It’s a story as old as justice. The crazy man crying out, “It’s not fair!”—his calls falling deaf ears.
Now it’s Phil Spector’s story too, about to be twice-told anew, once in his last-chance appeal being considered by a federal court and again by David Mamet in a new film to air later this month. Both argue that whatever happened to cause the bloody and gaudy 2003 death of actress Lana Clarkson—at Spector’s home, a gun owned by the legendary music producer discharged in her mouth—Spector should not have been convicted. Innocence is not the question. The right to a fair trial is.
It’s a story I also have told. A month before the start of his first trial—which ended in a hung jury—I started making a documentary film with Spector, as complicated and self-destructive a man as you can imagine. He’d been a celebrity for almost 50 years, since writing and performing his first No. 1 hit song “To Know Him Is To Love Him” at 18 years old and going on to develop his hallmark Wall of Sound. As a producer, he had dominated the ’60s charts, later producing Let It Be (the final Beatles album), George Harrison’s and John Lennon’s first solo albums, and the most successful Ramones record. In all that time, he never let a filmmaker near him—until the eve of his first trial. The result was my feature-length documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, which intercut no-holds-barred conversations between Spector and me in his castle with the trial footage from the courtroom.
There were many surprises along the way, the first being that Spector’s castle, where Clarkson died, was in blue-collar Alhambra on the outskirts of L.A. and not in Beverly Hills or Malibu. As Spector told me, when he decided to leave his Beverly Hills mansion, he wanted to live in a castle. His real-estate agent found two for sale and the one in Alhambra, atop the town’s only hill, took his fancy.
But if Alhambra was a surprise, the possibility that he’d finally shot and killed somebody was most definitely not. After all, the world had been hearing stories about his gunplay and mean temper for more than 30 years. He’d even been reported to have taken a shot just past John Lennon’s head after they’d made the Rock & Roll album together, to encourage Lennon to hand over the acetate master recordings. He’s said to have pulled a gun on the Ramones, and on Leonard Cohen—who became even more of a hero to me when he told my journalist friend Chris Goodwin that he’d responded by saying something along the lines of, “Oh, Phil, you’ve been pulling guns on everyone your whole life and you’ve never shot anyone yet and you’re not going to shoot me either, so just put it down.” And Spector was so taken aback that he did.
[Photo of Phil Spector, 1975. By Mark S. Wexler/Corbis]