As we mourn the celebrities who shaped our generation slowly but surely dying off, it makes me wonder if we are also witnessing the death of celebrity itself. Demigods like Prince, David Bowie, and Lou Reed who can’t be replaced — not only due to their mold-breaking artistry, but because of the industries, PR machines, and social paradigms that made them are quickly succumbing to obsolescence. But when Phil Spector finally passed last month, his death was met largely with relief due to his cold-blooded killing of Lana Clarkson. But for me, there was so much more to unpack. My dear friend Stephanie Tisza texted me right away when the news broke — no surprise, as we both shared a specific place in our hearts for his music. Since we couldn’t stop talking, we decided to start writing a male/female perspective on his insidious legacy. Read on.
THE UNRELIABLE NARRATION OF PHIL SPECTOR
By Gabriel Hart
Like the nuclear age from when it was born, The Wall of Sound was pure radiation. Resonance. Historically umbilical as much it was biblical, a skewed gospel that redefined our perception of love’s coil, like a Slinky overextended from its rabid undercurrent of madness. Spector distilled a sound akin to a whole body-high that made you feel like you were actually coming out of your body. Tympani pounding like over-eager heartbeats, triggering butterflies in the stomach. Earworm melodies that kept you awake at night. Female harmonies with a ghostly, occult majesty — like how Gene Sculatti describes in the liners of that great Rhino Records girl-group box set when he says, “I don’t know about you, but when I listen… I feel like I can walk through walls.”
As a child of the eighties, I saw the 50s/60s resurgence, a black leather and hot pink renaissance with Sha-Na-Na, Happy Days, the Stray Cats, Cyndi Lauper’s Blue Angel, my favorite special occasion diner Ed Debevic’s in Los Angeles — these were my first impression of what it might have been like back then.
Now we know, that’s not at all what it was like.
Especially now that we know Making America Great Again refers to a time that never even existed. Nostalgia just isn’t nostalgia unless we put it through the meat-grinder of our selective memory, so who else would be the most imperfect, unreliable narrator for those unattainable halcyon days other than Phil Spector?
Overidealizing romance through his untouchable Wall of Sound, he threw everything and the kitchen sink into this monolith of aural ecstasy; compressed into two-minute morsels containing multitudes, dispatches from the prison of youth through lyrics you might find scribbled in the margins of a school paper. And just like that, he created the concept of teenager: a child in limbo, tragically misunderstood, whose only chance at redemption would be to fall in love.
And we’ve been trapped there ever since.
Until last January when Spector passed unceremoniously in prison, catching COVID-19 at the ripe age of 81 — the Tycoon of Teen who sought to preserve timelessness was dead from our most modern ailment we currently cannot even see past.
Since he created the teenage, could his death mean that spell he cast on all of us has been lifted? Let’s hang precarious on that a minute while I self-indulge.
Though his presence haunted me since childhood, the height of my Spector worship would converge in 2006/2007 when I decided I would form the ultimate band (even if confined to my ears) largely colored by his looming shadow. It would be a punk band for adults — a matured, well-dressed yet tattered take on the Wall of Sound I would call Jail Weddings: the perfect analogy for the conflicted “can’t live with her/can’t live without her” heartbreak I was navigating.
For whatever reason, all I could do was exclusively listen to the Ronnettes, the Crystals, and Gene Pitney to get me through it, to remind myself what romance was, that I would maybe find it again one day anew. I wanted to write music that would be salve for people the way Wall of Sound was for me while adding the liberation of the unchecked “why me?” scream to God, the beta-male lurch that hinged at violence even if it was just performative on stage. In other words, we wanted to give our audience the real, unfiltered Phil Spector experience — no more hiding behind bubblegum harmonies and the genius tag so you could get away with murder.
Oh, and it also looked like his time was just about up since his trial for the cold-blooded killing of Lana Clarkson had just begun, in chilling synch with the larvae stage of JW.
Our popularity mounted as his trial continued, adding a sensational sub-plot to the group that made our devotees (and occasionally my own band members) misunderstand my role as “the Phil Spector of the group” — a title I never asked for. While I would correct them, attempting to recontextualize my role as singer/songwriter who preferred leaving knob twisting to the experts, I also found myself subconsciously pushing everyone’s buttons. I maintained a state of disembodiment through copious amounts of drugs and alcohol and I encouraged the whole gang to indulge so we could be Los Angeles’ worst nightmare coming to roost. To whip it up into an even further frenzy, I was creating wild double-standards like firing our drummer for smoking crack while I was getting into onstage fistfights with our bass player for nodding off on heroin. They had every right to be confused, considering the ambiguous circus I had constructed; all the while I was staying wasted just so I could deal with our own hydra-headed serpent promptly eating its own tail.
I believe every single engineer/producer/front man in rock n’ roll has to wrestle with Spector’s slime oozing into our artistic DNA, derailing us in the name of (re)tired rock n’ roll. He created the unwavering rules, the excessive lifestyle, the my-way-or-the-highway tantrums, resulting in a flirt with death lurking beneath every resolving major chord — the toxic power structure which we all would subconsciously imitate. Like, I’m notsure if I was ever abusive to anyone as a result of falling into that role, but I’m positive I enabled our collective endangerment more times than I could ever count. And that whole not being sure thing leaves me feeling suspect under my own call to the stand (and maybe if I stay at that stand long enough, we can learn how and why our violin player drank a whole bottle of tequila to make it easier to break my nose the night before tour). But all these questions will likely go unanswered due to the adapted disconnect that comes with looking up to fiends like Phil or Kim Fowley or whoever is your preferred megalomaniac poster boy.
But a deeper, more disturbing question: Could Spector have proved the exalted artistry of the engineer/producer without ruling the studio — then his loved one’s personal lives — with an overzealous iron fist? It’s an elusive query to answer, since he was the architect. Sure, Shadow Morton, Jack Nitzsche, George Martin, and Brian Wilson were able to do it with more applied patience and out of the cage imagination (they all did it better, in my opinion) but Spector was their immediate inspiration. Would we even have those visionaries without that first homicidal maniac?
And that’s the most radiating element of Phil Spector, the way he triggers our very American cognitive dissonance: where we know something is bad, unhealthy for our psyche’s attention, but the next thing we know, we’re indulging them like narcotics personified, scrambling for excuses to support an industry who cares not whether we live or die. With this in mind, Spector fits on the same shelf as Charles Manson, Sid Vicious, Suge Knight, Robert Blake, OJ Simpson, William Burroughs, Don King, Ted Kaczynski (who, I may add, my co-author of this twin-essay had a close friendship with through his prison bars — another example on which we’d rest our case first-hand). These are all American men, touted as geniuses, propped up by money and legacy, whose homicidal instincts only added to their magnetic legends. It reeks as something indigenous to our country founded on genocide, triggering me to wonder if we are ever able to escape our abusive relationship with American heritage.
It all applies as we bid farewell to Spector, another man we hated to love, a brittle love-starved I-hate-you-don’t-leave-me hypocrite of our national psychosis, one more Founding Father of pop-culture’s scorched Earth manifest destiny.
AND THEN HE KISSED ME
By Stephanie Tisza
Everything was red and black and out of focus. I was floating and slowly spinning in an iridescent, primordial cosmic goo. Teeny-tiny particles and swells of visible, vibrating sound surged, enveloped and echoed all around me and through me. I pointed upward and looked at a shadowy figure next to me:
“This is the Wall of Sound.”
Then I woke up. It was 9:02 a.m. in California, on Sunday, January 17, 2021. I looked at my phone and saw a text message from my mom in Chicago.
“Phil Spector died.”
The initial response from my coterie of discerning thirty and forty-something year old musician and writer peers – who also consume and create culture like only a former Napster teenager can – to the death of the revolutionary music producer is one of extraordinary relief mixed with sadness.
When David Bowie unexpectedly passed in 2016, many noted that it felt like one of their parents died. But the shimmering Thin White Duke pariah who beguiled us with galvanizing acts of gender transgression and glam rock was merely the ‘parent’ most of us would have chosen for ourselves if we had any control over the situation. Symbolically, Phil Spector and the aesthetic he created and disseminated is closer to reality.
Spector’s early and most enduring pop music had its genesis in the cultural permutation of the 1950s-1960s that saw young people drowning in sock hops and soda fountains while simultaneously being threatened with nuclear war for the first time. The good ol’ days of 1950s hyper-oppression of Women and Black and Brown communities were finally beginning to slowly dissolve and a quasi-existential mood usually reserved for classical arrangements and free jazz began to materialize in popular music. Lyrics became a little more reflective than say, Elvis’s “Hound Dog” or Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop.”
The first inkling of this at Spector’s creative direction was in 1958. The bleak and haunting “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” performed by The Teddy Bears and inspired by words on Spector’s suicide-victim father’s tombstone, spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. “Why can’t he see / How blind can he be / Why can’t he see that he was meant for me?” lead singer Annette Kleinbard desperately wails before inexplicably reassuring the listener, again and again, that “to know” her would-be suitor “is to love him.” She seems to latently suggest that he doesn’t necessarily give off a positive first impression. Perhaps he’s that kind of guy “you need to get to know;” the type who’s probably “really sweet when we’re alone,” right?
The outsider theme came up again a few years later with The Crystals’ “He’s a Rebel”. Written by Gene Pitney and reimagined, recorded and produced by Spector, the song fittingly reached No. 1 in the middle of the Phallic Flexing Event that was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
“When he holds my hand, I’m so proud
‘Cause he’s not just one of the crowd
My baby’s always the one to try the things they’ve never done
And just because of that they say
He’s a rebel and he’ll never ever be any good”
Since the Byronic hero made its appearance in the cultural milieu of the early 1800s, we’ve had a mélange of interpretations of the brooding male figure who may or may not have the following character traits: arrogance, past trauma, nihilism, disrespect for authority, emotional moodiness, dark humor, self-destructive impulses, mysteriousness, and on and on. The taboo of loving who we aren’t supposed to love can be a powerful and attractive notion for those of us predisposed to basking in the warmth and smoking shotgun fury of adrenaline and dopamine. Spector sank his teeth right in. And as life imitates art, stories of his maniacal studio tendencies, like chasing artists around at gunpoint, began creeping to the surface, unsurprisingly adding more allure to the genius behind the mixing board.
Just how far are we to take “he doesn’t do what everybody else does”? What happens when the well-meaning person equates the rebel epithet and anthem to “she drank too much last night and slapped me” or “he has a little bit of a heroin problem but he goes to work every day?”
I’m aware the lyrical interpretations here may seem a bit of a stretch to the cynical and insensitive, but context changes when you consider them alongside Spector’s more overt, latter-day sins like the savagely ominous and totally unironic arrangement of Goffin-King’s, “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” or the Leonard Cohen-Phil Spector collaboration, “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On.” “Approach her you ape with your tail on / Once you have her, she’ll always be there,” Cohen sings.
What you must understand though, is that what Phil Spector managed to pull off was utterly brilliant and demented: perpetuated by his own troubled mind, he orchestrated a foreboding, high-stakes concept of desire that perpetuated impossible-to-achieve archetypes of masculinity and femininity, underpinned by demeaning, dime store definitions of what it means to love. And this riff was instantly learned and performed by Boomer teenagers everywhere who were reeling in the unbounded emotions of youth. Then they became adults.
I grew up with what I call hard-Boomer working class parents. We ate meat and potato TV dinners. Dad frequently came home drunk and started fights or fell asleep, it was a coin toss. I was placed in front of the television to watch Leave it to Beaver and Donna Reed. Mom dissociated from all emotions. Horror stories of helicopter air assault outfits in Khe Sanh were brought up frequently. I got away at 22 when I moved to LA.
Spector was on trial for the murder of Lana Clarkson at the time. I’d lived many important moments in my life along to his music. I knew so deeply the joy espoused in “Then He Kissed Me” and the real life, scintillating push and pull of “(The Best Part Of) Breakin’ Up.” Regularly on rotation at home and in popular films, Spector’s songs weren’t just background noise, they were words to live by.
But I never had a face to the name until one day on television, I witnessed the persona that was Phil Spector. The blue tinted sunglasses. The massive Afro wig. Thronged by his lawyers on one side and his new wife, Rachelle Short, who didn’t look much older than me, on the other. I was instantly intrigued and instantly infatuated. I wished I was Rachelle Short. Equipped with tits and brains in equal measure, I would be the best wife ever to the aging, eccentric music producer. He could tell me stories about the 1960s that I was so sad to miss because I wasn’t born yet and I would be the first woman to really understand his cultural references and above all, mediate his neurosis. To pledge my allegiance to this cause, I attended a few days of his murder trial proceedings, making sure to sit on his side of the courtroom.
I tried in vain to make eye contact a few times but Spector had the shakes so badly, he didn’t really even seem all there. The defense was presenting their case that Clarkson was fragile and suicidal in the days leading up to her encounter with Spector. Despite Phil running outside and telling his driver, “I think I just shot her,” the defense claimed that Clarkson found one of Spector’s guns and committed suicide in his remote Alhambra castle that sits atop the highest hill around for miles.
“She’s got blood on her hands, gunshot residue on her hands, an intra-oral wound. Ninety-nine percent, it’s suicide,” forensic pathologist, Vincent DiMaio testified.
I remember, at the time, thinking that the defense’s case could have actually been the reality of how that night’s events progressed. Not because I thought it was the truth. Not because I didn’t want my object of idolatry to die in prison without his precious wig. I wasn’t conning myself. But because both narratives of what might have occurred on that night were relatable to me. The Reason Why came from the same place, and I knew it well. It was either, “I need this chaos in my life” or “I need this chaos in my life, but I am so exhausted, I’m ending it all right now.”
A few hours after his death settled in, I turned on Back to Mono. I spent days listening to the old hits. I woah-ho’d through a land of onlys, nevers, always, come on baby’s and I get down on my knees for you’s. I felt glad this pest from the past was gone.
“This is a symbolic death,” I told a friend.
“It’s liberating! Our 1960s idols are dying out! It’s our time now!”
I wish I could say elation was the only emotion I felt when I found out Phil Spector died, but it is untrue. I felt a pang of deep regret that I’d never written him the fan letter I’d always daydreamed of. What can I say? He kissed me in a way that I’d always been kissed before.
Gabriel Hart lives in California’s High Desert. He is the author of Virgins In Reverse/The Intrusion and A Return To Spring. His debut poetry collection Unsongs Vol. 1 (Close To the Bone) is out this April. He’s a monthly columnist for Lit Reactor and EconoClash Review. His punk rock Wall of Sound group Jail Weddings released their latest album Wilted Eden in 2019 but these days he wonders if music even exists anymore.
Stephanie Tisza is a multimedia artist and writer who lives in Joshua Tree, CA. Her work has appeared in VICE, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Dallas VideoFest, and many other museums and microcinemas around the planet. In 2015 she began her ongoing social practice performance, FORCED TO PLAY, in which she sells her ideas to Fortune 500 companies in exchange for capital. The performance will end when her student loan debt is paid in full.