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Wall of Confusion 

Coming to terms with Phil Spector

Wednesday, Jun 13 2007
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{mosimage} So I went to the Phil Spector trial recently. Not entirely sure why, but it’s probably Darlene Love’s fault. If she hadn’t sung “Marshmallow World,” I wouldn’t care half as much about Phil damn Spector. He’d just be another bastard genius who never fully caught my imagination — sort of like Picasso.

But Darlene Love did sing “Marshmallow World” (“It’s a yum-yummy world made for sweethearts!”) — and all my favorites on the 1963 masterpiece A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector (an album of mostly holiday classics, rendered with full-blown Wall of Sound production). Darlene Love made me get Phil Spector in a way the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Righteous Brothers never did. Through her holler, the Wall of Sound revealed a world of sound — a Wonderland of Sound. So, you can see how she is to blame.

But entering that courtroom is something else altogether. It’s kinda like getting stung by a wasp: maybe weirdly interesting the first time, but not something you feel a great need to repeat. (Though Steven Mikulan’s “Phil Noir column in this paper covers the trial every week with stalwart grace and humor.) In fact, as soon as I got home that day, I took to my bed as if struck by a flu, and I’ve been slightly depressed ever since. It’s like a Phil Spector hangover. I don’t understand how people can go there every day without getting really sick. Come to think of it, the gentleman sitting next to me, Vanity Fair scribe Dominick Dunne — who’s always at the trial — had a frightful cough. But he wasn’t the one making me ill!

I’m telling you, that trial is one straight-up toxic type of shindig, and I mean to avoid it henceforth.

And in the interest of public health, I would advise the bailiffs to start handing out bad vibes–protective gear at the door: masks, gloves, Airborne tablets, wooden stakes and so forth. It’s just a terrible, terrible place, full of grimness, grief, arrogance, the sickly stench of lies, and one tiny pair of horrific Cuban-heel platforms on two tiny feet. (Talk about the banality of evil.)



The events of this trial present an intensified version of what Phil Spector fans have had to deal with forever: You’re blown away by Phil Spector, Visionary Producer. And you’re demoralized by Phil Spector, Sicko.

Now, generally speaking, the great artist/total jackass paradox is fairly easy to surmount, and we all do it every day when enjoying music, books and art. It’s relatively easy because there is a physical and psychic distance between us and the great artist/total jackass. (It’s how I fell in love with A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spectorafter Ms. Clarkson’s death.)

Actually sitting in the courtroom, though, adds an existential kick to the equation, just to make you feel extra horrible and soul-confused: It makes this particular jackass real. Really real. Before going to the trial, I’d had the luxury of still suspecting/hoping, somehow, that Spector wasn’t a person at all, but perhaps a hologram; and the Christmas album had been produced by Santa; and the trial only existed in a digital realm halfway between real life and pure TV. Something like a moon landing or, you know, Elvis.

Even the horror stories we’ve heard about him over the years offered some spiritual wiggle room. They didn’t seem all bad. Maybe he shot off guns in the studio with John Lennon. (As the legend goes, John said something like, “If you’re going to kill me, kill me. But for fuck’s sake, watch my ears.” Tough guy!) But Spector also produced “Imagine” and (my personal favorite), the ineffable “God.” John Lennon’s work with Phil Spector is medicine music for a grieving soul — there’s nothing better. And what a perfect, light touch Spector had; he really let John have his own sound, and be the star of the show. Or take the stories of Phil’s relationship with Ronnie Spector (which include locking her in closets and houses): An optimist might glean some element of redemption from that wreckage. There was love there, and, of course, great art.

But this horror story? This is just shabby and bad and sad. And way too real. There is no art to be found here, and no love.

If things were different — that is, if Spector weren’t a sadist on trial for murder — I would like to ask him about music. I’d ask about sleigh bells, and about the difference between sleigh bells and a really good tambourine. I’d ask him about his thoughts on Motown, and his memories of working with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, the songwriting lovers who gave him his best hits (e.g. “Be My Baby,” “And Then He Kissed Me,” “River Deep Mountain High”). And I’d be obliged to ask about the “Be My Baby” drumbeat (boom, boom-boom BANG!): Supposedly, arranger Jack Nitzsche took credit for placing it at the opening of the song. But Barry told me in an interview a couple years ago that he’d put it there.

I’d like to ask Spector what he thought of Paul McCartney’s remixed Let It Be, released a couple years ago. I thought it proved that Phil Spector’s Let It Be is pretty underrated.

I’d also like to thank him for the Christmas album. Of all the Wall of Sound stuff, it’s the one that actually thrills me. Even playing on a used cassette in a hand-me-down boom box, it’s so alive; eternally in its moment, at the peak of its bloom. Bracingly ambitious, and proud — but not pompous. Just lovely. (And, of course, calculatingly seductive toward feminine ears.) Spector’s really throwing everything he’s got at you, trying to please you. Trying to impress you. Trying like crazy to earn a perch inside your imagination. And he does, and he did.

One of the writers covering the trial learns of my musical admiration for Spector, and suggests I approach his bodyguards. Smiling at the surreality of it all, she explains that, likely as not, he’d talk to me about music. And I can’t imagine anything more dreadful.



From a visual standpoint, Spector fully embodies his ghoulish surname these days. He has fashioned himself into a proper fictional villain, and the Fates seem more than happy to oblige him: The details of this case are perfectly lurid — almost too perfect to be believed (e.g., in the bathroom the cops found a brandy snifter with booze in it, two false eyelashes, and a bloody cloth diaper. Who writes this stuff?).

And, cripes amighty, who decorated this man’s house — the people from the Magic Castle? Oh, the sleazy red carpets and crystal chandeliers, the ornate chairs and chests, all gruesomely caught in the flash of a detective’s camera (and projected onto the courtroom wall). It’s as grim as a Columbo rerun on a Saturday afternoon. Without Columbo.

(By the way, out of curiosity: Was anyone ever happy living in a huge mansion? Mansions collect loneliness like dust; it’s just a fact.)

And yet I kind of enjoy the snapshot of a small kitchen — one of many interior photos shown to prove the abundance of working telephones in Spector’s home. Like a young girl’s bedroom wall, his fridge is plastered with photographs — notably of Elvis and Humphrey Bogart. It reminds me of Rodney Bingenheimer’s fridge. Freaky.

There’s a long break in the middle of the day, during which Spector chats with his lawyer, Bruce Cutler (the one who looks like the star of The Shield). They’re talking for ages, and then I see Spector’s eyes widen — they look like they might pop out, even more than usual, an effect heightened by the fact that he won’t blink. And he’s yammering on and on about something, not blinking, and the only word I can make out is a carelessly blurted bullshit.

Lana Clarkson’s family is sitting a few feet away from Spector. I guess something in me clicks. Something about that bullshit, and the way he won’t blink. A picture clicks into focus that had been blurry a moment before. I look at him, and I see a guy with high-end lawyers, titanic bodyguards, a 20-something bride. A guy who, it seems, assumes the right to buy anyone and get away with anything. A guy with all the money and opportunity in the world, who might have said: Okay, I may not be a great artist anymore, but I’m going to be a great man. In the end, I see a guy who looks like he doesn’t even want redemption — because, perhaps, he doesn’t believe in it.

I see a great waste of taxpayer dollars.



Since that day in court, I’ve enjoyed reading the 2005 book Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson. Phil Spector doesn’t even get his own chapter. All the Spector material is used to serve a bigger story with many players — songwriters, arrangers, producers, performers, publishers. It’s helpful to remember that as great as Spector was, he couldn’t have done any of it alone. And he certainly wasn’t the only pop-music giant wandering the earth at the time.

I’ve tried listening to his box set, Back to Mono, but the music sounds different right now. It’s awfully dark. And lumbering. His arrangement of “Chapel of Love” (with Darlene Love, bless her) is crippled compared to the version produced by Barry & Greenwich, the one you hear on the radio. Spector tried at least twice to produce a good version of “Baby I Love You” — with the Ronettes and the Ramones — and couldn’t get anything as definitive as Barry’s version (sung by Andy Kim).

I’m nitpicking because I’m pissed. So I’m putting the box set away.

But I won’t let this ruin the Christmas album.

Some people maintain Spector produced A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector to force the concept of himself as a new kind of icon — a teen-pop mastermind. (See the new bio Tearing Down the Wall of Sound by Mick Brown.) That is surely true.

Yet it also seems to me, as I hear it chiming in my head now, that A Christmas Gift for You was a desperate attempt to be loved. And to be beautiful, maybe the only way he knew how — by building something beautiful.

Something beautiful, and durable enough to make a young woman happy 44 years after its release.

And that’s what he did. And no one can ever take that away from him.

And no one can take it away from me. Not even Phil Spector.


For more on the Phil Spector trial, read Steven Mikulan's ongoing coverage in Phil Noir
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Reach the writer at ksullivan@laweekly.com

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