03/20/2007 12:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Meet Phil Spector

The latest celebrity trial is about to begin. The media machine is idling in the parking lot waiting for the opening gun. The Phil Spector trial will provide everything the press wants these days, everything it's ever wanted - sex, squalor, glamor, violence, and a chance to use Grand Guignol journalism to distract the public from ongoing problems of war, corruption, and maldistribution of wealth.

So why am I writing about it? Because you may not know Phil Spector's real identity. The jury will decide if he's guilty or innocent, and if he murdered someone he should pay for it. I don't know about that either way.

What I do know is that Spector's a brilliantly talented man who changed the face of pop music for a time. If not for his troubled soul, he might have changed it forever. That man, the man who once had a unique and compelling vision, is not the man the world is about to see.

I've never met him, but the stories are legendary in music circles: Terrorizing John Lennon and the Ramones with guns. Making Ronnie Spector a star, then a spousal prisoner. The rages. The Howard Hughes-like phobia about meeting strangers. You'll be hearing all these stories in the next few weeks.

Here's what you may not hear: As a teenager in the fifties, Phil rustled up enough money to take a song he'd written and record it with two friends. You can hear his guitar playing and nasal voice in the harmonies he arranged himself, for a song called "To Know Him Is To Love Him." In what might have been a portent of things to come, the title was inspired by the inscription on a tombstone: "To know her was to love her."

On its surface, the song was just another piece of teen fluff from that shallow musical period. But Spector's musicial brilliance didn't always show itself on the surface. The song plays with - but avoids - the standard I-IV-V progressions of its time, even modulating into a different key for the bridge.

The simple melody and simpler lyrics evoke the tenderness they're meant to evoke. They work. Listen to Emmylou Harris' exquisite cover, recorded with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt - and featuring a beautiful Hawaiian guitar solo by Ry Cooder - and you'll see what I mean.

But Spector had more energy than his work with his teen group, the Teddy Bears, could channel. He soon moved from Los Angeles to New York, contributing to the songwriting on Ben E. King's "Spanish Harlem" and playing guitar for the Drifters' "On Broadway." Soon he produced a hit worthy of his adrenalized metabolism: Curtis Lee's "Pretty Little Angel Eyes."

For his next trick, Phil Spector became Phil Spector. With impresario Lester Sill he form Philles Records and signed the Crystals. Their second single, "Uptown," introduced the world to the Wall of Sound. The song is a politically conscious love song, a ghetto woman's lament for the indignities her man has to endure in the downtown working world. It introduced a radical idea into pop culture - the notion that a black person might actually prefer to be his or her own community, even an impoverished one, than be a cipher in a wealthy white world.

But the real revolution was in the sound - or as the record men of the day used to say, "in the grooves." The aural texture is lush and orchestral (the records are "little symphonies for the kids," Spector famously said). A hyperkinetic mix of multiple pianos and guitars nearly clashes with a riot of castanets and maracas, and the song ping-pongs between melodramatic minor key verses ("downtown he's just one of a million guys") and jubilant major key choruses ("but when he comes uptown to see me in my tenement ...")

Spector's penchant for errors in judgment, and perhaps his dark side, showed up in the next song he cut for the Crystals: "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)" was another dramatic, dark tune. But, while songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King have said it was intended as a protest against spousal violence, instead the record seemed to be endorsing abuse.

Censorship helped kill its chances for success, and it remained suppressed for years (until it was revived during the New York pre-punk years by my old comrades Ruby and the Rednecks. They covered it, along the first song I ever wrote - at age sixteen - on their debut album. Needless to say they had a very different take on "He Hit Me" than Phil did.)

"He's a Rebel" was Spector's next great breakthrough. It's a teenage-outlaw-I'll-be-right-by-his-side classic that spawned an entire genre. Musically its a two-minute tour through several different rhythms and musical styles (like one of those three-minute video histories of Western Civilization or world wars you see sometimes on PBS). Among other things, this record introduced Darlene Love - one of the great unrecognized vocal talents of out time.

Phil Spector was on a roll. With the introduction of Veronica Bennett, later to be known as Ronnie of the Ronettes (and even later as Ronnie Spector), he'd made his other great vocal discovery. Ronnie's voice combined a street kid's archness and brass with a tendency to break at unexpected moments like a teenager's heart.

A clutch of classic singles followed: There was "Be My Baby," of course, but also "Baby, I Love You" and "Walking in the Rain" - with its classic couplet of teenaged longing: "I want him, I need him/and someday I'll meet him." How's that for a Pop Haiku? (Honorable mention goes to their beautiful, if nagging-Jewish-mother entitled "Is This What I Get For Loving You?")

Spector had a way with established artists, too. He captured the Righteous Brothers with one of the greatest records ever made, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'," and nearly caught lightning in a bottle with the extraordinary "River Deep, Mountain High." It was there that Phil's manic side first began to go out of synch with his listeners. That record was just a little too much for the record-buying public, even though most of us aspiring musicians (at least in my crowd) went crazy for it.

I don't know if Phil Spector has mental health problems, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me. Those who are close to someone with psychiatric problems often recall a moment when ebullience or creativity suddently seemed too intense, when a sparkling personality suddenly began to burn a little too brightly. Those moments may even seem wonderful at the time. It's only in retrospect that the friend or loved one looks back and says: That was the sign of what was to come.

As brilliant as it is, "River Deep Mountain High" may have been that sign for Phil Spector.

Had Phil been able to stay in control the Producer might have been the King of Pop. (Call it the "auteur theory" of rock and roll.) Instead, the Artists became Kings and Queens - that is, until the suits took over and sold the Kingdom to pump up this quarter's numbers.

As Phil was tending to follow William Blake's maxim more and more - "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" - music was moving away from production grandeur. Self-contained units led by the Beatles wrote, arranged, played, and often produced their own material. The auteur-producers, of which Spector was king, were on the run.

Like Gloria Swanson did with movies in Sunset Boulevard, Phil stayed big - the music got smaller.

Phil's high point as a symbol for youth culture may have come with his appearance on "The David Susskind Show." Susskind, for those of you who might not remember, was the spiritual godfather for today's self-satisfied neocon pundits. Secure in the belief of his own superiority, he would mock and belittle those who didn't live up to a conception of Enlightened Culture that resembled nothing so much as the image of himself as he wanted to be seen.

Susskind brought Spector, then in his early twenties, on the show to mock him. He read sarcastically from the nonsense lyrics to "Da Doo Ron Ron" as his audience laughed. Spector turned the moment around by explaining that pop music's not about the words, but about the beat. He repeated the words back to Susskind, but drumming on his chair in tempo. Soon the audience was clapping along ... and applauding Spector.

The rest of the story takes the shape of a long slow glide path toward the ground. He produced some John Lennon sessions - including Lennon's best single, "Instant Karma" - but could never get back in the groove, with the sole exception of "Black Pearl" by Checkmates, Ltd.

There were some good tracks on his collaboration with the Ramones, but it never took off. His Leonard Cohen album was poorly received all around (including, apparently, by Cohen). Spector biographers paint a tale of mental illness and drug use that contributed to his decline. Here's what I know: He never made another record like "Be My Baby."

None of this excuses murder. If Spector killed that woman, he's a monster. But if he did, I suspect drugs played a part - as they did for the sensitive and talented musician Jim Gordon. Gordon was the Derek & the Dominoes drummer who also composed and played the piano coda to "Layla," and later murdered his mother in a drug-induced, psychotic rage.

Spector may also be completely innocent. Certainly, other celebrities have been freed after cases that appeared to present more damning evidence than has been presented in this one - although that may be more of an indictment of our criminal justice system than it is an exoneration of Spector.

Guilty or innocent, however, Phil Spector is - or was - a highly gifted man whose impact on music and culture was substantial.

Will that make his trial more important than what's going on in Iraq, or among the poor, or for those with inadequate healthcare? Absolutely not. But before the trivializing coverage begins, and before the klieg lights shine in the face of Phil Spector - that aging face beneath a puffed-out wig - I just thought you might like to know who you're looking at.

He's an considered a curiosity now, an eccentric rich man who may be guilty or innocent of a lurid crime. But once upon a time, man, once long ago ... once he was something special.

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