Hazlewood’s place in musical history is assured, and 400 Miles from L.A. 1955 – 56 more than confirms it
In 1955, a young Barton Lee Hazlewood, late of Phoenix by way of a stint in the Marines during the Korean War, washed into Los Angeles and set about trying to make the leap from disk jockey with big ideas to established songwriter. In those early years, Lee worked hard to establish himself through a series of near misses and misfires with songs written for Duane Eddy and others. All the while Hazlewood developed the signature style of the psychedelic cowboy with the baritone and handlebar moustache, in his later days self-described as the “obscure old fuck.” Crucially, while biographers have long known the events of this time, no one knew what they sounded like – until now. Piece by painstaking piece, Light in the Attic Records has been revisiting and reissuing this fascinating work, and with 400 Miles from L.A. 1955-56, the label reveals an ur-moment in the history of popular music by means of a recently discovered and expertly curated collection of demos and outtakes.
What these songs offer is a picture of Hazlewood before he became the Lee of “Sand” or “Some Velvet Morning” or “These Boots are Made for Walkin’.” The Lee in these earliest recordings is a singer trying to find his art and identity, replicating closely the studio sound of Sam Phillips and Sun Records, with a voice that has yet to develop that woody depth and drawl which was to become such a feature of his mature works.
400 Miles from L.A. 1955 – 56 is effectively a document in two halves. The first is a wide range of genre pieces, settling somewhere between the Americana of Marty Robbins and kinds of country-inflected rock and roll that was coming out of the rich territory between Memphis and Lubbock. Hazlewood’s voice is soft and smooth throughout, the guitar gently picked and strummed, with few indications that the recordings are demos at all. Occasionally, studio interactions are included – the interruption of “The Woman I Love,” for example – but these add an intimacy to the picture with each note-perfect restart further proving how practiced Hazlewood was even at this earliest moment in his career. Some of these early songs stray close to the realm of novelty: “Five Thousand and One” tells the toreador’s experience of the bullfight while “It’s an Actuality” pokes fun at psychiatry by explaining that “This song tells the story of a man who went to a psychiatrist for 20 years suffering from an inferiority complex/ And at the end of twenty years discovering he had no complex at all/ He was definitely inferior.” These lesser moments aside, what emerges before the album’s second half is Lee the storyteller and world builder, specialising in small stories and humble moments, like folks who fall in love on long-distance bus rides in one song and break up in the next, and small-time crooks on the run with the shadow of Folsom Prison always in the background.
The album’s second half provides, in embryo, what would be Hazlewood’s first album proper, 1963’s Trouble is a Lonesome Town, itself reissued this year by Light in the Attic. Somewhere between a concept album and a song cycle, the material is a series of vignettes into small town life linked by the songwriter’s drawling introductions. These are at times surprisingly delicate for all of Hazlewood’s dark humour, and the picture that emerges – a no-hope town where boys that grow as brothers wind up on opposite sides of the law, or a man so ugly that even his own dog won’t bite him – is of an America whose story is still being told today in the work of Calexico, Lambchop and anyone who interrogates the still powerful mythology of manifest destiny.
Hazelwood’s place in musical history is assured, and 400 Miles from L.A. 1955 – 56 more than confirms it. However, it’s no mere curio. It captures the songwriter in the process of crafting his art, and at the same time expertly opens a window into the world of popular music at a crucial moment where the stories of the past were in the process of being left there; a time when a new world of opportunities opened up out West, ripe for a DJ fresh from Phoenix to try his hand.