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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Lee Hazelwood, 1999

WITH BILLY MILLER


Question: What do Ann-Margret, B.B. King, Megadeath, Duane Eddy, Dean Martin, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Johnny Cash, “Little” Peggy March, Steve Allen, Bert Kaempfert, Ry Cooder, Dino, Desi and Billy, Boyd Rice, The Ventures, Einstürzende Neubauten, Petula Clark, Nick Cave, Waylon Jennings, Lydia Lunch, the BBC Concert Orchestra, Vanilla Fudge, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dusty Springfield, Link Wray, Amanda Lear, The Surfaris, Destroy All Monsters, and Elvis Presley have in common?
Answer: All have recorded the music of Lee Hazlewood, the producer/singer/songwriter of classics like “Sugar Town,” and that ’60s anthem of defiance and liberation, “These Boots Are Made For Walking.” “Boots” was originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra, for whom Lee wrote many of his best songs, and was a No.1 hit in 1966. Nancy & Lee were the anti-matter Sonny & Cher, oddly arranged fleurs du mal in the flower children’s pot. In the ’70s, after a string of hits, Lee left the U.S.— and the american music industry — for Sweden, and then all but disappeared.
Over the years, Lee’s records have become highly sought-after collector’s items, and continue to be reinterpreted by younger artists, turning up in movies like Full Metal Jacket, Ready To Wear, Fargo, Natural Born Killers, and Austin Powers. If there was any doubt that a Lee Hazlewood revival was well underway, the news that seven long out-of-print albums are being reissued by Smells Like Records, the label run by Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, would suggest otherwise. Ditto the sold-out crowds at a recent tribute concert in New York and a rare live performance at Nick Cave’s Meltdown Festival in London. And if that weren’t enough, Lee’s first all-new album in almost twenty years, Farmisht, Flatulence, Origami, Arf!!! and Me, came out this past summer. It’s a collection of standards, like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” — which, for Lee, isn’t exactly the case these days.


Billy Miller: Lee, have to tell you I’m a little star-struck.
Lee Hazlewood:
[in a Texas drawl] Star-struck? Concerning my music?

Billy: Well ... yeah. First I had the singles and then started seriously collecting the albums in the ’70s when you could still find them as cut-outs at regular stores. I’ve got double copies of most of them.
Lee:
Oh boy. Well thank god for people like you. That sort of scares me. [laughs] But it’s the kids that really scare me when they come up to me sometimes. Not when they name off the hits — any cotton picker in Texas’ll know the hits — but when you get kids twenty years old who come up to you and say, “Oh! I really love this song called ...” and it’s usually some obscure one. That’s when I go, “Uh-oh, this kid’s a collector, gotta be nice to ‘em.” And then I think to myself, “How in hell did they find out about that one?”

Billy: Salvation Army. These young’uns take from all over. So, Lee, is it true that when you started out you recorded in a huge metal grain tank to get the effects you wanted?
Lee:
We used a little studio where they did commercials that was about as big as a bathroom. We didn’t have an echo chamber, nothing. So I went out with some friends of mine and yelled into these big grain tanks and found one I liked, gave the guy $199 and he delivered it. Then we put the cheapest speaker we had at one end and the cheapest microphone we had at the other. That became the sound that’s on all the Duane Eddy records and everything else. I just kept doing weird things till I got something I wanted, using these teenage musicians. I tried stacking the basses for instance. I’d get the click on one and the low on the other. I wanted it to jump out of the radio. I always mastered for how things sounded on the radio.

Billy: That’s why a lot of ’60s stuff still sounds so big and booming — it had to sound full on the dinky little transistor radios everybody listened to.
Lee:
Actually, we used to go out to my car, slap it into the tape deck, and listen to it like the song was playing on the car radio. That’s how I could tell if I had it right.

Billy: Well, you really got “Rebel Rouser” — that has such a rockin’ vibration.
Lee:
The idea came originally from a piano player named Eddie Duchin. I had a collection of him like you maybe have of me. He used to play the melody down on the low end of the piano. I wondered why I couldn’t do that on the guitar. When I met up with Duane, in the ’50s, he played in this sort of Chet Atkins higher-up type style. We turned it around and got a deeper he tone. He caught on to it real fast.

Billy: He was the best.
Lee:
Duane played the guitar like he was playing a symphony. He had a lot of imitators, I can still hear it on recordings made today. I’ve met guitar players around the world who say that they started to play because of him. And naturally it makes Duane happy too.

Billy: How did you become involved with the Sinatras and Dean Martin?
Lee:
Around ’63, ’64, when all the English stuff started, I decided to just sit in my back yard, watch the bugs swim in the pool and drink my Chivas. I did that for about a year or so. I could afford it, so I did. I just happened to live across from Jimmy Bowen who was head of singles at Reprise...

Billy: And a one-time rockabilly teen idol.
Lee:
Right. Jimmy produced Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Frank Sinatra and several other artists. He wanted me to meet Nancy. So I finally went over, and I learned some very interesting things about the Sinatras that very first night. When I walked into the house, sittin’ around the room, cleverly placed in this chair and that chair were a lawyer and a bunch of friends of mine like Jimmy Darren and Bobby Darin — who just “happened to stop by.” Those Sinatras are thorough. It was a fix! But I told ‘em, yeah, we’d do a record. That was “So Long Babe,” and it made the charts. So we did more. All the singles were kind of hand-made songs for her.

Billy: How did “Boots” come about?
Lee:
One time, Nancy and me were just breakin’ up singing these semi-dirty Texas songs. And there was one she really wanted to record. But I told her she couldn’t because of the word “messin’,” which in the part of Texas I come from means “making love.” And she said, “What’s so dirty about that?” Then I told her, “Actually, it means fucking!” She goes, “Well, I think it’s cute and I’ve been checking around and nobody else thinks that’s what it means.” She was adamant. So we did it. That was “Boots”, and when we did the session you could tell it was going to be a hit. Some of the reviewers called it “another one of Hazlewood’s neo-Nazi songs.” A fascist I’m not. But I thought it was pretty stompin’. It made a lot of noise.

Billy: There are scarce to none of other writers’ songs on your albums.
Lee:
That’s because when I started making a little money in this business everybody wanted songs. They called them “writer’s albums” in those days. I sent songs out as demos to people. Ended up getting most of them recorded! And by people who were selling a lot of records. These artists would say, “That’s a good song. Hell, I can sing it better than Lee.” That just broke my heart, but then the record would sell a million or two and I’d be happy.

Billy: Did writing come easy for you?
Lee:
I wrote ‘em as they came. But I’ve thrown away more shit than I write. Most of my friends who are songwriters have probably written eleven or twelve hundred songs. I haven’t written three hundred! A friend of mine down in Nashville says, “Goddamn Lee won’t even write a song unless he thinks he’s gonna make some money off it.”

Billy: [laughs] Maybe you’re just a perfectionist.
Lee:
I write myself into a corner going for a kind of imperfect perfectness — if there could be such a thing. Walter Winchell wrote that “Sugar Town” had “the worst lyrics ever written in a top ten song.” Hey, I spent a lotta time writing a bad lyric like that! The words are as stupid as I could get ‘em.

Billy: How much could you get away with in lyrics back then?
Lee:
In those days they were taking sugar cubes and putting acid on ’em. And of course that would be “Sugar Town,” wouldn’t it? You had to make the lyric dingy enough where the kids knew what you were talking about — and they did. Double entendre. But not much more if you wanted to get it played on the radio. We used to have lotsa of trouble with lyrics, but I think it’s fun to keep it hidden a little bit.

Billy: There’s your song, “Sand.”
Lee:
That’s probably my favorite of what I call the boy-girl songs I wrote for Nancy. “Sand” is so covered with double and triple meanings — you know, it’s a dirty old man with somebody he meets out in the desert.

Billy: That one’s got a psychedelic guitar part that sounds like it’s backwards.
Lee:
It is. I wanted something Arabic sounding for the desert scene, nothing to do with being hip or avant garde. Don’t think I’ve ever been “hip.” I’m more “hep.” I mean, what do I know about Arabic music? But when I heard the guitar part I said, “Let’s turn it around.” The guys in the studio were like, “What do you mean?” And I said, “Just cut it out and turn it around, goddamnit!” It was kind of silly but I had a lot of fun with all that.

Billy: A lot of experimentation in the studio. And maybe people weren’t always sure what you were going for.
Lee:
Everybody learned from everyone else. I’d go by sessions to see what they were doing and people would come by mine. I used to tell my session guys, “Now see why I’m trying to hurry along here? If we don’t finish this sonofabitch, they’ll have all our ideas and it’ll be out tomorrow!” We had to work hours on something that they just go click today, and that’s it.

Billy: Yeah, but you managed to record gems like “Some Velvet Morning.” That has to be on the short list of the best songs ever written.
Lee:
“Some Velvet Morning” was written for a TV show with Nancy. It wasn’t meant to be a single, just something for the show.

Billy: I have a fuzzy recollection of people on horseback or something?
Lee:
The good guy was in black on a black horse and the bad girl was in white on a white horse. We were working with opposites. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I still don’t know what that song’s about.

Billy: But it was a big hit.
Lee:
A friend of mine who programmed about a hundred radio stations got it on a few of his big stations in L.A. He usually stayed on a record for a week, and if it didn’t go over he’d pull it. But he stayed on it for three weeks, so I called him and said, “Get off that damn thing.”

Billy: You asked him to stop playing your own record?
Lee:
Yeah. It wasn’t going anywhere. But he thought it would be a hit and he was right. It took three weeks to pound it into their heads.

Billy: Is it accurate to say that you’ve migrated to a number of places around the world, including California, London, Paris, Stockholm, Helsinki, Spain, Arizona and now Florida?
Lee:
I move about once a year. I’ve done that since I sold my three houses in Los Angeles in the late ’60s and haven’t owned a home since. I always tell people the ol’ redneck line that I move whenever the rent’s due!

Billy: How did you end up in Sweden?
Lee:
At the time my son was about sixteen and the Vietnam war had been going on and on with no end in sight. I was in Korea and decided it was not fun. I said, “This war is not gonna take my one and only son, no sir!” We didn’t take any chances and moved. I already knew some people over there and I ended up making a lot of television shows.

Billy: They screened three of them in New York this year. The N.S.V.I.P.S. ...
Lee:
The Not So Very Important People.

Billy: And A Cowboy in Sweden. That one’s like pre-MTV. The tracking shot of Nina Lizell boogaloo-ing across the sand is memorable. And LORDY the outfit and freakin’ bod on Nancy in the Vegas one!
Lee:
For Nancy & Lee in Las Vegas, the Swedes came over when we performed at the Riviera in 1970. I edited it and tried to extract some sarcasm and humor. It’s really about what went on backstage.

Billy: Now, I have a picture of you and your daughter with Mr. Presley, standing in front of what looks like Graceland. Familiar?
Lee:
That’s not Graceland. It was taken during the filming of Speedway. Elvis was very kind. I was the first disc jockey in Arizona, hell, the first out West period, to play his record. Elvis found this out, and when Nancy and I were working in Vegas he invited us over. He told me he wanted to re-record my first hit, “The Fool,” which I wrote for Sanford Clark.

Billy: On his country album.
Lee:
That’s right. When I was working in L.A. I was considered country and in Nashville I was considered pop. Somewhere in that 2500 miles things evidently change a lot.

Billy: Look at the way it is today. My family’s from what used to be backwoods West Virginia. But I go down there now and it’s pretty much the same as it is up here. So the problem with country music is that the characters who used to be in the songs aren’t really there anymore.
Lee:
Yeah, everything’s sort of vanillaed out. It used to be that the minute I heard a piece of music — whether it was jazz or pop or country or the blues — I knew who it was. And now I don’t know. I don’t know, and that’s really kind of sad. I know some people now, but I’ve had to teach myself who they were.

Billy: Growing up in the South, were you into the blues?
Lee:
Oh god, I was a big blues freak! I’ve been inspired by everything that happened to me growing up in Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas and Louisiana. That’s where I hung out until I was about twenty-five. I think the blues will go on forever — or at least that feel of what the blues are. That honest simplicity. I have several songs that start off that way and then end up not being strict blues because they don’t make those changes exactly. I think it can be sorta bluesy and at the same time be anything else too.

Billy: Robert Johnson is like the blues that goes beyond the blues.
Lee:
Oh, he sure is. But he had a little personal problem. He had an enemy that was called Robert Johnson. He had a bad enemy. But then, I know a lot of people who have that same enemy.

Billy: Well you didn't.
Lee:
When my kids were young, their friends would ask them, “What does your dad do?” and they’d say. “Oh, I don’t know, he makes records for people or something.”

Billy: That’s a humble way of putting it.
Lee:
They weren’t being humble. There were too many people around the house more important than Dad. The people who hung around were much more popular, they were on TV and all. So they meant more to my kids than I did — not as their Dad, but because of their music. It’s just strange how you’re never a king in your own house. Even now. My youngest one’s a big Sonic Youth fan. A few years ago she said, “Oh you’d like ‘em Dad, they’re weird.” When I told her that I’d met ‘em,” she said, “What? You didn’t!” You’d’ve thought it was the Beatles or something.

Billy: What effect did the Fab Four have on you?
Lee:
None!

Billy: [laughs]
Lee:
Thought it was a little, well ... “Sugar Town”-ish! [both laugh] At least in the beginning. We were Stones fans though. I know a couple of ‘em, thought they were doing something interesting with American music, even though they’re Brits ’n all. I liked a couple Beatles songs but I was not amazed by any of it.

Billy: When they started out they weren’t as good as they got later.
Lee:
That Sgt. Pepper album? I didn’t like that as much as I liked ... what was it? The Rubber album ...

Billy: Rubber Soul.
Lee:
I like a lot of the new music too. But I think that the old standards, like the ones I did on the new album, will be around for a long time. Although I like some of it, I can’t see anybody whistlin’ a rap song in the shower and that’s true if you’re twenty or ninety.

Billy: What about all the swearing on the so-called “gansta” rap records?
Lee:
Doesn’t bother me. The only thing I dislike — and it’s not my age either — is when they start talking about hurting people and putting down women. If that’s manly, then I’d just as soon walk funny! But I do think that the idea of giving an artist free reign is good.

Billy: What about sampling?
Lee:
I’ve shut that down from time to time and other times I haven’t. Evidently the record company is aware of it or it wouldn’t be happening. I don’t know why they do it. It’s all electronic, not a musician around anywhere. I mean, hell, I can go in the studio and just do it live.

Billy: That’s still the best. But Lee, you’re a genius. And instruments are expensive.
Lee:
Well, I suppose so. I can understand that, but I believe you do your own stuff! So first I want to hear: what’re they doing with it? Couple things they’ve done haven’t been too bad. The guy who runs my publishing company and I talk about it all the time. Take a song like “Boots,” which so many people have recorded. It’s in the millions of dollars in sales. My kids and grandchildren could get something from it after I die.

Billy: Copyright laws are better now than when you started out.
Lee:
They’re thinking of extending them — until fifty years after you’re dead. And I don’t plan to die any time soon. I’m going to outlive some of those copyrights.

Billy: That’s the spirit dude!
Lee:
Now we’re reissuing seven albums plus the new one. That was a result of my agreeing to work some of the cities on Nancy’s tour. We played the Limelight in New York and the joint was packed! That was a lot of fun! I met Steve Shelley and everybody backstage. He decided to release the albums and I’ve spent hours remastering everything, working with a guy and his bank of computers. We cleaned up the sound and ours won’t cost any more than the bootleg CDs people have been putting out for years that sound crummy.

Billy: CDs might go the way of records. Could turn into an artist-managed, pay-per-play internet type thing that recording companies can’t control.
Lee:
Now wouldn’t that just be a fuckin’ shame? Artists might actually be in control of their own stuff and not need the record companies at all! Let these companies sweat over the internet. They’ve made enough money!

Billy: There’re some Lee fan sites, like this great one a Dutch guy has. If I did one I’d call it “Some Velvet Pixel,” or “I’ve Been Guilty of Cyberlove (And Other Crimes).” [both laugh] Now, I got a few of your albums here, a couple Nancy signed for me. Your signature would look so good next to hers.
Lee:
Huh, wha? Nancy can spell? Okay, no problem. But I always wash my hands afterwards, ’cause I don’t know where you people have had these albums. They’re real old you know.

Billy: [laughs] “Vintage” is the nice word. I keep them in plastic covers.
Lee:
Oh yeah, that’s right, I forgot. You’re one of those.

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