Phil Spector is a killer and a sleaze, but he is also a tragedy. When he was ten years old, his father parked the family car and connected a hose to the exhaust pipe. Later, his mother chased him around the kitchen, brandishing a knife and shouting, "Your father killed himself because you were a bad child." He was small and asthmatic, bullied in school.
And, at 20, he had his first #1 hit: "To Know Him Is To Love Him," a title borrowed from the epitaph on his father's grave.
The hits kept on coming; as a writer and producer, he was magic, both with black groups (The Ronettes, Crystals, Ben E. King and more) and white (The Righteous Brothers).
In 1967, he released his masterpiece, River Deep Mountain High. Tina Turner sang her guts out, but everyone on that massive production was simply company for Spector. This was his Wagnerian opera, this was the "wall of sound" as it had never been heard before. Artistically, it's thrilling. Commercially, it flopped. And after that, Spector was troubled, haunted and dangerous.
The creator who was obsessed with making "little symphonies for the kids" now turned his attention to situations he could control. He allegedly locked his wife, Ronnie Spector, in a closet to teach her a lesson. Another time, he had a gold coffin constructed with a glass top and threatened her: "If you leave me, I'll kill you and put you on display." He put a gun to Leonard Cohen's head and said, "I love you, Leonard" -- to which Cohen responded, "I hope you do, Phil." Add a mountain of cocaine and increasing isolation, and ruin was just a matter of time and place.
There are many morals to the Phil Spector story, but I prefer to turn away from this sad tale to what may well have been Spector's greatest triumph.
I mean: A Christmas Gift for You, the best holiday album ever made.
And that's not just my view. Read through the reviews, check the books and rock bards. Everyone says the same thing: the.... best...holiday... record... ever... made.
Here's the proof. Ignore Letterman's blather. Crank the volume:
Is that not unbelievable? A French horn. A monster string section. Bells. A sax player descending from heaven. And in the center, Darlene Love -- Aretha before there was Aretha, testifying, begging, urgent as a holiday prayer. "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" -- is that not one of the greatest expressions of the holiday spirit you have ever heard?
And it came from the messianic dreams of a twisted Jewish kid from the Bronx.
I'm not going to argue this. I'm just going to present as much of the album as I can find on YouTube. Listen and learn:
My bet: Get this CD. Hang mistletoe. The best holiday party you ever gave will follow....
BONUS: How durable is Phil Spector's genius? Here's Bruce Springsteen doing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Watch Max Weinberg's mad drumming. And in the corner --- hey, that's Willie Nile.
Follow Jesse Kornbluth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HeadButler