Today, we put "Five Questions" to Wyndham Wallace, the author of the recent book Lee, Myself and I: Inside The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood. Ostensibly a biography of the legendary singer and songwriter best known for writing and producing Nancy Sinatra's chart-topping hit 'These Boots Are Made For Walkin'," it is much, much more than that, and one of our favorite reads in recent memory.
Let’s talk about some of the universal themes in your book. While obviously about Lee Hazlewood, I felt this book could resonate with anyone who’s made that life-changing connection with music or a band or even a song and gone off in search of more. Agree?
When you think about it, music is an extraordinary thing. There’s a line early on in the book that reflects its appeal to me when I was a teenager: “True musicians are, to me, untouchable, capable of provoking a magical response through nothing so much as vibrating air.” And that intangibility — the fact that you literally can’t see music — makes it somehow different to other art forms. You can see a painting, a sculpture, or a film. Music, on the other hand, is all in your mind, and one of the things I sometimes find frustrating about writing about it for a living – or, in my case, part of my living — is that so-called ‘critics’ are encouraged to refrain from using the first person when judging music. That’s all very well when addressing a performance – ‘Can the drummer keep time?’ ‘Does the singer hold a note?’ — and certainly people don’t read reviews to learn about the writer, so you need to make sure you never overwhelm a piece with your own personality. But when addressing the emotional resonance of music, I feel that’s a very personal, intimate experience, and I try to acknowledge that in the book.
The moment when a song gets under your skin, especially when you’re young, can literally change the shape of your life, and I know countless people who were deeply affected by their experience listening to all kinds of different music, whether it be The Sex Pistols or Joni Mitchell, Talk Talk or Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Oasis or Blur, Nirvana or Pearl Jam, Saint Saëns or Steve Reich. Discovering Lee’s music sent me down a rabbit hole, just as has happened to all sorts of people in all sorts of ways when they’ve fallen in love with someone or something comparable. I hoped people would recognize something of their own experience in mine. Of course, in my case the rabbit hole led to a particularly vast rabbit warren…
As someone who also worked in the music business at a young age, I met many of the people who made some of my favorite records as well. That’s a very interesting thing, to not only meet some of your (musical) heroes, but also work with them and get to know them. I think anyone who’s gone through that might say “Careful what you wish for…” Your thoughts?
During my time working in the music industry, I actually worked with very few people I would consider true heroes of mine, though I’ve been lucky enough to meet or talk with a few over the years, some very well known (Harry Dean Stanton) and some lesser known (It’s Immaterial — look ‘em up!) I’ve always been torn between the awe I feel for them and the reality that, in many ways, they’re little different to you or I. How one behaves towards them, in a sense, depends a lot upon whether they choose to emphasise their similarities to other people or instead the facets that have made them special, and how you choose to react to that. So it’s a two way street: meeting your heroes can go wrong because you misjudge them, or because they demand something of you that is, perhaps, inappropriate. Lee was a curious but perhaps not unusual mix — he wanted recognition for what he had achieved, but he didn’t want anyone to fawn.
It is a risk, though, to meet such people, and there are two high profile musicians who come to mind with whom I’ve had eminently disagreeable exchanges, though these were via email rather than in person. Both were heroes of mine, and I’d argue both overreacted, but one, I think, was justified and still retains my respect and admiration for their art. The other was, quite simply, acting like a diva, and lost not only my respect but also diminished my love for what they’d achieved.
Ultimately, meeting a hero is probably like meeting someone after you’ve got to know them on a dating website: they’ve presented themselves as attractively as possible, and you’ve interpreted them positively from what you’ve learned about them. But whether you can get on with a musical hero depends entirely on qualities that are equally as intangible as the very music they made that drew you to them in the first place. That, and the level of respect that you show one another, something that applies, I think, to everyone we meet in real life.
Your personal growth and self-discovery, made somewhat implicit in the title of Lee, Myself and I, was also a big part of the story. Did that idea consciously manifest itself as part of the book, or was it something you gradually realized as the story was working itself out?
Lee, Myself & I actually emerged from stories I started writing after I moved to Berlin in 2004 for the friends I’d left behind in the UK, stories I also soon began to share with other people I knew elsewhere. I’d found myself having all sorts of adventures, some due to my new surroundings, some due to my work setting up a new record label in the city, and some also due to my association with Lee. These were personal recollections, and, after Lee died, the thought of writing a book about him slowly solidified. I returned to stories that I had written about spending time with him during the last 18 months of his life. One in particular had provoked a lot of tearful reactions from friends, and I was proud that I’d managed to convey some of the depth of our friendship.
It was, I knew, somewhat self-indulgent to approach his story the way I did. As I said earlier, if you’re reviewing a record no one wants to read more about the reviewer than what is being reviewed. But our relationship was unusual, and my fascination with him had become about far more than just his records. No one was paying me to write a biography, so I thought I might as well write a book that I myself might want to read. When I looked back at the reasons for my grief upon his death, I recognized that it was about my love for the man, and all that he had taught me about myself. I felt it was going to be far more interesting for me – and, therefore, I hoped, for others – if I approached it from that angle.
In addition, I knew that uncovering Lee’s definitive history was going to be difficult because he travelled through life so light – even his gold discs were gone. Potentially, too, a blow-by-blow historical account of his life might destroy the very mystery that makes him such an intriguing figure. Additionally, though I’m sure Lee’s studio techniques were fascinating, and his business transactions fierce, that’s not a book I’m terribly excited to read. Someone else can write that. So I instinctively started to approach it as though it were a coming of age novel, or even, as I have sometimes joked, a doomed love story.
I would recommend this book to everyone, even those not drawn to music bios and those who have no clue who Lee Hazlewood is because of the aforementioned universal themes and that is reads as a novel. In what ways do you feel that you could not have “concocted” a better central character than Lee? (Nor, for that matter, a better-realized protagonist such as yourself!)
Lee was a larger than life character and consequently a readymade gift for a writer. That, I think, was one of the reasons that people queued up to interview him during the last years of his life. I got closer than most, and so I was able to see him from many angles, both professional and personal, the endearing and the less appealing. The book therefore isn’t purely about him as a musician. In fact, I’d initially hoped that I could market the book as something other than a quasi-music bio, because Lee’s extraordinary — and often overlooked — achievements are merely a part of it, splashes of colour for the character I’ve tried to capture.
The fact that you say it reads as a novel is very flattering, because that was what I aimed for. I recently had the privilege of meeting a very senior, highly decorated, retired officer from the British Army who was a friend of my late father, and he told me, much to my surprise, that he’d bought the book and had been delving into it with great pleasure. I can say with some confidence that, though this was a man who might have heard ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’", he’d have had little interest in Nancy Sinatra and certainly none in Lee Hazlewood. Learning that he was drawn into the book was deeply satisfying. It suggested I’d achieved what I set out to do, which was tell a story with which, hopefully, people from all walks of life could identify. Lee makes for a glorious ‘wise old man’ character, and I was perfectly willing to balance that by confessing to my own nature as an ingénue back in the days when we first got to know one another. That, I think, provides some of the tension in the book, and it’s a genuine reflection of how our friendship developed.
Lee’s material is kind of all over the place, stylistically and musically. As a Lee neophyte, I really appreciated the compendium of recordings at the end. However, I found myself even more confused as to where to start: the simplicity of Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, the pop of Nancy and Lee or the album that titled this book, The Very Special World of Lee Hazlewood. What single album would you recommend for a beginner to best experience Lee Hazlewood?
There is no simple answer to that. Lee’s music was as sprawling as his moods were fluctuating, and all of his records, like his personality, exhibit a weakness or two alongside their great strengths. I’m a sucker for 13, which is an extravagant, brassy, almost funky collection from 1972 – but it’s not really an obvious place to start — and for Trouble Is A Lonesome Town, his debut solo album, which is a more countrified, eccentric collection interrupted by witty, spoken-word caricatures of people he knew when he was growing up in dustbowl America. Cowboy In Sweden, which contained the first solo work of his that I ever heard, is also a great collection that helps highlight his skill as a duettist, and also encapsulates his humour and lyrical prowess.
But delving into the Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood compilation, Fairytales & Fantasies, that provided the backbone of my early investigations is maybe the easiest way in since it contains most of the classic duets, including probably the greatest of all time, ‘Some Velvet Morning’. Or, if you want to focus on his solo work, there’s the wonderful compilation, The LHI Years 1966-1971, that Light In The Attic Records put together early in their fantastic, ongoing reissue campaign. This draws on solo work Lee released on his own label, including the fabulously spooky ‘Come On Home To Me’, and also has an absurd front cover that underlines the fine line Lee trod between kitsch, sexy, sophisticated and subversive. It lacks My ‘Autumn’s Done Come’ – a track which, just on its own, should be enough to consign you to years of digging into Lee’s catalogue – but it stands a very good chance of sending you down a rabbit hole similar to the one I jumped into. In fact, if you’re not sure where to start, just go to that one song. That and ‘Some Velvet Morning’, in my opinion, are the gatekeepers...
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