I have acquaintances who insist that Phil Spector didn’t murder Lana Clarkson, although how they arrived at that conclusion is a mystery: as far as I can tell, their defense is that Spector was always nice and relatively normal when he was around them, so he couldn’t have done anything that violent and vicious. OK, loyalty is generally a good thing, we can all agree, and I wasn’t there in Spector’s haunted castle on the night of the incident, so what do I know, except that it seems logical to me to assume that Clarkson went up to the house to hang out, got freaked by Spector’s behavior and decided to split, whereupon Spector took out his pistol to coerce her to stay, and the weapon fired. It doesn’t seem plausible that the murder was intentional: he wouldn’t have brought a woman he’d just met to his pad to do away with her. But he did have a habit of waving loaded guns around to intimidate people. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who’s been in a creative environment with Spector — Leonard Cohen, Ronnie Spector, Joey and Johnny Ramone, Dion DiMucci — has told tales of his gun fixation, so when I heard the news that he’d been charged with killing a woman, my first thought was, one of those guns finally went off. No other theory makes as much sense to me, although I’m sure all those music industry guys — always guys, by the way — who stand by Spector’s version of events will say that Clarkson was unstable, or suicidal, and that there is at the very least reasonable doubt about what happened, which means that Phil Spector should be a free man. And, evidently, David Mamet agrees.
HBO has labeled Phil Spector, Mamet’s movie about the case starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren, as a work of fiction, but what does that even mean? That Mamet has decided which facts of the case he’d prefer to ignore in order to support his premise that Spector is a victim of a weird strain of celebrity justice? Mamet’s said that if Spector weren’t famous he wouldn’t even have been indicted, and that “we’ll never know” whether or not he pulled the trigger, but come on, when the crime — let’s call it what it is — took place, Spector wasn’t all that famous: his last big successes were with John Lennon and George Harrison’s solo albums in the early ‘70s, and none of his subsequent projects made much of a dent, and it wasn’t as though he was even as well-known as he was in the 1960s when Tom Wolfe called him “The Tycoon of Teen” and Spector would pop up as a panel guest with David Susskind or Merv Griffin (I watched one of those appearances recently, and it’s wacky as all get-out, and he does randomly mention guns, so even then…). And whatever the sequence of events was that left Lana Clarkson dead on his premises, the jury wasn’t going to come to a decision based on the fact that Spector once made hit singles with The Righteous Brothers and guest-starred on I Dream Of Jeannie.
There is a great photo of Spector with The Ronettes on my wall, and I own probably every single he ever produced and hours and hours of bootlegs where he’s doing things like coaching the lead singer of The Crystals how to sing the opening line of “Uptown.” I find him endlessly compelling, intermittently brilliant (not so much when his Wall of Sound became a Floor of Sludge that one singer after another sank into), and I’m not happy that he’s locked away, but I don’t think he should get a pass because Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ “Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah” is a flat-out masterpiece. Sometimes I think that he made that Wall such a grand, explosive blur to quiet the voices in his head, to make something big and undeniable as compensation for feelings he found hard to face. More pianos! More percussion! He’s a fascinating subject for a film, and a juicy part for Pacino (who’s almost Spector’s exact contemporary and lived in The Bronx in the same period, the 1940s). It’s always a kick to watch Pacino spouting Mamet monologues; he gets into a rhythm of manic spritz. But what Mamet does is draw Phil Spector as a tragic figure brought down by the system, instead of by his own bizarre impulses, and ignore the woman who got in the wrong car after her late shift at the House of Blues.