I’d just arrived at the housewarming party for Wenner Media’s new offices on Sixth Avenue and made a beeline for one of the few people I knew—Jean Pigozzi, the fortyish French-Italian zillionaire to whom my partners and I had sold Spy two years earlier. He was talking to a man about a dozen years his senior and half his size who wore long, preternaturally black hair, big tinted aviator glasses, a shiny dark shirt, and a black suit.
Pigozzi introduced me to his friend as “the man who created Spy magazine, and has now abandoned me, and gone to Time magazine.”
“Well done,” said the stranger, smart-alecky, as he shook my hand, “on all three counts. Trifecta!”
“And this,” Pigozzi told me, “is the legendary Mr. Phil Spector.”
I’d had no idea. In fact, I knew who Spector was only vaguely, which he seemed not to mind at all. Pigozzi drifted away, and the two of us chatted at a high rate of speed for a long time—which is to say, he manically, good-naturedly interrogated me about politics and New York and journalism, and volunteered anecdotes, each wrapped around a quick, funny impression or two—among them one featuring John Lennon’s fond fan-boy impersonation of Jann Wenner. He was a sweet, puckish, jumpy, highly entertaining character, Dudley Moore crossed with Joe Pesci playing Ratso Rizzo’s successful brother.
I’m not well versed in early rock-and-roll history, so I knew only the barest biographical rudiments—songwriter and creator of girl groups and pop hits, producer of the Beatles and the Ramones. And back in that more innocent pre-Web day, 1993, when I got home I couldn’t Google him.
Not that I would’ve treated him any differently had I known the Hollywood Babylon particulars—nor recoiled when, some time afterward, one of his L.A. assistants called me to say that “Philip” was returning to New York and would like me to join him at the Waldorf Towers for dinner before the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gala, and for his big party after.
By now I’d come to learn a bit about his extremely checkered reputation, but I was intrigued more than fazed. A couple of my choicest (if not closest) friends and acquaintances are beasts. I don’t judge. Or maybe I judge, but still get a kick out of them as long as they’re pleasant to me.
We had drinks and dinner, strolled around the periphery of the rock-and-roll ceremony/concert, and attended his party. A memorably weird one-off New York night …
But the invitations and letters and phone calls kept coming, every few months or so for most of the next decade. Our nights on the town were always interesting, nearly always fun. He had a vast collection of awesome stories (about planning a Phil Spector biopic with Tom Cruise a week earlier, about hanging out with Clay Felker and Tom Wolfe 30 years earlier) and shticky one-liners. “I respect Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work so much,” he said, “that someday I’d like to set it to music.” I enjoyed the odd-couple improbability of me (bourgeois wonk) hanging out with—being greeted with great hugs by—Phil Spector.
I accompanied him to a Knicks game. He showed up for our big Christmas party in Brooklyn (at which he asked a zaftig, somewhat grand media-executive friend of ours if she was “an opera singer”). My wife and I were his dates the night of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I met his sweet teenage daughter, and repeatedly heard his choked-up stories about her twin brother, who had died at age 9. “I myself have never been religious,” he wrote me once, “but after the death of my beloved little boy I began to believe that the devil might exist.”
In Mick Brown’s new biography, Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, he’s depicted as prone to sudden plunges into snarling anger. I experienced a moment in that vicinity just once. Sonny Bono had died in a skiing accident, and I appeared as a guest on Nightline speaking irreverently about Sonny’s place in cultural history. When I next saw Phil, a few weeks later, he was angry—seething, not shouting—that I had dissed his late friend. But while the encounter was awkward, his was a reasonable reaction, not some crazy Jekyll-and-Hyde outburst.
We saw each other a few more times, but around 2001 I stopped hearing from him. Had we been friends? I do my fair share of name-dropping, but for me, the algorithmic fame-friendship protocols require greater intimacy with a famous person before I’m allowed to refer to him or her as my friend. That is, if Phil Spector weren’t well known, I’d have definitely called him a friend. I suppose one way to define the difference between “friend” and “close friend” is that with the latter, you’d send a message of support if a woman was shot to death in his house and then, nine months later, he was charged with her murder. And with a close friend, I don’t think I’d use such a personal nightmare as a premise for a magazine column.