The general public has a good bullshit detector, and American popular music has never had a bigger bullshitter than Lee Hazlewood. He didn’t ingratiate himself with the mainstream for long, but it was not for lack of trying. There’s a Dream I’ve Been Saving is an engrossing 107 song compilation of weird artistry that panders to all the trends of its era, that being 1966-1971.
You get outlaw diaries, as closely drawn as Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” There are Greenwich Village sing-alongs, honky-tonk puns, Memphis soul with backing from the Wrecking Crew and biker flick fuzz rock. Gorgeous country-politan ballads sport lite-classical flourishes. Hazlewood ventures ironic observation worthy of Nilsson or Newman. The general public ignored almost all of it. They could tell there was something off about each and every attempt at a pop showcase here. Hazlewood was preternatural as a song creator, in both senses; he was excellent and abnormal.
Hazlewood’s ride to the top was gradual. He first appeared on the charts in 1958 when he placed Duane Eddy’s guitar in what must have seemed like a godawful abundance of echo, during the instro-rock fad. He peaked briefly in the heart of the mainstream, setting up Nancy Sinatra with a splash of fame that’s similar to what Miley Cyrus is experiencing now, i.e., pure showbiz with the veneer of street talk. Emerging at the tail of the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll and reappearing as a hired henchman for the Sinatras didn’t make him seem like one of the more trustworthy guys over 30, not in an era where the mantra was to trust no one over the line.
So speaking of mantras, the Aggregation’s “Marharishi” crystalizes what’s off about the output from LH Industries. It ends with some buzzed up guitar soloing, but for the most part, it’s a mildly grooving lounge instrumental like The Doors when Manzerek was steering things. Nothing particularly Beatles or Beach Boys or Shankar about it, despite the title. The other side, “Flying Free” preys on the Moody Blues in their LSD mode, with a flute and lines like “With myself and with God / Who was me all along / And the voiceless song/ Of the universe filled my ears." Lee knew what was up with the kids, and genuinely liked it. Indeed there’s ample evidence in the lines of these songs that he was keeping up with the drugs and free love. Yet all of this was ultimately funded by the Sinatra excursions, dooming the attempts to find footing on either side of the generation gap. He didn’t intuitively understand the baby boom’s emotions, but like Peter Sellers and Russ Meyer, he sure could dig the scene. And like Roger Corman, no matter how mercenary the ambitions, art kept creeping through.
Born in Oklahoma, Hazlewood had a natural feel for country music. There’s a tossed off feeling to even the most detailed productions in this collection, a sense that making a song shouldn’t be too hard given the hits he’d produced already. If he was a bit cynical when he threw the “Invisible People” track to the Nuggets-styled rock band Hamilton Streetcar, he still knew how to get a heavy sound for them, much harder than the typical bubblegum psych. Far better is “Luxury Liner” by International Submarine Band. Creating a kookie Nashville snap to the guitar leads, he also burnished the gentleness of Graham Parson’s Harvard Square folk harmonies. And like that, a new genre was born.
Part of the fun of this set is identifying which trend the LHI crew was decoding for each particular track. Frequently, they emulate second-tier phenoms like Lovin’ Spoonful or Blood Sweat and Tears, bands with nearly-zilch legacy today, though they were huge at the time. The songs Lee wrote and kept for himself are among the strongest, and it’s fascinating to contrast his personal version of “Cold Hard Times” with the soul revue arrangement created for a generic growler named Joe Cannon. The Cannon version seems like a demo to pass to Elvis for a follow-up to “In the Ghetto.” The blaring horn charts, wiggly guitar leads and a cornball key change end up burying the lyrics. They are actually affecting when our main man talks though them with just an acoustic guitar and some strings.
"Cold Hard Times" appears on what is Hazlewood’s best album, Cowboy in Sweden, the whole of which is included here. The Okie went to Sweden to help his son dodge the draft, and the Swedes set him up with a TV special to showcase his latest work. All the conundrums of his persona come together with this set. He was an impossibly American character who felt more at home in Europe. Turned on and dropped out, he was more comfortable behind the glitzy artifice of TV variety shows.
Hazlewood’s persona dominates the set, but the highlight is a ballad by his tightest co-conspirator, Suzi Jane Hokom. As a producer, he could be a skilled mimic and bizarrely original. A track like “Pray Them Bars Away” still seems audacious. Told from the perspective of a life-sentence inmate, the backing beat pings like a chain gang cracking rocks. It’s punctuated with swooping cellos. Matching the loser POV with the chamber music strings anticipates the ironic ecstasy of Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle”. The jailhouse details take on the epic feel of Nick Cave’s “Mercy Seat”. But the character in “Pray Them Bars Away” isn’t as weighted down as Reed and Cave’s denizens.
He’s doomed, but there’s a bemusement as he speaks to his buddy who’s on the outside. “Are you still a doin’ all them rotten things we done?” Doomed, but incorrigible. And of course, the buddy isn’t there to hear him. He’s the rascal who keeps on going, even if no one is listening.