Lifestyles Left and Right

A Wall of Trouble

Phil Spector’s demons are outliving his three-minute songs.

By 10.7.04

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Sometime in the early seventies between his cameo in Easy Rider and his production of John Lennon's "Imagine," Phil Spector came completely unglued. Harvey Philip Spector, nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, former guitarist and songwriter for the Teddy Bears, and a rock and roll millionaire at 21, had gone completely round the bend, off the deep end, out of his head, and was now officially, certifiably, totally whacked. Only who was going to tell him? Who's going to tell a musical genius with a loaded gun and a look in his eye like a failed Kamikaze pilot that he's nuts?

Granted, Phil had always been a little eccentric, sitting around a darkened office complaining of headaches, afraid to ride in airplanes, living in self-exiled seclusion ever since his first flop, the Ike and Tina Turner number "River Deep-Mountain High," his first dud after twenty straight hits. And now all of the sudden Phil's started bringing a loaded pistol to the studio. And during a John Lennon recording session he starts using it. He's firing the damn thing off and scaring the bejeezus out of Yoko and everybody else. Next he's trying to hunt down Leonard Cohen with a loaded crossbow (talk about your Death of a Ladies Man!). Finally, he's holding a loaded revolver to Stevie Wonder's head and he's muttering crazy obscenities like you wouldn't believe and everyone's wondering if Stevie even knows what's going on. And the Ramones -- Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee -- Phil, babes, are you sure you want to pull a gun on Dee Dee Ramone?

Who were these Ramones anyway? Is this what pop music has sunk to? Punks who only knew how to play three chords and the rock beat? A wall of noise, that's what it is. Phil had made his mark writing and producing early '60s bubble gum music made memorable by his famous "Wall of Sound" production technique that featured lots of overdubbing and guitar and organ orchestration. Catchy little ditties like "Then He Kissed Me," "Be My Little Baby," "You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling." Songs he said last three minutes and forever. And he was right. But this seventies music was starting to get on his nerves. Where were the fun tunes like "Da Do Ron Ron" and "Zip a Dee Do Dah," and the girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes? He knew where one of the Ronettes was. Plotting with her divorce lawyer, accusing him of child abuse and stealing royalties. But Bruce Springsteen? Leonard Cohen? Is it any wonder he had to come to the studio stoned and packing?

After that calamitous 1980 session with the Ramones, Spector all but disappeared from the music scene. He was too unstable even for punks like Joey Ramone. Nobody wanted to deal with Phil's demons. First there were the headaches, the insomnia, the two divorces, and then the booze. He didn't even like the taste of the stuff. Now the demons were back. The same ones that had driven his father, a New York steelworker, to commit suicide when Phil was nine.

It was the demons that drove Phil to L.A.'s House of Blues on the night of February 3, 2003, where he picks up the hostess -- not just any hostess, but one Lana Clarkson, a 40-year-old, washed-up B-movie actress, star of Roger Corman big breast flicks. Phil and the Barbarian Queen drive back to his 28-room Pyrenees Castle in Alhambra and inside the demons are waiting, sharpening their knives. Phil's limo driver reports hearing the shot around 5 a.m. and seeing Phil walk outside in a zombie daze, gun in hand. "I think I just shot her," he says. The cops find guns all over the place, rifles, semi-automatics, and pistols like the one he's taken to wearing on his hip, and Lana is sitting in a puddle of blood, a fatal gunshot to her mouth, her teeth all over the red-carpeted foyer like a box of upset popcorn. But Phil isn't going anywhere. He goes from dazed to agitated. Suddenly it dawns on him. The cops are the demons! And they've got stun guns!

Phil's defense lawyer calls Lana's death a suicide. So here's America's "first teen tycoon," 63 now, outside an L.A. County courthouse late last month ranting and raving and comparing the DA to Hitler. Phil's being railroaded by a squad of small-time Eichmanns and Himmlers.

In his last interview with the London Telegraph, Phil tells the reporter about the demons. I think I might be mentally ill, he says. "I have devils inside that fight me. Trust me, you don't want my life. Because it hasn't been a very pleasant life. I've been a very tortured soul." Phil is currently out on a million dollars bond, waiting. So are the demons.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.