Entertainment

Inside the Undoing of Phil Spector

This article originally appeared in the July 2003 issue of Esquire. It contains outdated and potentially offensive descriptions of sex, ethnicity, and class. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.

The moon’s a thin smile on a cloudless spring night in Los Angeles. The chartered Gulfstream, sleek and dark, all bone-white leather, burled walnut, and spotless, mirrored bulkheads sits alone on the tarmac. We leave at 12:01 A.M.; that’s what the e-mail that came this morning said. I know different: This baby goes nowhere until Phil Spector boards.

Captain Bayar, fit, fresh faced, and apple-cheeked, happy as a clam, asks if I think we might have long to wait. He’s got the Huck Finn freckled grin and the Billy Budd blue eyes, and the grin doesn’t lose luster and the eyes never blink when I say, Oh, yeah, we might be waiting some. He’s all right with VIP lollygagging: If the client has four grand an hour, young Bayar has the wide-open sky, a topped-off fuel tank, and the whole starry night ahead.

Original Esquire magazine spread.

Esquire

I can handle a wait, too. I’ve been dogging Spector for years, hoping to write his story. In 1999, he did a brief thing with Esquire via e-mail; after that, we kept in touch—e-mails, his post-Hall of Fame induction parties in New York, visits to his home when I was in L.A. Doing the story always was a long shot—he’s nearly as famous for being shy as he is for the music he made—but I was thrilled merely to have met and thanked him. Because Phil Spector changed my life before I ever knew his name, blew open my ears and touched my soul. Yours, too.

Rock music pre-Spector was Sun Studio in Memphis, doo-wop’s death rattle, and clean-cut Caucasian cats insipidly covering the work of black R&B acts whose “race records” rarely got play on the radio or bought by whites. Chuck Berry was in lockdown in Indiana on a trumped-up charge, Colonel Tom Parker had long since dealt po’ Elvis, pecker and soul, to RCA Victor, and the Beatles hadn’t yet replaced Pete Best with Ringo.

Doing the story always was a long shot—he’s nearly as famous for being shy as he is for the music he made.

Then—schooled on jazz and Wagner, all brain, balls, and hustle—came Phillip. Wee fatherless Jewboy outta the Bronx via Fairfax in Los Angeles shook thunder from the heavens. Spector claimed to be creating “little symphonies for the kids”: He was. He set out to make millions and millions of dollars and music that was good and important enough to last forever: He did. And he wanted to find love—true, true love: Ah, well . . . two out of three ain’t bad, even for a genius. Not a “mad” genius and not a “misunderstood” genius: genius. Wizard. Artist. Just trust the tale told in mono—back then, a whole world did.

These days, he’s history. He’s sixty-two years old, and every year more of Phillip’s contemporaries expire, and the number of people who know him as Phil Fucking Spector dwindles—and every year we ask if he’s ready to plunge ahead with an Esquire story, and now, at last . . . ahem . . . now . . .

Aw, shitfire, hoss, now we got us a corpse in the foyer—and not just any old standard-issue dead body, either. Her name was Lana Clarkson, and she was a chronically aspiring buxom blond B-movie actress/model/comedienne/hostess—a type always common in Hollywood and not unknown at the castle. She died of a gunshot to her head, and though she hasn’t yet become a corpus delicti—whatever happened, it happened on February 3, and nobody’s been charged with any crime at all, not yet—she did wind up dead, which is one heck of a kicker to the Phil Spector story, which wasn’t exactly lacking Gothic before that.

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Phil Spector, photographed in 1975.

Mark WexlerGetty Images

It was screaming news for a couple of weeks—even Dominick Dunne, the ghoulish old biddy sucking and spitting out the marrow of the bones of the still-warm dead to make his living, managed to shoehorn it into a piece about Robert Blake—and then it just sort of went away. Spector was released from jail and has been charged with . . . nothing. The L. A. County Sheriff’s Department has been investigating ever since, and it won’t say when or if any charges will be brought.

Now it’s April. I’ve spent six days in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard, blasting John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass—both Phil Spector productions—waiting for a word with Phillip, until this morning’s e-mail; now young Bayar and his copilot are up in the cockpit running their cross-check, and Roger, our steward, has loaded the deli platters, the fruit trays, and the cheesecake and is just now brewing our first pot of Starbucks when the airport van pulls up to the steps of the plane and the rest of the party climbs on.

There’s Phillip’s assistant/mother hen, Michelle, beautiful, flame-haired daughter of Spector’s old drummer, Hal Blaine, toting a wee cage; inside sits Helmut, a miniature Schnauzer, who was Michelle’s until she gave him to Phil. There’s Bill Pavelic, in his mid-fifties, a midsized ex-cop, a tough nut, smooth but a little gristly. Ask Bill what he does and he says, “Consultant”; inquire further, he says, “Human demographics.” He has a smile; it just takes time to find it. He’s paid protection, working investigation and security for big-ticket lawyers and their clients.

Then Phil. Small, halting steps. Jeez, he don’t look so good. I mean, he’s a slight, pale man anyhow, but he’s always had that presence that comes with him knowing precisely who he is. He’ll dress with gray Edwardian elegance or nightshade carelessness—either way, his threads are dark and expensive—but he seems frail now, lost in his clothes, a tired, ancient elf whose face is seamed with pain. His shoulder-length black hair—too long, too black to be his own—is matted, damp, tangled, as if someone snatched him out of bed, stuck him in the shower to wake him up, then rushed him here. His eyes are slack, a clouded, muddy brown.

I want to take him in my arms and hug him, and so I do. I kiss him on the cheek and, still holding his narrow shoulders, I say, “Phillip, how are you?”

He brightens, grins his wicked grin, his eyebrows raise and waggle, and he cocks his head and looks up at me as if I must be slightly slow.

“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln,” he snickers. “Other than that, how was the play?”


Me, I was eleven in 1963, in sixth grade and voiceless love with a girl who wouldn’t even go bowling with my fat, shy ass, and each night I’d press my fevered head to the pillow, flick on my pissant transistor radio beneath it, and, sooner or later, the pounding thunder of “Be My Baby” would drown the pulsing in my ears:

Boom! Ba-boom!!

Boom! Ba-boom!!

Like God’s horned fist thumping the muscle of my heart, it hurt so good. It hurt so good—to be bathed in perfect yearning for two and a half minutes; to find romance, mysterious and distant in my waking life, so real and near; to feel, if only for those few moments, that love so rich and wide, so deep and high, surely would someday, some way, come to me—even to me—else how could a sound touch me there and ring so powerful and true?

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Spector photographed in his prime, 1965.

Michael Ochs ArchivesGetty Images

Phil Spector gave all this to me, to us. In two and a half minutes. Hey, you needn’t be Schopenhauer or Lester Bangs—only alive enough to hear and to feel—to know that music doesn’t show or tell: It simply is. It is as close to raw, unmediated human emotion as art can get. Not the lyric—yo, I’m not denying that Ronnie Bennet’s Whoa-oh-oh-oh was a siren shivering my tenderloin; I can hear her banshee wailing even now—but what pierced me to the core, what stabs me even after forty years, is the wall of sound.

Except, dammit, it is not a wall; it’s a window. Listen to the echo, to the quiet spaces framing the pumping, massing beat and chords within a translucent tissue of desire—the pure love-burst chamber of a young heart torn and twisted.

Not my heart: Harvey Phillip Spector’s, the asthmatic, nebbishy kid whose papa killed himself when Phil was only eight, who wrote and produced his first number-one song at seventeen, who subverted every aspect of the music biz and invented the my-way-and-screw-you rock pose, who coaxed, battered, and willed sheer sonic brilliance from unknowns, Ramones, and half the Beatles, then vanished into myth.

Myth? Vanished? Puh-leeze. I’ve read everything ever written about the bodyguards and the guns and the insanity, all the campfire tales of the recluse-zombie-maniac-dwarf self-imprisoned behind locked-around-the-clock gates, dragging his chains and howling at the moon—but I’ve also been to the castle. And I’m here to tell you: He’s a very nice man.

He doesn’t want to be nagged about the old days or written about or photographed—but he also doesn’t want to be forgotten.

Sure, it was spooky enough that first time, because I’d read all of that secondhand crap, and because Phillip likes to spook you some. He sends the limo at ten P.M., the driver says not a word, it’s a stormy, wet winter evening in L.A., and a couple of obscure freeways later, when the white gates open and you climb slowwwly up the winding drive, it sho’ nuff is a fucking castle atop a fucking hill.

Then the bodyguard steps from the dark holding a big, black umbrella, and he opens your door and says, “Mr. Spector likes his guests to use the front door,” which means taking the umbrella and hiking up six, seven, eight wide flights of slick stone steps with trees dripping mist and rain and Spanish moss, and the bodyguard—the son of a bitch got in the limo and rode around to the back entrance—opens the front door, and you step through the foyer, and inside stand a couple of suits of armor and big paper-thin vases and huge, muted, medieval-looking tapestries, and the brown-skinned maid brings you coffee. And you sit on a plump settee and wait . . .

. . . and wait. And there he is suddenly at the bottom of the big staircase: Phil Fucking Spector. All in black, a careful mess with a crooked smile. Myth, genius, all that, but still just another swinging dick—a wealthy man, growing old alone. A nice man: funny, horny, smart. Sure, he wants to make an impression with the limo and the steps and all that stuff, but here’s the deeper impression: He’s very shy and lonely. He’s tiny, fragile. Timid. Happy to have company.

He doesn’t want to be nagged about the old days or written about or photographed—but he also doesn’t want to be forgotten. He doesn’t want to die friendless. He wants to talk about the Lakers and swap stories about Ike Turner and crack wise and discuss current events. He made it too rich and too famous too young, and he grew more frightened, not less—scared to fly, leery of the music-industry thugs whose toes he stomped to jelly, afraid that he was only a mama’s boy, a mayfly, a fluke. And true love turned out to be yet another tug-of-war, but worse than making hit records, because love didn’t yield to insomniac obsession or the will to control and perfect each note and nuance.

The next time I visit, I drive myself to the castle and skip the hike up the steps. Phil has a few people over and orders out for pizza—Papa John’s. There’s a tossed salad in an enormous crystal bowl, and we eat off white banquet platters with gold-plated utensils, and it’s a fine time. There’s Phil and me and palimony lawyer Marvin Mitchelson and four women. One is Michelle Blaine and the other three, as far as I can tell, are more or less bimbos. Two of them have never been to the castle before, and they ask for a look around.

“No,” Phil says.

“It’s okay,” says one of the bimbos, “we’ll just guide ourselves.”

“No, you won’t,” Phil says in a firm, quiet voice that ends that segment of the conversation.

And that’s about as weird as the evening gets—not weird at all, really, unless you count Phil’s bodyguard, who sits by himself on a chair near the door. Although when I later look at the third bimbo’s business card—she’s a “Host/Reporter/Anchor/TV/Radio”—it’s mainly a photo of her holding a martini and reclining on a purple pillow with her little black dress hiked up to her ass and a pair of spike-heeled leopard-skin boots on her upthrust legs. She belongs to SAG and AFTRA, says the card—another ambitious, willing twist, aging fast but still looking to score, chum in a sea of sharks.


On the Gulfstream, Phil tells a joke: Two Japanese businessmen are enjoying a geisha bath when one says to the other, “Akido, I regret having to say this, but I must tell you that your wife is dishonoring you. Worse—she is dishonoring you with a gentleman of the Jewish persuasion.”

Akido calmly finishes bathing, and over dinner that night he says, “Honorable wife, I have heard that you are dishonoring me with a man of the Jewish persuasion.”

And Akido’s wife lowers her eyes and says, “Ah, honorable husband, who tell you that meshugoss?”

I laugh, he laughs, and gosh, it’s awfully nice up here on the Gulfstream, very rock ’n’ roll and yet very haimish, at least for a while. The coffee is strong and hot, served by Roger in white china. Phillip trades his Diet Dr. Pepper for Diet Coke. The deli—sliced turkey, peppered and plain, tuna salad, cheeses, and a side platter of olives and pickles and peppers and mayo—is fresh and tasty. There is the perfect cheesecake, fresh fruit, and a lox tray in the fridge in case we feel like another nosh before landing.

Excess, I’ll grant you—the smoothest, sweetest cross-country haul money can buy—but there’s nothing wretched about it, not at all. A man could grow accustomed to this quick and never, ever wish to go back to first class, much less coach. Much less prison.

There is no man there. It is an image, a shadow, a ghost.

Captain Bayar is humming along toward Teterboro, New Jersey, at 550 miles per hour and 44,000 feet, and all is still, nearly silent, save for Spector’s hushed, boyish voice. Michelle is napping. Pavelic dropped an Ambien and is sprawled on a sofa seat back near the pantry, fast asleep. Helmut’s water bottle is hooked upside down to a gizmo on his cage, with a plastic tube running through the wires for him to sip from; he hasn’t made a peep since we took off.

Phillip pulls a digital camera out of a small leather case and asks me to shoot his photo. His shirt is a black tunic, untucked, buttoned up to his collarless neck, embroidered with “PS” in gold Gothic script. His black jeans are tucked into buckskin mukluks that rise to midcalf. His hands are small, with soft, tapered fingers. The only jewelry he wears is a silver ring snaking down one finger in a loose letter S. Odd? Nah. Hell, he looks like any withered old rock ’n’ roller.

But after I snap the photo—he doesn’t try to smile—he takes the camera and switches to a different pair of glasses and squints long and hard at his own face captured in the tiny screen on its back. Long, hard, sinking into some tar pit of gloom—until he rises as if hypnotized and walks slowly away, stopping square in front of the mirrored cockpit door, no more than six inches from it. And there he stands, staring through himself, blank faced, as if he had been planted, had grown from a seed embedded in the gray carpet a hundred years ago.

Then his right hand floats up to pat down a knot of hair and freezes. He’s lost, devoid of himself.

The hand drops to his face and slowly strokes his cheek. Once, twice. Stops.

His mouth droops and falls open.

Time grinds to a halt, hanging with us in midair.

It is the image of a man who . . . ah, fuck it, hoss. There is no man there. It is an image, a shadow, a ghost.


Of the thousands of photos I’ve seen of him at various stages of his life, two show Spector smiling. One’s a publicity shot of Phil and the three Ronettes; leaning way back, nearly off his feet, he’s laughing behind bulbous sunglasses, stopped from toppling by three comely, dusky gals with foot-high bouffants. Veronica—Ronnie, soon to be his wife, then ex-wife, then bitter foe in battles over child custody and alleged unpaid royalties—has her right arm hooked around Phil’s ribs and her left under his knees. Her look isn’t a smile; it’s a grimace.

The other shot is unstaged: Spector and his team, his boys, his brothers-in-arms—they called themselves the Wrecking Crew—with Phillip at the center held aloft by Hal Blaine and trumpeter Roy Caton. Phil’s wearing dark pants, his striped vest is dangling down to his thighs, the neck of his white shirt is open, and what looks like a cigar stump is sticking out of one side of his mouth, which is smiling from ear to basset ear. You can actually see his teeth.

phil spector and ronettes

Spector and the Ronettes, 1960.

GAB ArchiveGetty Images

Besides Phillip, twelve guys are visible—they’re in the studio; the mike stands are set up behind them—and each of the men has one arm raised high in triumph. Each cocked fist punches the air. Their mouths are opened in a fierce huzzah you can almost hear today.

They have finished something. Something good, maybe great. A Phil Spector studio session could last days at a time; in an era when hit records got made in an afternoon, Spector often took weeks to match the instrumental track to the perfection he heard inside his head—before ever recording a note of the vocal. He fed steaks to the men he worked with, told them not to give up, swore to them that together they were making history. They wore T-shirts with his face emblazoned on the front. Phil was the leader, the general, their quarterback; in this photograph he has just passed for the game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock, and the team is rejoicing. His buddies are carrying him off the field.

And that’s the dream that never dies. Long after boy-girl love burns down to everyday ash, a man still looks back to the wars he fought and the men who stood fast with him, and those feelings—of brotherhood, the glory of toil in a common cause—are what burn forever in his soul.

Beyond his music, Phil Spector never has opened his heart for public display; odds are, he never will. He never has cooperated with a biographer; he sued the last one, in 1989, for $30 million. (They settled.) He has three ex-wives, four grown children—one of his sons died at age nine, of leukemia—a million jokes and anecdotes, vast wealth, singular talent, a permanent artistic legacy, and nobody to share any of this with. The people he sees now are on his payroll.

Grant him his pain, but I don’t think Phil Spector’s devils are all that special, just better-fed.

In late 1964, with both “Walking in the Rain” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” zooming the charts, a not-yet-founding-father-of-New-Journalism Tom Wolfe profiled a twenty-three-year-old Phil Spector for the bygone New York Herald Tribune; that article, “The First Tycoon of Teen,” published in ’65, has been Spector’s official media portrait for forty years. When a four-CD retrospective of Spector’s music was released in 1991, Wolfe’s piece ran in the companion booklet, right after Spector’s own dedication—to Ben Spector, his father.

Forty years ago, Spector boasted to Wolfe that he was spending $600 a week to see a psychiatrist. In an interview with a writer for London’s Sunday Telegraph, published just before Lana Clarkson’s death—Phillip had been in London for much of last year, working with a band there called Starsailor— Spector rattled on at length about his medications and his mental illness. After February 3, a sampling of his quotes from that interview—“I have devils inside that fight me” was, hands down, the most popular—became embedded in the coverage of the incident and bounced around the planet. Grant him his pain, but I don’t think Phil Spector’s devils are all that special, just better-fed. I don’t think half a life spent disconnected behind a gilded wall of silence, without much work and mostly alone, is good for anyone.

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After a long time staring into the mirror, he turns away and sits back down in the seat across from mine. His eyes are red and wet. His hands shake.

“It’s ‘Anatomy of a Frame-Up,’” he says, still softly, not much above a purr. “There is no case. They have no case. I didn’t do anything wrong— I didn’t do anything. I called the police myself. I called the police. This is not Bobby Blake. This is not the Menendez brothers. They have no case. If they had a case, I’d be sitting in jail right now.

“She kissed the gun. I have no idea why—I never knew her, never even saw her before that night. I have no idea who she was or what her agenda was. They have the gun—I don’t know where or how she got the gun. She asked me for a ride home. Then she wanted to see the castle. She was loud—she was loud and drunk even before we left the House of Blues. She grabbed a bottle of tequila from the bar to take with her. I was not drunk. I wasn’t drunk at all. There is no case. She killed herself.”

They have no case. I didn’t do anything wrong— I didn’t do anything. I called the police myself. I called the police. This is not Bobby Blake. This is not the Menendez brothers.

Spector tells me that he was Tasered by the police, that they stripped his day-old Mercedes limo of anything that might contain a molecule of evidence, ransacked the castle, seized his guns and his computers, and ran gunshot-residue tests on him. He’s angry at Marvin Mitchelson for speaking with reporters about the incident, furious with Robert Shapiro—his attorney for the case and also a close friend—for charging him a huge fee, and mad at Nancy Sinatra, to whom Phillip has referred in the past as his “fiancée,” for failing to stand by him.

“You know what she told me?” he snarls. “She says, ‘My mother told me, Omigod—Nancy, it could’ve been you.’”

In early March, Michelle Blaine sent out an e-mail proclaiming that an L.A. radio station would report that the Sheriff’s Department was going to announce that Lana Clarkson’s death was the result of an “accidental suicide,” and that Spector wouldn’t be charged. The Sheriff’s Department responded by saying that the matter was still being investigated as a homicide. Robert Shapiro issued a statement expressing confidence that a thorough investigation would show that his client had committed no crime. Lana Clarkson’s family and agent insist that she would not have killed herself. She was shifting gears, her agent said, hoping to land a sitcom part, trying stand-up comedy, and took the hostess gig at the House of Blues VIP room to make her rent and hook up with some showbiz heavyweights.

phil spector arrested in connection with a shooting death

The scene as Spector is arrested in connection with Clarkson’s death.

Frazer HarrisonGetty Images

And there it sits: Two people alone in the castle at five A.M., and one winds up dead of a gunshot wound. The cops say that they have the gun that fired it. They autopsied the body—Spector tells me that Shapiro hired two forensic pathologists to sit in—and ran their tests. And?

And?

Well, hoss, Lana Clarkson, God rest her soul, is gone, and whatever her agenda, and however sunny her memory, the chance that, after twenty years of swimming after stardom in Los Angeles, she didn’t know exactly what she was up to—and who she was riding with, and why—when she left the House of Blues that night is exactly the same chance she had of becoming Marilyn Monroe: zero. And Phil Spector, who has realized that the presumption of innocence is nothing more than a pretty concept even among friends, is flying to New York City for a few days of what he hopes will be carefree fun. Robert Shapiro will not answer my request for his comments. And Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detective Lieutenant Daniel Rosenberg, heading the investigation, assures me that this case is “not particularly unusual. We’re completing our investigation—waiting for evidence to be analyzed at our lab.

“When we’re done, we’ll be presenting this thing to the district attorney’s office. We’re not rushing anything. This is just one more case. We handle them all the same. We’ll see how it plays out. We don’t wanna taint the jury pool; we’re not gonna try the case in the media. The jury’s gonna be the tryers of the case—if it gets to court. These are all ifs—and if he ends up goin’ to jail, it’ll be very hard on him. It’s important for me that he gets a fair shake in this.”

Lieutenant Rosenberg sounds like a decent man on the phone. Patient. The man with the badge has all the resources your tax dollars can buy, and all the time in the world to bring a homicide charge.


Spector never listens to his hits. He listens to Tony Bennett and Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra singing Gershwin and Irving Berlin.

“Real American music,” he says, nibbling at his cheesecake.

Louis Armstrong?

Spector nods. “He never played a wrong note. He never sang a wrong note. Everything he did was perfect. You know what Dizzy Gillespie said when someone asked him about Louis? ‘No Louis, no Diz.’”

He wants to work again. He wants to work with Radiohead. He wanted to do something with Bono, who wanted to do something with Phil and called to talk about writing a song together and made plans to hook up—and then came February 3: Spector never heard from him again. He says that he enjoyed working with Starsailor but ran out of patience.

“You can’t spend three months of your life making an album with guys who play pinball and video games all day. These guys are very good, but they’re dumb. They’re idiots. There are no Rolling Stones anymore. There are no Beatles.”

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Spector photographed with George Harrison, 1970.

GAB ArchiveGetty Images

I fish All Things Must Pass out of my bag—the two-CD reissue from 2001—and read aloud this sentence from George Harrison’s notes: “I still like the songs on the album and believe they can continue to outlive the style in which they were recorded.”

Spector laughs. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he says. “I gave him a coproducer credit just to get the fuck out of there. The slide guitar on ‘My Sweet Lord’—he did ninety fucking versions of it. Then he had to do ninety more with a bottleneck. Then he brought Eric Clapton in to do another ninety.”

That was Phil’s first comeback: After “River Deep-Mountain High” tanked in 1966—it spent a week on the charts, at number 88—he closed the shutters and hid away for nearly three years. Spector has cowritten and produced hundreds of great songs; “River Deep” is the best, mono dropped from God. Phillip was twenty-five years old; he had the Wrecking Crew, he had Tina Turner, he had a string of top-ten hits that had made him the first brand-name producer in rock history—and still the record died.

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“River Deep” was a huge hit in England; in America, it didn’t even get played. Payback is a motherfucker, and Spector had made enemies on all sides. Disc jockeys hated him because he never bribed them to get airplay or respected them as music brokers; his B-sides were studio doodles put there to prevent them from flipping his A-sides over. Record distributors, who had shortchanged and extorted record companies for years, found out that doing business with Spector’s Philles label meant paying him every penny due for his last smash if they wanted to get delivery on the next one. He had fought off the musicians’ unions, who felt his use of overdubbing took money out of their members’ pockets; he had outhustled the hustlers, outmuscled the mobsters, outjewed the Jews, and outproduced the Brill Building mavens who’d mentored him; and he had crowed about all of it. Loudly.

Spector’s self-exile ended in 1970, when the Beatles handed him the mess of tapes they hated nearly as much as they hated one another by then, and Spector shaped the tapes into Let It Be. Then George asked Phil to do All Things, and John and Yoko began working with him, too. Spector produced and played some piano on Plastic Ono Band—still the rawest, most searing and honest rock album ever made, and perhaps the most beautiful—followed by Imagine.

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Spector and Ronnie, 1970.

Michael Ochs ArchivesGetty Images

The Lennon-Spector collaboration ended badly, in early ’74. John was in such awful shape that Yoko threw him out; he went to L.A. to make an album of oldies with Spector. Legend has it that both men were at their worst—Phil and Ronnie were fighting for custody of their kids—and drinking hard. At one session, Phil produced a gun and fired it into the ceiling of the studio. Not long after that, John returned to New York City.

“He was my brother,” is all Spector says about those days. “He was my brother and she was his wife, and I was never going to win that war.”

He pulls out a small DVD player and cues up The Awful Truth, the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne screwball comedy made in 1937. “This is a great movie,” Phil says, and we watch it as dawn breaks across the horizon. It’s cold and rainy when we land. Phillip, Helmut, Michelle, and Pavelic ride the waiting limo down Route 3 to the Lincoln Tunnel and into the city; I call another car to take me home. Young Captain Bayar, as peppy now as he was six hours and three thousand miles ago, spots me waiting by the door.

cary grant and irene dunne in the awful truth

Gary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth.

John Springer CollectionGetty Images

“Can I help you with your bags?” he asks.

“Nah, but thanks. And thanks for getting us here. That was some sweet ride.”

“Thank you,” he grins, waving me off. “I love my job.”


Rock ’n’ roll was never built to last—not brick by brick and song by song—until Phil Spector came along. Mono wasn’t merely his method: It was as timeless as religion. Spector’s commemorative four-CD package came with a little red-and-white button that said it all—BACK TO MONO. Even as he crafted his symphonies, he never tried to refine the roar. Start doing that—separating sounds, parceling the noise, moving notes around, balancing the mix, expanding the number of tracks, gettin’ all stereophonic and shit—and you kiss off any prayer of rhapsody.

Yeah, with mono you get some distortion with the soundboard needles pegged at the red zone’s far edge. It isn’t perfect, you understand—but it is real, as close to perfection in this one sense as you can ever hope for: What hits the ear inside the studio bleeds into that kid’s ear pressed upon the pillow the same way you heard the Wrecking Crew play it. And if it’s cranked high enough to numb the skull and crack open the sternum for a little heart massage, well, then you’ve got something special. Something great.

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Phil Spector should’ve come back to New York City a long time ago, should’ve come back for good. Here it’s mono 24/7; we’ve got your frigging wall of sound, right here. Here, a man can’t disintegrate into wispy silence under a blank sky: That’s L.A.—no feelings at all, only impressions, the vapors, thin air. It’s hell sealed up tight, with a doughnut shop on every corner.

Spector and crew are at the Plaza, heading to Elaine’s tonight for dinner. What once was hip is now kitsch, but still—it’s the Plaza and it’s Elaine’s. Spector’s resplendent in a gray waistcoat, a black linen shirt with big, round gold buttons, black pants, black boots with big heels and platform soles, shades. His hair is . . . perfect. He’s seated at the head of the long table with his daughter and a friend of hers to his immediate left—their anonymity is preserved here—and Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer on his right. Not A-listers, no—more like the J-list: Jews of middle vintage whose showbiz lives let them hang out and on for eons without having to smile in the middle box on Hollywood Squares.

Belzer begs off after dinner; the rest of us pile into a big-ass Navigator stretch and head downtown to a basement club called Fez, where Sue Mingus, Charles’s sad-eyed widow, presides from a far table over the ferocious, protean Mingus Big Band. Charles Mingus—as pure a genius as America ever mainly ignored—was reared in L.A., in Watts, but this is the only place on God’s earth where you’ll hear his works played by the best jazz musicians alive.

No more than three dozen people are in the club, but the band is blazing, trading trumpet solos like left hooks, and Paul Shaffer is shouting “Yeah!” as they swap punches, and Spector is trying to get a fortyish schoolmarm type—don’t ask me where he found her—all liquored up. For the Big Band’s last number, they slow to a bluesy lope and invite Paul to the piano. He’s up there comping, trying to find his way in, and Spector leans over and says, “He’s the world’s greatest clone, but he’s lost up there. He can’t keep up—they’ll have to find him some music.”

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Spector photographed alongside the Rolling Stones’ Ronnie Wood, 1989.

Paul NatkinGetty Images

Paul lands on his feet quickly enough, and Spector smells a rat. “He rehearsed it!” he shouts. “The bastard rehearsed! I’ll blow his brains out!”

Pavelic, who hasn’t said boo all night, looks thunderstruck. Michelle screams, “Phillip! You can’t say those things anymore!” But Phil’s having a ball, and after the set, we all go to the upstairs bar, where the crush of toned young flesh is throbbing long past midnight to machine noise. Pavelic clears our path to a banquette, where Phillip occupies the center pillow like a pasha. Schoolmarm has taken her pie-eyed leave; on either side of Spector hunches a wide-thighed tart—younger, but hardly young—one of whom is braying something about having a million dollars to purchase airtime. Perhaps she is a media buyer, or just drunk.

I’m not sure that the women know who he is, but he looks cute enough, and no doubt he emits a moneyed scent, what with the waistcoat and shoulder-length curl. His voice is not audible in the din, but he looks like he’s having hisself some fun.

I can’t see Pavelic, Michelle, Spector’s daughter, her friend, or Paul Shaffer. Hours, days, weeks seem to drag by. It’s too hot and crowded to draw much breath. When Pavelic looms out of the murk and says that the limo is waiting, it’s a relief. But not to Phil. When we reach the lobby and push open the door and see that the Navigator isn’t waiting, he ain’t happy.

“What the fuck,” he says. “It’s raining. Where the fuck is the fucking car? I’m not standing here in the fucking rain.” And he darts back into the lobby. He’s still fuming when the limo comes. He thought he was gonna get laid—and maybe he was. Hell, hoss, maybe he still will. It’s only three A.M. in the city that never sleeps.

As soon as we’re back in the car heading uptown—Paul, it turns out, was the one who wanted to leave—Spector, sounding wobbly but determined, wants to know who’ll go back to the club with him after we drive Paul home.

Not Phil’s daughter and her friend, who get dropped off next. Not Pavelic, who’s up front next to the driver, behind the glass partition. Not Michelle, who keeps hiccuping and throwing her hand mouthward, as if she might hurl at any moment.

Me? Sorry, hoss, no. This cowboy’s still whipped from the all-nighter on Bayar’s Gulfstream fewer than forty-eight hours ago. Besides, Michelle’s hissing, “Tell him—hic!—that girl is gone. Tell him the place—hic!—is closed. Tell him—urp!—anything. You can’t— omigod!—let him go back there.”

I’m asking myself, What would Tom Wolfe do?—because if I can figure that out, I’m doing the opposite—when Phillip announces that he has to take a leak. Unfortunately, it takes a little while to relay this information to the Navigator’s cockpit.

“Can we go down a side street for a minute? No, no, no—just go straight ahead. Jesus fucking Christ. Just tell the guy to find a side street. What seems to be the problem? My goodness gracious. My goodness.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. What the hell is wrong with these fuckin’ people? I have no control over my life.”

The driver pulls over at the curb in front of a diner, and Pavelic escorts Phillip inside. They’re back in a couple of minutes—and now Phil is ready to head back to the club, alone if need be. But the next time we stop, we’re somehow at the Plaza’s side entrance.

“What are we here for?” Spector asks. “We’re at the wrong place. Why are we home?”

Some skinny kid pulls open the back door of the limo and starts babbling in heavily accented English. He’s French. Or Italian. Or a Turk. Who the fuck knows? “We take ze cah,” he says. Phil shrinks back into his seat. Pavelic finally gets to the back door, clears the kid away with a sweep of his arm, and holds the door, waiting for Spector to dismount.

phil spector pleads innocent to murder charge

Spector, pleading innocent to murder charges, with the attorney (and friend), Robert Shapiro, 2004.

Ringo H.W. ChiuGetty Images

“Why are we here?” Phil asks, his voice rising in petulant command.

Pavelic mumbles something I can’t hear.

“I don’t care who said that,” Phil tells him. “I make the decisions.”

Pavelic says, “I was gonna—”

“I don’t care what you were gonna do. I make the decisions.”

“Michelle,” Pavelic says. “Let’s do it.” Then, to Spector, “She needs to go to the bathroom.”

That’s not why we’re at the Plaza,” Phillip’s yelling. “I went to the bathroom. She could’ve gone to the bathroom then. Tell me—not, ‘We’re at the hotel, get out’ and some fucking prick comes and opens my door. What the hell was that all about?”

Michelle gets out of the limo. Pavelic closes the door. Spector turns to me. He isn’t drunk. He isn’t yelling. He’s upset, angry, and embarrassed at being tricked and treated like a child.

“Jesus fucking Christ. What the hell is wrong with these fuckin’ people? I have no control over my life.”

His fate dangles in other hands now—the law, his lawyer, the press, the jury—and nobody’s got him covered. No one has Phil’s back.

All his life, Spector fought for control: of his image and his privacy, of his power to shape popular music, of the publishing rights to his songs, of the sounds and ideas raging inside his heart and head—fought and won. His fate dangles in other hands now—the law, his lawyer, the press, the jury—and nobody’s got him covered. No one has Phil’s back.

I say, Phillip, look, I think they’re trying to help you. Maybe they’re being overprotective, I say.

“No,” he says. “This is not ‘overprotective’—this is stupidity. What is wrong with me? I am in control. This is what Robert Shapiro charged me seven figures about Bullshit! I was never involved in a murder—and he should’ve said to me, ‘Mr. Spector, I am your friend, I am your confidant, but lemme tell you something: You didn’t commit a homicide, and I’m outta here now. Get Gerry Spence to come in and kick ass—because I gotta go schmooze with the sheriffs, because Nick Nolte may kill his wife tomorrow, and I gotta make deals with them. I gotta say to them, Remember what I did with you on the Spector case.’

“I wasn’t drunk—I remember exactly what happened. But when you’re Tasered and beaten up and lied to and crapped on, you don’t know what the fuck happened. When Robert came in, as a courtesy, as a favor, he shoulda gotten me outta jail. As a courtesy—not for seven figures. As a courtesy. I’ve taken him for three hundred thousand dollars’ worth of gifts and rides and plane trips. I wasn’t a referral—I was his best friend. Nancy Sinatra, Marvin Mitchelson—they all proved to be fucking wastes of time. Bill Pavelic, my chief investigator—look what he’s doing tonight. He’s tired, so my evening’s over. And then you suddenly get angry—so you’re drunk.”

It’s getting close to four A.M., and Phil Spector is wide awake. I say, Phillip, you know what? Maybe it’s just hard to keep pace with an old rock ’n’ roll soldier like you.

He smiles, calmed by memory. “It’s 1989,” he says, “and Jack Nicholson and myself go to the Rolling Stones concert at the Coliseum. First we go to the Four Seasons, and we’re sitting in Keith Richards’s suite. At the fucking time he had two little blond girls, three and four. And the three-year-old flushes down her teddy bear. Down the toilet. And it gets stuck. And the toilet won’t flush, and the teddy bear won’t come out.

“The mother’s a beautiful blond model and the mother’s panicking. And the little girl is crying hysterically. And fucking Keith don’t give a shit. And Jack’s saying, ‘Man, what are we gonna do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know what the fuck to do—get her another teddy bear.’

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Spector photographed in 1978.

Brad EltermanGetty Images

“They can’t get the teddy bear up and the toilet won’t go down. The little girl won’t stop crying. So they call the plumber—and he can’t get the fucking teddy bear up. So he takes the toilet out.

“Water everywhere. Shit everywhere. Shit everywhere. Gets the teddy bear, but the bathroom looks like hell. The place is ruined—and the Rolling Stones have to go now. It’s showtime. And Jack says, ‘Well, I guess we’ll see you over there.’ Because they go in the van.

“So then the chief of security comes up, knocks on the door, says, ‘Hello—I’m chief of security. Everything’s under control. I’m gonna look around the place.’ And he goes in there, and he looks at it, and he says, ‘Goddamn Rolling Stones—fifty years old and they’re still fuckin’ up suites. Goddamn bullshit—damn! Damn!’ He’s talkin’ to himself as he’s goin’ out of the goddamn place. And Jack looks at me and says, ‘Wel-l-l-l, whaddaya gonna do?’”

The old rooster cackles with glee. Pavelic and Michelle are back in the limo, and we head back downtown. Phil’s on the cell, chatting up the soused schoolmarm. Asking for an address. The night is young yet. Dawn may never come.

The Navigator pulls up to the parking garage where I’ve left my car. “How are you on cash?” he asks.

I’m fine, Phillip. Thank you.

“Good night, buddy,” he says.

[Editor’s Note: A first trial of Spector in 2007 for the death of Clarkson ended in a hung jury. He was retried in 2009 and found guilty of second degree-murder. Spector was sentenced to 19-years-to-life in prison. He died in jail in January, 2021 due to complications from COVID-19.]


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