An Apology to Phil Spector, of Sorts
by Darryl Benjamin
I recently purchased Phil Spector’s Back to Mono and was astounded to see how many songs he brought into the world. Each of the songs I was familiar with had had a similar impact on me. Songs like “Black Pearl” by Sonny Charles and The Checkmates that I hadn’t heard for decades and perennial favorites like “Unchained Melody” demonstrate Spector’s ability to reach into my heart and stir the frothier emotions of youth: longing, sadness, and unbridled passion.
Listening to The Ronettes (“Be My Baby” is one of my favorites) and The Crystals (“Then He Kissed Me”) I felt transformed to the teenager I was with all the angst and lathered emotions that colored my world.
How is it he managed to paint such rich emotional colors? I am convinced it had to do with his Wall of Sound. Spector’s patent “Wall of Sound” technique was multi-layered, using a number of musicians to perform the same parts together – like a half-a-dozen drummers playing the same beats – adding unmatched depth and resonance.
Rather than a single, reedy voice cutting its way into night, offering whatever light it can, Spector was able to eradicate the darkness by sheer force. Overwhelming instrumentation descends like a curtain of warmth and shimmering light. His productions are orchestral, theatrical and irresistible.
Listening to Audio Books
Listening to Phil Spector’s musicians and listening to audio books are very different things. But I wonder: what makes listening impactful?
In order for an audio book to be impactful and memorable, in order for me to soak in the information fully and make it irrevocably and forever mine, I must hear it more than once.
Recently I listened to an audio lecture on “Effective Communication.” Of the 24 lectures, I replayed the denser ones up to five times before I was tired of listening to it, a sure signal it was mine. Same with Stephen King’s novel Under the Dome. I was amazed at the complexity of the characters. No matter how King is poo-poo’d by “serious” literary writers, his psychological understanding of people is profound. As soon as I had completed his thousand-plus page audio book, I immediately returned to the beginning and listened again. I was able to pick up things that I missed first time around. I was too busy reacting to the information, to the horrible situation and the horrible people that stirred the action. The second time I listened I was more dispassionate. I picked up valuable, non-emotional plot developments and enjoyed King’s playfulness on a totally different level.
Spector vs. Audio Books
With Phil Spector’s songs, you don’t need to listen twice to get the impact. His music announces itself and then delivers deliberate, clean, vibrant harmonies and hip-shaking rhythms first time around.
Too bad he turned out to be a whacko. He shot a woman in the face and is now languishing in prison. Although I’ve repeatedly said “keep the artist and the art separate,” I have a hard time reconciling his imprisonment with the beauty and power of his work.
I agree he deserves to be in jail, but feel we — the masses, the audience, the target market — must bear some responsibility. Why do we let our geniuses and groundbreakers run away with the spoon as they jump over the moon? He repeatedly threatened women at gunpoint when they wished to leave his home. He threatened Leonard Cohen with a crossbow when he wanted to leave. How could we have thought this would end well? Are we stupid? Michael Jackson’s and Elvis’s pill addiction? Janis Joplin’s drinking? Countless others?
Geniuses and Groundbreakers operate in their own universe. We admire, respect, and maybe even fear them. We let them have their own space. Should we? Do we have a responsibility to protect them from themselves? With money comes power and a laissez-faire attitude toward “interfering” with their genius – who are we to inhibit such orbital talents? Maybe we need to supply the mantle of the Voice of Rationality that they lose along the way. Maybe we bear an implicit blame for their early deaths and incarcerations.
Listen to Phil Spector’s legacy. Even if you weren’t there first time around to hear it fresh and new, chances are it still bowls you over. Sorry we failed you, Phil.