Don't worry baby

Ronnie Spector on her new Kill Rock Stars EP, her ex-husband Phil and why Puff Daddy can't rock 'n' roll.

Published September 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ronnie Spector has one of those voices. It is grounded in fragility
and tenderness, and flecked with girlish sexuality. But at its best -- in,
for example, the Ronettes' epochal, unrelenting "Be My Baby" -- it is a
defining instrument of female power, insistence and desire.

Born in 1943 to a black mother and a white father, Spector started singing
with the Ronettes as Veronica Bennett and had several local New York hits
in the early 1960s. Like several other girl groups at the time, the
Ronettes were charming, if a bit bland. But beginning in 1963, Phil Spector's famous wall-of-sound
production techniques transformed their airy pop into dense AM radio
confections like "Walking in the Rain," "Baby, I Love You" and of course
"Be My Baby." Ronnie married Phil in 1968 and then divorced him six years
later. For the last quarter-century, she's fought intense legal disputes with
him over royalties and their adopted children. Other than a few back-up
gigs (notably an unfortunate duet with Eddie Money on "Take Me Home
Tonight" that rehashed the "Be My Baby" chorus) and some oldies concerts, Spector
lost her career. "Everybody knows for 30 years this guy has held
me back," she says.

But lately, interest in the 1960s girl-group revolution has bubbled up in
indie-rock circles. Spector has found a new audience. Her new record on the
Kill Rock Stars label, the nurturing home to uncompromising artists like
Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. "She Talks to Rainbows," her first new
material since "Unfinished Business" (1987), features a cover of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," which Brian Wilson wrote for her, as well as songs by Joey Ramone and dead junkie rocker Johnny Thunders.

Spector, who now lives with her husband and manager, Jonathan Greenfield,
is resolutely upbeat about her comeback. She recently talked to Salon Arts
& Entertainment from her home in Connecticut.

How did you hook up with Kill Rock Stars? That's not exactly the label one would associate with the reigning queen of the girl groups.

Well, first of all, they're all about the music and all I care about in my professional career is the music. Kill Rock Stars allowed me to put out a real genuine rock 'n' roll record. At this point in my career, I'm not interested in making people rich, like publishers and writers and producers. I've done enough of that.

So did they come to you? Because it's not exactly like you've been active in the music world recently.

I think Joey Ramone approached them, and he approached me at the same time. And I was into it right away. First of all, the name of the label, I just love so much. What a great name. It's like: Boom. Kill Rock Stars.

How did you and Joey hook up?

I had first met Joey one night at [Manhattan club] the Continental in 1997, and we sat there telling each other stories. He told me what he had done with Phil Spector [the Ramones album "End of the Century"], and I told him some stories of my own. So we sat there for hours, and we just knew we had to do something. From that first meeting, I totally loved working with Joey, it was a real collaboration.

Have you listened to other bands that record with Kill Rock Stars?

I heard Sleater-Kinney. I thought they were really cool. I liked their style: I thought they had a sound of their own, and that's so important.

What's going on with you and Phil now? I know there have been some lawsuits, both about your music and royalties and about your children.

I have three adopted children with Phil, and for years I was fighting in court with him over being able to see my kids. I was always going back and forth to California, going to court, and I was never able to get a project going. Back 20 years ago, I was recording with Bruce Springsteen, and his producer called me and said I had to be in the studio the next day to finish the sessions, and I couldn't. I had to be in court, in California. All this took like 10 years out of my life. But I don't really like to discuss Phil anymore.

Does all that conflict make it hard to hear some of your songs from the Ronettes?

I love my songs, let's not get crazy here. I love "Be My Baby." I love the fact that 35 years later, I still hear my songs on the radio. So don't get me wrong, I love my songs, and I still love hearing them. That's history, baby.

What are your favorites?

Probably "Walking in the Rain" and "Be My Baby." "Walking in the Rain" is the first song where you could hear my voice, and I still love that. And "Be My Baby," it's so upbeat, sort of cha-cha-cha; when I hear it, it makes me know I am still alive, like I didn't waste all those years. I hear songs like that and I don't regret everything in the past, I'm not so bitter.

This new release is just an EP. Do you have more stuff in the works?

We're just getting started, hon. This is a slow way of getting back into it, of people getting to know who I am again. Because people are going to want to hear more of the genuine rock 'n' roll. The acts I see today, they're not rocking and rolling. I mean, Janet Jackson? She's like Michael Jackson with hair. And what's her name, Britney, Whitney something?

Britney Spears?

Right. She's so obviously a packaged act; she won't be around for long. When we started, we didn't do it for the money, we didn't do it to be packaged, all we wanted to do was rock 'n' roll, to have fun, and we did. Today, they're just up there for the money, just packaged and be gone. I see the Ricky Martin thing, and everything is like, just packaged for this moment. Where are they going to be 10 years, 20 years from now?

What bands out there today do you like?

I liked No Doubt. I was really getting into them; I thought they were awesome, and then next year they weren't even around. I'm so lucky; [nowadays] the bands and the singers don't go out and learn how to perform live. Stage performing is a dying art form. People are going to wake up one day and not know what rock 'n' roll feels like: the sweat, the energy, the sexual tension.

Do your own kids like the music you're making now?

They love it. I bring them to some of the live shows, and they absolutely love what I do. But the music they really like is rap music. I just took them to see Honeycomb, what's his name? Puffercomb?

Puff Daddy?

Puff Daddy. And he made the audience do all the work! I felt like they should have been paying us. It ended, and I was like, "What was that?" No encores, they just walked off. I couldn't believe it. All these rap artists, they shout, "Put your hands in the air like you just don't care!" If I hear that again I think I'll puke. When I do a concert and people put their hands in the air, they're doing it on their own. The people need to feel the music. That's what's so important, and that's what is missing. You have to let the audience feel you, you have to let them feel the love, feel the rock 'n' roll, feel the energy. Every act I see, their whole act is choreographed. I'm sick of seeing these dancers. The only reason they have them is they don't have enough talent to get people dancing themselves. I mean, Honeycomb, Puff Daddy, whatever his name is, he's up on this thing, on this big swing and I'm thinking, "Where am I? At 'Tarzan'?" It's just stupid to me.

What are your five favorite rock 'n' roll bands of all time?

Ooh, that's hard. My favorites? Let's see. The Rolling Stones, definitely. They're completely amazing. The Ramones. The Beatles. How many is that?


Ummm ... Jimi Hendrix. And Elvis. There you go, baby doll.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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