Leave it to an innovator to resurrect another innovator’s work. Smells Like Records chief and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley has done just that with his label’s reissues of pop luminary Lee Hazelwood’s solo work. Hazelwood started his career as a DJ, later branching out into the thrill of victory and agony of defeat in the wide world of production. He worked with Duane Eddy, a young Roger Miller and produced some of Nancy Sinatra’s best—as in late-’60s—sides. But he also put forth a canon of original works that rival the sad storytelling prowess of Utah Phillips.
Hazelwood suffered throughout most of the 1960s, as egomaniacal producers such as Phil Spector and Brian Wilson topped the charts with a vengeance, but he managed to create an abundance of off-kilter solo records, and secured a place for himself among the era’s top pop craftsmen. And he did so relying on a dusky, baritone style generally reserved for country artists of the day, but with little connection to the worrisome music of his brethren. Every once in a while, Hazelwood would arrive with a new platter that shucked convention in favor of odd moments of sheer outward-bound brilliance and complete disregard for Top 40 restraints. Times were good.
But not necessarily for Hazelwood. His often freakish albums met with reluctance and the furrowed brows of a questioning public. They didn’t fare so well commercially, either. But by the time Spector was holding the Ramones in the studio at gunpoint and Wilson had shuffled off to the comfort of his four-poster bed, Hazelwood had become one of the only shreds of sanity in an insane world of drugs, psychedelia and disco. If he was crazy, then who wasn’t?
Trouble Is a Lonesome Town is considered Hazelwood’s first bona fide solo album, released in 1963. Ten tracks take the listener down Main Street of a mythical town populated by characters as diverse as dapper undertakers and formaldehyde-guzzling Indians, and a host of other residents based loosely on the folk who populated Hazelwood’s own hometown. Segues are provided in the form of spoken vignettes, in which Hazelwood deadpans shards of wisdom and hilarity that effectively set the stage for each sparse song that follows.
On Requiem for an Almost Lady, originally released in 1970 only in Europe, Hazelwood manages to make breaking up even harder to do with another set of 10 tracks that are decidedly dark and mysterious. And again, blunt spoken word intros that lead into each song underscore the sadness and poetry inherent to love won and love lost. Requiem remains mostly unheard until now, but it’s a pleasure the depths of which have yet to be explored.
Like Hazelwood’s penchant for on-air schizophrenia as a DJ (he was known for embodying several distinct radio personalities—sometimes all at once—during the course of his broadcast time slot), his music lends itself to a narrator-as-actor aesthetic that can be a mind-bending day at the amusement park for those listeners so inclined. It can also be intensely melancholy and dangerous. But where there is no danger, there is no experience. And if Lee Hazelwood has contributed nothing else, he’s made sheer musical experience top priority. Perhaps without even knowing it.