Casanova Being Punished
The set up; Phil Spector in the early 1960's is invited on a Television show called Open End ostensibly to "discuss the record business."  Instead, Phil is subjected to the host David Susskind's utterly square attempt to demonstrate the banality of rock music by reading aloud the repetitive lyrics of the Spector production 'Fine Fine Boy'.  So how does Phil react to his ungracious and unhip host?  He starts drumming along on the table in time with the reading whilst explaining to the old fart "what you're missing is the beat!"

Before I was even conversant in Phil Spector's music this story was enough to endear him to me forever.  This anecdote as well as many others seemingly wrought direct from inside the mind of Phil Spector can be found in Tom Wolfe's brilliant 'The First Tycoon of Teen' article, which still stands tall as one of the best pieces of music journalism ever to see print.  It documents Phil riding high on his fame while intimating the lurking dark horizon of his mid-60's fall from fame, if not stature, signaled by the flop of his masterpiece; 'River Deep, Mountain High.'

Flash forward 5 or 6 years to Nik Cohn capturing a ghostly, paranoid and broken Citizen Kane image of Spector at the end of the 1960's sequestered in his mansion surrounded by images of himself and his now rapidly receding success (including three copies of Wolfe's Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby bookmarked at the Tycoon article).  Cohn goes on to rival Wolfe in what may be the second finest piece of music writing I've read.  Consider if you will his opening paragraph:

"In Los Angeles I wore a white suit and stayed at the Charteau Marmont high above Sunset Strip.  There was a grand piano and a candelabrum in the lobby and, within and hour of my arrival, persons unknown had sent me a Mexican hooker, name of Angel, who scrubbed my back and cooked me scrambled eggs."

You don't get opening paragraphs like that these days, not in music rags or any other type magazine. I was hooked.  This was the real deal.  Cohn's pithy, hardboiled, dark and exact prose, replete with a sly nod to Wolfe (the white suit bit), was a collision of just about everything I loved in music and writing.  It was writing that equaled the artistry of its subject matter.  

What I'd like to discuss here is one of the works of Spector in decline.  And Nik Cohn's piece, besides being brilliant writing, sets the tone for much of the spirit I hear behind Spector's sporadic productions of the 1970's.  That is, a man adrift in the memory of his former greatness and haunted by his fall from those lofty heights.  The hook of Cohn's piece, which also explains why the article is all that came of his initial intention to do a full book on Spector, is the moment where he summons the nerve (the gall?) to ask Spector "is your life in essence over?"   Cohn claims that after a flash of anger passed over his face, Spector feigned reflection and then slowly and calmly replied "yes I guess so" then changed the subject.  Who knows if it really happened?  But the absolute chill it gives you, of the man staring that disillusionment in the face and not only admitting but accepting it, is the feel and admittedly (and this might be part of the innate horror of the whole thing) the appeal I find in much of Spector's work in the 1970's and nowhere is it as apparent as in his 1977 collaboration with Leonard Cohen, The Death of a Ladies' Man.  All 8 songs on the album are credited to Spector and Cohen.  It is a collaboration that in light of the egos and mercurialness of those involved may have been doomed from the start.

"So the great affair is over but whoever would have guessed it would leave us all so vacant, and so deeply unimpressed, its like our visit to the moon, or to that other star, I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far"
This chorus of the last song on  The Death of a Ladies Man, from the song of the same name, sums up the theme of this album and, in my mind at least, Spector's life after his fall from fame.  Appropriately and amusingly enough the melody of the song is borrowed almost wholesale from Pink Floyd's 'Brain Damage'.  The cover of the record shows Leonard looking somewhat twisted and perplexed seated in some dark lounge with the two young beauties on either side.  But a better visual representation of the soul of this album would be a haunting shot from the little seen, but superb, Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry film Human Nature.  The main character of the film, Puff, has been removed from nature and "civilized" and yet still finds himself unable to control his animal urges, which are now tinted with additional guilt from the knowledge that they and consequently he is "bad".  In any case the shot in question, which comes at the end of a montage in the film, sends shivers up the spine; Puff is in an alley with a bottle of cheap wine in a bag and a hooker giving him head, the camera closes in on his face and he looks directly into the camera directly at the viewer right into the very depths of your soul with a face so full of self loathing, so full of a disgust born from utter disillusionment that it is beyond words, its an amazing performance by Rhys Ifan and the image is forever burned in my mind.   It's the essence of what I feel is underneath the surface of this music.

"It's written on the walls of this hotel, you get to heaven once you've been to hell."  This from the song 'Paper Thin Hotel' in which Cohen and Spector detail a man listening to his former lover making love through a hotel wall and feeling rather than anger, relief that a "heavy burden lifted from my soul" hearing that "love was out of my control."  Issues of possession, jealousy, the transience of life and love and physical and mental decay predominate throughout the album.  In 'Iodine' for instance Cohen sings "you let me love you till I was a failure, your beauty on my bruise like iodine, there are many ways a man can serve his time."  And unlike much of his work in the 70's with John Lennon, everywhere here there is evidence of Spector's patented touches; the slap back snare sound, swelling orchestral backgrounds, choir of voices singing along, overdub on top of overdub.  There's even a deliberate nod to the sound of 'You've Lost that Lovin Feeling'  on 'I Left a Women Waiting'.  The lyrics from that one are telling as well "She said I see your eyes are dead, what happened to you lover?"

Despite the critical reaction and Cohen's quick disowning of the record, this album works in that it does sound like what it has set out to document.  It might be a shock for Cohen fans used to hearing sparse arrangements that put the primary focus on his voice and lyrics to suddenly hear him engulfed in sound, but it brings out the overburdened and bloated by experience sense of disillusionment in these songs.  The sentiments here are most certainly partly the product of late 1970's excess.  There's even a goofy disco-ish song called 'Don't Go Home With Your Hard On' that features Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg on back up vocals.  It isn't pretty, in fact it's debatable whether it's even good, but that's not what this album is about, it's about ugliness, the ugliness of love and sex and being too human.  About preferring numbness to anymore pain. It's about the ugliness of the human desire to keep your body forever, to shit forever. 

Its hard to figure whose ego was more out of control during this recording; Spector, in his supposed attempts to dominate or subjugate Cohen  with his arrangements/production or Cohen's inability to accept collaboration that involves sharing equal space with other musicians and singers and hence cowardly disowning the whole affair. On songs like the opening 'True Love Leaves No Traces', actress/singer Ronee Blakley (of Altman's Nashville) backing vocals are mixed as high as Cohen's own, I'm not sure if it sounds good or not, but its interesting and unique.  And for an artists like Cohen, whose sound can be overwhelmingly consistent, it remains, much like Spector's next major collaboration with the, desperate for success, Ramones, a welcome, if misunderstood, entry in his discography.

And since she spoke the truth to me
I tried to answer truthfully
Whatever happened to my eyes
Happened to your beauty
What happened to your beauty
Happened to me

© 2004 William Crain