Amazon.com has slashed the price of Back to Mono, a 4-CD collection of Phil Spector's classic hits, from $74.98 to $18.98. It's an extraordinary bargain and a harsh measure of the diminutive record producer's diminished reputation as he stands trial in Los Angeles for the murder of Lana Clarkson. Decades of increasingly bizarre and dangerous behavior have given the media ample opportunity to reduce Spector to a sick joke, although finding humor in the divagating hairstyles of a homicide defendant, as The New York Times' Styles section did this Sunday, arguably shows as little respect for the deceased as it does for Spector.
The great records that Spector produced in the early 1960s require no defense. Beginning in 1961 with Gene Pitney's over-the-top performance of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Every Breath I Take," Spector constructed brick by brick the massive Wall of Sound that made his fame until it collapsed from its own weight in 1966 in the rubble of Tina Turner's "River Deep, Mountain High" (which Spector co-wrote with Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich). Singles like the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron," the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (both composed by Barry-Greenwich-Spector), and the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'" (written by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Spector) have withstood the trial of time.
But the Wall of Sound and an egomania that eventually became equally impenetrable have obscured what originally made Spector an engaging personality as well as a brilliant producer. In interviews conducted before Clarkson's demise and therefore not colored by it, songwriters who worked closely with Spector described a young man who for all his vainglorious eccentricities possessed considerable charm and even an endearing innocence.
Ellie Greenwich called him a "little prick" on first meeting, when Spector paid more attention to his thinning hair in the mirror than to the songs Greenwich was trying to pitch him. But she soon changed her tune and "found him so vulnerable, needy, and mainly extremely talented.... He was moldable. Then he was moldable. If he trusted you, I think he had the need to be mothered.... I think Jeff and I offered that to him.... We knew his frailties, we knew his strengths, we knew his hang-ups, and his talents."
While Greenwich mothered him, Doc Pomus, 15 years older than both of them, "fathered" Spector, who was haunted by his own father's suicide. Pomus, who wrote a few songs with Spector but became much more famous for those he penned with Mort Shuman (Dion and the Belmont's "Teenager in Love," the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me," Elvis's "Little Sister," "[Marie's the Name] His Latest Flame," and "Viva Las Vegas"), told another interviewer that Spector "made the quintessential young record, because it had a certain kind of sentimental innocence about it. It had to do with the wonderful pureness about adolescence. It almost didn't relate to some pimply kid. There was something much beyond that. It transcended. It was this great wall of enormous sound, and somehow through it all there was this lovely ...romantic, sentimental innocence.... When we sat down to write a particular song, there was also something about the way he sang. If you've ever heard Phillip sing, he sang in this very pure, very innocent way. And that always came through in his concepts."
That innocence enabled Spector to crouch with his guitar on a credenza in Manhattan's seedy Forrest Hotel and polish the chords of "Spanish Harlem" (which he wrote with Jerry Leiber) while ignoring the urgings of a record-biz rascal by the Pynchon-esque name of Artie Ripp to join the action as Ripp was getting "sucked, f---ed, and this and that and the other thing" by "two maniac chicks." "He's doing that while I'm going crazy," Ripp recalled. "I certainly wasn't going to become his co-writer!"
Spector was always a deeply divided, oxymoronic character - "playfully sadistic," Barry Mann called him -- and impossible to pin down. Jeff Barry told the documentary filmmaker, Morgan Neville, "He's either nuts or acts nuts, and that's nutty, you know? He's crazy like a fox."
"I don't think that anybody can be as talented as Phil Spector is without being a little strange," Pomus said. "He has a very delicate mechanism. Here's what you have to really know when you're dealing with the Phil Spectors of the world: They have a total inability to cope with the world. They're about as thin-skinned as they can be. So, consequently, what happens is that their reaction to the world is weird sometimes."
During the 40 years that have elapsed since his greatest success, Spector's skin and what remains of his mind seem to have become as thick as his Wall of Sound, and caprice to have calcified into cruelty.
Curiously, the only songwriter who seemed prescient before Lana Clarkson's death was one who had never had a hit record produced by Spector, although they briefly wrote songs together. Beverly Ross, best-known (if at all) for co-authoring the Chordettes' "Lollipop" and Lesley Gore's "It's Judy's Turn to Cry," complained that Spector had appropriated her melody for "Spanish Harlem" and warned that though he could be "awfully charming and funny," "there was a dehumanization that had taken place in his life, and I don't know what caused it."
Even if it ends in acquittal, his trial will almost inevitably dehumanize Spector even further. But his music and that scrawny, prematurely balding young man hunkered down on the credenza in the Forrest Hotel are all too human and memorable.