LOS ANGELES – Phil Spector never denied he wagged a pistol at a member of the Ramones or fired off a shot during a studio session with John Lennon. The music industry loves edgy characters, especially when they churn out chart-topping hits, as the influential music producer once did. But now, with his murder trial approaching, his reputation for drunken gunplay is coming back like a vicious ricochet.
“He always had that habit of showing off guns when he was drinking; it’s what he did; it was his thing,” said Larry Levine, the recording engineer who sat next to Spector in the studio for years. “And now, well, all of that is going to be part of this trial. I don’t know what happened on that night, but the jury will have to figure it out.”
“That night” was the predawn hours of Feb. 3, 2003, when 40-year-old Lana Clarkson, a tall, blond actress, died from a gunshot to the mouth at Spector’s quirky “castle” in Alhambra, east of downtown L.A. Both a hired driver for Spector and the first police officer on the scene have said the dazed producer told them he thought he had killed someone. Spector, however, has maintained that Clarkson committed suicide, telling Esquire magazine: “She kissed the gun.”
Prospective jurors report to court Monday for a lengthy selection process scheduled to run into April. When arguments begin, the prosecution is expected to tell those empaneled that Spector, a man with a history of rage against women, met an attractive bar hostess during a night of drinking, persuaded her to come home with him, and then shot her when his advances did not go as planned.
If the defense mirrors Spector’s accounts, it will contend that Clarkson, whose middling acting career had gone cold, chose Spector’s 33-room faux castle to take her own life in the presence of a music-industry legend.
The prosecutors have a strong case, legal experts say: Spector’s admissions and his alcohol consumption after years of sobriety; physical evidence; and an important pretrial ruling allowing testimony of prior incidents involving Spector, a woman and a gun.
One of four women who might testify, Philadelphia photographer Stephanie Jennings, told the grand jury that when she refused an invitation to go to his hotel suite during a 1995 trip to New York, Spector blocked the door and brandished a handgun until she called police.
On its side, the defense has testimony that the gun probably went off inside Clarkson’s mouth. A lurid theory about sex games, fueled by Spector’s widely quoted “kissed the gun” comment, also might become a pivot point.
When asked whether the gun was part of the couple’s foreplay, one of Spector’s attorneys, Bruce Cutler, replied: “I’ve read it; I’ve heard it. … If that’s what happened, it’s a tragic waste of life, isn’t it? Most importantly, it is not a crime.”
Prosecutors have not done well in recent years against celebrity defendants, including Robert Blake and Michael Jackson, and University of Southern California law professor Jean Rosenbluth noted that the defense in this case has not yet shown its hand. Cutler, a New Yorker and mobster John Gotti’s longtime lawyer, might sway the jury with his theatrical flair, she said.
“He’s a showman. It’s what he’s hired to do,” she said. “We haven’t seen all evidence. Who knows what will happen?”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler is allowing cameras in the courtroom, ensuring that the case, with its tawdry trappings, pop psychology and celebrity tinder, will generate a bonfire of media attention. At the center will be Spector, once an essential figure in American pop music who in recent years has come off more as a diminutive Howard Hughes type with Cuban heels and elaborate wigs.
Spector’s music career will be a backbeat to the trial, and, according to the defendant, it was even a strange soundtrack for Clarkson’s death that fateful February night: According to a police officer, Spector said Clarkson was singing two of his signature hits just before she shot herself. One was the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron,” the other the Righteous Brothers’ classic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.”
That police officer, Derek Gilliam, also testified that Spector repeatedly pantomimed the shooting, using his index finger and thumb.
“He would throw his head back and then all of a sudden you see his finger go bang, and he laid back and sat there for about five seconds,” Gilliam said. Finally, according to Gilliam, Spector “looked down at the floor, and he came back up and he said ‘Nobody takes a gun from me,’ with a smirk.”
For Clarkson’s family, the worry will be that her death will be lost in Spector’s long shadow. Already, Clarkson’s B-movie resume (“Female Mercenaries,” “Vice Girls”) has been used to portray her as less than wholesome.
Since Clarkson’s death four years ago, Spector has been free on bail, a bitter topic for family and friends of the actress.
Spector has kept a low profile, although last fall he married actress-model Rachelle Short, 26, in Los Angeles. His history is still very much a part of the music industry present, albeit an awkward part.
On Monday night, the Ronettes, the girl group that Spector shaped, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The group’s lead singer, Ronnie Spector, is the producer’s ex-wife and has long accused him of abuse and tyrannical behavior.
She pointedly did not mention him during her acceptance speech.
Afterward, musician Paul Shaffer read a letter from Spector to the industry crowd, which greeted the proxy speech with tepid applause and plenty of rolling eyes.
Hal Blaine, who played drums on many of Spector’s classic hits, said it’s difficult for music fans today to understand the singular figure Spector cut in the heady days of the 1960s.
“I remember Brian Wilson coming by just to watch and try to learn about this magic dust that Phil seemed to sprinkle on his hits,” Blaine said. “I remember a kid named David Geffen hanging around a lot, too. Everyone loved Phil, and everyone wanted to know his secrets.”