The pop dream turned into a nightmare

June 24, 2007|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,Los Angeles Times

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound

The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

By Mick Brown

Knopf / 464 pages / $26.95

Even before that horrifying predawn moment four years ago in his castle in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, Phil Spector was widely viewed in the music industry as something of a freak show.

Lana Clarkson's death was, in many ways, the tragic public climax of years of wildly eccentric, sometimes alarming behavior by the man who produced landmark recordings by John Lennon, the Righteous Brothers and the Ronettes.

During a series of all-night conversations I had with Spector in the '70s and in the early '90s, the man Tom Wolfe dubbed the "first tycoon of teen" spoke often about Lenny Bruce, his friend and hero whose savage social commentary helped redefine comedy in America. What haunted Spector was that this "brilliant man" would be most remembered as a junkie who died on a bathroom floor with a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm.

Now, regardless of the verdict in the trial over Clarkson's murder, Spector faces a similar, scandal-driven legacy, one forever linked to the morning of Feb. 3, 2003, when a gun was placed in Clarkson's mouth and the trigger was pulled.

In his new book, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound, British journalist Mick Brown chronicles the rise and fall of Spector. Not surprisingly, most of this well-researched but disappointingly timid volume deals with the painful descent of this breathtakingly original music man.

For the book, Brown interviewed more than 100 people, including Spector in a doozy of an encounter just weeks before Clarkson's death. In their four-hour session at the Alhambra house, the author confronted Spector about the rumors of personal problems, including the possessiveness, paranoia and periods of excessive drinking.

Spector replied that he had not been well for years. "I was crippled inside. Emotionally," he told Brown. "Insane is a hard word. ... I take medication for schizophrenia, but I wouldn't say I'm schizophrenic. But I have a bipolar personality. ... I have devils inside that fight me. And I'm my own worst enemy."

Things didn't start off well for Harvey Philip Spector, who was born the day after Christmas in 1939 in the Bronx. He was still in grade school when his father committed suicide, leaving Spector's mother with such a deep sense of family shame that she moved with Phil and his sister, Shirley, to Los Angeles.

The teenage Spector, who was also traumatized by his father's death, found it difficult to make friends at Fairfax High School. Discovering joy in music, he plotted a career in the record business, first as an artist and songwriter, but eventually as a producer. His first hit with a trio called the Teddy Bears came the summer after graduation. Spector adapted the title of the light 1958 pop ballad from the epitaph on his father's tombstone: "To Know Him Is to Love Him."

Hugely ambitious, Spector launched his own label, Philles, in 1961, and although the hits carried the names of such artists as the Crystals and the Ronettes, the star of those records was Spector himself.

His R&B-flavored pop singles, including "He's a Rebel" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," were built around a sweeping, even audacious vision - tales about youthful desires and doubts so overflowing with emotion that it took an army of musicians to capture all the passion. It was dubbed Spector's "Wall of Sound." Indeed, few records in pop history have conveyed the exhilaration of love's arrival as much as "Be My Baby" or the despair of its loss as "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'."

Despite being called a genius and a visionary, Spector was a bundle of insecurities and contradictions, especially after the hits stopped coming in the mid-'60s, when the Beatles and Bob Dylan turned the music world upside down. Spector made periodic comeback attempts, but they were short-lived. His last real taste of glory was co-producing John Lennon's "Imagine" album more than 35 years ago.

Several of Spector's friends and associates spoke to Brown at length about the producer's conflicting traits (generous, yet controlling; charming, but spiteful; sweet, though a touch mad).

Reports of reclusive, unconventional behavior and sometimes smothering jealousy go back to the "To Know Him" days. An early girlfriend, Lynn Castle, said his constant possessiveness drove her away. "Where are you? What are you doing? What are you thinking? Where are you going? Controlling," she said. "I remember saying to Phil, I can't stand it anymore, because I just felt like I was choking."

Variations on that theme - and others, including Spector's often desperate need for company late at night - echo throughout the book as Brown focuses on the producer's personal life far more than his music. The unstated goal seems to be to try to understand what led to the shooting in Alhambra.

In the end, Spector is such a complex personality that not even his friends or foes, in all the conversations, were able to unlock the keys of his story for Brown. By simply relying on their words rather than supplying any authorial vision, Brown was doomed to failure. The reclusive tycoon remains a stranger.

Robert Hilburn, a former pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, where a version of this review first appeared, is writing a pop music history.

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