Wednesday, July 9, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 190): "SOME VELVET MORNING" (1967) Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra

Today is the birthday of the late (as of 2007) Lee Hazlewood. Fitting, as this evening I’ll be attending a musical theater piece that will feature his song “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” which was a hit for Nancy Sinatra and which I talked about on her birthday.  For Lee’s birthday, I’ve selected one of the three great duets he did with Nancy, but couldn’t make up my mind which one: “Some Velvet Morning”; the best known, or “Sand,” or “Summer Wine.”

Hazlewood has been called a “psychedelic cowboy,” and I guess that fits as well as anything. In “Summer Wine,” his silver spurs jingle-jangle, and he finds himself in some kind of “la belle dame sans merci” situation, which is probably why I like it so much. It tells a story of seduction by “summer wine” and the woman gives it to him and leaves him craving it. Nancy’s vocal is yearning and lyrical, and she even giggles at one point.

Some Velvet Morning” is more mysterious. Lee keeps intoning that “some velvet morning when I’m straight” he may open up the gate (of some woman) and tell her about Phaedra, “and how she gave me life / And how she made it end.” He’s a bit like the Ancient Mariner, perhaps, looking for an occasion to divulge the nature of that adventure. Nancy’s part is trippy in an eerie way. She sounds like she could be an extraterrestrial, or maybe just the most disaffected of flower children, dwelling in some distant aerie: “Flowers are the things we know / Secrets are the things we grow / Learn from us, very much / Look at us but do not touch / Phaedra is my name.” The two parts remain distinct, with Nancy’s part, like it is in “Summer Wine,” the terms of the seduction, though this time the voice of the past is still present, unshakeable. In the video, from a Nancy Sinatra TV special, Lee rides a horse on the beach at Big Sur, while Nancy disports in some caves nearby.

Sand” I find the most amusing, and not to be missed for Lee’s spoken line: “She called me . . . Sand.” In this one, the man is the more enigmatic figure, a “wandering man,” a “stranger in your land.” He requests: “young woman, share your fire with me / My heart is cold, my soul is free.” She protests that her fire will not warm him. Then dreams that her fire is high, and offers, “taste these lips, sir, if you can.” Then comes the trippy guitar break—played backwards. Now her fire really is high; “and if it should stop, sir, I would die.” Then Lee lets us know that “Young woman shared her fire with me / Now warms herself with memory.” Lee loves her and leaves her, and she is left to remember. Nancy’s lines are very courtly with “thee” and “thy” used for distancing effect. Such medieval trappings were all the rage in those trippy Sixties.

The great thing about all three tracks is that Hazlewood combines a psychedelic sensibility with an arrangement (by the one and only Billy Strange) that seems like it should be standard for any romantic chanteuse (the opening strings of “Velvet Morning” sounds like it could be a song by Nancy's old man, Frank), and then gives the whole a kind of Sergio Leone "spaghetti Western" atmosphere. It’s a unique approach—particularly I like the way the drums boom with a “march of fate” feel.

Hazlewood’s voice is deep, very masculine, but also a bit laconic, not given to much feeling or variation. He seems able to create, in these duets, a backdrop for the contrast between his manly intoning and her girlish delivery—slightly torchy in “Summer Wine,” virginal in “Sand,” some fractured muse in “Some Velvet Morning.” There’s maybe a touch of Leonard Cohen in Hazlewood’s air of courtly, tragic, haunted love that all three songs dally with, though Hazlewood, in other songs, often indulges a corniness, a tongue-in-cheek jibing.

And maybe that’s why I don’t fully trust any of the three as actual “statements.” “Summer Wine” is the most satisfying, as a story, “Sand” I see as the most personal—if only because the choice of the name “Sand” evokes the feeling of the fleeting and the innumerable, the common as dirt. Sand on the shore, sand in the hourglass. “Some Velvet Morning” is the most accomplished and haunting. Having heard it, you aren’t likely to forget it, and it’s particularly memorable because this vision of the flower children suggests—in Nancy’s detached vocal—a certain psychosis. The notion of having to be “straight” to tell the story of Phaedra implies that the speaker hasn’t yet managed to face it in that condition. And the lines “and how she gave me life / And how she made it end” puts all the agency on this mysterious figure, a mother and a destroyer—obviously not of life itself, but of a certain kind of life, the life in love.

I suppose it’s the ongoing state of being haunted by what you can look at but not touch that makes me choose “Some Velvet Morning,” finally as the song of the day.

Dragonflies and daffodils.

[Later note: happy to say I picked up a used copy of Nancy and Lee at The Electric Fetus in Duluth, MN, 7/18/14]

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