FORGET THE MEDIA CIRCUS: Brown’s
Spector is one his fans will recognize.
In February 2005, Phil Spector did something tragic and horrifying, something that cemented his reputation as a dangerous eccentric and left a permanent stain on his record as rock’s greatest producer. In a moment of weakness, he licensed the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” for an ad for the erectile-dysfunction drug Cialis.
That was hardly the first time that one or another type of dysfunction had figured into Spector’s life and art. He had, of course, allegedly done something even more shameful two years earlier, on the night the actress Lana Clarkson visited his home. As anyone who watches tabloid TV or CNN knows by now, Clarkson died of a gunshot wound at Spector’s mansion soon after meeting him at Hollywood’s House of Blues. The murder-trial evidence so far doesn’t point in Spector’s favor, and neither does his history of troubled relationships, a nasty temper, and a thing for guns.
British journalist Mick Brown was granted Spector’s first interview in 20 years, just a few days before Clarkson’s death. At first glance, his book appears to be merely another act in the Spector media circus, with its pulp-fiction title and its back-cover photo of the roped-off crime scene. But this turns out to be the closest thing to a definitive Spector biography that’s yet appeared — even though only one artist Spector produced (Crystals singer La La Brooks) gets interviewed, and many of the interviews are with the same angry ex-girlfriends who’ve since testified at the trial. A couple of factual howlers make it in, notably that drummer Alan White was forbidden to use cymbals on John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” (listen to the chorus), and that the Ramones’ “Baby I Love You” was a Top 10 single.
Fortunately, Brown shows enough understanding of the music to keep the book out of Inside Edition territory. And the Spector that emerges is one his fans will recognize: brilliant artist, miserable human being. Spector’s habit of pulling guns on friends, lovers, and strangers is duly noted, but Brown gives him the benefit of the doubt, particularly when dealing with his co-dependent marriage to Ronnie Spector. And the author comes up with a novel explanation for Spector’s long-time alcohol problem: he began boozing because an insecure George Harrison spent hours at a time overdubbing guitars on All Things Must Pass.
Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
| By Mick Brown | Alfred A. Knopf | 464 pages | $26.95
There are full accounts of the glorious “Wall of Sound” sessions in the ’60s, and the more manic ones that came later. The most priceless quote comes from a BBC interview with Leonard Cohen, who recorded with Spector in the ’70s: “In the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns. . . . you were biting into revolvers in your hamburger.” The story turns tragic long before Clarkson enters the picture, as Spector’s insecurities keep him out of the studio for decades at a time.
Most heartbreaking is a story from 1994, when a comeback-hungry Spector talks himself into a gig producing Celine Dion. He assembles the old Wall of Sound crew and produces a track that Brown swears is a masterpiece. Dion is thrilled — until Spector’s tantrums get so extreme that he’s fired and the work is never released. The story later repeats itself in a failed session with the English band Starsailor.
In their rambling interview, toward the book’s end, Spector declares himself certifiably insane (more out of self-mythologizing than self-pity) and Brown seems inclined to agree. By then, Spector had effectively left the world; he’d become rock’s most celebrated producer without producing, and its greatest tragedy without dying. And at the end of the day, “Be My Baby” is still a great record.