A Phil Spector Primer

How to rubberneck an underappreciated murder trial.

Phil Spector

The relative indifference of the non-tabloid press to the murder trial of Phil Spector suggests to me that the market power of baby boomers is waning fast.

Among the living, there aren’t many figures who loom larger in 1960s pop culture than Spector. Although he made his mark as a record producer, not a performer, Spector’s distinctive “Wall of Sound” made him the most famous record producer of the 1960s, an auteur who is better-remembered today than most of the groups who recorded for him. (Quick: who’s that singing on “Da Doo Ron Ron“?) Spector was profiled in Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Baby;  he performed a drug-dealer cameo in the epochal counterculture film Easy Rider; and he assembled the Beatles’ Let It Be album after the band broke up, adding so much orchestration—particularly on “The Long and Winding Road”—that Paul McCartney complained, with some justice, that Spector wrecked the thing. (An unsweetened and superior version was finally issued in 2003 under the title, Let It Be … Naked.) Even this botch job burnished Spector’s reputation as a person of boomer consequence.

By the late 1970s, Spector had become a semi-recluse. His sanity was rumored shaky, and it was said that he liked to threaten people with guns. Of Spector’s brief re-emergence to produce the Ramones album, End of the Century, Dee Dee Ramone recalled, “He tried to be friends, but then he had guns on him, and he wouldn’t let me out of his house for a couple of days.” (Good record, though.)

Spector looms as large in the history of rock ‘n roll as O.J. Simpson does in the history of pro football—they’re both hall-of-famers (click here and here). For sheer trashiness, the demise of Anna Nicole Smith  has nothing on the death-by-gunshot of fading exploitation-flick goddess Lana Clarkson in Spector’s foyer. Spector’s lawyer will argue that Clarkson killed herself. The prosecutor will argue that Spector killed Clarkson. The evidence that’s surfaced publicly tilts pretty heavily against Spector, but a few stray facts tilt the other way, and of course Spector has hired some pretty high-priced legal talent, making the trial’s outcome a matter of some suspense. Every theory about what happened the night of Clarkson’s death seems improbable. How exactly did Clarkson die? All we can feel reasonably certain about before opening arguments begin April 24 is that the answer will be squalid.

Did I mention the trial will be televised?

Let’s review the facts of the case.

In the wee hours of Feb. 3, 2003, PhilSpector was driven by his chauffeur, Adriano DeSouza, to the House of Blues in West Hollywood, where he met Lana Clarkson, a strikingly tall, beautiful, and blonde actress who was down on her luck and making ends meet working as a hostess in the club’s VIP lounge. Clarkson was “loud and drunk,” according to an interview Spector gave Esquire magazine in April 2003, and she asked to see Spector’s turreted mansion in Alhambra. (Spector calls it his “Pyrenees castle“). Spector’s chauffeur told a grand jury—whose proceedings the judge made public—that it was actually Spector who was drunk, and Spector who asked Clarkson to come to his house after Clarkson helped him stagger into his Mercedes. She declined; Spector asked several times more; and finally Clarkson said yes.

DeSouza drove Spector and Clarkson to the Alhambra “castle,” then waited outside in the car. Two hours later—around 5 a.m.—DeSouza heard a shot from inside. According to DeSouza’s grand jury testimony, Spector emerged from the back door holding a revolver, blood on the back of his hand. Spector said, “I think I killed somebody.” (In the police report, DeSouza has Spector saying, “I think I killed her.”) DeSouza  looked inside the house, saw Clarkson’s body perched on a chair, and called 911. When the Alhambra cops arrived, Spector told them, “I didn’t mean to shoot her, it was an accident.” According to the transcript of a conversation taped at the crime scene, Spector said, “The gun went off accidentally. She works at the House of Blues. It was a mistake.”

Spector changed his story at the stationhouse. According to the transcript of his taped statement, Spector babbled that Clarkson only “pretended to work” at the House of Blues; that Clarkson was “a piece of shit“; and that Clarkson “certainly had no right to come to my fucking castle, blow her fucking head open.” According to the grand jury testimony of a police officer named Derek Gilliam, Spector told Gilliam that Clarkson took Spector’s gun, waved it over her head like a lariat, and sang “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Then Clarkson put the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger.

After relating this, Gilliam says, Spector said: “Nobody takes a gun from me.”

The Alhambra police booked Spector and charged him with murder. He was later released on a million-dollar bail.

In a July 2004 civil deposition against his former lawyer Robert Shapiro (of O.J. fame), whom he fired, Spector maintains that when he first talked to the police, “I was groggy. I couldn’t think straight.” He attributes this to being restrained by a taser. (The police confirm that on entering the house they shot him with a taser because he wouldn’t put his hands up. They also say he stank of alcohol.) Presumably Spector or his attorney will argue at trial that it was his grogginess that made him state initially that he’d shot Clarkson.

(Macabre digression: Before Spector fired him, Shapiro made news  by refusing to turn over to prosecutors a certain piece of secret evidence. The evidence turned out to be what Shapiro claimed was Clarkson’s gunpowder-blackened fingernail, left behind at the crime scene by careless police investigators.)

So … guilty, right?

Except that examination of the body revealed that the gun barrel wasn’t placed against Clarkson’s temple. It was placed inside Clarkson’s mouth. According to a search warrant affidavit from the county police, Clarkson had “what appeared to be a single entry gunshot wound to the mouth.” “She kissed the gun,” Spector later toldEsquire. “I have no idea why.” The gun, which was found lying under Clarkson’s left leg, was a Colt Cobra .38 revolver. Nine other guns were found in the house, including two more Colt revolvers. But all the other guns were registered to Spector. The gun found beside Clarkson wasn’t registered to anyone. Does that mean it might have been Clarkson’s gun? If so, why did Spector tell Gilliam it was his gun? And even if it was Spector’s gun, how did the barrel end up in Clarkson’s mouth?

One of Spector’s attorneys has hinted to the Los Angeles Times that the two were using the Colt revolver in some sort of sex game. Is that a possibility? Or has the lawyer been reading too much Raymond Chandler? Why would Spector and Clarkson play a sex game in the foyer two hours after they arrived? Wouldn’t Clarkson’s presence there indicate that she was getting ready to leave? A Philadelphia photographer named Stephanie Jennings is prepared to testify  that in 1995, Spector pulled a gun on her and blocked the door when she refused his advances.

I told you this was a good story. Let the media circus begin.

[Update, June 26, 2007: After writing this, I lost my mind and decided to blog the entire Spector trial forSlate.To read Chatterbox’s Spector blog,click here.]