Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2003 / 14 Kislev, 5764
Long, Winding Road For Phil Spector Guilty of Genius
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Sir Paul McCartney is a fool. I just wanted to get that on record before I proceed to the chief focus of this column, which is the Phil Spector tragedy. I'll get to Sir Paul, and his idiocy in relation to Phil Spector and the "Naked" Beatles album Sir Paul's deluded ego trip in due time. But Phil Spector comes first, in every way.
Recently I found myself in the curious position of speaking to a luncheon of the newly formed Norman Mailer Society, and telling them how Norman Mailer ruined my youth. I spoke about the way Mr. Mailer's theological vision can place an almost impossible burden on those who buy into it, because if you believe that every act, every choice you make, influences in some small way the doubtful outcome of some titanic cosmological struggle between God and the devil, then, alas, everything matters. This is an unbearable, unsustainable, life-ruining state of mind, an unspeakable burden. (Sometimes I wish I could take refuge in the mirror image of Zen: Nothing matters.)
In a similar way, Phil Spector ruined my life (many did their share, believe me). But Spector's "Wall of Sound" hit me like a ton of bricks when I was a vulnerable teenager, and I've never recovered from the visceral vision of urgency his signature sound imparted to Romance: Everything matters.
And now Phil Spector has hit the wall: another kind of wall. It's called the legal system, and it's just come down on him with a murder charge. A lovely 40-ish fading blond B-movie actress, Lana Clarkson, was found shot dead in Spector's haunted mansion in L.A. as the chauffeur of Phil's Mercedes waited outside. Anyone remember Rock Dreams, Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert's brilliant book of music-legend melodrama in baroque comic-book form? Time for Rock Nightmares, no?
It comes at a strange time, this nightmare: In my column two weeks ago, I'd sought to make distinctions between celebrity and tabloid sensationalism, arguing for the occasional redeeming value of the sensational, and using the Kobe Bryant and Laci Peterson cases as examples of the former and the latter. That piece went to press a matter of hours before the first reports of the Michael Jackson charges hit the news, stamping out, like a Gulliverian big foot, virtually all media attention to the Kobe and Laci cases.
And raising a new set of distinctions to be considered: Is the Michael Jackson case one of those iconic mega-meta-media affairs that bridges or explodes, firebombs, the distinctions between celebrity and tabloid sensationalism? It's hard to make an argument that it's merely a celebrity case. One could say that there's something wrong with the disparity between the total media blitz on Michael and that given to "ordinary" pedophile cases. But he's more than an accused felon, he's more than an icon of our contemporary culture: He's become part of its DNA. He is part of us anyway, part of anyone like me who's watched MTV since "Video Killed the Radio Star." (O.K., up until "Puck" and the painfully stagey Real World took over the network.)
And he has asked us to believe that his whole "childlike innocence" schtick is utterly innocent. Maybe it is. Maybe we'll find out whether such faith has been justified, or the faithful have been conned into a Neverland of denial.
In other words, I'd concede this is more than an "'I Love the '80s' Strikes Back" moment.
But I don't want to write about Michael Jackson. I want to write about another musical genius up on felony charges, a greater genius, I'd argue: Michael Jackson was a branch, Phil Spector a virtual trunk on the tree of rock. One of the premier emotional architects of the genre, indeed of our era, you might say. Because his was the blueprint for the interior of the heart. Every brick in his "wall" was a broken heart.
Nonetheless, it's inevitable that the Michael Jackson story will eclipse the Spector trial. Displacing, unjustly, what I think is a deeper mystery: Was there a link between the music and the murder, or the music and the suicide, or the music and the accidental shooting, whatever it turns out to be in the Spector case? Was there a relationship between the emotional architecture of the work and the trajectory of the bullet? Was it radio killed the radio star?
Whichever it was, it makes me sad, because everything about Phil Spector makes me sad. His great songs always made me sad even the angelic Crystals' hymns to heavenly bliss. And then there are the Ronettes: To me, even the Ronettes songs that are ostensibly affirmations ("Be My Baby," "Walking in the Rain") contained the seeds, the shadow, the sound of a vast loneliness, a loneliness that was truly river deep, mountain high.
Spector's songs, his sound and its influences, have shaped the emotional landscape of contemporary America more than most geniuses in other genres certainly the landscape of romanticized loneliness. He is the J.D. Salinger of song. And many lives were ruined by both men's work, and I guess so were the men themselves. Spector became, like Salinger, a reclusive parody of unnecessary paranoia and desperation and isolation, withholding his genius from the world.
It was odd: I had a confluence of at least three reasons to be thinking about Phil Spector just before the murder charges came down. My friend Jeffrey Goldberg, The New Yorker's intrepid Middle East correspondent, and his friend David Segal, who writes about popular music for The Washington Post, are planning to put up a Web site to celebrate what they call the Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (www.jewsrock.org is slated to go up in the spring of next year). They were asking people to write pieces that went beyond the usual suspects Beck, Gene Simmons, Lou Reed, Mr. Zimmerman and, of course, the inimitable Kinky Friedman. (I love the Times report that he's running for governor of Texas on a single issue: outlawing the declawing of cats.)
I'm not sure whether they wanted people to write about the Jewishness of each rock star, but when Mr. Goldberg called, a phrase instantly leapt to mind when I mentioned Phil Spector: "the Wailing Wall of Sound." Suddenly it made some sense to me that undercurrent of ancient sadness I'd always felt in even his most soaring anthemic tributes to love. The Wailing Wall of Sound: the last remnant of the Lost Temple of the Religion of Love. I recall rattling on to Mr. Goldberg about the angelic sound of the Crystals being akin to the hymns of the cherubim around the Throne of Heaven. I invoked the Biblical rhetoric in Spector's masterpiece "River Deep, Mountain High."
O.K., I went too far, but the idea excited me. I'd always admired "River Deep, Mountain High" the Tina Turner song whose expansive (and expensive) grandiosity and failure to top the charts many say resulted in Spector's decline into reclusiveness, but later came to be called by some the greatest rock song of all time. I sensed Spector was seeking to evoke some Higher Love. Just as the erotic "Song of Songs" attributed to Solomon (whose wall of sound was many cubits high) is said to link earthly and heavenly love.
But there's a deep sadness embedded in "River Deep," as well: It's a song about the way one can never approach the infinite, that love can grow stronger forever and never reach its peak in the mountains, or its unfathomable depths in the rivers. It's a song that makes real love pale by comparison.
One could argue and I'm not sure I should, but what the hell that a spiritual sensibility could be found in Phil Spector's very first song, the one that rocketed to the top when he was 17 years old and put him on the way to becoming as a producer whose personal "sound" was a signature at least as indelible as any of his singers "The First Tycoon of Teen," as Tom Wolfe called him in a prescient early piece.
That first song was an achingly simple ballad called "To Know Him Is to Love Him." And though it's ostensibly about a girl praising her boyfriend, just about everybody knows the story of the song's title: It was taken from the gravestone of Spector's father, who committed suicide under not well-explained circumstances. According to He's a Rebel, Mark Ribowsky's excellent biography, Spector's father killed himself by running a hose from the exhaust pipe of his car into the interior and then closing the windows. Turning the car, that steamy locus of the teen lust Spector would specialize in, into a death chamber a gas chamber, in fact.
There's a picture of that gravestone in Mr. Ribowsky's recently reissued biography. And what struck me is the one-word change from the gravestone inscription to the love-song title. On the grave, it's "To Know Him Was To Love Him." In the song, it's "To Know Him Is To Love Him." The latter invokes a spiritual dimension: Is the song talking not about a boyfriend, but God? Is it true that to know Him is to love Him? Even when, in His world, to know someone like Phil's father was to love him, but he gassed himself to death anyway. So is the song ultimately ironic, or defiantly faithful?
Anyway, all of this was running through my mind before the delayed murder charges. (The death occurred last February; Spector later told an Esquire writer, Scott Raab, that Clarkson shot herself while toying with the gun. Now the D.A. says Spector murdered her.) Shortly before the charges were filed, a third Phil Spector development ensued: There arrived in the mail a galley of the new book from Tim Riley, Fever: How Rock & Roll Transformed Gender in America. Mr. Riley is the author of Tell Me Why, which I think is the best book yet written about Beatles songs.
In this new book, he goes beyond his unique fusion of technical musical knowledge and stunningly perceptive emotional exegesis of lyrics to a wider-angled social vision that focuses in good part on the glorious complexities societal as well as musical of the "girl-group" sound, from the Chantels and the Exciters to Chrissie Hynde.
Mr. Riley is at his very best when he comes to what Spector and Veronica Bennett (later Veronica Spector) achieved with the Ronettes. Indeed, he writes one of the best single passages I've ever read about one of the ultimate girl-group songs: a passage that focuses on the breathtaking wordless opening of "Be My Baby," with its dangerous heart-arrhythmia of cathartic beats: the ones Mr. Riley transliterates as "Boom! … boom-boom BLAM!"
I'll just quote a few words of his ecstatic exegesis of that one percussive sequence: "The defining beat, held aloft at the opening like a rhythmic magnet pulling the rest of the song along behind, is spacious and beatific it maps out a cosmic space, and it's one of the few imperious statements of rhythm alone … in rock that cannot be copied without referencing the original …. But although the beat alone is vast, suggesting realms of feeling for the song to explore, what the rhythm is holding back is what gives it its power. It's the pauses between beats that give it its candid flirtatiousness, and when Ronnie Spector's voice unfurls in the opening verse, its promise is fulfilled … trumpeting a woman's desire just as confidently as any man ever had."
And yet, the doomy echo … that's what I relate to. That's there, too, along with the triumph. Is a love that strong destined for anything but self-destruction? It's the echo of the subway tunnels of Spector's native Bronx, and of those who hurled themselves onto the tracks, too.
Now let us to proceed to Sir Paul McCartney and his idiocy. I'm not talking about releasing Let It Be … Naked, the supposedly pristine version of the last Beatles album, newly stripped of the studio overdubbing that Spector added to the tapes when it was first released back in 1970, as the soundtrack of the film Let It Be (by far the best, most dramatic Beatles film, by the way). Spector's intervention was John Lennon's idea, and the ever-bitter Sir Paul now has his posthumous revenge.
I have no principled objection to the release of this version let a hundred flowers bloom, let's hear the other studio takes as well. (As Allan Kozinn pointed out in The Times, this isn't precisely the pure product Sir Paul has been pushing it as Mr. Kozinn called it not Let It Be … Naked, but "Let It Be with a fig leaf.")
And I know some have strong feelings about the Spector intervention. On one Web site, some wise guy said that whether or not Spector was guilty of the murder he's charged with in LA, he's guilty of the "murder" of the Beatles songs on Let It Be.
I disagree. I think that Sir Paul has deluded himself that his syrupy ballads like "The Long and Winding Road" the ones that lacked the edge that John Lennon brought to their collaborations and made them brilliant together were syrupy because of Spector's syrupy orchestrations. But, in fact, they were syrupy in and of themselves, and sound even more syrupy when "naked." Spector, one might say, was trying to go over the top to make it a self-conscious syrupiness, a meta-syrupiness. Sir Paul doesn't get it.
But the thing that really makes me think Sir Paul is a fool is the way he rejuggled the order of the songs. Let It Be originally opened with one of the most perfect and beautiful and memorable Beatles songs ever written or sung, "Two of Us." After that, everything and anything they did on that album could be forgiven. It cast a super-powered spell over all that followed, however uneven. "Two of Us" is the perfect road-trip love song, but (as Mr. Riley has noted) it also allows itself to be construed as the story of Lennon and McCartney the two of them and their long and winding road. After all, it's about riding and writing, which not only sound alike but in some ways resemble each other (both narratives that wind from a beginning to an end). And in the song, the "two of us" are always writing postcards, letters, chasing paper …. Come on! It's a loving look back at the very, very best part of a long and winding road of a writing partnership. It defines the album, defines the Beatles.
But the delusional Sir Paul doesn't get it. He's still bitter about John and Phil and who the Walrus was. He's still fighting old Beatles battles. This is the Sir Paul who wants to be known as the principle author of the very worst Beatles song ("Yesterday" you know he's petitioned to have its authorship read "McCartney and Lennon" rather than the traditional "Lennon and McCartney." That tells you everything. Let him have it, Yoko.) This is the Sir Paul who buries "Two of Us" in the fifth slot, in the middle of the album, after making us endure the "naked" version of "The Long and Winding Road." Switching the order makes the album a lesser work of art.
Please. I'm someone who has defended Sir Paul in the past against smarty-pants John Lennonites who don't get that it was the two of them that made each other great. But this lack of discrimination about his own music is virtually criminal. Nothing like the mortal seriousness of the charges against Phil Spector, of course. But that doesn't mean Sir Paul shouldn't be in the dock for crimes against music.