Knowing what we now know about Spector — who died Saturday at 80 or 81 (his biography is muddled) — it’s easy to see why a megalomaniac fixated on power and control liked the idea of building walls. Inside the recording studio, he was a tyrant who bragged about treating his collaborators more like musical instruments than human beings. Outside the studio, he was a menace, a serial abuser whose habitual violence culminated in the fatal shooting of Lana Clarkson inside his home in 2003. Convicted of second-degree murder in 2009, Spector spent the final decade of his life surrounded by the walls of a California prison.
Those walls were real, but the “wall of sound” wasn’t. It was a world-changing recording technique that involved meticulous multi-tracking, sometimes with various instruments playing the same melody, until a simple pop song achieved symphonic saturation. The results were oceanic. Go listen to the Ronettes sing “Be My Baby” in 1963, their voices surging alongside all those horns, all those strings, all that wonderfully percussive click-clack. You should feel as if you’re traveling on a tidal wave, not staring at a wall.
Contaminated by his reputation, other Spector productions have felt increasingly liquid as they’ve traveled across the decades, mutating their moods, changing their meanings. Director David Lynch jumped right into that fluidity in 2017 during an episode of “Twin Peaks” by using the 1961 Paris Sisters hit “I Love How You Love Me” to score a scene in which a young woman goes on a drugged-up joyride with her criminal boyfriend. Lynch knows that a song can mean more than one thing at once, and in this case, euphoria and peril intertwine seamlessly.
The same rules apply out here in the real world. When “Love Me” sounds like an infatuated daydream, it’s a Paris Sisters song. When it sounds like a sinister premonition, it’s a Phil Spector song. Sometimes, it might sound like both. The listener always gets to decide.
And that’s probably the only comfort we can take in loving a murderer’s music. Spector said he believed “art is a game,” but for so many, his music felt as vivid as life. Maybe we’ve always heard his songs differently than he did. He built the walls. We take them apart.