Phil Spector: When a Musical Hero Is a Moral Monster

Recognizing the late producer's horrifying misdeeds — from a lifetime's worth of gaslighting to, finally, murder — makes a greater puzzle of the joy spilling over from the records he made with his world-class singers and the Wrecking Crew.

Music producer Phil Spector sits in a courtroom for his sentencing in Los Angeles, Friday, May 29, 2009. Spector was sentenced to 19 years to life in prison for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool)

If anyone ever wondered what it would have been like if Richard Wagner had perished in the age of web news and social media, we got an indication of that when Phil Spector died Sunday at the age of 81. Whether we were writing headlines or tweeting thoughts to friend circles, few of us proceeded without considering how his artistic legacy and the evil that came to overshadow it could be contained in the same breath. His career was historic, his genius undeniable. And still, in the moment, as the later parts of his largely sorry life flashed before our eyes, it almost felt wrong to speak anything but ill of the dead.

The BBC found this out when it led with an obituary headline characterizing the super-producer as “Brilliant But Flawed.” They apologetically rescinded it, having been reminded by readers that homicide is not a personality quirk. Variety got more bluntly to the point: “Phil Spector, Wall of Sound Music Producer and Murderer, Dies at 81.” Even then, there were those who felt we got the order wrong. But failing to immediately emphasize the most heinous part of Spector’s legacy would be a little like running an obit in the late 19th century with the head: “RIP, Richard Wagner, Scoundrel and Proud Anti-Semite — But ‘Valkyries’ … Oh, What a Ride!”

Honestly considering the Spector legacy leads to holding that thing we dread most: opposing thoughts. So here’s a pair of those: He was one of the few true musical geniuses of the last pop century, responsible not just for reinventing his own trade as a recognized artform but creating rich, ebullient, masterful records that brought untold joy into the lives of tens or even hundreds of millions of people over a last half-century. And it would be better that none of those records had ever existed, if it meant that Lana Clarkson would turn 59 this year.

No gods will entertain that transaction, so we’re left to consider what we do choose to do about the tainted greatness still sitting there for the taking or leaving. It’s an extreme variant of the eternal quandary we face when reminded that our other musical heroes had their own transgressions back in the day, be it becoming BFFs with the mob, preying on underage girls or just playing Sun City. (“It was a different time” is a defense enjoyed by many a former abuser turned 70-ish family man.) There’s some wisdom in the “Consider the art, not the artist” maxim. But some of us are fickle or inconsistent in our standards for which artists’ misdeeds can be overlooked for the sake of enjoying art. If I find out someone is a prick to fans or journalists, I can’t help but turn off a little to their records. Yet I’ve found myself returning to Spector’s early ’60s recordings, trying to reconcile that love with a full acceptance of why he became the most hated man in rock. Is it rank hypocrisy to turn off a little to Lou Reed because he could be brusque with people, but still want to obsessively drop the needle on a Christmas record bearing the name of a killer? It’s possible, with some squinting and inner moral contortions, to still think of a lot of those bad boys of the past as anti-heroes. Spector is a villain.

The case of Spector does leave a convenient out: Who was the artist on all those phenomenal 1960-67 sides? Spector would have said it was him, of course, and had a decent case, as the first actual pop music auteur. Alfred Hitchcock famously told Francois Truffaut that “actors are cattle,” and that was probably a higher regard than the respect with which Spector considered his revolving door of lead vocalists. But they weren’t dispensable, or interchangeable. In honoring those records, we honor the great singers who never got their due until much later in life, like Darlene Love, or those that got their proper fame but then saw it squashed, like Ronnie Spector. We honor the musicians who were more than just bricks in the Wall of Sound, sometimes playing the same part over and over again in all-night sessions until their fingers bled. We honor the engineers and arrangers who did a lot of the heavy lifting, like Jack Nitzsche (who had problems of his own — boy, did he have problems) or Larry Levine. And we honor the songwriting teams that put heart and soul into those yearning anthems, including Goffin/King, Mann/Weil and Greenwich/Barry. (Spector had songwriting talent, and certainly made strong contributions as a writer along the way — starting with his very first hit, “To Know Him Is to Love Him” — but also forced his name onto things where he was a writer in name and royalty check only.)

I’ve certainly taken this “It’s about everybody else, not Phil” mindset when, for a month or so every year, I return to my desert island disc, “A Christmas Gift for You” (among other titles his 1963 various-artists opus was released under). For the 17 years since Clarkson’s death, I’ve thought of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” one of the 10 greatest pop records ever made, as a Darlene Love/Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry record first and foremost, a Spector effort secondarily. Focusing on the Ronettes restored a reason for Xmas glee, as did the eternal game of imagining that I could pick Carol Kaye or Hal Blaine out of the mix. The finale has always had serious buzzkill potential, though. Any time the “Hello, this is Phil Spector!” spoken-word piece would be imminently coming on to close out Side 2, I couldn’t rush to the turntable fast enough to rip the needle off the turntable. That’s probably been true of anyone who’s put it on since 1963, but especially after 2003, it became difficult not to feel like you had to move quickly to keep Satan from grabbing the mic from Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans.

We can say that we allow ourselves to enjoy Spector’s records only because of the vast contributions the other singers, players, writers and arrangers made in this very collaborative medium, not their ringleader. But that isn’t just compartmentalization; it’s kind of a cop-out. Nearly everything Spector did — at least from the time he became master of his own destiny with the start of Phillies in 1960, up until the point he became more of a superstar man-for-hire a decade later, grafted his services onto Glyn Johns’ for his contentious re-do of the Beatles’ “Let It Be” — did lend itself to the auteur theory, and then some. You don’t put on the album that was eventually retitled “Phil Spector’s Christmas Album” and tell yourself it’s really all about the Crystals. To keep appreciating this and the jaw-dropping 45s that came for several years before and after is to work at thinking of Phil Spector again as a human being — a slippery slope when it comes to someone whose demeanor turned unforgivably demonic.

I’ve pored over several books about Spector, many years back and again this past weekend, on the hunt for redeeming or at least suitably explanatory qualities. (And by redeeming, I mean more than “great drinking buddy” — an allure Spector had in spades, as his legend as a great storyteller and tenure as John Lennon’s partner-in-crime during the elongated Lost Weekend of the mid-‘70s bears out.) I at least hoped to find hints of a youthful sweetness, before someone or something ruinous got to him. That search was, well, pretty much in vain; prevalent biographical anecdotes indicate that even pre-fame, he lacked emotional intelligence or any common sense of empathy, perfectly willing to use and abandon friends, lovers and colleagues, if not seriously gaslight them. The most altruistic anecdote that sticks with you is how he was known to write Wrecking Crew piano perennial Leon Russell a $50 check, mid-song, if he was particularly tickled by a licks. He’d also leave $400 tips on small tabs — the way he did the barhopping night he met Lana Clarkson — in contrast to the deaf ears that greeted pleas from his most trusted studio associates for anything beyond a flat fee. Beyond the largess with waitresses and improvising pianists, evidence of benevolence gets thinner.

Spector, who admitted that he craved respect, not love, had an origin story with hints of how he came to be an entertaining, then frightening, control freak. When he was 9 and living in the Bronx, before the move to L.A.’s Fairfax district, his father committed suicide, without explanation. He, his mother and sister ended up in a perpetually combative triad; the sister’s institutionalization made him further consider that his depression was genetic. In later years Spector would tell journalists about the bipolar medications he was on, and even a prescription for a drug commonly used to treat schizophrenia, although he would add that he’d not been diagnosed with that condition. Be it nature or nurture, Spector’s extraordinarily controlling mother set patterns he was to forever follow. It’s not hard to trace the scary line from an angry matriarch’s strange bids to track a teenage boy’s every move to an adult Phil who would lock the doors and force the Ramones, Leonard Cohen and Michelle Phillips as well as untold numbers of party guests, girlfriends and wives to keep him company at gunpoint.

But Spector doesn’t get to beat the raps of a rampaging ego, extreme manipulation and being the worst NRA poster boy of all time just because of childhood traumas or psychiatrists’ diagnoses. Is rampant narcissism a true mental illness? It’s the question polite civilization has been asking for the last four years. In a way It’s poetic that we’d be discussing Spector exiting this earth in the same week that we’re talking about the Oval Office being vacated of a man who’s made that toxic N-word a never-ending national discussion.

This is not the place to provide a full accounting of Spector’s sins; there are so many books for that. (I especially recommend “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound,” by Mick Brown, the journalist who interviewed Spector for hours just a few weeks before Clarkson’s death, and went on to talk to seemingly everyone who’d ever known him. It gives him plenty of due — and is still a devastating read for a current or former fan.) But obituaries can’t just be lists of achievements when a powerful show business giant has caused so many in and out of his closest circles so much pain. No act of pettiness seemed too small for Spector along the way. There were bigger cruelties, obviously, but when Spector’s partner in Philles Records let himself be bought out for a weirdly small amount, Spector rewarded him by recording a taunt called “(Let’s Dance) The Screw,” just to twist the knife further into a guy who’d done him little wrong. And when he was ordered to pay his soon-to-be-ex-wife Ronnie Spector interim support — after she escaped what she characterized as literal imprisonment in their home — he had a Brink’s truck deliver $1,250 in nickels… followed by alimony checks bearing the recurring inscription “Fuck you,” right next to the spot she’d have to sign and show the teller. Small-scale sins, on the scale that runs up to absentee parenting and repeatedly terrorizing women, but still the kind of stories that are hard to shake.

Even the adoration of a Brian Wilson was met with nastiness. In the last extensive interview Spector did just before the Clarkson killing, the subject came up of the other great studio auteur of the early and mid-‘60s, the Beach Boy who could always be counted on to retell the story of how he had to pull his car over in astonishment when “Be My Baby” first came on the radio. In 2003, what did Spector have to say in return about his most celebrated acolyte? “Maybe he’s overrated… Maybe Brian wasn’t that talented to begin with, and we’re burdening him with that. We make these people more than they are. I don’t feel sorry for Brian Wilson; I never thought he was that talented to begin with. I’m glad he idolizes me; I wish that Jimi Hendrix idolized me. I heard he did. I’d be more impressed if somebody with a brain idolized me.”

So who was the celebrity singing the praises of Spector most on Facebook this weekend? Brian Wilson… at least until commenters got so angry about anyone saying anything complimentary about Spector that Wilson was forced to delete his gentle (and obviously forgiving) appreciation.

Wilson wasn’t able to keep his admiration up for public view. But if he can find it to celebrate his one-time hero after those awful remarks, maybe it’s not beyond the pale to see if there are elements of his body of work we can feel justified in lifting up, too.

Condemnations of Spector’s haywire moral compass inevitably turn to knee-jerk declarations that he was overrated as a producer. I even saw one commenter claiming the Wall of Sound amounted to “turning all the knobs to the right.” Spector’s know-how in the studio shouldn’t really require a defense, but here’s one anyway. There’s a way in which you can see the Wall of Sound as one of the last great stands for “live” record-making., And although you could reasonably argue that Spector was diminishing the role of instrumental individuality, when he hired such renowned jazz, classical and pop players and then blurred them all together into one giant wash, you can equally argue that Spector emphasized the utter humanness of his music by mostly eschewing overdubs (other than recording lead vocals later). Spector was proud of only having two tracks, to be merged into ultimately one monaural release. He would pack as many as 20 players at a time into Gold Star Studios in Hollywood to play as a unit… after hours of prep work to make sure an army of five guitarists, three sax players, two drummers and God knows how many strings, horns, chimes and castanets would move in unison. In movie lingo: It was the musical equivalent of a special effects expert creating all the FX “in-camera.”

And, coming through a transistor radio or a set of thousand-dollar speakers, it felt like all of humanity experiencing the same communal stirring.

Let’s talk about the casting. You could grouse about Spector’s practical disregard for vocalists — a cavalier-at-best attitude that led both the Ronettes and Love to successfully sue him for royalties in the ‘90s after being ridiculously underpaid for their efforts for close to three decades. And yes, his practice of keeping his singers waiting for hours on end while he fine-tuned his rock ‘n’ roll orchestra ultimately worked to his detriment (if that took until 1995, when Celine Dion, who did not suffer like a Darlene Love once would, just walked out on the ’95 project that should have been his comeback).

But he didn’t really consider the singers interchangeable, however much it might have seemed so. He knew that the teenaged Crystals sounded too young for the full-throated, womanly soul that only Love could provide, which is why she wound up ghosting the lead on two of the group’s greatest hits, “He’s a Rebel” and “He’s Sure the Boy I Love.” Conversely, he originally recorded a version of “Da Doo Ron Ron” with Love as lead vocalist, then decided she sounded too mature for the part and gave it to the Ronettes, who he intuited could better sell the earnest silliness that song’s scat-singing naivete. (Love lost out, in a way, both times, but the audience won.)

But the thing that Spector deserves the most credit for — difficult as it is to reconcile with his failings outside the studio —  is the ineffable, resounding glory of these records. It’s not just a technical achievement. It’s not just the work of expert songwriters, or of an all-time great arranger like Nitzsche, though it’s so much these element, too. Spector is absolutely the controlling force of these records, and to a large degree it simply has to be because of him that they are warm. Jubilant. Open-hearted. Tender. And rapturous … from a man who seemed to rarely or never experience rapture outside the dingy confines of Gold Star Studios.

Or maybe it’s really just Spector’s overcompensating narcissism that we should hear in the grandiosity of that sound. Maybe, in creating a sound that felt as big and deep as an adolescent’s nervous longings and sweetness and elation, it was a case of “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” But I don’t think so. That wall, which too briefly stood in the pre-JFK-assassination period as the signature sound of a hopeful American youth culture, was about locking out loneliness. We may not be eager now to find points of identification even with the scrawny, respect-starved young Spector, much less the later respect-demanding, victimizer Spector. But that dread of solitude is one thing a miscreant like Spector and the rest of us at least occasionally have in common. Tom Waits had a phrase for compartmentalizing these better angels: “innocent when you dream.” Inside those four confined studio walls, with his future, Ronnie’s and Lana’s all yet unwritten, the devil was a hell of a dreamer.