[The Guardian, 1999, 2000]
COWBOY IN SWEDEN
LEE HAZLEWOOD AND THE AL CASEY COMBO
FARMISHT FLATULENCE, ORIGAMI, ARF!!! AND ME
Smells Like Records
IN A business rife with oddballs, freaks, fruit-loops, nut-hatches and outright bananas, Lee Hazlewood remains a singular figure. His career ranks among the most bizarre and original in pop. You could describe him as a psychedelic Johnny Cash, or Sonny Bono from Narnia, for all the good it'd do you. You'd barely be getting to the dirt beneath the man's fingernails.
This is a writer and producer who ricocheted between ultra showbiz and dementia, usually several times in the course of a single song. A performer with an unholy rasp of a voice, three parts whiskey to two parts soil and a jigger of pure lechery for good measure.
If you know him, it's probably from his duets with Nancy Sinatra, particularly Some Velvet Morning - quite possibly the seediest, silliest, sexiest and druggiest number of its time. And bear in mind its time was the late Sixties. It was a hit, as were so many of the tracks he put together for Nancy: These Boots Are Made For Walking, Sand, Jackson (a Jerry Leiber song which Johnny Cash and June Carter would claim for their own), Summer Wine. . . songs so flagrantly mainstream they were all but deranged, and so intrinsically deranged it's a marvel they went anywhere near the mainstream.
The Lee & Nancy back catalogue is too Vegas for Vegas, too unbalanced for high camp, too nutty for the rock canon. Hazlewood himself resembled a mustachioed Malboro man hired for a Sixties porno movie shoot, all cheese and sleaze. His sound was much the same - a little bit country, a little bit rock'n'roll, a whole lot weird. He'd been around long before he saved Nancy Sinatra's pert little miniskirted butt from showbusiness oblivion. Hazlewood was the man who told Duane Eddy to twang. He ran record companies, wrote songs, produced anything he could get his hands on. His first solo album came out in 1963, rejoicing in the majestically C&W title of Trouble Is A Lonesome Town. Later, he was largely responsible for introducing Gram Parsons and country rock to the world, issuing Safe At Home, the first and only LP by The International Submarine Band, on his LHI label.
Come the end of the Sixties, he moved to Sweden, the beginning of a globetrotting odyssey punctuated by ever odder album releases. His opening salvo was Cowboy In Sweden, which is fairly comprehensible by his standards. He was, after all, a cowboy, in Sweden. The record contains all the elements that made his work with Nancy Sinatra irresistible: grotesque overdoses of sentimentality and cliché, completely undercut by sudden twists and switches, incongruous duets, and Hazlewood's lewd, weatherbeaten vocals. Hey Cowboy is a cheerful ditty of inspirational filthiness, no less. Pray Them Bars Away would make Johnny Cash blanch at its Johnny Cash-ness. The Night Before is a genuinely grim slice of self flagellation, and well deserved too, if the lyrics are anything to go by. Titles like Easy And Me, Leather And Lace and Forget Marie are everything you'd expect and more. Far more, in fact. That, above all, was Hazlewood's gift - to go not just over the top, but thoroughly, fantastically, impossibly over the top, until conceits such as vulgarity, parody, kitsch or camp dwindled into invisibility far below.
Cowboy In Sweden is, curiously, a very moving record, perhaps in ways that Hazlewood never intended. It's a great record, too, no question. Very likely the only great record ever to include a Scandinavian folk song. As for Farmisht Flatulence, Origami, ARF!!! And Me, it tells you a lot about the man that his first full album for 22 years has been landed with a title liable to put off all but his most rabid admirers. Perversity being his stock-in-trade, it's a collection of standards recorded with Al Casey, a Hazlewood collaborator as far back as the Duane Eddy days. I enjoyed it, but then I didn't have to pay for mine. You could argue that, at the age of 70 come July, Hazlewood is entitled do whatever he pleases. But then he's never shown the remotest sign of doing anything else.
Smells Like Records
AND SO we continue to unearth the strange underworld of Lee Hazlewood. Like diggers holding artefacts of unfathomable purpose and eerie runic inscription up to the light, we peer at the latest find and wonder what the hell to make of it. Because this really is the oddest yet. First released in 1972 on a Swedish label called, appropriately, Viking, 13 would have created a bigger splash had it been dropped over the railing of the Malmo to Gothenburg ferry into the Baltic sea.
13 is a mere 25 minutes long, which would barely qualify it for single-plus-mixes status these days. Stowed within those 25 minutes are nine songs. A little basic arithmetic will tell you that Lee must have found the notion of the three-minute pop gem too expansive, and decided to tighten it up a bit. The songs themselves are, as expected, both brilliant and thoroughly loopy. Their author still sounds like a degenerate lounge act subsisting on melted cheese, mescalin and own-brand whiskey. But for Hazlewood that was no longer enough. He sought out the perhaps the only recording virtuoso more freakish and unorthodox than himself, a man named Larry Marks, and persuaded him to arrange the album.
Marks was no Kim Fowley-type, no maverick underground producer. He was far weirder than that. Larry Marks had made his reputation composing the soundtracks for Saturday morning kiddies' cartoon shows. A genre with neither rhyme nor reason, its rhythms dictated only by the dropping of anvils and the manic rotation of cheap scenery. It may impart some of the album's flavour to quote from Hazlewood's own brief sleevenotes: "The occasional howls, heard on some cuts, are Larry's descent into uncontrolled lycanthropy."
Don't take this to mean that the album is chaotic. Hazlewood has always been a consummate, if demented, professional. Marks' most obvious contribution takes the form of a neat but endearingly goofy brass section, verging on the Mariachi. You can almost imagine the animated instruments playing themselves, somewhat in the fashion of a pepped-up Tubby The Tuba. Hazlewood helpfully describes the subjects of his lyrics as “pimps. . . whores. . . pushers. . . dopers. . . gangsters. . . and bottom of the human chain shit-heels,” which makes it even more peculiar that so much of this album should boast such a cheery sound. His cameo portraits are executed with genuine affection, or at least without judgement; so that might explain it.
The album alternates evenly (and this is the only even thing about it) between brisk, uptempo numbers and slow, sordid, bluesy slices of a life you'll be glad belonged to someone else. For all the seedy glamour Hazlewood's songs lend to these tales of dossers and street lunatics, it's only too easy to picture the broken figures behind them. Hazlewood's bleak humour is as pronounced as ever:
Saturday night down in Birmingham, stoned with a hobo jackAll's well that ends well, then. And by the way, you can safely assume that's Birmingham, Alabama he's referring to. Riding the rails with a bunch of Midlands winos mightn't hold quite the same romance. On the other hand, with an artist as erratic as Lee Hazlewood, you never know. Maybe the incident took place 50 feet out of New Street.
Even Hazlewood's good old country music clichés have a way of upending themselves. More often than not they finish up travelling sideways and at a tangent to the prevailing winds. Which is, of course, part of the joy of rediscovering each successive Hazlewood reissue. When he recorded this stuff, either he just didn't care, or he cared far too much to let anything taint his peerless eccentricity. According to his sleevenotes: “They all had a story to tell, and I told it. None of them seem to care, and I don't either. Have fun.” Okay.
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