He’s a Rebel: Phil Spector, Rock & Roll’s Legendary Producer. By Mark Ribowsky. Da Capo. $18.
The timing of this update-and-rerelease of Mark Ribowsky’s 1989 biography of famed music producer Phil Spector is so cynical that Spector himself would probably approve: the book is out the month before Spector is going to trial on murder charges that may send him to prison for the rest of his exceedingly troubled life.
“Rebel” doesn’t seem quite a strong enough word for Spector, whose strange and reclusive life has been marked by sporadic outbursts of violence that would likely have removed him from polite society decades ago if he did not happen to have a fabulous ear for music and some astonishingly creative ideas on how to present it. Spector is the man who created the “girl group.” He produced the Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, the Righteous Brothers and other chart-topping singers. He invented a new recording style for such hits as “Be My Baby” and “To Know Him Is to Love Him.”
But knowing Spector – as a reader will after these 454 pages – is scarcely to love him. Now 65 years old, Spector may be brought down by something that happened when he was 61: the killing of waitress and former actress Lana Clarkson. Spector originally told police that her death at his home was an accident, but he behaved oddly, refusing to take his hands out of his pockets and exchanging words with the investigators. One of them shocked him with a stun gun – blackening both his eyes and breaking his nose.
Did he have it coming? Freelance journalist Ribowsky’s detailing of Spector’s life makes the events of 2003 seem, if not exactly expected, not exactly surprising either. Spector had a habit of terrifying people he worked and lived with – musicians, friends, family – through strange behavior that often involved firearms (he once held the Ramones at gunpoint). He regularly found ways to punish people whom he considered insufficiently loyal (Darlene Love and Sonny Bono, among others). At one time “the butt of the straight world’s derision,” Spector consistently proved his musical and production abilities to a skeptical industry, being dubbed “the bona-fide Genius of Teen” by Tom Wolfe.
Ribowsky’s biography travels the standard route of celebrity bios, digging up some information on Spector’s roots, throwing in some pseudo-psychological speculation on the ways in which family events may have affected his personality, and then focusing primarily on the celebrities with whom Spector interacted. Actually, this is a name-dropping book in which names deserve to be dropped, since Spector was involved with so many top rock artists at one time or another. Then, in five chapters newly added for this reissue, Ribowsky considers what happened in 2003, starting by noting that by the 1990s, Spector’s “legend…was complete. The Phil Spector model of dark, demented, isolated, creepy-cool had crusted into a virtual background soundtrack for a legion of artistes, auteurs, authors, and music industry social climbers.” Spector himself seems to have degenerated into self-parody, or maybe just moved farther in a direction he was already going – “creepy” barely begins to describe some of the behavior Ribowsky discusses. Whatever happens to Spector in the legal system, it seems that his own system of cushioning weird behavior with musical success failed him some time ago. It’s been said often (indeed, too often) that the line between genius and madness is very thin. If Spector was, in his field, a genius – and Ribowsky considers him one – then he crossed and re-crossed that line many times. Maybe one time too many.