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Lee Hazlewood, talkin' before it's sundown

January 21, 2007|Richard Cromelin | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — THIS isn't what Lee Hazlewood calls one of his good days. Those usually come when he's taken some pain medication, but he's abstaining today so he can think clearly.

He estimates the pain at 3 or 4 on a scale of 10, especially on the side where they took the kidney out, but he's had days where it's off the scale -- at 14, even 20 -- since his renal cancer was diagnosed a year and a half ago.

The cane leaning against the leather couch in his living room helps him get up and down and steady him when he's dizzy. He still smokes a little, he says, because he doesn't have lung cancer, but he doesn't eat much. No one has told him how much time he has left.

"It's nature's way of telling us to slow down, that corny old line," the 77-year-old pop-music maverick says with a raspy chuckle, sitting in the curtain-shaded room. "The only thing that's bothered me with this whole thing is the pain. I am the biggest sissy in the world about pain.... But we quiet it down from time to time....

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: A Sunday Calendar profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin Stupid," but was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was written by Carson Parks and was produced by Hazlewood.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: Last Sunday's profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin' Stupid," but it was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was produced by Hazlewood but written by Carson Parks.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Sinatra song: A Jan. 21 Calendar profile of musician Lee Hazlewood referred to his influence as a writer-producer on works by Nancy Sinatra, including the record "Somethin Stupid," but was unclear about his exact role in that song. The 1967 hit by Nancy and Frank Sinatra was written by Carson Parks and was produced by Hazlewood.

"The whole thing of this with my children and my grandchildren and even my great- grandchildren, we've kept it a joke. They know cancer jokes.... And they say one of these days Grandpa's not gonna be here for that reason."

This is where one of the most enigmatic figures to emerge from the ferment of the 1960s -- an overlooked pioneer of many genres and a man who apparently walked away from potential stardom -- is living out his days in a two-story house in a pleasant suburban development with his third wife and two cats.

Here, he's not too distant from his childhood homes in Texas and Oklahoma, nor from Phoenix, the city where he got his start in music in the 1950s as a disc jockey, songwriter and record producer.

And of course there's Los Angeles, where he reached his career peak in the 1960s, working with Frank Sinatra, seeing Dean Martin make a hit record of his "Houston," and writing and producing a series of hits for Frank's daughter Nancy Sinatra, including one of the decade's iconic recordings, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'."

More distant are the European cities -- Stockholm, London, Paris -- where he withdrew at the height of his success, embarking on what's been generally described as an itinerant, bohemian, reclusive life.

Lighting a cigarette, Hazlewood scoffs at that image.

"There was a little bit of a thing about 'old mystery Lee' and stuff, 'he moves around' and all that garbage. I have a reason for everything I've ever done. It's not just a haphazard sort of life."

But being regarded as an idiosyncratic genius didn't hurt as he issued a succession of offbeat, personal albums overseas in the 1970s. Several of them were among the Hazlewood reissues put out in the late '90s by Smells Like Records, an independent label owned by Sonic Youth's drummer Steve Shelley, and the expatriate troubadour's legend burgeoned in the alternative-music world.

Stars such as Nick Cave sang his praises, and a 2002 tribute album, "Total Lee: The Songs of Lee Hazlewood," features some stellerindependent artists, including Tindersticks, Lambchop, Calexico, Johnny Dowd and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker and Richard Hawley.

"He's just really creative, and his personal story is very intriguing," says Joey Burns of the Tucson-based Calexico. "I think the fact that he had left the States and lived in Sweden for a while, there's a lot of my friends that have done just that, or have done the opposite, come here from France or somewhere in Europe and are living in the desert. So there's a connection to that kind of sensibility.

"And all his classics, they kind of go somewhere. There's some kind of journey happening with the story. It's a very imaginative place.... You can tell there's some drama.

"And I love his more obscure stuff too. I mean he's very abstract and kind of out there at times, and a freak, and that's what my friends and I all love about them. He's out there."

Hazlewood's exit is being accompanied by a new album that he started writing a couple of years ago. When he found out he was ill, he declared it would be his final record and he titled it "Cake or Death" after a routine by one of his favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard.

The album, which comes out Tuesday on the Ever label, is marked by typically contrary Hazlewood moves. Instead of crafting a grand, concluding statement, he's collected a motley set of quirky songs. Rather than recruiting big-name former partners such as Sinatra or Ann-Margret for duets, he paired with lower-profile European performers such as Ann Kristin Hedmark and Bela B.

He even turns over one track, "She's Gonna Break Some Heart Tonight," to a friend, singer Tommy Parsons, and he lets his 8-year-old granddaughter Phaedra Dawn Stewart sing on a short version of his cult classic "Some Velvet Morning."

"I wanted to get a little politics in it and a little of my darkness in it and a little of the silliness in it, and I think I got all of it in," says Hazlewood.

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