Rock & Roll Rabbit Hole

Today is January 8th, the birthdate of Elvis Presley, David Bowie and Soupy Sales. And there’s a huge, full moon over the Catskills, peeking in and out of a curtain of slate-blue clouds. These factors suggest auspiciousness, so I’m using that notion to compel me to return and add an entry to this blog, which I promised myself I’d keep alive when I revived it a few months back.

I’ve hardly been idle. Even without factoring in the Yuletide chaos, which is pretty intense in my home, I’ve been busy with my Rock Paper Photo gig. In addition to writing essays for them on Coldplay, R.E.M., the fantastic documentary The Other F Word, Ryan Adams, Ray CharlesTrent Reznor and The Black Keys, I wrote about 42 mini-essays about various Rolling Stone magazine covers dating from the inception of the magazine (1967) up to the ’80s. Rock Paper Photo has partnered with RS to market high-end reproductions of certain covers, which will also include a quality print of the cover shot signed by the photographer. They needed text to describe each shot, so I went down many rabbit holes, researching rockers and movie stars of the last forty-something years. I did a fair amount of time traveling, which, in a nutshell, is a rich, if occasionally bittersweet experience. I am only two years older than Rolling Stone, and I cannot recall a time I was not aware of it, so the photos and the old copies of the magazine – I have all issues on CD-ROM – brought back lots of memories.

I learned a lot, too. Like: Guess who sold the most records in the 80s. Madonna? No. Michael Jackson? Negative. PHIL COLLINS. And: Guess who’s the most paranoid, misogynistic, hateful, obnoxious movie star? EDDIE MURPHY. (That’s right, the current Disney star, whose managers/publicists, apparently, are dark geniuses.) And guess who came across as the most fascinating character, the one who could eloquently and authoritatively speak on songwriting, production, the impact of pop music on the culture, and the fame game? CONVICTED MURDERER PHIL SPECTOR.

The 1969 Phil Spector piece, like all early RS interviews, is comprehensive, detailed and luxuriously looooong. It is a treasure. I am a music nut and I’ve read literally hundreds – maybe thousands – of interviews with Music People and come across nothing  like it. You can read an excerpt HERE, but it’s only a fraction of the conversation between RS editor Jann Wenner – still a kid himself, just beginning to rise – and Spector, who speaks from a kind of exile.

In the early ’60s, Spector had been a kind of king – and kingmaker – but by ’69, as the Woodstock Generation marshalled itself on the borders of the culture, the oddball Spector had fallen from favor. Defying predictions, he would have an impressive second act in the ’70s, salvaging/producing the Beatles’ Let It Be, and producing masterworks by George Harrison (All Things Must Pass) and John Lennon (Imagine) before spiraling ever quicker downward into serious mental illness – and, ultimately, murder – in the ensuing decades.

It’s confounding, infuriating and tragic that, throughout all of this, Spector was both physically and emotionally abusive to his wife, the icon Ronnie Spector. He actively sought to hold her back from success – indeed, any kind of happiness – throughout their nightmare of a marriage, from 1968 to 1974. Even after their divorce, he hounded her.

As often happens when I read about artists who are geniuses in tbeir work but disasters in their lives, I find myself alternately fascinated and repulsed by yet another rock and roll fuck-up.

It helps to know that Ronnie kicked his ass in court; she and the Ronettes finally got $3 million from him decades after he screwed them over. Also, despite the powerful Spector successfully lobbying against her induction for years, she finally got into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.  A lot of this is detailed in her show Beyond The Beehive, which I saw a couple years back. In it, she sings her hits in a remarkably preserved voice (she still smokes… a lot), then sits down between songs, puts on granny glasses, and reads from her book Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts and Madness, which details her compelling story. Meanwhile, her ex-husband isn’t eligible for parole until he’s 88 years old.

And with that, I must away. I leave behind a trail of rabbit holes, via the links above, for you to venture into at your leisure. See you when you get back.

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