Tonight I’ll be playing four songs by the iconic and seminal singer/songwriter Lee Hazlewood at a tribute night in Eastlake. Seems strange to me that these don’t occur more often given the huge shadow he casts over American music. He’s the most famous musician you’ve never heard of.
There seems to be a cult around him here in Seattle. There’s a bar in Ballard named after him, complete with a peephole where you can see the infamous “mustache” picture (I won’t spoil it but go and check it out.) Seattle re-issue label Light in the Attic has re-released a number of his albums. Former Screaming Trees drummer and solo artist Mark Lanegan, a Hazlewood scholar, even attempted to get a tribute album out in the early 90’s on Sub Pop, featuring Nirvana, Sonic Youth and others. Lee had never heard of any of the artists and turned the offer down. It baffles the mind to think how his legacy might have changed had all those grunge kids discovered him. Truth be told, I’m glad they didn’t ’cause that means we can keep him all to ourselves. Plus, the thought of Eddie Vedder attempting one of his songs makes me a little nauseous.
I’d always had a love of AM radio from the 60s and 70s. My parents were older and those were the sounds I heard in the car: Mancini, Herb Alpert, Neil Diamond, etc. Those warm sounding records with catchy melodies and lush production. Of course, when I got into punk in my early teens, all of that was out the window. I had to hide my love of anything mainstream, drink the kool-aid and follow the rules so meticulously laid out for me in Maximum RocknRoll. Punk was exciting and I discovered great music but I also never really shook that love of cheesy, loungy muzak. Luckily folks like David Lynch were elevating “elevator music’s” hipster value. The Specials dabbled with it in “More Specials.” Re-Search were also delving into “cocktail culture” and Esquivel in their books. The “lounge” revival was in its early stages and I always considered Lee to be an essential part of that, even though he technically wasn’t.
The man responsible for bringing Lee Hazlewood to me was Nick Cave. He’d mention him often as an influence and many of the artists in his circle covered his tunes: The Birthday Party and Lydia Lunch did “Some Velvet Morning” and Einsturzende Neubauten did “Sand” so my curiosity was ignited every time I saw a Hazlewood writing credit on an album’s credits. I began searching him out and when I found him, I knew I’d found a kindred soul.
To me he fit in this sweet spot between Leonard Cohen (without the pretension) and Johnny Cash (without the good ‘ol boy mentality). He was a cowboy but also a crooner. A mod and a weirdo. And through it all, this wry sense of humor and deep appreciation for darkness, surrealism and nonsense. “Trouble Is A Lonesome Town” was my first record (if you don’t count the ones with Nancy Sinatra) and it blew my mind. For some reason as a kid, not sure why, I’d always thought albums should have someone introducing the record and delivering a sign off. Lee did that! Not on all his records but a lot, often times leaving you scratching your head wondering what the hell he was talking about.
The Bad Things covered “Long Black Train” on our first album in 2004 and I was able to send $100 to Harry Fox for the licensing, loving the thought of Lee getting his check and perhaps giving our version a listen. He died a few years later and I never got to see him live, but most folks didn’t.
Tonight I’ll be doing “Long Black Train” along with a few others. It’ll be great to hear the other interpretations of his music and I’m excited to geek out with other Hazleheads (just coined that term!). Come out if you want to spend a Thursday evening basking in some of the catchiest, surreal country-lounge songs ever written.