Reclaiming Phil Spector’s troubled genius

While the legendary producer sits behind bars for murder, a new documentary examines his talent and charm

Topics: Music, Movies,

Reclaiming Phil Spector's troubled geniusMusic producer Phil Spector listens as the prosecution present their opening statements in Spector's murder trial at Los Angeles Superior Court in Los Angeles April 25, 2007. (Credit: © Pool New / Reuters)

For many people, the name Phil Spector is now more synonymous with murder than with a long and illustrious music career. Famously labeled “the first tycoon of teen” by Tom Wolfe, his recording methods and innovations produced the type of songs that shaped the way we understand music: “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, “Then He Kissed Me,” by the Crystals, and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers. From his role in creating “Wall of Sound,” the dense and layered music production technique that characterized an era, to salvaging the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and producing John Lennon and George Harrison’s solo records, no history of pop music can be written without him.

Most of that work, however, took place before his spectacular and bloody fall from grace. After decades of isolation and several incidents involving brandished firearms, Spector was charged (and convicted in 2009) for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. Vikram Jayanti’s new documentary, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector,” however, focuses less on his downfall than on the man’s charms and his position in the musical pantheon. 

Salon sat down with Jayanti and spoke about Spector’s guilt and the reasons for his spectacular decline. 

It’s been over a year since Phil Spector went to prison. How do you think people perceive him? 

Unfortunately, the general sense out there is that he’s kind of a freak. Stories of him and guns have been running for 30 years. I don’t think in the general public’s mind he’s a big factor; it’s not like Paul McCartney went to jail. But if you stack up his 21 hits in a row, everyone of every age group has been hearing this their whole life and I wanted to remind people what an incredible artistic achievement it was. 

Mick Brown’s “Tearing Down the Wall of Sound” discusses that paradox: those sweet pop songs coming from such a damaged soul.

When you’re listening to “River Deep, Mountain High” with that swirling chaos in the background, you begin hearing madness. When I hear “Be My Baby,” I hear the Wall of Sound trying to push away the void. The yearning is not innocent, teenage yearning, it’s existential chaos. The man who ended up in the courtroom is the same man who made this hits and that’s sort of an abstract mystery to me.

I think that what a lot of artists do are acts of self-medication, in the chaos, disorder and anguish of the world, the moment you have some control, that you can make something beautiful, for a moment: You’re free. The problem is that if you have pathologies of various sorts, you also use it as an instrument of revenge.

Do you think he lost that ability to get to that moment of creative bliss — and that contributed to his decline?

I think the music moved on. What’s amazing to me is that the Beatles put him out of business in 1965 and yet four years later he’s producing “Let It Be,” so I think it’s incredible that he even had a second act. And it’s a fantastic second act. But I think the world moved on and that’s hard for people who have been fantastically successful. I think he retreated into his castle and stopped drinking.

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He had been sober for 10 years before the night of the death. As far as I understand it, that was the first day he had fallen off the wagon in 10 years.

What do you think happened that night?

I have to hedge my bets on that. Phil kept saying she killed herself. Leonard Cohen told a friend of mine a story of Phil pulling a gun on him and Leonard said: “Oh, Phil, you pull guns on everyone, you haven’t shot anyone yet. You’re not gonna start now.” I can’t see that Phil pulled the trigger, even though he’s pulled a gun on people all over the place.

It would seem that he introduced the gun in the proceedings that night.

He told me that whenever he had a date come to the house he let them know that there was a loaded gun in the drawer of every room and if they weren’t comfortable, the chauffeur would take them home. It’s a perfect “Hollywood Babylon” story. Old, past his prime, legend producer takes home 40-year-old aging starlet. He popped a Viagra while she was in the bathroom taking off her false eyelashes and underskirt, and then she was dead. None of us were surprised. It was something we all assumed would happen one day. Which is why it was so easy for the court of public opinion to convict him. It just seemed another piece of how he lived.

Have you been in touch with him since he’s been in prison?

No, I’m gearing up to try to see him. I want to go pay my respects. Part of him is bound to hate the film because he’s naked on-screen and he’s weird. Part of him really ought to love the film. If he’s feeling rational, he’s got to see that in many ways, however complicated the film is in its view of him, it’s also a love song to his legacy, and that it’s probably the best thing that will ever be out there about him in terms of humanizing him and celebrating his genius, and also, frankly, the film leaves the impression that I believe there’s a reasonable doubt. And I can’t exonerate him, but I would like it to be 100 percent clear he killed her before I’m willing to believe he’s guilty.

How do you feel about creating a “love song” to the legacy of someone many people think is a murderer?

I am going to be criticized for seeming to roll over and let him say anything, but I was interested in finding out what it felt like to be Phil, so to that extent, I let him be Phil. It wasn’t my interest to evaluate him; it was literally an act of empathy. That’s something you can do with film that’s hard to do with another medium. You cannot discount the amazing soundtrack he gave a generation. I don’t want his legacy to be completely obscured, so I’m just trying to add to the stuff that’s out there, and add a little balance. It doesn’t excuse what he’s done or not done, but people are complicated, and life is complicated, I’m interested in the complexity.

Do you think there are still any Phil Spector-like mercurial genius characters working now?

James Cameron has that kind of control freak genius on a vast scale. And a lot of people come out of working with him hating him. But you have to hand it to him. “Avatar” is an act of megalomania, which happens to enrich our culture. And the same thing happened with Phil; he’s in the studio, he’s a megalomaniac and it enriches our culture. And I don’t know Cameron, but why do you have to be a nice guy if after you’re dead, people are going to talk about “Avatar” in 100 years? The question is: What’s the difference between the art and the artist, what’s the difference between dancer and dance. And Phil is the most extreme example of that.

Besides offering the songs, what do you think Phil Spector’s legacy is?

He elevated the idea of production. He created the idea that there’s more than just recording a song and putting it out. It’s about how you record it. That’s stayed with the business. He pushed pop music to where it could be argued that it was art. And obviously the Beatles took it further, and a whole slew of brilliant people have taken it further. But it was a big shift: It wasn’t disposable anymore.

And the Beatles only pushed it further when they began to utilize the recording studio.

He calls himself a revolutionary, and we do think of the music between Elvis and at least the end of the Beatles as a revolutionary movement, and he was one of the big warriors.

Do you think that sort of revolutionary aspect can exist now? Or that things can still be pushed forward?

I think things come in waves. I believe in music, I look for new artists who give me a sense that my life depends on listening to it. The stuff that picks you up by the neck and swings you around the room. Like the way that there’s nothing so profoundly truthful as that moment when you know your lover’s “lost that loving feeling.” It’s so horribly raw and true. I believe that popular music is the achievement of the human experiment. We’ve found something  that’s not possible for anyone else to make. It goes somewhere that humans can’t articulate without music.

And Phil Spector is central to that?

Yeah, for his own contorted reasons. 

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