By the end of the 1960s, Lee Hazlewood had fought in the Korean War, scored a hit movie starring Frank Sinatra, and written a slew of hits for twangy guitar man Duane Eddy and Frank’s daughter, Nancy. So what to do you after that? Why, move to Stockholm, get divorced, and shave off your trademark handlebar moustache, of course. A new compilation of freshly re-mastered cuts from Light in the Attic Records charts what happened next.
This is what you might call middle-period Hazlewood, after the big hits but before settling into the status of cult hero, being covered by everyone from Lydia Lunch to Billy Ray Cyrus. Here we find Hazlewood working up an act as a kind of WASP Leonard Cohen, or maybe Love’s Arthur Lee on Mogadon, with a range of lush, almost rococo orchestrations worthy of Rogerio Duprat or Jean-Claude Vannier.
A scene early on in the film Cowboy in Sweden, directed by Torbjörn Axelman sees Hazlewood stepping off an SAS flight with a horsebox and a ten-gallon hat. “Hey cowboy!” sings Swedish pop singer, Nina Lizell, as a pair of smiling blond air hostesses in short skirts greet the fastest gun in the, uh, north.
“What do you want?” replies Hazlewood’s lascivious baritone.
“Where d’you get that horse?” You might well ask.
Songs from the TV movie’s soundtrack like ‘Leather and Lace’, ‘No Train to Stockholm’ and ‘The Night Before’ exhibit a world-weary insouciance backed by whirling Hammond, patter-pat-pat country drumming and winsomely plucked acoustic guitars with sudden bursts of orchestral grandeur: distant timpani, Ennio Morricone-esque mariachi brass, and swelling strings with just a note of dissonant tension. Listening on headphones, one finds oneself stepping into a lavishly constructed sonic architecture of complex stereo panning and floods of reverb that could evoke equally the sun-baked south or the frozen north.
Around the same time Hazlewood released a single, ‘Trouble Maker’, with arrangements by Billy Strange, former session player in Phil Spector’s legendary Wrecking Crew: a piece of pure saccharine horse opera in just over two and half minutes, about a boy whose “hair was much too long”, and who “rejected the establishment completely”. The previous year Strange had been singing his own songs in a couple of Bugs Bunny cartoons; here he’s juggling distant choral oohs and ahhs with vibraphones and tremolo violins in one of the most convincing representations of heaven my ears have heard in a while. Which is appropriate, perhaps, since lyrically the song seems to be trying build a rapprochement between the hippies and the Christian right (in the end they “hang that trouble maker to a cross”: Jesus was a hippy too!).
There’s definitely an argument to be made that Hazlewood, the ex-military, son of a Southern oil man, was essentially a conservative force in ’60s music, propagating Republican values to the stoners and the freaks with a backward-looking “Dear Mom” rootsiness. It’s a notion that makes the overwhelming influence of his music from this period on such contemporary acts as Beachwood Sparks, Lambchop and Wilco – not to mention the enormous seductiveness of his songs, his voice, and his arrangements – all the more troubling. For this writer, however, it’s too late – I’m seduced.