The other night I was watching ABC News Nightline — as is my normal late night viewing habit right before Jimmy Kimmel, Uncle Frank, and Guillermo give me a few good yuks and lull me off to dreamland — when they ran a piece which caught my attention. It was about the Phil Spector murder trial.
Now, I have to tell you that normally such sensational and scandalous celebrity stories don't do a lot for me. To me the usual category this stuff falls under — what with Anna Nicole, Paris, Britney and the like — is one of distraction. In other words, I've always believed that the media focus on these types of stories serves no real purpose other than to numb the public into a state of ignorant bliss. What better than celebrity dirt to divert our attention away from more important issues such as how we're presently being raped at the gas pump, or how the Democratic congress just this week caved on the issue of continuing funding for the Iraq war?
But I'll save the rants on those particular topics for another time and place. The Phil Spector deal caught my eye because, as a music fan, I'm still somewhat dumbstruck by the whole thing. You see, Phil Spector was, and is, one of my musical idols.
As a fan, I know all too well of Phil Spector's reputation both inside and outside of the recording studio. He is one of those maybe not so rare birds in the music business to whom both the terms genius and lunatic could be equally applied. And this was long before he was ever accused of shooting the House of Blues waitress he brought home to his Hollywood castle for a night of drinking and who knows what else, presumably because she simply decided it was time to leave.
Spector has been described as the ultimate control freak inside the recording studio. He's been known to drive his musicians to the brink of madness in take after take after take, just to get the sound of something like a tambourine right. For example, during the recording of the Spector produced Beatles album Let It Be, the already splintering band apparently was so divided over the final result that Paul McCartney eventually felt compelled — decades later — to release the Un-Spectorized Let It Be…Naked version of the album.
By some accounts, this type of control also extended beyond the recording studio into Spector's personal life.
His former wife — the singer Ronnie Spector, with whom he also produced several landmark recordings with the Ronettes — is said to have left him over such behaviour. Spector is also apparently no stranger to guns. Just ask the Ramones, who according to music legend, were themselves held at gunpoint during the recording of their collaboration with him, End Of The Century.
On this week's Nightline broadcast, segments of an interview Spector did days before the alleged murder of Lana Clarkson were played in which he described taking medication for schizophrenia, even though by his own definition he was not schizophrenic. What is fairly well established is that Spector's particular brand of looniness went far beyond the eccentricity and narcissism typical of both Hollywood and the music business in general.
Which is why, up until now I've mostly turned my head away from this latest media circus of Hollywood celebrity scandal. As a fan, it's just been too painful for me to watch.
You see, what I know about Phil Spector — or what I knew up until now I guess — is this:
He is responsible for some of the greatest, most timeless records ever made. With the Ronettes alone, he perfectly captured all of the wondrous innocence and vulnerability of teenage love on such records as "Baby I Love You," and especially the brilliant "Walking In The Rain." With "River Deep, Mountain High," he coaxed out of Tina Turner what probably remains her greatest, and single most career defining performance. With The Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" he cast the blueprint for every self respecting "blue eyed soul" record which would follow it. With A Christmas Gift For You, he made what is probably the ultimate rock and roll Christmas album, and maybe even the best Christmas album ever.
The common thread with all these records is, of course, Spector's trademark "Wall of Sound" — that swirling whirlwind of strings, bells, and castanets that feels like being engulfed in the eye of a musical tornado. But his influence extends far beyond even these achievements. You could start by saying that any record you have ever heard that starts with the classic "boom; boom-boom; Crash!" drum sound owes a pretty mighty debt to Phil Spector.
Beyond that, you could say that such albums as Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds and Bruce Springsteen's Born To Run — two undisputed rock masterpieces he wasn't even directly involved in helping to create — still bear the product of his unique brand of recording genius. Both Wilson and Springsteen spent long, pain-staking hours that taxed the patience of the musicians they used to the limit — looking for that "million dollar sound" in the creation of these landmark albums. The Phil Spector influence on both albums is simply undeniable.
I don't know exactly what happened that night up in Phil Spector's Hollywood castle. I wasn't there, so how could I? What I do know is that it represents a tragedy on a multitude of levels. This is certainly true for the family of Lana Clarkson.
But I think what is most sad for fans of all those great records that Phil Spector made is that history now stands a very real chance to remember him more as the aging — possibly crazy — rock and roll casualty who shot an innocent down at point blank range, than the genius behind so much history making music.
Sad, because whatever Phil Spector eventually became, once upon a time to know him was to love him.