Lee, Myself & I: Inside The Very Special World Of Lee Hazlewood by Wyndham Wallace
From chapter one: "I Am A Part"
It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny springtime Friday as I stroll back and forth in front of hotel lobby elevators, the confusingly autumnal light of New York’s Grand Hyatt reflected in their golden doors. Tourists flood check-in desks while nearby, in plush chairs and on elegant sofas, businessmen and women try to wrap up meetings so they can head to the bar. I, however, am nervously awaiting the entrance of a man whose reputation precedes him with such ferocity that my hands are clammy and trembling. No one knows where he’s been, or what he’s been doing. Hardly anyone’s seen him for years. Why I’ve been selected for this privilege remains puzzling.
A polite chime announces another lift’s arrival, but as I wipe my palms on ragged Levi’s, all that greets me is a fresh set of anonymous faces. I look around to see if anyone is watching, conscious that I resemble a stalker who’s slipped past security. These people can afford to stay here, while I, on my salary, barely dare ask the price of water. Still, despite these luxury surroundings, I remain unnoticed, dwarfed beneath a high ceiling, with only my trainers, which squeak on polished floors, drawing attention to my presence. I wonder if I’ll remain invisible to the man I’m supposed to meet.
I have every right to be here, but my presence in the lavish setting of this Manhattan hotel only serves to emphasise the differences between the two of us. My night was spent in a windowless Brooklyn basement, sharing a narrow bed with the only person I know who can accommodate me for free. The master I am hoping to encounter probably has a suite upstairs on a private floor with a view of 42nd Street.
This man— a hero of mine for the best part of a decade — surely expects to find a veteran of the music industry waiting for him. The least he’ll anticipate is someone well accustomed to classy hotels, steak dinners, vintage whisky, gold discs on the wall, the popping of flashbulbs, the scent of celebrity. It won’t take long for him to recognise that I’m incapable of providing the kind of service with which he’s undoubtedly familiar. After all, the musicians for whom I work are — relative to his accomplishments — marginal at best. Even the most successful of them still sands floors for a living. But this gentleman? He’s been employed by Frank Sinatra, written for Dean Martin, hung out with Elvis, and given the world one of the most instantly recognisable pop songs it’s ever known. Coming here was a stupid, stupid idea.
I slump down into one of the few vacant armchairs, apprehensive about what I’m sure will soon unfold. I pull my frayed red James Dean jacket around me, trying to conceal myself from view, and watch as the elevator doors slide open once again.
It’s too late to hide. At long last he emerges, dressed all in black: a black leather jacket, loose black jeans, and a black cotton shirt with a sagging pocket over the breast. His face is shaded by a cheap baseball cap pulled down over greying hair, his eyes hidden by expensive sunglasses. He’s shorter and stockier than I expected, but he’s still built like a former fighter who, once his moustache was softened with whisky, probably sent more than a few men to the floor.
As it happens, the trademark handlebar he sported in the 60s is gone, his jawline and upper lip instead stubbled with lazy white whiskers. In fact, he looks more like a suntanned pensioner clinging to his youth on a visit to see the grandchildren than a reclusive, fabled singer, songwriter, producer, and music Svengali. But I know it’s him immediately, even if he remains invisible to everyone else but me.
It’s time to get this over. Leaping to attention, I clear my throat and step forward politely towards him.
‘Lee Hazlewood?’ I ask.
‘Wyndham Wallace?’ he smiles.
‘Hi,’ I say, holding out a shaking hand. ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’
He looks me up and down, amused yet suspicious. While I’m barely more underdressed than he is for the environment, I’m immediately embarrassed by my shabby charity-store clothes, my uncontrollably curly hair, my evident youth and inexperience. I’m mere shit on his shoes.
It’s April 1999. I’m twenty-seven years old and live by one of London’s toughest streets in a roughly converted garage, its wood-panelled door still installed on my bedroom’s outer wall. Sometimes I’m awoken by the sound of men pissing inches from my head.
Lee Hazlewood is sixty-nine years old and lives in Kissimmee, Florida, where an alligator eyes him every day as he drinks Chivas Regal by his pool.
I spent ten years in a red brick boarding school that cost my parents thousands of pounds every term. He wrote one song, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin’’, that could have paid for me to study there all my life.
I once kissed a woman after she was seduced by ‘Some Velvet Morning,’ Lee’s hallucinatory duet with Nancy Sinatra, which I played on a tinny car stereo. Lee once seduced the whole of America performing ‘Some Velvet Morning’ on a national TV special.
I own battered copies of his albums on vinyl that I tirelessly hunted down. He wrote, produced, and recorded those albums and saw them advertised on Sunset Strip.
I’ve never worked for an act that’s sold more than 15,000 records in the UK. He’s worked with artists who sold that many records in a day.
His handshake is firm. His face is inscrutable. He turns to the crop-haired blonde accompanying him, then back to me.
‘How the fuck old are you? Thirteen?’
I’m not even shit on his shoes.
‘Well, come on then,’ Lee barks, looking around at the Grand Hyatt’s busy lobby, already impatient. ‘Why stand ’round talking here when there’s a bar?’
He turns on his heels and speeds away across the marble floor towards the front of the building, where bow-tied men in pressed white shirts and immaculate waistcoats stand before a row of spotless bottles, preparing drinks for businessmen wielding bulky mobile phones like remote controls. Raven-haired businesswomen in power suits, their stockinged legs hanging from barstools, sip Martinis beside them. It doesn’t look like I’m going to feel any more comfortable over there.
‘Hi,’ I say weakly, as Lee strides off into the distance. ‘You must be Jeane. Nice to meet you at last.’
‘Hi,’ she replies, smiling welcomingly back at me. ‘Nice to meet you, too.’
We catch up with Lee and seat ourselves around a table on plush red-leather benches, our silhouettes reflected in the windows that separate us from yellow taxicabs sneaking along the tarmac beneath. Despite the bustle below, it’s quiet in the bar, as though we’re observing animal behaviour through glass.
‘What do you drink?’ Lee asks.
‘I’m a lager man,’ I tell him.
‘A lager man,’ he smirks, turning to Jeane and enjoying the sound of an English accent. ‘Guess we got ourselves a Brit!’
‘That’s true,’ I laugh nervously. ‘That’s definitely true.’
‘Well, I don’t know if they have lager’—he says the word with inverted commas—‘but I’m sure you can find something to suit your tastes. Unless you feel more adventurous …’
I rub a finger nervously along the edge of the table. There’s a hint of a challenge to his tone.
‘What are you having?’ I enquire.
‘I always drink the same thing: Scotch,’ he says. ‘Chivas on the rocks.’
He pronounces it ‘Shee-vas’, I notice, not ‘Shivers’.
‘And you?’ I ask Jeane. She’s sliding around on her seat, like a child making herself comfy. She looks happy, even excited. She’s dressed in jeans as plain as mine and a golden sweater, its price admittedly unlikely to reflect its colour, and is obviously younger than Lee, her short, fair hair framing a round face with a smile that so far appears permanent.
‘I’ll just have a Coke,’ she says. ‘I don’t really drink.’
‘Well, what can you recommend?’ I ask. I’m British, but not inflexible.
‘Well, what do you like?’ she replies.
‘I don’t really drink much apart from beer, though I quite like a gin and tonic. And Margaritas,’ I remember. ‘I like a good Margarita. Though I’m not sure I’ve drunk enough Margaritas to know what a good one tastes like.’
‘Well, then,’ Lee decides on my behalf, ‘I think you’d better have a good Margarita. Here you go, baby’—he slips Jeane a wad of cash—‘go get me a Chivas and Wyndham Wallace a Margarita. And whatever you want. Otherwise we’ll be here all day waiting to get served.’
Jeane slides off her seat.
‘Sure thing, honey.’
She skips to the bar.
There’s silence at the table now that the drinks are decided, and, for a second or two, the reality of whom I’m with smacks me hard across a peach-fuzzed cheek. This is the man who made Nancy Sinatra a star, delivering her to the top of the charts with songs so beloved they could start playing in this bar any moment. He recorded under-appreciated but outstanding albums of his own, too —records so eccentric that they rarely penetrated the mainstream but nonetheless so good they more than justify the commitment, energy, and substantial cash it now takes to track them down. He discovered and produced Duane Eddy, ‘The Titan of Twang’, so named because of the resonant sound the two of them coaxed from Duane’s guitar, and also ran record labels, instigating the career of other influentials, including Gram Parsons, who’d gone on to join The Byrds, and Phil Spector, whose ‘Wall of Sound’ was arguably a refinement of techniques he’d witnessed Lee using while working as his apprentice.
Merely a handful of these facts should have guaranteed his spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and yet here he is, unrecognised, sitting so close that I can see the nostril hair poking from his nose. His girlfriend, meanwhile, is buying me a Margarita with money plucked from his very pocket. No wonder he’s looking at me, head slightly cocked, as though he’s waiting for me—or even daring me — to speak.
‘So,’ I panic, ‘how’s the trip been so far?’
‘Oh, fine, fine,’ he replies, pulling a cigarette from his packet, immune to the banality of the question. ‘We’ve just been seeing a few people, wandering around. We’re going for steaks with Sonic Youth later.’
There’s a trace of adolescent pride in this last statement, as if he’s a long-term fan of this celebrated New York band. As Jeane returns, he names the restaurant, as though this underlines the honour.
‘Your Margarita is coming,’ Jeane announces gaily, sinking back down beside her older companion. ‘I told them to salt it. That’s how you’re meant to drink them.’
The waiter arrives soon afterwards. My Margarita is huge, with giant rocks of salt clinging like frosted jewels to the rim of a glass the size of a mediaeval goblet.
‘Go on, then, try it,’ Jeane says impatiently. ‘How is it?’
I lean over the table and suck on a straw that dangles from the pastel green slush.
‘That’s good,’ I wince. ‘That’s really good.’
It’s actually acutely sour and cold enough to crack my teeth, but I hoist my glass over the table.
‘Cheers,’ I say.
Lee raises his Chivas warily for the toast, keen to make sure no salt falls into his drink. Jeane’s less fussy and bangs her glass carelessly against ours.
‘Cheers,’ she laughs, caricaturing my accent. ‘Enjoy your Margarita.’
Muzak plays gently in the background. Voices bounce off the ceiling. I wonder how much my drink cost.
© 2015 Wyndham Wallace / Jawbone Press
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