Pondering Phil Spector
"You don't tell Shakespeare what plays to write, or how to write them. You don't tell Mozart what operas to write, or how to write them. And you certainly don't tell Phil Spector what songs to write, or how to write them, or what records to produce, or how to produce them." – Spector, on his failed 1997 collaboration with Celine Dion.
What makes the Phil Spector murder story so fascinating to me? I can’t quite put a finger on it. Maybe it's a soft focus story, tragedy on a small scale, something to contemplate while waiting for the war. I was never a huge fan of his, but I am not so blind that I can’t appreciate the genius of his early work. Genius is not too big of a word for it. How many artists create something that is both totally new and immediately accessible to the public? Phil did it, seeming to burst upon the scene with a sound that was previously unthought-of, layer upon layer of simple notes, pop symphonies as heard from under ice.
'I have not been well,' says Phil Spector, choosing his words carefully. 'I was crippled inside. Emotionally. Insane is a hard word. I wasn't insane, but I wasn't well enough to function as a regular part of society, so I didn't. I chose not to.' He pauses. 'I have devils inside that fight me.' – Mick Brown, Jan. 2003 interview, the Telegraph U.K.
The mad artist scenario; the tortured artist, this is a concept that always resonates. It would seem to be almost requisite to be underneath some manner of thumb – addiction, alienation, mental illness in any of it’s many guises - in order to reach the heights. Happiness destroys the muse, while success accelerates the madness.
Phil Spector was a millionaire by twenty-one, back in a time when a million meant something. He was a bit of a monster, but for a few years, he was a giant. Tom Wolfe dubbed him 'the tycoon of teen'. He didn’t produce singers, hell no, he produced records, and more often than not, the performer was little more than a nuisance.
Phil Spector, considered irrelevant by twenty-six. Focus shifted rapidly to self-contained units, symbolized by the Beatles and their ilk, individuals who wrote the songs they sang and – shudder – defined their own sound.
Phil Spector didn’t care. In 1966 he went into the studio with Tina Turner in a quest to create what was, in his mind, the greatest rock and roll record of all time, “River Deep, Mountain High”. The world did not agree. Although the record charted respectably in numerous countries, it was invisible in the United States. A relic. "The people of America are just not born with culture," he explained, before placing the wall of sound upon the shelf. He would never go back to retrieve it.
Phil Spector would spend the next three years, locked away in a mansion with one of his greatest creations, the magnificent Ronnie, visual and vocal centerpiece of the Ronettes.
In one incident, he allegedly forced her to travel with an inflatable dummy of him sitting beside her in the car, according to Ronnie Spector's 1991 autobiography ``Be My Baby.'' The lead singer of the Ronettes, a group propelled to fame by Phil Spector, said he provided the dummy, dressed in his clothes with a cigarette in its mouth, to watch over her when he was not around. ``It's for when you're driving alone,'' Spector told his incredulous wife. ``Now nobody will fuck with you,'' he told her, according to her book in which she said she felt like a ``prisoner'' in the marriage. – Composite.
The Beatles, the band who had spearheaded his obsolescence, were the ones to bring him back, although this move could be seen as a dark joke. John Lennon handed over control of three hundred hours of the band’s disintegration.
"He worked like a pig on it. I mean he always wanted to work with the Beatles, and he was given the shittiest load of badly recorded shit with a lousy feeling to it ever, and he made something of it. When I heard it, I didn't puke." – John Lennon, 1970, Rolling Stone
Critics hated the end product, ‘Let It Be’, and Spector received the bulk of the blame. It didn’t matter, though, because Spector had landed the job of ‘friend’ to Lennon, a connection that proved fruitful for a number of years. The problem was, he was no longer Phil. He was no longer in control. The artists didn’t readily defer to him. He worked for them now.
His mind, never tightly wound, began to unravel more publicly at the end of 1973, when he disappeared with the master tapes for John Lennon’s ‘Rock and Roll’ album. When Lennon found where he was hiding and went to confront him, he found Spector dressed in a three piece suit and armed with two six shooters. Spector had Lennon forcibly removed from his residence by his bodyguards. Months later the tapes were ransomed for $90,000, and in a scene straight out of The Shining, playback revealed a thirty piece orchestra playing out of tune, out of time, unsalvageable.
Spector staggered on for the rest of the decade, garnering more attention for his erratic behavior than for his once famous sound.
One troubled project was his 1977 work on Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen's "Death of a Ladies' Man" album. According to Cohen biographer Ira B. Nadel, Spector at one stage pointed a loaded .45 pistol at Cohen's throat, cocked it and said, "I love you, Leonard." To which Cohen replied, "I hope you love me, Phil." – Reuters
Spector’s last significant work was with the Ramones, on their ‘End of the Century’ album. Odd, that, as singer Joey Ramone was a hardcore disciple of Ronnie Spector, and could’ve passed as her twin brother. One of the great Joey Ramone understatements was his comment on their sessions.
… Spector was obsessive in the studio, making them play the opening chord of "Rock 'n' Roll High School" for eight hours straight. "That's true, it was insane," Joey confirms. "He locked us in his house for hours, and he pulled a gun on Dee Dee. But it was a positive learning experience. And that chord does sound really good." – Rockabilly Central
Spector, now 62, was planning on a comeback at the time of the murder at his medieval-styled mansion, The Pyrenes Castle. Would it have been fruitful, this final comeback? The odds are against it. There seems to be no substance left to the man, just a nightmare of his own myth, taunting him from the distant past, never letting him go.
"People idolize me, want to be like me, but I tell them, 'Trust me, you don't want my life'. Because it hasn't been a very pleasant life. I've been a very tortured soul. I have not been at peace with myself. I have not been happy." Mick Brown, Jan. 2003 interview, the Telegraph U.K.
© 2003, Mark Hoback