By Jayanti, Vikram
Newsweek , Vol. 161, No. 11
Byline: Vikram Jayanti
Phil Spector's Last Stand
It's a story as old as justice. The crazy man crying out, "It's not fair!"--his calls falling deaf ears.
Now it's Phil Spector's story too, about to be twice-told anew, once in his last-chance appeal being considered by a federal court and again by David Mamet in a new film to air later this month. Both argue that whatever happened to cause the bloody and gaudy 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson--at Spector's home, a gun owned by the legendary music producer discharged in her mouth--Spector should not have been convicted. Innocence is not the question. The right to a fair trial is.
It's a story I also have told. A month before the start of his first trial--which ended in a hung jury--I started making a documentary film with Spector, as complicated and self-destructive a man as you can imagine. He'd been a celebrity for almost 50 years, since writing and performing his first No. 1 hit song "To Know Him Is To Love Him" at 18 years old and going on to develop his hallmark Wall of Sound. As a producer, he had dominated the '60s charts, later producing Let It Be (the final Beatles album), George Harrison's and John Lennon's first solo albums, and the most successful Ramones record. In all that time, he never let a filmmaker near him--until the eve of his first trial. The result was my feature-length documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which intercut no-holds-barred conversations between Spector and me in his castle with the trial footage from the courtroom.
There were many surprises along the way, the first being that Spector's castle, where Clarkson died, was in blue-collar Alhambra on the outskirts of L.A. and not in Beverly Hills or Malibu. As Spector told me, when he decided to leave his Beverly Hills mansion, he wanted to live in a castle. His real-estate agent found two for sale and the one in Alhambra, atop the town's only hill, took his fancy.
But if Alhambra was a surprise, the possibility that he'd finally shot and killed somebody was most definitely not. After all, the world had been hearing stories about his gunplay and mean temper for more than 30 years. He'd even been reported to have taken a shot just past John Lennon's head after they'd made the Rock & Roll album together, to encourage Lennon to hand over the acetate master recordings. He's said to have pulled a gun on the Ramones, and on Leonard Cohen--who became even more of a hero to me when he told my journalist friend Chris Goodwin that he'd responded by saying something along the lines of, "Oh, Phil, you've been pulling guns on everyone your whole life and you've never shot anyone yet and you're not going to shoot me either, so just put it down." And Spector was so taken aback that he did.
Ringo Starr had been Spector's neighbor, separated by a fence and a small road in Beverly Hills. A couple of years ago we got to talking. "The problem with being a fookin' gun nut is that sooner or later somebody gets shot," Ringo said to me. "But you can't take away his music." Spector had given his generation its soundtrack.
And that's the paradox of Phil Spector. Yes, he was the musical revolutionary who transformed rock and roll into art, invented the very idea of the modern record producer. On the other hand, he was notorious as the monster who kept his wife, Ronnie Spector, locked up in their home, cheated his artists out of their royalties, threatened countless people with his countless guns, and lived as a paranoid recluse surrounded by bodyguards.
And then a former starlet, washed up at 40, died in his lobby from a gunshot fired deep inside her mouth. A perfect climactic chapter for Hollywood Babylon, a scene scripted for a tiny wig-wearing nutter in five-inch Cuban heels.
There are two versions of Lana Clarkson, too, equally conflicting. One was the Amazonian blonde bombshell, over six feet tall and admired in B-movie cult circles for her starring role in Roger Corman's 1985 Barbarian Queen--a gorgeous, effervescent party girl, equally talented as an actress and as a comedienne, like her heroine and inspiration Marilyn Monroe. …