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Book Review: He’s A Rebel – Phil Spector, Rock & Roll’s Legendary Producer by Mark Ribowsky

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To get an idea of just how deep Phil Spector's psychosis runs, you need only to know this one story.  It's well-known that Spector took the title for his first hit, "To Know Him Is To Love Him," from the epigraph on his father's tombstone.  Less known, however, is that Spector's father committed suicide.

Mark Ribowsky's biography, He's A Rebel: Phil Spector – Rock & Roll's Legendary Producer, takes a look at the life of rock's first true genius.  As a writer and producer, Spector's hits of the early-60s, among them "Spanish Harlem," "He's A Rebel," "Be My Baby," and "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," form a large part of any oldies radio station playlist.  His famed "Wall Of Sound" production style is instantly recognizable, and has been influenced everybody from Bruce Springsteen to The Arcade Fire. 

Ribowsky portrays Spector as being so haunted by his father's death that he doesn't allow anybody to get close to him.  As his star rises, the top names in the business are eager to work with Spector because of his talent and track record, only to be screwed over personally and/or financially.  What originally appeared to be naivety or eccentricities eventually reveal a pattern of manipulation and deceit.  But as long as the hits keep coming, Spector remains a necessary evil. 

By the time he releases Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" in 1966, he had so alienated everybody that they use the confusing single as an excuse to cut ties with him. The failure further isolates him from the world, and Spector's already-legendary paranoia becomes violent.  His 1968 marriage to Ronnie Bennett of The Ronettes lasts only six years, with Bennett emotionally scarred and penniless by the time the divorce was completed.

Spector begins the 1970s strong, thanks to The Beatles.  He sorts through the mess of Let It Be — earning him his only Grammy — to produce something listenable and guides John Lennon's and George Harrison's first solo albums, although later attempts to work with Lennon result in disaster.  By the time he works with The Ramones on 1979's End Of The Century, he is, despite the artistic triumph, a complete mess, locking them in his house and pulling a gun on them in the studio. 

After that, Spector spends the next twenty-five years as a recluse, coming out only for the occasional awards ceremony.  Several attempts to revive his career with artists ranging from Starsailor to Celine Dion end before they get off the ground. 

Then, in the early morning hours of February 3, 2003, Spector, after a night of drinking, picked up former B-movie actress Lana Clarkson at the House Of Blues where she was employed, and brought her back to his mansion.  Ninety minutes later, a single gunshot ended her life. 

Originally released in 1989, He's A Rebel has been reissued in time for Spector's trial, which began on March 19, adding five more chapters to bring the story up-to-date.  Ribowsky leaves no stone unturned in finding people who were harmed, emotionally or physically, by Spector's actions.  This ranges from high school friends to colleagues to family members.  The final two chapters describe the death that resulted in the trial, investigation, and courtroom proceedings in great detail. 

What the book neglects, however, is the music.  Little attention is paid to the technical innovations that Spector pioneered.  His legendary 1963 Christmas record, A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector, warrants a mere two pages.  Only the sessions for "He's A Rebel," where he first achieved the sound he had long heard in his head, and "River Deep, Mountain High," are chronicled extensively from a musical standpoint. 

Still, He's A Rebel is a fascinating and heavily researched look at one of rock's most important figures.  Like Peter Guaralnick's sprawling two-volume biography of Elvis Presley, every artistic triumph in He's A Rebel is blunted by the reader's knowledge of the tragedies to come.  And as with Elvis' indulgences, one gets the feeling that, if anybody had tried to help Spector, the story might have ended differently (although neither Elvis nor Spector would have allowed someone to help them).  The main difference, however, is that Elvis' self-destruction leaves us all with an awareness of our own mortality, whereas Spector's merely fills us with disgust.

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About Dave Lifton

  • Good review–sounds like a fascinating, if flawed, book.