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9781400042197

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector

Brown, Mick Author

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Tearing Down the Wall of Sound is a remarkable book about, among other things, fame, obsession, genius, money and madness. It paints the fullest picture yet of a man who, whether creating some of the greatest pop music of all time, or destroying the lives of those closest to him, seems to have existed in a continuous state of mental agitation. The Phil Spector story still awaits its ending. In the meantime, this is the definitive study of the man, and the myth that engulfed him.” —Sean O’Hagan, The Observer (U.K.)

With a number-one hit at age eighteen, a millionaire with his own label by twenty-two, and proclaimed by Tom Wolfe “The First Tycoon of Teen,” Phil Spector owned pop culture, his roster as a producer including the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, the Beatles, then John Lennon and George Harrison, as well as Leonard Cohen and the Ramones. But in the spring of 2007, he stands trial for murder.

A spectacularly troubled genius, Spector created with the “Wall of Sound” music never heard before, from “Be My Baby” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” to “Imagine” and “My Sweet Lord.” He suffered poorly the quantum shifts in rock and roll—not to mention the loss of his friends Lenny Bruce and John Lennon—growing ever more reclusive and abusive. By the turn of this century, however, he was not only sober but also attracted to new bands who knew his reputation, good and bad, all too well. Then, in February 2003, he leapt back into the headlines when Lana Clarkson, an actress, was found dead by gunshot in his Los Angeles mansion.

Only weeks before, Spector had granted Mick Brown the first major interview he’d given in twenty-five years—the seed for this definitive, mesmerizing biography of a man who first became a king, then something else altogether.

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About the Author:

Born in London in 1950, Mick Brown is a journalist, broadcaster, and the author of four previous books. His article on Phil Spector was published in The Telegraph just two days before Lana Clarkson was found dead in the “castle” where he’d interviewed him only two months earlier.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: “Mr. Spector Likes People to Walk Up”

On an unseasonably warm day in December 2002 I found myself sitting in a room at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, waiting for Phil Spector to call.

It had been thirty-six hours since I’d arrived in Los Angeles, to find a message telling me that my meeting with Spector, which had taken some three months to arrange, and was scheduled to take place the following day, had been “postponed.” It was as if all my worst fears had come to pass.

Between 1961 and 1966, Spector’s so-called Wall of Sound made him the most successful pop-record producer in the world, with more than twenty Top 40 hits by such artists as the Crystals, the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers. In the words of the writer Tom Wolfe, Spector was the “first tycoon of teen”—a mercurial and combustible mixture of genius and hustler, a precocious, brilliant and off-the-wall visionary who would change the face of pop music forever.

In a period when most people, even those who made it, regarded pop as disposable ephemera, Phil Spector alone dared to believe it could be art. Marshaling armies of guitars and keyboards and brass and drums, celestial sleighbells, and voices keening like angels, he made records of a hitherto unconceived-of grandeur and majesty, elevating the themes of teenage love and heartache to the epic proportions of Wagnerian opera—“little symphonies for the kids,” as he put it. Spector crammed emotion into a bottle and uncorked it—the clamorous, joyous noise of a small tyrant unleashing his vision, his revenge, on the world. When, in the late ’60s, musical fashion overtook his Wall of Sound, Spector moved on to the biggest pop group in the world, the Beatles. He rescued their valedictory album, Let It Be. He produced Imagine for John Lennon, and “My Sweet Lord” for George Harrison. Then began the long, slow retreat. In 1979 Spector produced his last album, for the punk rock group the Ramones. And then he was gone. The architect of the Wall of Sound vanished behind another wall—of barbed-wire fences, guard dogs and Keep Out: Armed Response signs, of stories about guns and craziness, rumor, half-truth and legend—much of it, it seemed, of Spector’s own creation. The “tycoon of teen” became rock and roll’s most enigmatic recluse.

When in the autumn of 2002 I first contacted Spector, he had not given a major interview in some twenty-five years, and to arrange a meeting involved delicate and protracted negotiations. Letters were dispatched back and forth. Michelle Blaine, Spector’s personal assistant, and the daughter of Hal Blaine, the drummer who had played on all of Spector’s greatest hits through the ’60s, happened to be passing through London, and we met for tea at a Mayfair hotel. She was fiercely protective of her employer. What exactly would be the thrust of the interview? Was I familiar with Mr. Spector’s records? How familiar? What had I read about Mr. Spector? I would be aware that there had been a great deal of misreporting about Mr. Spector’s life and affairs—gossip, scandal; talk of guns, of craziness—all of it exaggeration, myth and lies. Mr. Spector would not countenance any interview that proceeded along those lines.

A week later I was informed that Spector had agreed to talk. My elation was immediately tempered by a deep foreboding that the interview would almost certainly never happen. It was almost to be expected, then, that I should be told on my arrival in Los Angeles that our meeting had been “postponed.” I sat in my room, awaiting the call that I was now convinced would never come. And then the telephone rang. A car, I was informed, would be collecting me from my hotel at noon. At the appointed hour, a white 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, license plate PHIL 500, drew up outside the hotel. A uniformed chauffeur held open the door. Encased in leather and walnut and hidden behind black curtains—a car that could tell stories—we turned onto the Hollywood Freeway, keeling slightly like some stately ocean liner, and headed east.

After some thirty minutes, we turned off the freeway, following the signs for Alhambra, a nondescript, working-class neighborhood of strip malls and scrubby bungalows. The road wound upwards, and further upwards still, ending at last at a set of high wrought-iron gates, posted with Keep Out signs. The chauffeur stepped out to open them, drove through and pulled to a halt at the bottom of a flight of stone steps, the gates closing behind us. “Mr. Spector,” he said, “likes people to walk up.” The steps led up through an avenue of lowering pines, the castle visible through the trees.

It was up these same steps that just a few weeks later, in the early hours of Monday, February 3, 2003, Spector would stagger with Lana Clarkson, a sometime actress and model, whom Spector had met just two hours earlier in a Hollywood nightclub. According to the testimony given to the police by Spector’s chauffeur Adriano De Souza—the same chauffeur who had driven me from my hotel—Spector was apparently inebriated, and Lana Clarkson was “like grabbing his arm and shoulder and helping him up the stairs.” Now, as I climbed, I had the distinct sense that I was being watched, although I might have been imagining this.

Michelle Blaine was waiting for me at the top. She led me through the front door into a cavernous hallway, wood-paneled and red-carpeted. Later, I would try to bring the details of this hall to mind, to match it with the account of the affidavit filed by Detective Mark Lillienfeld of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, reporting the scene that he and other officers had found there in the early hours of February 3:

"Your affiant saw the victim slumped in a chair in the foyer of the home. She was wearing a black nylon slip/dress, black nylons, and black shoes. A leopard-print purse with a black strap was slung over her right shoulder, with the purse hanging down on her right side by her right arm. She had what appeared to be a single-entry gunshot wound to the mouth. Broken teeth from the victim were scattered about the foyer and an adjacent stairway. Lying under the victim’s left leg was a Colt, 2-inch, blue-steel, .38-caliber, six-shot revolver. This weapon had five live cartridges in the cylinder, and under the hammer, a spent cartridge."

I struggle to remember now exactly where in the hall that chair was placed. The affidavit makes no mention of the two suits of armor that I vividly recall, standing sentinel—stage props for a fantasy of baronial splendor. Spector was nowhere to be seen. Michelle Blaine led me on a tour of the ground-floor rooms. In the music room there was hi-fi equipment, and a guitar that had once belonged to John Lennon, resting on a stand, like a museum exhibit. A narrow room led off it, a bar lined with framed photographs of Spector with various music business luminaries.

In the sitting room a Picasso drawing hung on the wall beside an original John Lennon sketch. A uniformed maid brought iced water and I settled myself on a sofa beside a coffee table. The affidavit describes the scene that Detective Lillienfeld found in this room:

"In a living room just east of the foyer, your affiant saw that candles had been lit atop a fireplace mantel. The coffee table between two couches had a brandy glass partially filled with alcohol, and atop the table was a Jose Cuervo tequila bottle and a partially empty Canada Dry soft drink."

I waited, suddenly aware that classical music was eddying softly around the room. At length, Michelle Blaine’s mobile telephone rang. It was Spector, calling from elsewhere in the house. Phillip, she said, would be with us shortly. He appeared a few minutes later, walking down the staircase, to the strains of Handel. He was wearing a shoulder-length curled toupee, blue-tinted glasses, a black silk pajama suit with the monogram PS picked out in silver thread and three-inch Cuban-heel boots. He looked bizarre—like a wizened child in fancy dress—yet at the same time curiously magnificent. I rose from my seat to shake hands, and he peered up at me. “My,” he whispered. “You’re tall.”

He perched on the edge of a sofa, sipping from a tumbler filled with something that might have been cranberry juice, might have been anything. His hands trembled. Close up, his skin was sallow, like parchment, but his expression was puckish, amused. “I don’t like to talk,” he said. Yet over the next four hours, he talked like a man possessed. About his music, the Ronettes, the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, about hustling and payola, success and failure.

“I knew,” he said. “People made fun of me, the little kid who was producing rock and roll records. But I knew. I would try to tell all the groups, we’re doing something very important. Trust me. And it was very difficult because these people didn’t have that sense of destiny. They didn’t know they were producing art that would change the world. I knew.”

“And you wanted immortality?”

“Yes. Very much. I think when Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he was thinking, people will remember this. When Gershwin wrote, he may have said, ‘I don’t know about this American in Paris,’ but I think he said, ‘this is something special.’ I think Irving Berlin had an ego, that he wanted people to remember this. I think he wanted to be number one. And so did I.”

Our conversation was interrupted by a whirring noise, like a cuckoo clock, and a voice chirruping the hour. “ It’s two o’clock.” His wristwatch. “Timing,” Spector said, “is the key to everything.<...

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