Wall of Crazy
Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen’s incredible album, released 35 years ago, is a time capsule of American pop music
This month marks the 35th anniversary of the most famous album you’ve probably never heard. Its creators, Leonard Cohen and Phil Spector, couldn’t have been more poorly matched: one, the audacious composer of teenage pop symphonies who had by most accounts gone entirely crazy, the other the singer of small and sad songs accompanied by grim guitars. What they created, after many nights of writing in Spector’s Los Angeles mansion and many days of recording in a studio dense with musicians, guns, and backup singers like Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, was grotesque but also supremely interesting. All there is to know about the history of American pop music, about the place of Jews in American culture, about Cohen, about Spector, is there in Death of a Ladies’ Man. And it all boils down to one moment: One night, at around 4 in the morning, as another recording session cascaded to an end, Spector stumbled out of his booth and into the studio. In one hand, he held a .45 revolver; in the other, a half-empty bottle of Manischewitz sweet kosher wine. He put his arm around Cohen’s shoulder and shoved the revolver into the singer’s neck. “Leonard,” he said, “I love you.” Not missing a beat, Cohen replied, “I hope you do, Phil.” The rest is commentary.
I: He’s a Rebel
The impact of the 1974 crash was so strong that years later Phil Spector was still picking out shards of glass from his face. Nearly 700 stitches were required to patch him back together—300 to his face and 400 to the back of his head. The first responders to arrive on the scene of the accident, on Melrose Avenue, took a look at Spector’s totaled Rolls Royce, and then at his small body, which had flown out of the car’s window and lay in a bloody knot a few feet away. They assumed he was dead; it took a careful police officer a few seconds to make out a faint heartbeat and rush Spector to a hospital.
The man who emerged, weeks later, wasn’t the same. There were the externalities: His hair having been burnt to a crisp, he comforted himself with a series of wigs that grew more audacious the darker his mood got, from a standard brown mop-top to a mess of golden tresses à la Bo Peep. The deeper wounds, however, needed more radical balms: Spector’s love of guns grew morbid, and his bodyguards, previously nothing more than a fashion statement, now swarmed around him wherever he went, weapons bulging beneath cheap jackets.
Spector’s morbidity couldn’t have come at a worse moment for a man who in the spring of 1974, just before his accident, was busy being reborn. Having initially set off to train as a court reporter, Spector became a musician instead, had a No. 1 hit with “To Know Him Is To Love Him”—the song’s title was taken from his own father’s tombstone—and then quit his band and became a music producer. Between 1961 and 1965, he put out more chart toppers than anyone else—“He’s a Rebel,” “Be My Baby,” “Walking in the Rain,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” “Unchained Melody”—and elevated pop into an art form worthy of the most serious consideration. Then, with much of American popular music hemmed in by his famous Wall of Sound, he disappeared into a reclusive life with his new wife. When he appeared in public, it was often to take on a host of strange film and television cameos, including playing a drug dealer in Easy Rider and himself on I Dream of Jeannie. Whatever friends he had left heard him speak incessantly about the music business being unsalvageable, a depressing racket, a bad marriage between untalented hacks and their stupid and doting audiences. There was no one out there he wanted to work with, he said, no one big enough or good enough.
Except, maybe, for the Beatles. When the Fab Four, on the cusp of collapse as a band, wanted to turn a few forgotten sessions into one last studio album, they invited Spector to take a stab. The tapes he received were in keeping with the band’s original idea of an intimate, stripped-down recording with many live takes. One of the songs, for example, was a pretty piano ballad called “The Long and Winding Road,” which Spector thought was much too spare. To McCartney’s plaintive voice he added 18 violins, four violas, four cellos, three trumpets, three trombones, two guitars, and a choir of 14 women. McCartney cared deeply for the song and told an interviewer he had written it instead of having to go see a shrink; Spector’s version robbed it of all of its intimacy, turning it from a small and personal tune to a symphony of existential pain. Nine days after hearing Spector’s mix, McCartney, enraged, announced that the Beatles were no more.
Spector didn’t particularly care. His Let It Be became a major hit and, released as a film, won an Academy Award. He produced George Harrison’s masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, oversaw the momentous charity concert for Bangladesh and gave John Lennon some of the best recordings of his solo career. He was still erratic and was popping pills at an alarming rate, but he had regained his appetite for production, teaming up to create a new label in partnership with Warner Bros. and looking out for new artists. And then came the car crash.
Recovering slowly, Spector took a few more turns at the console, producing singles for Cher and a beautiful album for Dion, but as the 1970s drew to a close he seemed, personally and professionally, beyond redemption. The man who had once known better than most what the public wanted had fallen out of tune with America. The music that played in Phil Spector’s head was not written by the Ronettes or the Crystals or even the Beatles; it was written by history. The son of a failed father who had killed himself when Spector was 9, a scrawny and small Jew from the Bronx transplanted to California where the weather and the people made him sick, Spector needed all that heavy instrumentation to hide the thudding beats of anxiety. America concurred: Experiencing an economic boom and a cold war simultaneously, it needed a soundtrack that masked all its insecurities and violence and rifts with sweet ooh-las and da-doo-ron-rons.
America, then, sounded very much like Phil Spector, until it didn’t, until war and social tensions broke loose and psychedelics changed everything and big money changed everything again. In the new America, nobody cared very much for the Wall of Sound, or for its psychic engineer.
The D-student translator behind the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature