Wall of Crazy
Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen’s incredible album, released 35 years ago, is a time capsule of American pop music
Orchestrating this cacophony was Spector, standing behind his console, screaming, ordering people to do exactly as he said. Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, who were brought in to sing background vocals on a song called “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On,” weren’t spared. Listening to his playback, Spector played the music so loud that he caused the speakers to explode at some point and had to relocate the entire session to another studio. He was perpetually drunk and never unarmed; others in the studio, including Spector’s bodyguards, were similarly liberal about mixing drugs and weaponry. “With Phil,” Cohen recalled years later, “especially in the state that he found himself, which was post-Wagnerian, I would say Hitlerian, the atmosphere was one of guns, I mean that’s really what was going on, was guns. The music was subsidiary, an enterprise, you know people were armed to the teeth, all his friends, his bodyguards, and everybody was drunk, or intoxicated on other items. … I remember the violin player in the song ‘Fingerprints,’ Phil didn’t like the way he was playing, walked out into the studio, and pulled a gun on the guy. Now this was, he was a country boy, and he knew a lot about guns. He just put his fiddle in his case and walked out.”
But Spector’s eccentricity in the studio wasn’t the real problem; each day, accompanied by his goons, he would take the master tapes to his car and whisk them away to his house. He had done the same thing with Let It Be. He would mix the album as he saw fit and present it to Cohen as a fait accompli. It was not an arrangement any artist would gladly accept, especially when there were signs suggesting that somewhere amidst the fog of booze and bullets, Spector had lost track of any vision he might have had for the album. “I’ll tell you something, Larry,” he wrote in a note he scribbled on the master tapes to his long-time engineer, Larry Levine, “we’ve done worse with better, and better with worse!”
When the album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, was finally released, in November of 1977, most critics and nearly all of Cohen’s fans saw it as a farce. Here, they argued, was Cohen’s delicate poetry drowned by sound, his voice barely audible on some of the tracks given Spector’s cacophony. The critics were right, but for all the wrong reasons. Musically, the album is a marvel, the kind of rare work that manages both to entertain and to provide a clever disquisition on its own genre.
Take the album’s best-known track, “Memories”: It’s a grand doo-wop anthem, and it ends with a snippet from The Shields’ 1958 hit “You Cheated, You Lied,” which it closely resembles. Hearing the newer song melt into the older one delivers a brutal jolt of emotion. Here is doo-wop, two decades later, its promises all soured. It is sung now not by the sweet-voiced youths that Spector was so good at finding and cultivating (and sometimes destroying) but by a raspy-sounding middle-aged man. The Shields’ song conveyed the genteel sadness of broken-hearted teenagers who grieved for an affair gone bad but who sensed, however unconsciously, that they had their entire lives ahead of them to fall in love all over again. Working with more or less the same tune, Cohen sounded desperate as he sang about walking up to the tallest and the blondest girl and asking to see her naked body. He cast himself as the same doo-wop crooner, 20 years older, realizing that heartbreak wasn’t a sweet and passing sorrow but a permanent state of being, now seeking not romance but meaningless sex. The melody is louder and more frayed, almost hysterical.
The real problem with Death of a Ladies’ Man was not the weird marriage of musical styles but its spiritual message. Spector hadn’t just made Cohen sound different; he made him sound crass. Cohen himself admitted as much: Playing “Memories” a few years later in Tel Aviv, he introduced the song with an apology. “Unfortunately,” he said, “for my last song, I must offend your deepest sensibilities with an entirely irrelevant and vulgar ditty that I wrote some time ago with another Jew in Hollywood, where there are many. This is a song in which I have placed my most irrelevant and banal adolescent recollections. I humbly ask you for your indulgence, as I look back to the red acne of my adolescence, to the unmanageable desire of my early teens, to that time when every woman shone like the eternal light above the altar place and I myself was always on my knees before some altar, unimaginably more quiescent, potent, powerful, and relevant than anything I could ever command.”
In all of his other explorations of the flesh in song—and it’s hard to think of a contemporary artist who wrote about copulation more frequently or more eloquently than Cohen—the singer realized that the body is only worthy of art’s attentions if it exists in search of a soul. It’s a duality Cohen captured best, perhaps, in his most famous song: “And remember when I moved in you,” he stated, “The holy dove was moving too/ And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.” But Spector forced Cohen to abandon the spirit and record instead an album thick with profanities in which the singer’s main yearning is not to be saved but to get laid.
For that reason alone, the album deserves our ire. But it also deserves our respect: 35 years after its release, Death of a Ladies’ Man remains one of the most audacious attempts to look at that sobering mixture of longing and regret that makes up so much of life, not bitterly (as Lou Reed, for example, had done in several of his albums) or nostalgically (like too many aging rockers to count) but candidly and, sometimes, humorously. To achieve that, you needed a Cohen and a Spector, a Yin and a Yang, the one translating his darkness into precious and overwhelming pop symphonies and the other expressing his essential faith in mankind in spare verses and with a grim guitar. The album, then, offers its listeners a strange existential litmus test of sorts: Whether you look upward to heaven or down at your crotch says everything about how you choose to approach adulthood. The clash is not only artistic; it is theological. And it makes for an album that is frequently terrible, deeply relevant, and not for one moment boring.
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