There is no question that Phil Spector was one of the greatest producers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The lush instrumentation of his trademark Wall of Sound created some of the late ’50s and early ’60s greatest songs, he salvaged the Beatles’ Let It Be album from a pile of discarded tapes, and he worked with everyone from the Righteous Brothers, to Ike and Tina Turner to the Ramones and even Celine Dion.
The new edition of Mark Ribowsky’s He’s A Rebel: Phil Spector: Phil Rock and Roll’s Legendary Producer is there every step of the way: from his time as a 15-year-old teen pop star, to his years spent honing his craft in New York City with legendary Brill Building songwriters like Leiber and Stoller, to his triumphant rise as the music industry’s top producer. The book gives a detailed account of it all and while at times it gets bogged down in the minutiae of individual sessions and chart performances, it is a fascinating account of Spector’s staggering list of professional accomplishments. Ribowsky calls him a genius — and it’s no exaggeration.
But just as remarkable as his incredible talent is, Spector’s troubled personal history, culminating in the murder trial slated to begin soon (which prompts this new edition with five additional chapters of trial-related material). The stories of his “eccentric” behaviour have long been the stuff of rock legend — the time he fired a gun in the studio while John Lennon was there, or held one to Dee Dee Ramone’s head and forced him to record – and even in light of the recent charges, it’s tempting to think of them as just the kind of darkly humorous anecdotes that are part of what give rock ‘n’ roll its colourful history.
As He’s A Rebel makes abundantly clear, however, even before 03 February 2003 — the night he (allegedly) blew the bottom off Lana Clarkson’s face with a Colt Cobra .38 — it was obvious to those who knew Spector that his derangement went far beyond the amusing. Ribowsky draws on scores of interviews with people from Spector’s past who knew him both personally and professionally, and while they have varying opinions on the matter of his guilt, there doesn’t seem to be a single one who disagrees for a moment that Phil Spector is anything but a vicious asshole.
They call him “a snake”, “a lunatic” and someone who “just likes to torment people”. Together, they paint a grisly picture: of a husband who kept his wife a prisoner in their well-guarded home; of a father who abused his adopted sons; and of an alcoholic with an unpredictable temper who regularly forced people to do his biding at the end of a gun. This is not your typical rock ‘n’ roll misfit — by all accounts Spector is a truly cruel human being.
Ribowsky — who links Spector’s dysfunction with the childhood trauma of his father’s suicide — is clearly disturbed by his subject’s behaviour, particularly in light of recent events. Throughout his book, he’s wrestling with the question that so frequently plagues critics: to what extent do you have to qualify your admiration for a great artist who has led an abhorrent personal life? And, like so many before him, Ribowsky’s solution is to separate the artist from the person. “[I]t is my hope that history will be able to delineate the legendary producer from the disoriented sluggard in the back of that police cruiser,” he says at the end of his introduction to the new edition. “Let’s not forget that America once had its own Mozart and that his name was Phil Spector.”
Whatever wishes Ribowsky professes, however, his own book makes it clear that cleanly separating Spector’s life into two halves is an impossible task. The personality traits that led to the producer’s gunplay and his abuse of friends and family are the very same ones that he used to climb to the top of his profession. He lied and cheated all the way through his career — he stole the Crystals and the Ronettes from other companies, he manipulated business partners, musicians and songwriters to his own advantage, and he refused to let his acts have any artistic say on “his” projects.
Even the legendary Wall of Sound itself was only possible thanks to his heartless treatment of artists and sessions musicians in the studio — forcing them to work long into the night while he perfected his sound, keeping them in line through whatever means he found necessary. If Phil Spector weren’t a jerk, we would never have even heard of him; if he weren’t a tyrant, there would have been no “Be My Baby”, no “Instant Karma” and no “Rock and Roll High School”.
Of course, the truth is that he will be remembered for both. Spector-the-disoriented-sluggard-in-the-back-of-that-police-cruiser and Spector-the-legendary-producer will share their place in history — as they rightly should. To forget either in favour of the other would be an injustice. And that’s what makes He’s A Rebel such a great place to start exploring the life of this talented and tormented man. Ribowsky sees the tragic truth of the story that he’s telling: Phil Spector is a terrible man who made wonderful music.