Tribute to an Almost Classic: Lee Hazlewood’s Requiem for an Almost Lady

Winston Cook-Wilson

By Winston Cook-Wilson

on 12.09.13 in Spotlights

In 1964, Lee Hazlewood, one of the most inventive and single-minded producers in the Los Angeles studio circuit, nearly retired from the industry at the ripe old age of 35, having made enough off of Duane Eddy’s “Peter Gunn,” among many other things, to reasonably do so. However, he received a commission to produce a hit for a struggling Nancy Sinatra, who was in danger of being dropped by her label, and was lured back into the control room. He didn’t come out again until 1969, after producing her much-needed chart-topper, his Sinatra duets album Nancy and Lee and a few occasionally brilliant solo albums. At that point, the moment again seemed right for Hazlewood to part ways with the record industry. His relationships with MGM and Reprise were souring, and he hoped for his son to escape the draft. He moved to Sweden in late 1969.

The move didn’t provide respite from musical productivity. Instead, Hazlewood started running his personal imprint, Lee Hazlewood Industries, solely on his personal savings, and entered an extremely prolific creative period. Light in the Attic Records’ newest and most ambitious Hazlewood release, There’s a Dream I’ve Been Saving: Lee Hazlewood Industries 1966-1971 compiles all the music that came out on the label — both before and after Lee relocated. In addition to singles from other artists (including Suzi Jane Hokom, Sanford Clark and the International Submarine Band, which features a pre-Byrds Gram Parsons), the basic version of the box set includes the four solo albums Hazlewood released on LHI. These capture him at the peak of his creative powers, thankful to be working outside of the post-British Invasion record industry and crafting compelling records on his own terms.

Cowboy in Sweden opens the first disc of the set; often considered the masterwork of Hazlewood’s solo career, it by far is the most well-known LHI release. Full of big, druggy orchestral arrangements and Spaghetti Western electric guitar twang, the album provided the soundtrack to a semi-coherent Swedish television special of the same name starring Lee (the deluxe box set includes a DVD). Curiously, despite its reputation, it has been circulated primarily through vinyl rips and Mediafire skullduggery. It is a perfect introduction to this period in Hazlewood’s career; for those who have not tracked it down, it may be the revelation of the box set.

The next two LPs are highly enjoyable, if non-essential, Hazlewood releases. 1969′s The Cowboy and the Lady is a collection of duets with Swedish actress Ann-Margret that updates the potent, June-and-Johnny-gone-wrong formula of Nancy and Lee with jammier, psych-rock arrangements. One of the album’s highlights is the Hazlewood original “Greyhound Bus Depot,” which boasts possibly the most unforgettable adlib of his career: “Look at her standing there, with chili on her dress/ If I knew her better I’d give her a puppy.” Forty, from the same year, is a crusty, half-originals/half-covers record — as good-naturedly sloppy as a post-Son of Schmilsson Harry Nilsson record. Nonetheless, it features some of the most inspired arrangements on any Hazlewood LP. Notably, the album begins with a neurotic take on “It Was a Very Good Year” that sounds like it could have been orchestrated by Frank Zappa.

In this critic’s estimation, however, the box set’s most important achievement is offering Hazlewood’s final LHI release — 1971′s Requiem for an Almost Lady —another lease on life. If it is arguably one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the early ’70s, up there with Randy Newman’s 12 Songs and Paul Simon’s self-titled. The only issue with including it in any canon is that few have heard it: Even its 1999 CD rerelease — a peaked-out transfer issued by Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth’s Smells Like Records — is fast becoming a collector’s item.

Requiem is unique in the context of Hazlewood’s Nordic output because it lacks the cavernous, intricate arrangements that were his signature by this time. The ensemble consists of only two guitars and bass — whether the choice to handle the sessions this way was primarily based on aesthetic or budgetary considerations is unclear. The trio is extremely versatile, attacking everything from sad-eyed strum-alongs and honky-tonk country uptempos with dexterity. Comparing the playing on “Must Have Been Something I Loved,” which could have been sung by George Jones in his buzzcut days, with the otherworldly guitar harmonics on “Come on Home to Me” is enough to demonstrate this fact.

It is unclear if Hazlewood meant for his album title to cast aspersions on the woman to (or about) which he sings, or to comment more abstractly on the difficulty he has remembering her. As his liner notes for the Smells Like Records release put it, the album’s love interest is “a composite of all my memories, of ladies, since I became aware of my memories and ladies.” It’s more likely that the more brutal interpretation of the “Almost” in the title is correct. The record is bookended by short, antipathetic songs about the lost relationship. Respectively, they feature the lines “Ain’t you glad I never had a gun?” and “I’d rather be your enemy/than to hear you call me ‘friend.’” However, the album certainly addresses the ephemeral and illusory nature of memory in a powerful way; in the vein of the elder Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, it is a concept album (in the earliest sense of the term) focused on the various times and ways in which one may “miss her most of all.”

Throughout the album, Hazlewood embraces sentimentality — a word that’s sometimes used as a pejorative by critics when describing his work — and elevates it to a high art. On no one else’s lips could the words, “Please won’t you tell my dreams/ to leave my room alone” resonate as simultaneously miserable, caustic and facetious. He flips mawkish metaphors that would be at home on a Kris Kristofferson record on their head; there are plenty of stunning examples of this in “Stone Lost Child,” a half-tender/half-spiteful characterization of an ex-lover who Lee is watching haplessly play the field. She runs “naked when her clothes are new,” but this is because she’s “giving all she has to quite a few.” “Little Miss Sunshine (Little Miss Rain)” has hair as golden as “an angels’ ring,” but also a “mouth full of honey, so the bees won’t sting.” No template goes unfiddled-with, and no word is extraneous.

The highlight of the album is “If It’s Monday Morning,” a somber ballad cast roughly in the mold of Johnny Cash. Hazlewood writes from the perspective of a man who realizes, while walking home from a stint in jail (or after getting cut from a night shift?), that his former sweetheart is about to skip town. The line “but goodbye’s another word/ for Monday Morning,” as cathartic as a couplet-ender from a Rodgers and Hart tune, is perhaps the most poignant line of music Hazlewood ever wrote. The song itself is nearly enough to justify calling Requiem for an Almost Lady the definitive Hazlewood LP. Even more than Cowboy in Sweden, Requiem is the perfect distillation of tropes and techniques from throughout Hazelwood’s entire career, combining his most mature and straight-faced songwriting with the C&W/folk-pop aesthetic of his early solo recordings. It’s a deceptively simple album which creates new resonances after repeated listens, and warrants the considered attention of Hazlewood fans and novices alike.