Friday, August 10, 2007

Two drops of happy, one pinch of pain

It was bad enough that Ingmar Bergman died, but Lee Hazlewood? That’s something else. I find after years as a fan I’m still wanting to spell it ‘Hazelwood’, which is a more beautiful word (if it is a word), and every time I have to check. Dig out my Music for Pleasure LP The Very Special World of…, catch the glint in Lee’s eye as he sings into one of those metallic tube microphones that are reserved for schmaltz, read the garish writing above. It’s such a terrific image. I love showing people that LP, especially people I don’t know very well, who are maybe trying to size up my record collection. It would just be so naff were it not for that glint, and really if you didn’t know that Lee was God you’d be forgiven for missing its significance. So on the one hand it’s a kind of inverse snobbery that makes me reach for this record (let’s see if you’re uncool enough to like this), and on the other it’s a genuine love for the man, the moustache, the songs. Which – all three – create and inhabit their own little world, in which all you want is to hear Lee’s tall tales, gentle and sardonic.

My first Lee LP was Nancy and Lee Again, bought at a record fair and selected over its predecessor because it looked like it might be harder to find again. It starts with my favourite Lee song, ‘Arkansas Coal (Suite)’, which starts with my favourite chord, the one The Sundays built ‘Here’s Where The Story Ends’ around, and My Bloody Valentine ‘Loomer’. A chord which can’t quite reach itself and ends up chasing its own tail. Add in a wooden whistle (at least, a whistle that suggests woods), Lee’s bedtime story voice (‘Not so long ago just outside Paris, Arkansas, a young woman had a mountain to climb’) and Nancy at her most solemnly charming (‘Gonna climb up that mountain / ’Cause there’s one thing I know / My daddy’s in that mountain / Digging Arkansas coal’), and every duet you ever heard before just dissolves into dust. Lee is the daddy who goes out mining during the day, Nancy the daughter who idolises him. Sometimes she’s the wife too. It’s a bleak story: Lee’s character is wholly absorbed by the mountain he has known from childhood, in which he works, and in which he knows he’ll die. Mining’s hard, it’s not going to leave much energy to do anything else, and it’ll probably kill you before you retire, is the attitude here. What makes the song so lovable is the daughter’s perspective: she stays out past tea-time so she can ‘lay my head on the ground / And listen to the sound of my daddy digging’. It’s an ingenious way of eulogising unromantic hard work. Sentimentality is avoided because the Nancy character loves her father, and love trumps sentiment.

A little later on, a cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Down From Dover’ (which has always made me want to hear more Dolly, though I’ve yet to get around to it) gives us a sadder story still, a man fleeing from a woman he’s left pregnant and the baby, apparently sensing the father’s departure, gives up on life and is stillborn. Nancy does overact a bit on that one, but you get used to it, and Lee was never more menacing. This is the song which provides the spooky strings for The Go! Team’s ‘Ladyflash’, it was great to have him updated like that. He should be as plundered as Isaac Hayes. Perhaps he is and I haven’t noticed.

And then, having reached this dramatic low point at the beginning of side two, Nancy and Lee Again forgets that it ever wanted to be mysterious or melancholy, and wends the rest of its way merrily through subjects like grandchildren (‘Tippy Toes’), infidelity (but not really, and in a fun way – ‘Did You Ever?’) and What It’s Like To Be The Oldest Teenyboppers In The World (‘Got It Together Again’). The latter providing the hilarious line later recycled in The Jesus And Mary Chain’s ‘Here Comes Alice’, ‘I’ve been good and I’ve been mean / And I’ve been looking for a Coke machine’. Everyone loves Lee. It’s sad that he’s gone.

1 comment:

horsemeatpie said...

Boo! It's good, this internet thing.

Going to go out and buy lots of Hazlewood records, now.

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