Phil Spector: When a Musical Hero Is a Moral Monster

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 They apologetically rescinded it, having been reminded by readers that homicide is not a personality quirk.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 ow 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