Music: The Life and Trials of Phil Spector

Two days after the publication of the first extensive interview with Phil Spector in more than 25 years, the reclusive record producer was arrested for the fatal shooting of 40-year-old B-movie actress Lana Clarkson. Mick Brown, who wrote the profile for the Britain's Daily Telegraph, had a fleeting terror: what if Spector hated the piece and took murderous revenge on the first person he found? Like Spector himself, the real story would prove much more complicated and terribly fascinating. Brown would spend the next three years researching the life of Spector for his new book, "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound" (Knopf), which will be published next week.

Spector's influence on pop music is incalculable. He either co-wrote, produced or performed (or, in many cases, all of the above) on the most enduring songs of the 20th century. This is no hyperbole: "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Be My Baby," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," "Unchained Melody," "River Deep, Mountain High," the Beatles' farewell album "Let It Be" (which infuriated Paul McCartney), both George Harrison and John Lennon's first solo albums as well as Lennon's "Imagine" all bear his stamp. He created the "Wall of Sound" production style that resulted in an almost overpowering sonic wash—no expense or lavish instrumentation was spared on his singles, which he called "little symphonies for the kids."

But there was a dark side to the genius. Spector, whose father committed suicide when the boy was just 9, was raised by a smothering mother and tormented by an unhinged sister. He was painfully insecure about his ferret looks, bitter and revenge-minded for his mistreatment by high school's cool kids. He would affect bizarre hairstyles and attire, hire bodyguards and retreat to the creepy seclusion of his Hollywood Hills castle. Eventually he would take to booze and carrying a gun. Now on trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson, Spector's eccentric side has been made more public than ever. NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker recently spoke with Brown about Spector's life, legacy and murder trial. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Clarkson was killed two days after your profile of Spector appeared. You must have been surprised.
Mick Brown:
I was stunned. I was staggered, shocked. I was in the Telegraph magazine offices that day and someone came down from the offices upstairs and said "What have you done to upset Phil Spector?" What really staggered me was that throughout the interview he kept emphasizing that he wanted to be a reasonable man. That was one of the factors of wanting to give the interview in the first place, that he was on even keel and the Phil Spector of legend was of the past.

Have you been following the trial?
I was out there for the beginning of the trial and the first week or so. I've been sort of experiencing withdrawal symptoms. It's very fascinating and compelling to watch all of this unfold. Just to see him, he's the shadow of the figure I met four years ago. He looks like a small boy who's lit a firework and burned down a house, a completely stricken look about him, which he has. I think he's had some sort of facial surgery. He looks altogether unwell—the trembling hands, the agitated movements, the way his tongue flickers in and out.

Have you learned anything you didn't already know from your reporting by watching this trial?
What struck me forcefully is how vividly the contradiction, the paradox in his character is emerging, particularly in the testimony of the four women [he allegedly pulled guns on], all of whom have universally testified how charming he could be, what great company he could be and how quickly and rapidly he could change. Literally, there are two Phil Spectors: the sweet humble Jewish man, and then this sort of crazy acting-out braggadocio, the venomous tongue, explosive fits of temper and rage. It's day and night.

What was he like when you met him?
I saw daytime. He couldn't have been more hospitable and gracious and funny. For me it was an extraordinary opportunity to interview him for three and half hours and be regaled with stories and old Lenny Bruce jokes he's kept warm.

Spector wouldn't be interviewed again for the book?
I approached Spector immediately after the killing. I was completely stunned, shocked. I immediately wrote to him expressing my sympathies for the plight he found himself in. This sounds hubristic or arrogant, but I had this shadow in my mind that "I hope it has nothing to do with the pieced I wrote." But I don't believe that was at all the case. Key characters who wouldn't talk to me were primarily the songwriters—Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich— wouldn't talk to me. Whether this was out of loyalty to Phil, or whether he has a fair degree of control over the copyright of the songs and there was a fear of incurring his wrath, I don't know. Cynthia Weil initially agreed to talk to me and then changed her mind when Spector made it clear he wasn't going to cooperate.

Are you a fan of his music?
Oh, for sure. Growing up in the '60s, who wouldn't be really? I think I was 12 or 13 when I first heard a Spector record. The first one I recall connecting to him was "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" by Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. It just blew me away. And of course "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," which is the ne plus ultra of the Wall of Sound. It is the defining Spector song.

Any thoughts on where the trial will go?
I'm fascinated by what the outcome is going to be. It strikes me what the defense have to do is somehow convince the jury that in light of all the eccentricities and mythologies about Phil Spector, despite the evidence of four woman who say they've had guns pulled on them, that it was his immense misfortune to invite a woman into his house who took her own life. To me it seems a cosmic improbability. Obviously, he's innocent until proven guilty. From my understanding of the case and reading of the evidence, I think whatever happened was an accident, whether his finger was on the trigger or hers. Then again, if you play with guns, it's almost inevitable that something bad will happen. You're inviting something bad to happen. Had Spector led a more normal life, the 9-to-5-normal-Joe life, I think this wouldn't have happened. There would have been some intervention much earlier down the line about his mental difficulties, his drinking. But it was the life he led—the life of Phil Spector, the castle, the body guards, the rock-and-roll life—that gave him in a way an immunity against censure. Whenever Phil acted out and got crazy it would be excused: "Hey, that's just rock and roll." Phil pulls a gun? "Oh, that's just what Phil does." Somebody should have taken them away from him many, many years ago.

He told you that he thought he was probably insane.
He diagnosed himself to me as having bipolar condition. He said, "I take medication for schizophrenia, but I'm not schizophrenic." For a number of years before this happened, he had been on a series of medications, mood-stabilizing, mood-altering drugs. He recognized he had a mental illness and was trying to address it.

How would you characterize his impact on the popular culture?
I think it's sort of enormous. He's the key link between Elvis and the Beatles. The really important thing he did was he was the first person to really recognize that pop music could be art. Most people regarded it as disposable, here today and gone tomorrow. Spector saw it as more than that. [He called his music] "little symphonies for the kids." There was no self-deprecation or modesty when he as 20, 21 years of age. He saw himself as a genius, and he saw the music he was making as being monumental. And because he had that aspiration, he then made music to match that aspiration.

Of course today rap is very much a producer's music, which may be an indirect legacy of his.
I couldn't really talk to it because I am not all that familiar with rap, but I've heard some stuff that's fantastic. Phil was very dismissive of rap. He said they left the "c" off at the printers. He was dismissive of everything though.

So what's with the hair?
[Laughs.] Search me. It's a real contradiction. Right from the get-go, by the time he gets to New York in 1960, '61, Phil looked weird with his Prince Valiant hairstyle, pointed-toe boots. He always sought to distinguish himself, and the more he did that, the more adverse attention he drew to himself. He'd walk into a restaurant almost begging someone to make a comment, and then step back to let his bodyguards deal with the guy who said it. It's all about insecurity isn't it? Revenge is a big factor in the Phil Spector story. It really is the small, put-upon nerdish outsider who finds the one gift that gives him a power that he can throw back in the face of the world, his mother, his dead father and everybody else.

Might things have worked out differently for him if his father hadn't committed suicide?
I'm absolutely sure of it. He idolized his father and loved his father very deeply. Had his father lived, Phil would not have had the relationship with his mother and sister that he did. That was fatally damaging to making relationships with other people in the world. He would have been a happier person. He's very knowing about himself. He's astute in understanding how unhappy he has been. He said all the fame and recognition and money doesn't add up to making you happy, any more fulfilled or more at ease in the world.