Inside story: The weird world of Mr & Mrs Phil Spector
He is the legendary music producer in prison for murder. She is the young wife protesting his innocence. Welcome to the curious world of Mr & Mrs Phil Spector
Saturday 21 August 2010
Two suits of medieval armour dominate the entrance hall of the hilltop castle that Rachelle Spector calls home. One stands opposite an oil painting of the Beatles, whose final album, Let it Be, was produced by her absent husband, Phil, in 1969. The other, a few yards to its right, leans on a large sword. Since Phil's fascination with dangerous weapons recently landed him in prison, you might wonder if they make for entirely appropriate ornaments. But in the few hours I spend with Rachelle, together with a couple of occasions when we speak via telephone, I come to realise that suits of armour actually sum her up pretty well: she's a tough cookie, and thick-skinned, too.
Rachelle greets me on the doorstep, where I've been admiring the personalised number plate of her Lexus SUV (it reads: "I Í Phil"). At first glance, she looks astonishingly blonde-haired, blue-eyed and bubbly; at second glance, the blonde comes from a bottle, and she's wearing bright turquoise contact lenses. But the bubbly bit is genuine. While she nips to the kitchen to fetch a drink, I look around her enormous dining room. It's decorated in the style of a Berni Inn: all dark wood and moody lighting. In the corner sits a huge piece of paper on which Rachelle, perhaps at the behest of a psychiatrist, has drawn a flow chart mapping her "life goals". They revolve squarely around two inter-related entities. One is Phil; the other, her pop career.
These are, as it happens, the exact subjects I'm hoping to talk about. For years, this famous 30-room house, which is called the Pyrenees Castle, and situated in Alhambra, a charmless suburb of east Los Angeles, has stood as a neo-Gothic monument to the eccentricities of the great Phil Spector. It was, according to rock'n'roll folklore, a Xanadu-like mansion, where the extraordinarily wealthy record producer, who had made a slew of the most uplifting pop songs in history (from "Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals, to "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes) but suffered from the depression which afflicts many a genius, had retired from the record business to wallow in a twilight world of darkness and paranoia.
That was the Castle's reputation, at least. But lately, Spector's old friends (and even his enemies) have been describing him as a man transformed. The reason: Rachelle. Bright, amenable, and one-third his age, she burst on to the scene some time in 2003, and turned him from an obsessive recluse, whose controlling nature once sparked ugly lawsuit after ugly lawsuit, into a gentle old man with a renewed appetite for life, love, and the pop game. I want to find out how Rachelle managed this. And to get to the bottom of whether she arrived on the scene too late to prevent the tragedy that may now overshadow the rest of his natural life.
Rachelle returns. We adjourn to the wood-panelled dining room, and sit at a long antique table, in front of some framed photos of their wedding, which took place in the foyer of the Castle in September 2006. She was 24, and wore a traditional white gown. Phil, who was then 66, and marrying for the third time, opted for a straw-coloured wig, teamed with a black silk shirt, dark suit, and an impish smile. "Philip and I are many generations apart, but we do have an incredible amount in common," says Rachelle. "We both wanted exactly the same thing: a small ceremony, at home, with a minister and just a couple of guests. That's how it ended up. Perfect."
Today, the Spectors profess to remain as deeply in love as they were that day, and though they make an odd-looking couple, I have no reason to doubt them. But life is no longer quite so perfect. Since April 2009, Phil has been an inmate at California State Prison in Corcoran, three hours' drive north of Los Angeles. According to Rachelle, it's "disgusting". He spends 23 hours a day in a shared cell measuring five feet by nine feet, and has little to do with his time except read, and sweat. "Recently," she says, "the prison has been cutting off its power supply, and air, for one day a week, to save money. Temperatures up there can reach 120F. He's 70 years old. It's gross."
Phil became a jailbird because of a now-notorious event which took place just a few yards from where we are sitting. On 3 February 2003, a month before he first met Rachelle, Lana Clarkson, a B-movie actress whom he'd apparently met in a Hollywood nightclub and taken home for drinks, was shot in the face in the Castle's hallway. She died immediately. Phil, who may or may not have witnessed the event, and who is certainly the only living person who may know what actually occurred, denied pulling the trigger. But a jury at Los Angeles Superior Court saw things differently. In April 2009, he was unanimously convicted of second degree murder and given 19 years to life.
The sentence has left Rachelle in charge of Phil Spector's life, and legacy. She runs his home, his back catalogue, and his multi-million-dollar business interests. She is currently masterminding an appeal against his murder conviction, and also provides about his only regular familial link to the outside world: of the three children he adopted in the 1970s, two are estranged (a son, Donte, keeps in touch). His only surviving daughter, Nicole, who is roughly the same age as Rachelle, visits occasionally. But she lives in New York, a day's travel and three time-zones away.
For Rachelle, this makes for a sometimes sad existence, punctuated by small highlights. One comes just after 2pm on weekdays, when Phil is allowed to make a 15-minute phone call (when he dials, Rachelle's BlackBerry bellows: "Philip calling!"). The other happens each Saturday, when she rises at 1am and drives to Corcoran to be first in the queue to gain access to the visitors' area. She is strip-searched, and taken into a spartan canteen. There, Phil is usually allowed to kiss her once and give her a single hug; after that, they talk for hours.
Rachelle's other highlight, and the one which helped me bag an invitation to the Castle, revolves around music. Describing herself as a singer, songwriter and trombone player, she has just released a debut CD. Its title is Out of My 'Chelle, and it already occupies an intriguing place in pop history: it was produced by Phil, before he went into chokey, and is therefore the first album that he's been entirely responsible for in no less than 30 years. His last one prior had been End of the Century, by the Ramones, which came out in 1980.
Despite the fact that it marks the return of one of pop's greatest impresarios, critics have not been altogether kind about the record. The New York Post dubbed it "a pop drivel vanity project that has no relation to anything the legendary producer has ever helped craft" and said that Phil's music is now as criminal as he is. It has none the less made a small impression on the US charts. "The highest we have got so far is 46," says Rachelle. "I'd say that's doing pretty well, especially for something from a new artist, which doesn't have a big label pushing it."
Touchingly, the album's first track, "Here in my Heart", is a love song about Phil and Rachelle's long-distance relationship. It's set to a 1980s-style synthesiser-pop beat, and contains some gloriously-extravagant lyrics which would not be out of place in the Eurovision Song Contest. "You're here with me night and day, even when you're far away", goes a typical line. "The song's about somebody you love, who is always in your heart, even if they're not in your arms," adds Rachelle. "For me, that person will always be Philip. He is my shining light, and part of him has become a part of me, so he's constantly here with me."
Phil has meanwhile been equally soppy discussing the project. "I'm as excited about this album as when I met Elvis or the Stones," he said, in a prison interview coinciding with its release. "Making that record with Rachelle was one of the greatest experiences of my life." Regarding his wife, he told the Associated Press: "Prison is very difficult. I'm in here with sociopaths and misfits... [but] she comes every week to see me, and I see sky rockets each time I see her." Then he added, without a hint of irony: "She's the fairy princess in my world". And to understand that world, you perhaps need to hear Rachelle's story.
There was, as it happens, plenty of fairytale about the journey that turned Rachelle into the sole occupant of the 30-room Pyrenees Castle, which was built in the 1920s as a one-third-sized scale replica of a French chateau. Brought up in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, by a single mother, she learnt trombone at school and played in the marching band. After leaving, and discovering that she could make a living from singing and modelling jobs, she set off down a road trodden by many pretty girls from small-town America, and drove to LA. Aged 20, she arrived in 2002, with just $150 in her pocket.
A year later, Rachelle Short, to use her maiden name, was performing live gigs (she had won a gong for Best Indy Pop Performer at the LA Music Awards). One night, she found herself dining at Dan Tana's, an old-school Hollywood restaurant. Phil Spector, who was also there, asked her to sit at his table. And Cupid's dart struck. "I learnt more that night about religion and politics than I knew in my entire life," she recalls. "We ended up talking until six in the morning. When it was time to go, he looked at me and said, 'May I kiss you?' I said, 'No!'. But he got my phone number." The old devil called the next day. "I've always been attracted to older guys," she says.
The romance blossomed during visits to the local Starbucks, dinner outings, and trips to LA Lakers basketball games. But it wasn't all plain sailing. A few weeks in, Rachelle heard about Lana Clarkson, who had died a few weeks before their meeting. But Rachelle didn't for one moment doubt Phil's innocence. Never has, never will. "When you meet him, you get no sense of danger whatsoever. He's tiny. I'm bigger than him now, and he wouldn't hurt a fly. He couldn't murder someone. He's too kind, and caring and giving and genuine." They duly became engaged in 2005.
Their relationship was first dragged into the public arena when Phil's first murder trial was televised, in late 2006. The sight of Rachelle in court initially sparked intrigue and ridicule. She looked suspiciously like Clarkson, and snarky commentators wondered what had attracted her to the famous multi-millionaire. But over time, opinion turned. "Even those who loathe Spector, and there are plenty in Hollywood, surprise themselves by feeling protective of this instantly likeable woman," noted the Los Angeles Times, in a profile of Phil. "They praise her unswerving loyalty to Spector. Men in particular fall under her spell."
By the time Phil's first trial had been abandoned in 2007 (the jury was unable to reach the required unanimous verdict), Rachelle had become Mrs Spector. Then, during downtime from the retrial, Out of My 'Chelle was conceived. "One day I was going through old home movies of me singing. Phil walked in, and said 'That's you?'. He didn't know what my vocal capabilities were, up until that point, since I had put my career on hold to help him with the court case."
To release the record, Rachelle recently founded her own label, Genius Forever (named after Phil, of course) and cut a distribution deal with Sony. She is also about to go back into the studio to make a Rachelle Unplugged version of the record, which her husband will be unavailable to produce. "People say that Phil Spector can make anyone sound good, and I want to prove that I can actually sing," she says. Allegations that Phil used auto-tune and other dark arts of his trade to paper over holes in her musical ability are "totally untrue".
The other thing that often angers Rachelle, and we can't beat around the bush here, are allegations that she's a gold-digger. The reality of her existence, she says, is quite the opposite: she says her favourite shop is Target, a sort of American Argos. She doesn't loaf around. When we tour the downstairs bar area and pool room, I notice that a layer of dust has gathered on Phil's collection of Grammy trophies.
It must, I suppose, be a lonely existence. She shares the vast home with six dogs, some cats, and two iguanas. A maid comes twice a week. Her other regular visitor is Esmerelda, her gardener's six-year-old daughter. The lawns of the Castle are brown and parched (she recently turned off the sprinklers, to save money and the environment), and even Phil's collection of garden gnomes could use a lick of paint. This is hardly the high life, she says.
"My life is hard. It's a lot of work. It's so emotionally, physically and mentally draining. I work seven days a week. I've started the record label, I'm trying to promote the album, manage Phil's estate and also look after the appeal to get him out. If I were a gold-digger, I wouldn't be here, doing all that. I'd be by some pool, on an exotic island, counting my money."
Rachelle's priority, these days, is to free Phil. Having sat through the two trials, which together lasted more than a year, and reviewed 40,000 pages of evidence, she has applied for (and got) a licence to practice as a private investigator in California. This allowed her to be closely involved in drafting the lengthy appeal against his murder conviction which was filed earlier this year.
The case against Spector was by no means cut-and-dried. It revolved around inconclusive forensic evidence, with conflicting interpretations of blood spatter patterns and gunpowder residue, which left experts divided as to whether the famous defendant was anywhere near Ms Clarkson when she died. The supposed murder weapon did not carry any of his fingerprints, and no one is sure of the identity of its owner. Officially, it was registered to a pawnshop in Texas.
In attempting to prove Spector guilty, prosecutors therefore relied on testimony from his driver, who told the court his boss had confessed to Clarkson's killing. They also persuaded the judge to allow evidence from five former female acquaintances of Spector, who claimed that at various times in the past 30 years, he had threatened them with guns. This, the jury said in its explanation of the sentence, tipped the balance in favour of conviction.
It certainly worked into a well-established narrative. Spector, who had produced his first number one hit, "To Know Him is To Love Him", in 1958, at the age of 18, had never enjoyed what you might call a normal life. A millionaire by the age of 22 (during the early 1960s, his hits included "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling", the most extensively played record in history), he was always volatile. When creating his famous "Wall of Sound", which involved vast armies of backing musicians and singers, he lorded over recording studios like a mad dictator.
Stories also abound of Spector's fascination with firearms. He once fired a pistol into the roof when losing his temper while working with John Lennon. Some years later, when apparently drunk, he wandered up to Leonard Cohen, and stuck a loaded pistol in his neck, saying, "Leonard, I love you!" (Cohen is said to have casually replied, "I hope you do, Phil"). In the 1980s, his mental state deteriorated further when his only son, Philip Junior, contracted leukaemia. Phil retired from music to nurse him, only for the child to die, in 1992. Soon afterwards, he began taking vast quantities of anti-depressants, and for most of the next decade, made only occasional forays into the recording studio. He had also become paranoid about being left alone at the Castle; visitors spoke of him locking doors and gates to prevent them from leaving.
After talking the jury through this biography, the prosecution was able to construct a compelling narrative: Lana Clarkson, a down-on-her-luck actress who also suffered from depression, had met him at the House of Blues nightclub in Hollywood. She returned to his house, and shared some drinks. But when Ms Clarkson got up to leave, Spector lost his cool. By accident or design, he fired the gun. Given Spector's personality, they argued – it was in any case an accident waiting to happen.
There is, however, a problem with this theory: it relies on circumstantial evidence. In his defence, Spector's "dream team" of highly-paid lawyers have advanced an alternative: that Clarkson, who'd had roles in Scarface and the cult fantasy flick Barbarian Queen during the 1980s, but whose career had since tanked, actually committed suicide. "She had consumed a bottle of tequila, she had Vicodin [a pain-relief drug] in her system, and was broke and about to be evicted from her apartment," is how Rachelle puts it.
The appeal will highlight the lack of forensic evidence, and also argue that the judge shouldn't have allowed the five women to give character statements against Phil, since they were prejudicial. "This whole hatred towards women thing ... I don't understand where it came from. Because if you know anything about Phil's career you'll know that he helped women, especially women of colour, achieve success, people like Tina Turner and Ronnie Spector [his second wife]. There is no greater misconception than that Phil hates women."
Clarkson's sister, Fawn, and her family's lawyer, Roderick Lindblom, did not respond to requests for a comment about the appeal for this article. Rachelle, with half an eye on their feelings, says the case "was a tragedy for everybody involved. But it was not a murder". Clarkson was six feet tall, and weighed 160 pounds, which is far more than Spector. "They're trying to tell me she let him walk up and put a gun in her mouth? It was two inches behind her teeth when it went off. How could he possibly do that?"
Time, of course, will tell whether Rachelle secures their day in court. But the wheels of justice move incredibly slowly. Even if the appeal is granted, it could be years before Phil Spector is free to once more build a wall of sound. "I've lost my husband and my best friend," she says, returning once more to the subject of her album. "The whole point of it was to turn the negative of the case into a positive and put the focus back on Phil Spector's music, where it belongs. Whatever happens, I hope to remind people that he's still that genius producer who is way beyond his time, and who no one will ever be able to imitate."
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