Phil Spector has died, at the age of 81, on Jan. 16, apparently of causes connected to COVID-19. He is, or was the immensely gifted music producer who also had a violently unstable personality - jealous, paranoid and ultimately murderous. He spent his last years in prison, after being convicted of the 2003 gun killing of a young actor, Lana Clarkson.
I love the music he became known for as a producer, the so-called "Wall of Sound" that shot groups like the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Righteous Brothers and others to the top of American and international charts.
The Wall of Sound. It's big. I mean, it's big. Really. Fucking. Big.
I don't know what made him want to stuff half a symphonic orchestra into one or two tiny recording rooms, but it worked. When you listen to the songs he produced, you feel as if they're the most important musical messages in the world, at least for the few intense minutes you're listening to them.
If I had to say what went into that intensity, (and I've been sitting here all day, trying to figure out what it is for me, and how to describe it), I'd put it down to two words: mountains and echoes.
There's an import in echoes and a magnificence to mountains. Those two things are intertwined; sounds shifting in the vast air above and below cliffs and peaks. We're overpowered with their magnitude.
There's a difference between the Spector songs sung by female groups and those sung by, say, the Righteous Brothers, purely because of the lightness of the women's voices versus the depth of male voices, and arguably because Spector made production choices based on gender. But each song, no matter who sings them, partakes in some way of the enormity of that wall, of mountains and echoes. (Perhaps this is too on the nose when it comes to "River Deep, Mountain High", which he produced for Tina Turner without her own abusive husband in the mix. I don't know.)
Songs sung by the Crystals or the Ronettes have a breathless feel, a forward rush that's impossible to ignore. The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron" and the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" can make me dance as if St. Vitus himself were the D.J. The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling", can make my throat swell with tears and fill my heart with counterintuitive joy, no matter how many times I hear it.
But Spector himself ... augh.
I loathe the violence he perpetrated on women, not just the murder of Ms Clarkson but the equally infamous and horrendous emotional and physical abuse* he visited on his second wife, Veronica "Ronnie" Bennett Spector, the lead singer of the Ronettes. From what I can discern from news articles about her or from interviews with her. it seems that he blighted her life almost to the point of permanent damage. I have little doubt that other women he focused on "romantically", like his first wife, were damaged in the same way. And ultimately, he took the life of Ms Clarkson.
How to balance the pop genius with the monster? What I've settled on is this.
Unlike Wagner, who was never punished for being a garbage human being (albeit not a murderous one), Spector died in prison. While that's a slim hook upon which to hang my decision to praise his music, it's true. He died in prison.**
Here are three pieces of his work that epitomize what he did best, although I urge you to listen to "River Deep, Mountain High" and read the poster's comments.