely aware there’s a deal to be made. I mean, not even Lee Hazlewood, tough as he was, could turn down The Chairman of the Board.

You discuss this period of time, the 70s and 80s, where it seems not many people knew about Lee, or certainly not about his solo output. And yet there is a string of about 15 really good records from 1963’s "Trouble Is a Lonesome Town" (and you could make a case that Hazlewood invents the concept album on this one) up to "A House Safe for Tigers," another concept album that he records in Sweden in 1975. The great guitarist Robert Quine once told me I needed to buy "Love and Other Crimes" for the songs and for the electric guitar playing of James Burton. I think that’s my favorite Hazlewood album; it was recorded over five days in 1968, in Paris, with Hal Blaine and Burton and other members of the Wrecking Crew.

Unlike the records he did with Nancy Sinatra, these were not money-makers. I imagine that during this whole period, through the folk explosion of the early sixties (and the British invasion and Woodstock and the Vietnam War), that Lee would have been considered a square, someone who drank Scotch but did not drop acid (though he wrote about acid in “Sugar Town”). But as time passes a different generation discovers these songs he wrote and the records he made in that period, and for these newcomers Lee Hazlewood is in fact more interesting than Crosby Stills and Nash. But do you get the sense that he himself felt that maybe his songs weren’t much good? He mentioned to me that when Nancy Sinatra did her “comeback” tour in the 90s and he joined her to sing a few songs at some of the shows, that on that tour he was amazed to meet young fans in their twenties who would ask him about obscure songs that he could barely remember himself. Did that give him a jolt of energy? And maybe push him to do something to get these records back in print?

My theory was always that dismissing his own songs as dreck, or the equivalent of pulp fiction, was a way of preempting criticism. It was a trick I learned at boarding school: If I was self-deprecating it took away the pleasure for the bullies in trying to trip me up. So if Lee referred to his music as worthless, then no one else could hurt him: he’d beaten them to the punch, even if it was self-administered. I think, to be honest, that he’d begun to believe it, too, just as me constantly putting myself down in the end decreased my own sense of my value. So when things started to pick up in the mid to late 1990s, it was indeed a shock to him. I think he only really came to terms with just how passionately his work was valued in the last couple of years of his life, but in the few before that he agreed to the reissues because, I think, he was curious to see what would happen. He braced himself for rejection, and when it didn’t come I think it was something he struggled to believe but began more and more to enjoy.

Why is it, now that he has left this world, that finally we are seeing a flood of releases from his back catalog?

I sense that these things happen in waves. There was the first wave, in 1999, when Steve Shelley reissued his records and people began to discuss him seriously in print for the first time in decades. Then there was a second wave around the release of "Cake or Death" and Lee’s passing. And, finally, another eight years or so on, Light In The Attic’s campaign has built upon both these periods, which has provided them with a solid foundation to take a few more risks than Steve dared in terms of packaging and so on. None of us ever worked with big budgets, so the increase in terms of Lee’s profile has been gradual, but I think this time he’s more accepted than ever, and his records are likely to stay in print for a while. He’s up there at last with the Nick Drakes and the Townes Van Zandts: the ones who never quite made it during their lifetimes, but whose work is now accepted as vital to the canon of popular music.

You mention people trading cassettes of his work — this is in the years before eBay made it much easier (if still expensive) to find Lee’s albums. My introduction to Lee was in fact a cassette given to me by an English tour manager named Noel. This was 1991 and in those days I traveled with a Sony Walkman, and I can remember riding German trains, on tour with Galaxie 500, listening to “My Autumn’s Done Come,” which I thought was about the greatest song I had ever heard. He wrote that song at age 31, and seemed rather proud of this. He also said he needed to re-record it but also re-title it “My Winter’s Done Come.” You talk about that song in your book; what makes it so great?

I’m wondering if that’s Grassy Noel you’re talking about, a tour manager from Sheffield who used to work with Tortoise…? Anyway, that song is one of the true gems in his catalogue, without doubt one of my absolute favorites. Quite apart from the fact that it was written when he was so young that its prescience is uncanny, it’s just perfectly poised, lyrically and musically. The pace is languid and slow, just as one should be in the autumn of one’s life, and the lyrics are priceless: “I’m tired of sucking my stomach in… Hang me a hammock between two trees, leave me alone, damn it, let me do what I please.” Priceless. And pretty much exactly what Lee felt and articulated when he actually reached his own autumn, minus the hammock. He may have been hard to know, but I think he knew himself very, very well indeed.

You write about his early efforts at “boy/girl” songs (duets) and how Nancy Sinatra loved them so much that they agreed that each of her albums would contain one of these songs, and he would sing the boy part. The first of these “Summer Wine,” which was the B-side to “Sugar Town,” and I like the story you recount, of how annoyed Lee was because both songs became hits, “Sugar Town” was a hit for months and then they flipped the single over and played “Summer Wine.” To him this was a waste. . .  in the era of the seven-inch 45, you should never put two hit songs on one single, because you’ve essentially given one of them away. Instead it should have been two different singles with real B-sides and he would have earned double the money.  Side B of a single, of course, can be anything at all but still collects the same royalty as Side A. I wonder what he would think about Spotify and other streaming services. I have the feeling he would be turning over in his grave.

There were many reasons I got out of management, but one was this kind of thing. I know this is how music will be heard in the future, but for someone like Lee, this would indeed be troubling, to say the least. No more so than for other musicians, I suspect, but nonetheless music’s continuing devaluation is a true worry, and I don’t think Lee would have taken too kindly to it. Not that I’m against the streaming model, and perhaps he wouldn’t have been either. But the payment models are something that he would no doubt have questions about, and I think I’d have struggled to answer them satisfactorily…

You write about how self-deprecating Lee is, he says his solo albums were only collections of demos that he wrote for other singers — “good singers.” Is Lee a good singer? (I know what I think, of course.)

I think Lee is one of the greatest singers I’ve ever heard, but for the same reason as people like Morrissey, or Rod Stewart (in his earlier days), or Captain Beefheart are such great singers. Their voices may not be technically perfect, but the character of their voice, and the delivery of their lyrics, can be so affecting that it more than compensates. If you listen to a song like "My Autumn’s Done Come," it feels like he’s got 70 years of life in his voice. That’s an extraordinary ability given his youth at the time. Furthermore, the fact that songs like that can still be sung by others – like Ed Harcourt, who nailed it at the book’s London launch party in May – only serves to prove what great songs they are too. I always feel that people mix up great songs and great performances – a great song can handle performances by others, while a great performance can carry a weaker song, but doesn’t actually improve the song itself. Lee provided great performances of great songs. And his voice is so unique that people will always be compared to him: it’s a benchmark against which others should be judged. And it’s also somewhat unique in that he’s one of the few singers who can sound staggeringly romantic at one moment, and yet still carry off humor the next. That’s a rare skill indeed.

Did he live the high life? He seems like in some ways he insisted on being treated like a star, but from what I can tell he lived pretty humbly.

I certainly saw little evidence of him living the high life. In casinos, he’d play the slots. When we had dinner for the first time in London, he headed straight to TGI Friday's. When he’d come and visit me in London, and then Berlin, he’d insist on me collecting him in my crappy car rather than catching a taxi. He lived in a humble home in Vegas – and, indeed, in Ireland and Texas, where I also visited him – and was perfectly content to live that way. He was never a flashy man, though he was always generous, but I suspect part of this was to do with his divorce, which meant he was passing on a significant portion of his income for the rest of his life. In some ways, you’re right to say he wanted to be treated like a star: he wanted respect for what he’d done, and certainly insisted upon things like business-class travel when I did deals that involved him flying. But that didn’t mean he needed a five-bedroom house with an Olympic-length pool when he got home...

One of the great pleasures of your book is hearing the dialogue between you and Lee, his turn of phrase, telling stories about Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys or Elvis Presley or how Bjorn Borg would visit him in Sweden or Roger Moore (his favorite 007). I think you one could listen to him tell stories all day long. Why is that? The voice? He seems like a font of strange Texas wisdom and poetry.

Lee had an unusual way of expressing himself, which was one of the reasons I wanted to use real dialogue in the book, taken from the many interviews we’d done. It’s reflected in the little tales he shares between songs on some of his earlier albums, and I’d often laugh out loud at the way he said things; there’d often be some little detail that he’d throw in unexpectedly and which tipped the story over the edge, or some surreal little twist that made it so much more vivid to imagine. I loved to listen to him talk, and indeed I can confirm that one could listen to him all day. Sometimes, to be honest, he insisted upon it! His voice, too, had this comforting quality when he was at ease, as though he was almost hypnotizing you. It rumbled and soothed at the same time, further drawing you into his world. That’s why that final song he recorded, whose lyrics I wrote – Amiina and Lee’s "Hilli (At the Top of the World)" – was something I was so determined to see happen if possible: the idea of him reading a children’s story of sorts just bewitched me, and the results are, I feel, bewitching too…

There is a gig in Sweden, at a festival called Fanclub, and Lee wisely insists on getting paid the full amount, in cash, before he will perform. Was that standard operating procedure? There’s also the guest vocal session in Germany, where he negotiates a healthy advance but declines the record royalty: “Lee wants no royalties,” he says, “He doesn’t buy green bananas.” I’m not sure exactly what that means but I guess he’s been around long enough to know that artist royalties, on a song he didn’t write, are not worth much. And that a royalty is just a promise while an advance is real.

Yes. He was a strong believer in getting cash in hand, and as he got closer and closer to his death, he felt the promise of royalties – the possibility that the green bananas would someday ripen – was of little interest. His own royalties, though, were of great value to him. I guess he trusted his own songs to pay the bills more than others'. Mind you, I’d imagine that if he’d recorded something with a global act, he’d have been more than happy to settle for a royalty. But there’d have had to be an advance too!

There was just the one gold record hanging on his wall — "Some Gave All" by Billy Ray Cyrus, that contained his cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” and, since the album sold 20 million copies, it probably allowed Lee to retire for good. And yet its very success, do you think it got him excited about making music again?

It came out around the same time as Sub Pop approached him for a tribute album, and he wasn’t in a rush to say yes to that, so I question – despite what he said – whether it genuinely made him want to write again, or even step back out of the shadows at all. But Cyrus’ version probably reminded him of the money to be made in his songs, and that he was sitting on a potential goldmine. So I think it reminded him as much of the value of his catalogue as it made him think about writing again, something which I don’t believe he actually began to do for a little while longer...

Lee described himself to me as a Texas liberal (he said his grandfather and his parents were all liberals too); he wrote a handful of sly, humorous protest songs like “Have You Made Any New Bombs Today?” and “Troublemaker.” My favorite was probably “No Train to Stockholm” — did you talk about such things, about politics? I loved his line about serving in Korea: “Korea taught me two things: how to run and how to cry.”

“If I have to ride this train a hundred years
and all I have to drink is my own tears
I'll not kill for you or on my own
Freedom is where you think it is
but there ain't no train to Stockholm”

Actually, we didn’t talk politics too often. I know that his disdain for George W. Bush was pretty intense, and he was not a fan of the Gulf Wars: he supported the soldiers and not the wars, he said. But when I think of Lee and newspapers, I tend to associate him more with the funnies – as I think you Americans call them – than the headlines. He used to love faxing me the latest cartoon he’d seen in a paper, adding his own comments to the caption. I remember one in particular with a bird that just said “Tweet Tweet Tweet” and the final panel had two dogs (I think) saying “He could use a lyricist.” Underneath, Lee just wrote “Couldn’t we all?”

Side B of your book covers the years where Lee is slowly dying of cancer, and at one point you decide that you want him to record a special song with the delicate Icelandic group that you are working with – Amiina. So you ask him to write lyrics, and he says well okay he’ll do the song, but first you need to do some research; he tells you there is an old Finnish fairy tale about an island where the snow tastes like sugar, and you need to track it down, and adapt the lyrics yourself. So you do, and together you create this beautiful song, you writing it and him speak-singing it — which you play at Lee’s funeral. And that’s the point in the book where the tears flow, just to picture his frail voice coming over the stereo system at that moment.  And then the kicker, which makes such a nice ending to your book, well, I shouldn’t say what that is. . .

I think that was one of the loveliest gestures he ever made. Whether he honestly thought it would set me writing I can’t be sure, but just to have agreed to record a song with a band about whom he knew nothing, especially when he was in the state that cancer had reduced him to, was a courageous and inspirational act. That he then let me write the lyrics was just nuts: I’m not sure there’s anything else I’ve written that I’m more proud of, because Lee’s trust and endorsement meant so much to me. And when I wrote it, I knew that no one else would ever be able to make it sound as good as he could. Every word was written with his voice in mind. The first time I heard it my legs just crumpled. I have a dream that one day someone will turn it into an animated cartoon, or a children’s book. I’m proud of those lyrics, but I have to say I’m even more proud of the life Lee breathed into them when he had so little life left. I love the idea that maybe, in years to come, kids might grow up hearing Lee’s voice as they go to sleep. I think the world would be a much better place if that were one of the voices we all hear when we’re growing up.

By Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham fronted Luna and Galaxie 500, and currently plays with Dean & Britta. His most recent release is the album "Dean Wareham." He is the author of the memoir "Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance."

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