Deconstructing Pop Culture

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Lee Hazlewood R.I.P.

August 7th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

I heard an interview with him on NPR a few weeks ago, and he sounded reconciled with death. Cancer – but then, what do you expect, with a life of pretty-much non-stop drinkin’, smokin’, hard-partyin’ and hard-livin’. Mr. Hazlewood and his girlfriend-cum-protégé Nancy Sinatra were important trend-setters and scene-definers in the mid-1960s. “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” is pure pop confection.

But their meisterwerk is “Some Velvet Morning,” surely one of the weirdest songs ever recorded. I thought so when I first heard it on its initial release in late-1967 early-1968, and, several hundred thousand songs later, still feel the same way. With its hippy-dippy pseudo-mysticism, it perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the era, in the way only a few pop songs can. For example, another contender during this same time frame is “I Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Was In” by the First Edition, later used to good effect in the Coen Brothers’ movie, “The Big Lebowski.”

The lyrics are confusing and, the efforts of several commentators notwithstanding, cannot be satisfactorily interpreted. Which, knowing persons of similar disposition as the lyricist, probably means there is no interpretation at all. They simply are words strung together because they sounded nice, or for effect. The Greek mythological figure Phaedra makes an appearance. She generally represents unrequited passion, or being unlucky in love. But the link between her, and the lyric content of the song, cannot be discerned. She’s more of a needless interjection.

The song’s internal structure is purposefully disconcerting. Mr. Hazlewood sings a verse; then Ms. Sinatra. Towards the end, they alternate lines from verses each previously has sung. He’s in 4/4 time; she’s in 3/4 time. The effect is other-worldly and dissociative. Since this was way before the days of digital editing, you know for a certainty somebody was there in the studio with ¼” recording tape and a razor blade.

“Lee’s delivery is taken somewhere around the same seismic level as a Kris Kristofferson or early Neil Diamond, darkening the atmosphere sufficiently for Nancy-as-Phaedra to (literally) waltz over the track in her best redemptive mode,” Kaye, L., “Lee Hazlewood & Nancy Sinatra: Boots and Saddles,” eMusic Spotlight (May 25, 2006).

I’m not so sure about that. What I can say is, to hear songs like “Some Velvet Morning” is to be transported instantly across borders of space and time, and plopped down right in the middle of whatever it was you were doing when they first came out. But the effect goes beyond merely personal, because they are redolent and evocative of a by-gone era. They influenced, and were influenced by, the prevailing aesthetic. Because of the excellence of their execution, though, they have managed to overcome their temporality. They have come to embody, or catalyze, our perceptions of that era. In this respect, they were, or were close to being, works of art.