TRACKING PHIL SPECTOR….(CD Review)

A few days back, Greil Marcus, who trashed Phil Spector’s Back to Mono box when it came out, recommended it to someone who wanted to know where she should start if she wanted to get to know Spector’s music.

Very Trumpian I thought–doubly so if he was just being mean–but it did put me in the mood to revisit the box…on headphones.

Listening to Spector at this distance creates an audio equivalent of double-vision for us obsessives. No matter how glorious the sound in your ears is, and no matter how completely you are able to forget the gentleman is a psychopathic murderer, there is always the high probability that someone, somewhere has written about how, in order to really hear it, you need to have the original Philles single…and maybe a Bang and Olufsen (at least) to play it on.

Or the rare European-only vinyl pressing from the sixties.

Or the original tapes that somebody heard in their “truest” form on some bootleg version that was playing down the hall while they were meditating in their college dorm in 1968.

Or when they were hanging out with Phil at his home studio during the first of his several hundred retirements back in the sixties.

I’m not sure all those people are wrong either.

I can personally attest that the reissue MGM 45 I purchased “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” on, which listed Bill Medley as the producer, blows all other versions away.

And, even if you can blow all that out of your head (and, when the best records are playing, you can), there’s still the fact that Phil Spector isn’t best heard on a box set featuring upwards of sixty tracks. His greatest work is too intense and his workaday efforts too mundane to make the experience anything but disorienting. Just when you’re thinking one more wall of *&&#@ strings will either make you drive a splinter under your eyelids or send you off to sleep, some bit of genius brings Paradise heaving back into view (though, not, I hasten to add, on the record of that name, on which the Shangri-Las blew the Ronettes away).

One thing I did notice this time around, though, was that Paradise came heaving into view most often according to a distinct pattern.

Again and again, my cheap headphones (ain’t no Bang and Olufsen at my house, alas) kept delivering the notion that Spector did his best work when he was working with a new voice.

And, usually, it was a Seasoned Pro’s voice.

Gene Pitney…

Darlene Love….

Ronnie Spector (the partial exception to the Seasoned Pro rule–she had made records but was still living at home when he met her)…

Bill Medley….

Bobby Hatfield…

Tina Turner…

Sonny Charles…

In every case, Spector soon tired of whatever quality he had heard in them…and (with a brief exception for Darlene Love, whose power he diluted by parceling out her records under various names, least often her own) subsequent productions–or business arrangements–suffered accordingly.

The usual method for burying anyone who hung around too long (usually no more than a record or two), was to do just that.

Bury them.

Their voices anyway.

Because one thing Phil Spector liked to remind all his singers of, was his ability to make them go away, often at the very moment when one more brilliant arrangement (usually provided by Jack Nitzsche, though there were others), was begging for the Wall of Sound to be dialed back a bit and let the lead singer shine.

The one exception was the former Ronnie Bennett.

Her voice, he was never quite able to tame.

God knows he tried.

On record after record.

And when that didn’t quite work–when he couldn’t quite make her irrelevant to her own records the way he had done with literally everyone else, even Darlene Love–he found other ways. Like marrying her and locking her up in his mansion and killing her career and tormenting her for years until she ran away (carrying her shoes down the mansion’s driveway so she wouldn’t make any noise) and finally stalking her and terrorizing her with death threats everybody thought she was crazy to take so seriously until he finally acted out on Lana Clarkson.

The gift she left him was a box set that bends, but never quite breaks.

Nearly all the hidden treasures are hers.

WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM CRITICS (Ninth Maxim)

I’m still debating whether to do a full review of Greil Marcus’ latest, which I posted about here. If/when I do, I’ll doubtless be speaking yet again of the good and the bad.

For the good….

The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs has a lot of the best sustained writing Marcus has done in years. The piece on Buddy Holly and the Beatles ranks with his best ever. The essay on “Money/Money Changes Everything” had me hearing new things in Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual after years of obsessive listening (and deepening my long-held conviction that it was the finest album released in the eighties and likely the greatest debut released by a solo artist in the rock and roll era). It turned me on to John Kaye’s The Dead Circus, which is the most fun I’ve had reading a modern novel in I don’t know how long.

He even admitted to now knowing Marge Ganser was long dead when he and Robert Christgau slandered her a few years back (see the link above) in the notes for a fine essay on Amy Winehouse and the Shangri-Las.

Then, for the rest….

Following up on my George Goldner post, there’s this:

“There would have been no rock & roll without him,” Phil Spector said when Goldner died, in 1970. Just months before, Goldner told the Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner the story of how he got Arlene Smith, the seventeen-year-old lead singer of the Bronx quintet the Chantels, to do what she did–to go into the depths of doo-wop ballads like a maiden sacrificing herself to volcano gods. Winner had published a retrospective review of The Chantels, issued on Goldner’s End label in 1958, raving about Arlene Smith: “What’s so great about her voice? Well, to be frank, it starts where all the other voices in rock stop…When she reaches for a high note she just keeps going. There is never a hint of strain. Nothing drops out. Her tone expands in breadth to match the requirements of high pitch…Like a three-thousand dollar stereo system playing Beethoven’s Ninth, the highs, lows and mid range extend into infinity.”

“Shortly after the review appeared,” Winner wrote me in 2013, “I received a telephone call from George Goldner, legendary New York City record producer and businessman who’d recorded a number of early R&B, doo-wop and rock groups including the Chantels. He said he was coming to San Francisco on business and invited me to dinner. During a two-hour conversation, Goldner told a number of marvelous stories about Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Crows, the Flamingos, and other groups he’d produced over the years. It was clear that he was happy to be getting some notice in the pages of Rolling Stone and wanted to make sure he was receiving sufficient credit for his contributions to rock and roll. At one point, for example, he proudly explained that the ‘boy’ celebrated in the Ad Libs 1965 hit ‘The Boy from New York City’ was actually he himself.

“Eventually,” Winner went on, “I asked Goldner about the extraordinary intensity in Arlene Smith’s vocals. ‘Obviously, she has great natural ability and control of her voice,’ I said. ‘But she sings in a way that often seems right on the brink of emotional break down. Where did that come from?’ ‘You see,’ he said, ‘the Chantels were always very well prepared and sang beautifully. The first take of any of their songs was usually just about perfect. But I realized what a phenomenal talent Arlene Smith was. I wanted to push her to reach for something more. My strategy was to record two or three takes of a song and then storm out of the booth and start ranting. “This is horrible! Your singing today is lifeless, sloppy. Haven’t you been rehearsing? We’re just wasting our time here! What the hell’s the matter with you?” I’d look Arlene right in the eye and yell at her until she was nearly in tears, and then finally say, “OK, I give up. Let’s try it again.” The next cut was always the one I was looking for. The edge you hear in her voice, the tone of desperation approaching hysteria is what I was trying to pull out of her. And sometimes I succeeded.”

Marcus seems to swallow this version of events whole and–to some extent at least–view it with some approval.

That Arlene Smith herself might have a different view (as evinced in the link I provided in my last post, which has an hour-long interview with her from 2009 where, among other things, she goes to some lengths to stress that, while Goldner was sometimes present at her sessions, Richard Barrett discovered her, actually ran the sessions and approved final takes), seems to have never occurred to either Marcus or Langdon Winner.

Later in the book, Marcus says that Shadow Morton’s later history with the Shangri-Las sounds srikingly similar:

In the obituary (Morton’s) “Yeah, Well I Hear He’s Bad…” the journalist David Kamp recalled a conversation with Morton in the 1990s. “He kept talking about ‘the Ba-CAH-di’ that did him in…[He] seemed especially remorseful about his behavior towards Mary Weiss, the striking lead singer of the Shangri-Las; he said the Ba-CAH-di made him do some things to her so terrible that he didn’t want to go into them”–to my mind, the kind of things George Goldner did to Arlene Smith.

If, as seems likely, Goldner was feeding Langdon Winner a lot of hooey in 1970–doing what a lot of record producers (and movie directors) have done when a young woman is involved and transferring most of the credit for any magical results to himself–then, of course, it is not impossible that he patterned his memory after what he observed going on between Morton and Weiss (which Weiss, incidentally, has pushed back on to some degree on other occasions–not so much as to what happened [she did cry in the studio] as to why–personal pain, not harassment).

But what’s key here is that Marcus swallows the narrative he finds most appealing–does not question it or do due diligence in finding out whether this version of the story might be false, or at very least, incomplete. It’s not the first time he’s been guilty of same (I wrote about another instance here). But this time, it’s springing from a mind set that’s uncomfortably close to the one he evinces in the next quote– a sort of dark continuum from Goldner to his most famous protégé, Phil Spector:

Since 2009, when he was convicted of second-degree murder in the 2003 shooting death of the nightclub hostess, unsuccessful actress, and sometime blackface Little Richard impersonator Lana Clarkson at his mansion in Alhambra, California, Phil Spector has been serving nineteen years to life at a division of Corcoran State Prison. Amy Winehouse has been dead since 2011. If you listen to the Teddy Bears’ record now, and ignore what Spector did with the rest of his life, or even what he did in the few years after he made “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” his fate may not seem like such a tragedy. If you listen to Winehouse sing the song, you can hate her for what, as over a few July days she drank herself to death, she withheld from the world.

Now we’ve gone from the dubious to the unconscionable. From swallowing George Goldner’s brag about making Arlene Smith cry (for her own good of course–isn’t it always?), to Lana Clarkson being the cause of a tragedy that belongs not to her, a murder victim, but to her murderer–who wouldn’t have been a tragedy either if he hadn’t made such great records.

And, of course, to “hating” Amy Winehouse, for what “she withheld from the world.”

Bear in mind that this is what passes for serious discourse–and it’s nested rather casually inside writing that actually is serious discourse, like a snake hiding in the garden. The two things become indistinguishable, redolent of a spirit that is searching for some sort of emotional high and doesn’t care where it finds it.

If it can be found in the mystical link between Buddy Holly and the Beatles that’s wonderful.

If it can be found by de facto blaming Lana Clarkson for her own murder, because she was “unsuccessful” and did a bad Little Richard imitation, or hating Amy Winehouse for her suicide, while reserving the word “tragedy” for Phil Spector’s fate….well, evidently, that will do just as well.

All of which leads us, in a rather roundabout way, to the Ninth Maxim:

NO SYMPATHY FOR THE MURDERER.

No, not even if the murderer once lived the rock and roll dream so transcendently that he transformed himself from this…

Philspectorfirst

to this…

philspectorsecond

And, no, not even if, in the last moment before his genius gave way to his monstrous demons, he was responsible for this:

 

EVERYTHING I REALLY NEEDED TO KNOW, I LEARNED FROM ROCK AND ROLL (Lesson #1: Just like Ronnie Said)

[NOTE: It’s been a while since I started a new category….Some of my friends are gonna be surprised that this wasn’t the name of my very first category….You know who you are! Any way, this category will be loosely defined as relating today’s headlines to the people-oriented history of rock and roll I try to emphasize in general….So it might get hairy at times.]

RONNIESPECTOR2

When Ronnie Bennett (at the left above) auditioned for Phil Spector (seated) with her vocal group (already called the Ronettes and here pictured with George Harrison and English publicist Tony King) Spector leaped off his piano bench and said. “Stop….That’s it. That is it.”

He was referring to what John Lennon would later call “the Voice.” and he very specifically meant the voice he had been waiting–and hoping–to find.

It was that voice–not, as has so often been assumed and reported, Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound” production technique–that so captivated the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson when he first heard “Be My Baby” that it instantly became the standard by which he would measure the rest of his life (not to mention all that glorious music).

As Ronnie Spector, then, she became a legend and one of the most important vocalists of the rock and roll era.

Then she went away.

There were reasons.

She divorced Phil Spector in 1972.

He had forced her to quit performing years before. He had also kept her effectively locked up as a prisoner in his L.A. mansion. When she finally made her terrified break, it was running…on bare feet lest her shoes make noise on the driveway pavement.

In light of the daily reports this past couple of weeks concerning various forms of abuse directed at women and children (when she met Spector she was seventeen and so essentially both) by celebrity athletes, it’s worth remembering the price she paid. For anyone who had been paying attention, Spector’s eventual murder of Lana Clarkson was no more surprising than the recent video of Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice cold-cocking his wife-to-be in a casino elevator. For some, the obvious is never really obvious unless they see it with their own eyes….or the body on the floor is actually dead (as opposed to merely knocked stone cold, as Rice’s wife-to-be clearly had been in the previously released video which did not show the actual punch). For the rest of us, the obvious is, well, obvious.

Twas ever thus.

The following is from Ronnie Spector’s autobiography, Be My Baby, which (as told to Vince Waldron) was published in 1990. It’s one of the finest–and most unflinching–of all rock and roll memoirs, not least because she told the world that, no, Phil Spector, didn’t coach her singing (he was a superb talent scout before he was anything else) and that, yes, he was very, very dangerous.

RONNIESPECTOR

After our successes at Madison Square Garden and the Baths, I continued doing concerts with the girls through the rest of 1974. But nothing ever matched the excitement of those shows. We spent most of our time marching in and out of oldies revues, and that got pretty depressing after a while. I was barely thirty years old and everywhere I went people were calling me an oldie but goodie.

It drove me crazy–and it sure didn’t help my drinking problem any. I used to stand backstage at these rock and roll revivals and cringe when the emcee announced us as oldies singers. I’d be standing off in the dark somewhere in the wings and raise my Dixie Cup of vodka and Coke in a silent toast. “Here’s to little Ronnie Spector,” I’d whisper to myself. “An oldie. But a goodie!” I’d say it as a joke, but I can tell you there was nothing funny about it.

Whether it was for good or bad, my oldies career finally came to an end during the holiday season of 1974. That was the year Dick Clark signed the Ronettes to take part in a rock and roll revival show he was staging at the Flamingo Hotel. And I’ll never forget my nightmare in Las Vegas.

It was great to be working with Dick Clark again–his shows were always professionally run, and this was no exception. I rehearsed my numbers with Chip and Denise on stage in the late afternoon and we were dynamite. Dick and everyone on his staff were predicting that Vegas would be the start of a whole new career for the Ronettes.

And when I finally saw our name up in lights outside the casino, I began to think so, too. They do everything about ten times bigger than life in Vegas. So naturally, the marquee outside the hotel was about a hundred feet tall, with the names of all the groups in the show spelled out in letters twelve feet high. I’d never seen “The Ronettes” spelled out that big, and I loved it.

Dick gave us a dinner break between the afternoon rehearsal and our first evening show, so I took the elevator back up to my room to rest up. I was so high from the excitement that I didn’t think anything could bring me down. Then the phone rang.

“It’s me,” the voice said. He didn’t bother identifying himself. He didn’t need to.

“Phil?” I hadn’t spoke to him in so long that I actually thought he might be calling me to wish me well on the show.

“Veronica,” he said. “What in God’s name makes you think you’re ready to play Vegas?”

I should have known Phil would be up to his same old tricks. “Okay,” I said. “Is that all you called for?”

“No,” he said. “I just wanted to give you fair warning that tonight could be the last time you appear on stage in Las Vegas. Or anywhere else.”

He was talking so calmly, for a minute I actually thought that he was saying something sensible, and that I was the one confused. “What ARE you talking about?”

“I always said I’d kill you if you left me,” he explained. “And tonight I’m making good on that promise. In two hours you will be assassinated on stage at the Flamingo Hotel.”

“I’m calling the cops Phil,” I told him. “If you even try to set foot in the Flamingo, I’ll have you arrested.” I tried to stand up to him, but he just laughed in my ear. It was a sound that went right down my spine.

“You don’t think I’d be stupid enough to pull the trigger?” he said. “That’s what I pay hit men for. And I’ve hired six of them on this job. Three black and three white. You might spot one, but you’ll never be able to get them all. They’ll be at your show tonight, and I’ve offered a million-dollar bonus to the one who shoots the bullet that does the job.”

I dropped the phone like it was a dried fish and ran out of the room. I figured the whole think was just one of Phil’s dumb jokes, but it still scared the hell out of me. One thing I knew about Phil is that you couldn’t second-guess him. What if today was the day the guy finally did crack up?

I decided to find Dick Clark and get his advice. But by the time I got down to the showroom, he was already gone. I walked through the casino with my hands shaking so bad I knew I had to get something to calm me down before I rattled myself to pieces. So I walked into the bar for one quick drink. But in those days they were never quick. And it was never just one.

I grabbed my nose and sucked down a vodka and tonic, then I set my hands down on the bar. They were still shivering. “One more,” I told the bartender. I felt so much better after the second drink that I was sure a third would do the trick. Five vodka and tonics later, my problem was solved. I no longer had to figure out whether to go through with the show or not. Dick Clark would make that decision for me.

He tried to look the other way when I stumbled into the backstage area that night. But Dick couldn’t ignore the fact that I was too drunk to make it through even one verse of “Walking in the Rain,” at the final dress rehearsal. “Ronnie,” he said, steering me over to a quiet corner backstage. “You’re in no shape to go on tonight. I’m sending you up to your room.”

Dick Clark and I go way back–I did my first national TV appearance on his show. So when I saw that glint of disappointment in his eyes, that hurt almost as much as being fired.

“I’m sorry, Dick,” I slurred. “I just didn’t want the hit men to get me.” I was trying to give him an explanation, but it was useless. He had no idea what I was talking about, and he had better things to do than listen.

….that little incident pretty much killed the Ronettes as an oldies act.

Not in our hearts, though…Never in our hearts: