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The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

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On Sale: June 05, 2007
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-307-26772-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

He had a number one hit at eighteen. He was a millionaire with his own record label at twenty-two. He was, according to Tom Wolfe, “the first tycoon of teen.” Phil Spector owned pop music. From the Crystals, the Ronettes (whose lead singer, Ronnie, would become his second wife), and the Righteous Brothers to the Beatles (together and singly) and finally the seventies punk icons The Ramones, Spector produced hit after hit. But then he became pop music's most famous recluse. Until one day in the spring of 2007, when his name hit the tabloids, connected to a horrible crime. In Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, Mick Brown, who was the last journalist to interview Spector before his arrest, tells the full story of the troubled musical genius.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: “Mr. Spector Likes People to Walk Up”

On an unseasonably warm day in December 2002 I found myself sitting in a room at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, waiting for Phil Spector to call.

It had been thirty-six hours since I’d arrived in Los Angeles, to find a message telling me that my meeting with Spector, which had taken some three months to arrange, and was scheduled to take place the following day, had been “postponed.” It was as if all my worst fears had come to pass.

Between 1961 and 1966, Spector’s so-called Wall of Sound made him the most successful pop-record producer in the world, with more than twenty Top 40 hits by such artists as the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers. In the words of the writer Tom Wolfe, Spector was the “first tycoon of teen”—a mercurial and combustible mixture of genius and hustler, a precocious, brilliant and off-the-wall visionary who would change the face of pop music forever.

In a period when most people, even those who made it, regarded pop as disposable ephemera, Phil Spector alone dared to believe it could be art. Marshaling armies of guitars and keyboards and brass and drums, celestial sleighbells, and voices keening like angels, he made records of a hitherto unconceived-of grandeur and majesty, elevating the themes of teenage love and heartache to the epic proportions of Wagnerian opera—“little symphonies for the kids,” as he put it. Spector crammed emotion into a bottle and uncorked it—the clamorous, joyous noise of a small tyrant unleashing his vision, his revenge, on the world. When, in the late ’60s, musical fashion overtook his Wall of Sound, Spector moved on to the biggest pop group in the world, the Beatles. He rescued their valedictory album, Let It Be. He produced Imagine for John Lennon, and “My Sweet Lord” for George Harrison. Then began the long, slow retreat. In 1979 Spector produced his last album, for the punk rock group the Ramones. And then he was gone. The architect of the Wall of Sound vanished behind another wall—of barbed-wire fences, guard dogs and Keep Out: Armed Response signs, of stories about guns and craziness, rumor, half-truth and legend—much of it, it seemed, of Spector’s own creation. The “tycoon of teen” became rock and roll’s most enigmatic recluse.

When in the autumn of 2002 I first contacted Spector, he had not given a major interview in some twenty-five years, and to arrange a meeting involved delicate and protracted negotiations. Letters were dispatched back and forth. Michelle Blaine, Spector’s personal assistant, and the daughter of Hal Blaine, the drummer who had played on all of Spector’s greatest hits through the ’60s, happened to be passing through London, and we met for tea at a Mayfair hotel. She was fiercely protective of her employer. What exactly would be the thrust of the interview? Was I familiar with Mr. Spector’s records? How familiar? What had I read about Mr. Spector? I would be aware that there had been a great deal of misreporting about Mr. Spector’s life and affairs—gossip, scandal; talk of guns, of craziness—all of it exaggeration, myth and lies. Mr. Spector would not countenance any interview that proceeded along those lines.

A week later I was informed that Spector had agreed to talk. My elation was immediately tempered by a deep foreboding that the interview would almost certainly never happen. It was almost to be expected, then, that I should be told on my arrival in Los Angeles that our meeting had been “postponed.” I sat in my room, awaiting the call that I was now convinced would never come. And then the telephone rang. A car, I was informed, would be collecting me from my hotel at noon. At the appointed hour, a white 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, license plate PHIL 500, drew up outside the hotel. A uniformed chauffeur held open the door. Encased in leather and walnut and hidden behind black curtains—a car that could tell stories—we turned onto the Hollywood Freeway, keeling slightly like some stately ocean liner, and headed east.

After some thirty minutes, we turned off the freeway, following the signs for Alhambra, a nondescript, working-class neighborhood of strip malls and scrubby bungalows. The road wound upwards, and further upwards still, ending at last at a set of high wrought-iron gates, posted with Keep Out signs. The chauffeur stepped out to open them, drove through and pulled to a halt at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, the gates closing behind us. “Mr. Spector,” he said, “likes people to walk up.” The steps led up through an avenue of lowering pines, the castle visible through the trees.

It was up these same steps that just a few weeks later, in the early hours of Monday, February 3, 2003, Spector would stagger with Lana Clarkson, a sometime actress and model, whom Spector had met just two hours earlier in a Hollywood nightclub. According to the testimony given to the police by Spector’s chauffeur Adriano De Souza—the same chauffeur who had driven me from my hotel—Spector was apparently inebriated, and Lana Clarkson was “like grabbing his arm and shoulder and helping him up the stairs.” Now, as I climbed, I had the distinct sense that I was being watched, although I might have been imagining this.

Michelle Blaine was waiting for me at the top. She led me through the front door into a cavernous hallway, wood-paneled and red-carpeted. Later, I would try to bring the details of this hall to mind, to match it with the account of the affidavit filed by Detective Mark Lillienfeld of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, reporting the scene that he and other officers had found there in the early hours of February 3:

"Your affiant saw the victim slumped in a chair in the foyer of the home. She was wearing a black nylon slip/dress, black nylons, and black shoes. A leopard-print purse with a black strap was slung over her right shoulder, with the purse hanging down on her right side by her right arm. She had what appeared to be a single-entry gunshot wound to the mouth. Broken teeth from the victim were scattered about the foyer and an adjacent stairway. Lying under the victim’s left leg was a Colt, 2-inch, blue-steel, .38-caliber, six-shot revolver. This weapon had five live cartridges in the cylinder, and under the hammer, a spent cartridge."

I struggle to remember now exactly where in the hall that chair was placed. The affidavit makes no mention of the two suits of armor that I vividly recall, standing sentinel—stage props for a fantasy of baronial splendor. Spector was nowhere to be seen. Michelle Blaine led me on a tour of the ground-floor rooms. In the music room there was hi-fi equipment, and a guitar that had once belonged to John Lennon, resting on a stand, like a museum exhibit. A narrow room led off it, a bar lined with framed photographs of Spector with various music business luminaries.

In the sitting room a Picasso drawing hung on the wall beside an original John Lennon sketch. A uniformed maid brought iced water and I settled myself on a sofa beside a coffee table. The affidavit describes the scene that Detective Lillienfeld found in this room:

"In a living room just east of the foyer, your affiant saw that candles had been lit atop a fireplace mantel. The coffee table between two couches had a brandy glass partially filled with alcohol, and atop the table was a Jose Cuervo tequila bottle and a partially empty Canada Dry soft drink."

I waited, suddenly aware that classical music was eddying softly around the room. At length, Michelle Blaine’s mobile telephone rang. It was Spector, calling from elsewhere in the house. Phillip, she said, would be with us shortly. He appeared a few minutes later, walking down the staircase, to the strains of Handel. He was wearing a shoulder-length curled toupee, blue-tinted glasses, a black silk pajama suit with the monogram PS picked out in silver thread and three-inch Cuban-heel boots. He looked bizarre—like a wizened child in fancy dress—yet at the same time curiously magnificent. I rose from my seat to shake hands, and he peered up at me. “My,” he whispered. “You’re tall.”

He perched on the edge of a sofa, sipping from a tumbler filled with something that might have been cranberry juice, might have been anything. His hands trembled. Close up, his skin was sallow, like parchment, but his expression was puckish, amused. “I don’t like to talk,” he said. Yet over the next four hours, he talked like a man possessed. About his music, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, about hustling and payola, success and failure.

“I knew,” he said. “People made fun of me, the little kid who was producing rock and roll records. But I knew. I would try to tell all the groups, we’re doing something very important. Trust me. And it was very difficult because these people didn’t have that sense of destiny. They didn’t know they were producing art that would change the world. I knew.”

“And you wanted immortality?”

“Yes. Very much. I think when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he was thinking, people will remember this. When Gershwin wrote, he may have said, ‘I don’t know about this American in Paris,’ but I think he said, ‘this is something special.’ I think Irving Berlin had an ego, that he wanted people to remember this. I think he wanted to be number one. And so did I.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a whirring noise, like a cuckoo clock, and a voice chirruping the hour. “It’s two o’clock.” His wristwatch. “Timing,” Spector said, “is the key to everything.

“Okay.” He jabbed a finger at me across the table. “You ask me, ‘What’s your name?’ And then you ask me, ‘What do you do for a living, and what’s the most important part of what you do for a living?’ Go ahead! Just for the conversation.”

“Okay. What’s your name?”

“Phil Spector.”

“And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a record producer.”

“And what’s the most important—”

Timing . . .” And he broke up in laughter.

I had not expected him to be funny. The scabrous comedian Lenny Bruce had been one of his closest friends—“my Socrates,” as Spector described him. And it was as if he was still keeping Bruce’s lines warm. “Profanity,” he said, “is the last refuge of the inarticulate prick.” And: “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is fucking possible.” As long as you’ve got the timing right.

The wristwatch whirred and chirruped. “It’s three o’clock.” Time out. He rose from the sofa and vanished upstairs. I walked in the garden. The sun was shining on the roofs of the houses in the valley below. But among the trees, the unkempt lawn and flower beds, all was shadows and melancholy, and I wondered what could have brought Phil Spector here. Lunch was served in the dining room. I ate alone. When he returned, Spector looked at the food and shook his head. “Let’s go in the other room,” he said.

For years, he said, he had not been well. “I was crippled inside. Emotionally. Insane is a hard word, but it’s manic-depressive, bipolar. I take medication for schizophrenia, but I wouldn’t say I’m schizophrenic. But I have a bipolar personality, which is strange. I have devils inside that fight me. And I’m my own worst enemy.”

He had first started seeing a psychiatrist in 1960—to get out of the military draft, he said. He never stopped, but therapy was never enough. “There’s something I’d either not accepted, or I’m not prepared to accept or live with in my life, that I don’t know about perhaps, that I’m facing now.” He paused. “To all intents and purposes I would say I’m probably relatively insane, to an extent. To an extent. But I can function in the world.”

For years, he said, he couldn’t face being with people, and he couldn’t face being with himself. He suffered from chronic insomnia, night after night, going crazy. “You don’t sleep; your mind starts playing tricks on you. It’s a terrible situation.”

Finally, he sought help. Always “terrified” of drugs, he began taking medication that would moderate his moods and help him sleep. He had “waged war” with himself. “I just told myself that I would beat it. That I would beat my own brain. And over a slow period of time, and every day getting up and saying, no, you’re not there yet, and months and years going by . . .” He paused. “It’s been very slow, very difficult.”

Now, he said, he was trying to make his life “reasonable.”

“I’m not ever going to be happy. Happiness isn’t on. Because happiness is temporary. Unhappiness is temporary. Ecstasy is temporary. Orgasm is temporary. Everything is temporary. But being reasonable is an approach. And being reasonable with yourself. It’s very difficult, very difficult to be reasonable.” The wristwatch spoke. “It’s six o’clock.”

Six weeks after our meeting, on Saturday, February 1, 2003, my interview with Spector appeared in the Daily Telegraph magazine. He was pictured on the magazine’s cover in his Louis Quinze wig, grinning lopsidedly into the camera, looking like someone who’d taken too much Prozac. The headline was “Found: Pop’s Lost Genius.” Two days later, I was sitting in the office of the Telegraph magazine when a colleague burst in from the newsroom, telling me to turn on the television. It was 10:00 a.m., California time. Filmed from a helicopter’s perspective, the Alhambra castle resembled a Gothic film set, all turrets and dark pines. Cut to camera shots familiar from a hundred crime stories and cop shows: the yellow tape, the police prowl cars slewed in the drive, the stocky detectives in boxy suits moving purposefully around the grounds. An unidentified woman had been found, shot dead in Spector’s home. He was under arrest. For a terrible moment, a scene flashed across my mind. Somehow, Spector had read my piece, disliked it intensely, and in a moment of madness—“I have not been well . . .”—taken revenge on his assistant, Michelle Blaine. It was some hours before it would be revealed that the victim was Lana Clarkson. But who Lana Clarkson was, and what she was doing in Phil Spector’s castle in the early hours of February 3, it didn’t say.

Phil Spector was taken to Alhambra police station, where he was kept for some hours before being released from police custody on $1 million bail. It would be a further eight months before he was charged with murder, a full four years before he was to come to trial. In my interview with Spector, he had spoken with remarkable candor about his fragile mental state and his years on the brink of insanity. And in the wake of the shooting, his comments—“I have devils inside that fight me”—were recycled around the world, an instant template for his psychological condition. I received a telephone call from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department asking whether there was anything more I could tell them about his behavior on the day we met. There wasn’t. I had liked Spector when I met him and found it hard to believe he would kill anybody in cold blood. The coincidence of the article’s publication and Lana Clarkson’s death left me feeling shocked—in some curious way, implicated. I wrote to Spector to express my sympathy for the predicament he now found himself in, but heard nothing back. Nor did he reply when I wrote to inform him that I intended to write a book about his life and career and to request a further interview.


From the Hardcover edition.
Mick Brown|Author Q&A

About Mick Brown

Mick Brown - Tearing Down the Wall of Sound

Photo © Philip Hollis

Mick Brown was born in London in 1950 and has interviewed Salvador Dali, the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Don DeLillo, Richard Ford, Ravi Shankar, and the Dalai Lama, and has written several books as well on Richard Branson, the movie Performance, and a guide to America through pop songs. His interview with Spector--the first in twenty-five years--was published in The Telegraph in England only days before Lana Clarkson was found dead in his "castle" in Los Angeles.

Author Q&A

Q: You were the last journalist to interview Phil Spector before he was charged with Lana Clarkson’s murder. What was it like to visit his home in Alhambra, California and sit down with him for a few hours?
A: It was an extraordinary experience. I was treated to what I later came to understand was the full ‘Phil Spector Show’. I was collected from my hotel in his white, vintage Rolls Royce, made to walk to up the 88 steps to the door of the Pyrenees Castle, and then to wait for the requisite 30 or 40 minutes before he eventually appeared, walking down the stairs to the strains of Handel, dressed in a shoulder-length wig, black pajama suit and three inch Cuban-heeled boots. He was utterly charming, a wonderful conversationalist. I hadn’t expected him to be as funny as he was–he was a great friend of Lenny Bruce in the 60s, and it was as if he had been keeping Bruce’s lines warm for the last 40 years. He told great stories about the artists he’d worked with, building the Wall of Sound, his friendship with Bruce and John Lennon. At the same time, one could detect a certain physical and emotional fragility about him. What I really hadn’t expected was that he would be so candid about the emotional and mental difficulties that he had suffered over the years. He talked with great honesty about his parents having been first cousins and his fears that that had left some sort of genetic mark on him. Looking back, I think he felt able to be so candid about all of that because he genuinely thought it was all in the past. He emphasized how over the last few years he had struggled with his demons and, he implied, had finally conquered them and was now trying to be ‘a reasonable man’. It was a phrase he kept returning to in the conversation–‘I just want to be a reasonable man’. And I think that resolve was utterly genuine–which makes the events of a few weeks later all the more tragic.

Q: You mentioned Spector’s style, which has become rather infamous over the years–wigs, Cuban heels, pastel colors, open-collared shirts, etc. What sort of public image does he attempt to convey with his personal style?
A: I think it’s what the style magazines would describe as ‘a unique fashion statement’. Spector was always a distinctive dresser. It’s a curious paradox–his clothes, his appearance, have always screamed “Look at me!”. Yet, he insisted to me that he can’t stand to be looked at. His new wig seems to be an attempt to temper his appearance slightly and present a more conservative image to the jury. Oddly, it makes him look curiously boyish, almost androgynous. Whether that is a conscious attempt to make him look more vulnerable and less threatening, I don’t know. It has been noticeable through the trial how one of his defense counsel, Linda Kenney Baden, who sits next to Spector in court, often has her arm draped over his shoulder–a gesture that seems designed not only to comfort him but also to signal to the jury that he is ‘safe’.

Q: Your story was published in London’s Telegraph only two days before Lana Clarkson’s death. How did you react to this and the news of Spector’s arrest?
A: I was shocked. There was nothing in the behavior or demeanor of the man I met that suggested he was in any way violent–let alone capable of shooting someone–as he is charged. But then again, all the stories about his gun play over the years must have left their mark. When I first saw the news on television it stated simply that an unidentified woman had been found shot dead in Spector’s home. I was under the impression then that he was much more of a recluse than turned out to be the case. Wondering who on earth the victim might be, for a horrible moment–and this does me no credit–the thought flashed through my mind that he had read my interview with him, taken violent exception to it, and rounded on his personal assistant who had fixed the interview. That, of course, was not the case, but the coincidence of interviewing Spector and the shooting left me feeling very uncomfortable, almost implicated. I wrote to him immediately expressing my shock and sympathy for the predicament he found himself in, but he didn’t reply.

Q: Have you always been a fan of Spector’s music?
A: Of course! For anybody growing up in the 50s and 60s I think it’s almost impossible not to be a fan of his music. The first Spector song I remember hearing, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, was Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. I’d never heard anything like it–Darlene Love wailing, the get-happy gospel chorus. The whole thing was dark, incantatory, and disturbingly sexual in a way I couldn’t put my 12 or 13 year old finger on. Great pop music not only functions as a soundtrack for one’s life but I think it also serves as a kind of lexicon of the emotions. The best Spector songs–Da Doo Ron Ron and You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’–like the best of Motown, gave definition and meaning to the confused and exhilarating gamut of feelings I was experiencing as a teenager. They plant a seed and forge a connection, which lasts a lifetime.

Q: What is the significance of the legendary “Wall of Sound” to pop music history?
A: At a time when most people–even people who made it–considered pop music to be disposable, flash-in-the-pan ephemera, Phil Spector was the only record producer to really consider what he was doing as art. He approached it with the same dedication, passion, intensity, and commitment to perfectionism as any great artist would approach their work. He was also a genius in the studio. When recording technology was comparatively primitive, he developed a technique of augmenting instrumentation, manipulating sound and echo to build up this monumental neo-classical sound, which was of a scale and sophistication never before heard in pop. He was a direct influence on a legion of artists and producers who came after him–Brian Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, to name just two. Plus, he shook up the industry in a way that nobody else had done. Spector co-wrote songs, produced them, released them on his own label, built himself as a legend–the First Tycoon of Teen, in Tom Wolfe’s memorable phrase–and in so doing, challenged the prevailing order of the record business, and made himself a lot of enemies in the process.

Q: For the book, you interviewed dozens of musicians connected with Spector over the years. Who was the most interesting to speak to?
A: The short answer is, all of them. It was fascinating talking to Larry Levine, Spector’s engineer, and Don Randi, who played keyboards on most of Spector’s hits, about those great Gold Star sessions. It was a great privilege to be able to meet and talk to Ahmet Ertegun not long before he passed away. Spector worked for Ertegun as an apprentice in New York in the early 60s. Ertegun talked very fondly of Spector and told some great stories about the two of them hanging out together over the years. Don Kirshner was very entertaining talking about the “hit factory” he ran at Aldon Music, publishing those great song-writing teams of Mann and Weill and Goffin and King, who wrote some of the Spector hits. And, it was particularly fascinating to talk with some of the singers who had worked on the great Wall of Sound recordings–Gloria Jones and Fanita James from the Blossoms, Nedra Talley from the Ronettes and LaLa Brooks, who sang Da Doo Ron Ron and Then He Kissed Me. LaLa is a real angel. She told me she was 15 when she recorded Then He Kissed Me, “and I’d never kissed a boy! Singing those lyrics I was wondering, ‘Well, who is going to kiss me — and where the hell is he?’” She is still a fantastic performer. Somebody should really get LaLa into the studio and record some new material with her–but I don’t think it will be Phil Spector.

Q: You have been covering the ongoing trial in Los Angeles for the Daily Telegraph. What are your impressions so far?
A: It’s very sad to see Spector in court. He looks broken and bewildered, like a kid who’s lit a firework and discovered he’s burned down a house. I think the prosecution has made a very strong case, bringing forward the four women who have testified that Spector pulled guns on them in the past after they had tried to leave–circumstances which appear very similar to what happened in the Lana Clarkson case. Against that, the defense has presented very compelling forensic evidence about gunshot residue and blood-spatter, suggesting that Spector could not have been close enough to Lana Clarkson to pull the trigger. But I think forensics can only tell you so much. Given Spector’s history with guns, the testimony of the four women, and testimony about his condition and behavior on the night in question, it requires a massive suspension of disbelief to come around to the idea that it was simply his extreme misfortune to invite into his home a woman who then killed herself. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine…” If I were a juror, to acquit Spector, I would need a very clear and persuasive account of what actually happened in the castle that night that led to Clarkson’s suicide, as Spector claims. There is only person who could give that account from the witness box, and that’s Spector himself. But I don’t think we’re going to see that.

Q: Given the enormity of changes in the way music is produced, marketed and consumed, will there ever be another Phil Spector?
A: I don’t think so. The record business was a different world in those days–smaller and in many ways more innocent. Artists generally are much more savvy now than they were then, and more independent and less reliant on ‘Svengali’ figures like Spector. At the same time, the dominance of three or four monolithic recording companies would make it much harder for an independent operation, like Phil’s was, to make the kind of impact it did in the 60s. As to whether there will be brilliant and gifted producers making wonderful music–certainly there will be. But I don’t think there will ever be another Phil Spector.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Fascinating, detailed. . . . A great portrait of where genius and madness meet.”—Rocky Mountain News “Bloodcurdling biography. . . . A portrait of pure self-interest and cruelty, tempered only slightly by the great musical achievements of Mr. Spector's golden age in the early 1960s.” —The New York Times“A bruising portrait of legendary music producer Phil Spector.” —Entertainment Weekly“Gripping. . . . Brown succeeds in providing a well-rounded portrait of someone the public never understood. And it comes at just the right time, too-when they're asking more questions about him than ever.” —The Washington Post

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