My Nights With Phil

Illustration by Darrow

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.

Is it tautological to note that Southern California show-business homicide cases are so often so stupendously Hollywood? And do we only shape the stories that way in the recounting, or do celebrated Angelenos half-consciously contrive to turn their lives into neo-gothic docudramas? In this case, every detail is perfectly, exquisitely pulpy. In the courtroom, Spector—pallid golem face, absurdly fake blond hair, jittery hands, super-colorful shirts with giant collars—is a screenwriter’s dream murder defendant, a transgendered Norma Desmond in some Sunset Boulevard homage. And Lana Clarkson was the perfect Raymond Chandler/Nathanael West victim, beginning with her forties name—a sweet, blonde, 40-year-old C-list actress, still pretty but no longer nubile enough to get the bit parts in the cheesy TV series (Knight Rider, Silk Stalkings) and movies (Barbarian Queen, Vice Girls) that had sustained her. She was a former playmate of the Sweet Smell-y gossip reporter A.J. Benza.

Between 2 and 3 a.m. in his Mercedes from the House of Blues, where he’d picked her up, they watched a DVD of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the 1950 film noir starring Jimmy Cagney as an amoral killer. Inside his turreted white 1926 castle, according to the opening statement last month by his attorney, the Gambino mob lawyer Bruce Cutler, Clarkson was “playing with guns in a provocative and salacious manner,” kissing the Colt .38 Cobra that killed her. The coroner found that the gun barrel was in her mouth when it fired. Truth is more lurid than fiction.

And murkier. According to Spector’s Brazilian chauffeur, his boss came out of the house around 5 a.m. and said, “I think I killed somebody.” After police had him in custody, however, he said that Clarkson had, in fact, shot herself.

It seems possible to me that both are somehow true. He had been drinking. She had been drinking and taking Vicodin. There were fourteen guns in the house, but his fingerprints aren’t on the one that shot her. Maybe she was depressed, as the defense says her e-mails indicate. Maybe he, as a diabetic, was suffering from a late-night bout of low blood sugar, which can cause paranoia and disorientation.

At his trial, several of Spector’s former girlfriends have testified that on various occasions between 1988 and 1995 he pointed a gun at them when they tried to leave his house or a hotel room—and Clarkson, the prosecutors will say, was the final data point in that pathological pattern.

But the trial will pivot, I think, on the grisly CSI particulars. Are the traces of gunshot residue and the blood-spatter patterns more exculpatory or incriminating? Do the shreds of flesh on Clarkson’s cuff buttons imply that she shot herself? And is it true that her DNA, but not his, was found on the bullets in the gun?

However Lana Clarkson came to be sitting in a chair with a loaded pistol in her mouth, some ugly game was evidently being played by one or both of them. The prosecution and defense agree that her death was essentially accidental; the question is who happened to pull the trigger. To convict him of second-degree murder, the prosecutors needn’t prove that he intended to kill Clarkson, but rather, in the quaint language of the criminal code, that he had “an abandoned and malignant heart” on the night in question.

My hunch is that he won’t be found guilty of murder, that as a result of the forensics he will be convicted of manslaughter or get off altogether. If the DNA evidence does indicate that Clarkson loaded the gun herself, I see an insurmountable wall of reasonable doubt.

Even if he’s acquitted, however, I’m afraid now that I’ve watched those ex-girlfriends testify I can no longer ignore the fact that my odd friend Phil, colloquially if not legally, probably does have an abandoned and malignant heart.

But the most curious thing about the first three women’s testimony is that after each of their terrifying episodes—including an attempted rape in one instance, and a pistol-whipping in another—all three declined to press charges, and, even stranger, all three maintained contact with him. And these were not powerless, pathetic strays, but successful professionals—a talent coordinator, a photographer, Joan Rivers’s manager. Why did they keep playing along? Because he was charming and pitiful? Because he was rich and famous?

He never cursed or threatened or scared me, but at the end of one long, boozy night at Elaine’s, apropos of nothing, he suddenly grabbed my hand and pulled it inside his jacket, placing my fingers near his heart. He was smiling.

At first I thought it was some drunken, sentimental mano a mano gesture. And I suppose it was. But in fact, I realized a second later, he wanted me to feel his shoulder holster, the heat he was packing.

I chuckled. The moment passed. It was almost 4 a.m. I made noises about calling it a night, but he persuaded me to stay out a little longer. And a few minutes later, he was at the piano, playing and singing “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”


My Nights With Phil