Since Spector's famous final act was a conviction for the murder of actor Lana Clarkson, it's sick that we're left with. British journalist Mick Brown makes what might appear to be crazed juxtapositions in the biography "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector" (Knopf, 2007), yet there's nothing sensationalistic about his writing approach; all Brown had to do was tell Spector's story. Since modern science has come so far in treating the bipolar condition, no longer do Spector's joys, antics and sins have to define that disease and his ailment, yet Spector's life is nothing if not one volley after another of drastic highs and lows.
In Brown's beautifully written "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound," the author covers
Spector's early disappointments and his nonstop hustling in search of the break that would finally find him founding Philles Records with Lester Sill, and their eventual failed friendship. His working relationship with engineer Larry Levine and arranger
Jack Nitzsche can be called inconsistent and fragile. Spector's history as a record maker shows an obvious admiration for the backing musicians more than the vocalists; he often betrayed the latter. In Spector's mind, the producer--not the artist--was the star, so singers were of secondary nature to him. The irony here was that the Philles label boasted so many recognizable, first rate vocalists: Darlene Love, Bobby Sheen, Ronnie Bennett (Spector), the Righteous Brothers, Tina Turner.
There is one contradiction after another in "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound," which Brown manages to sort out fairly clearly, and yet these disparate elements create a kind of tension that drives the book. How did Spector's somewhat icy relationship with Love (who was cheated out of royalties) change to a period where he paid her rent when she was down and out? Why was Phil almost instantly attracted to Ronnie when he first caught the Ronettes but locked Ronnie up in his mansion after they finally married?
On the one hand, Spector brought turmoil upon himself, as he couldn't reconcile his dark insecurities with his swelling braggadocio. On the other, one is struck by his huge losses: his father's suicide, mental problems within his family. His nine year old son's early death. His deep friendship with Lenny Bruce, and Bruce's death. His warm, then volatile relationship with John Lennon. Or his long line of hit singles that suddenly dried up. Or the fabulous A Christmas Gift for You, Spector's all-out album project, and possibly the finest holiday album in history. After grueling months of work, the LP was issued and almost immediately withdrawn. The release date was November 22, 1963.
Omissions? For me, it's a blessing that Brown did not delve deeply into Spector's recreational drug use--there were already scores of prescription drugs and massive quantities of alcohol fogging up whatever clarity he may have had. Let's just say that a legendary Christmas card Spector sent to friends (once depicted in the industry magazine Radio and Records) that read "a little 'snow' never hurt anyone" is not addressed.
The goofiest item that doesn't include alcohol or gun-waving details the eventual divorce of Phil and Ronnie. He was instructed to pay her $1,250 per month in the initial agreement. For the first payment, Spector merely wrote a check to Ronnie. For the second payment, a Brink's truck arrived at her attorney's office. Of the three Brink's employees, two were conventionally armed while the other brandished a shotgun. The three men turned over the money: $1,250...in nickels. Conversely, one of the book's most beautiful parts details Atlantic chairman Ahmet Ertegun and Spector going to a California club in Watts in 1967. There, Otis Redding and Esther Phillips sang duets of old songs, accompanied by Spector on piano, until 4am.
There are plenty of surprises in Mick Brown's "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound," who interviewed Spector in December 2002, just two months before the Clarkson shooting.
I would have thought that Spector's relationship with Ike Turner would have been strained from the start, since Ike was a participant in name only for the "River Deep--Mountain High" 1966 sessions that Spector did with Tina Turner (credited to Ike & Tina). But Phil and Ike remained good friends. I also had no idea that Spector was so beloved by his backing musicians, like guitarist extraordinaire Barney Kessel and monster drummer Hal Blaine--with notable exceptions (such as Sonny Bono), almost everyone who became known as the Wrecking Crew. To think that Spector had some of the greatest musicians in the world playing the same simple chord progressions, over and over (often three of them on the same instrument) to create the Wall of Sound...well, it may have sounded magical, but it was a dirge-like process. Somehow, the best records that resulted radiate with an intensity that is truly a labor of love.
Whether or not demons were haunting him, Phil Spector created love on record with a passionate, seismic power that still stands to this day. Then he threw everything away.