Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Phil Spector, The Ramones, And A Gun

With word coming in that a jury in Los Angeles has convicted record producer Phil Spector of second-degree murder in the shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson at his home in 2003, I can't help but remember the day many years ago when I heard firsthand about Phil Spector and firearms.

It was the winter of 1979, and I was in Los Angeles doing a story for CREEM magazine on the making of the movie Rock 'N' Roll High School, starring my friends the Ramones. We were all staying at the infamous Tropicana motel in West Hollywood, where the iconic punk rockers felt pretty disoriented--and not only because they were such non-laid-back New Yorkers trying to "go with the flow of life in La La Land."

Just about every morning during the course of the filming, we met at the motel's coffee shop Duke's for breakfast. And one of those mornings they told me a story I'd never forget. The night before, the group had gone out for a meeting with Phil Spector at his home to discuss the possibility of the reclusive producer helming the controls for their next album.

A huge fan of Spector and his fabled "Wall Of Sound," lead singer Joey Ramone had convinced the rest of the band to meet with Spector, who hadn't produced much of anything since he'd stopped working with ex-Beatle John Lennon a few years before, and his mates were highly skeptical--especially because Spector had a huge reputation as an unpredictable character. It was a reputation, I learned that morning, that he'd certainly lived up to during their meeting.

As Johnny Ramone explained it to me, they'd been in Spector's house talking for several hours when the band's road manager mentioned it was getting late and they needed to wrap things up, and get back to the motel to get some sleep. "Phil kept telling stories about the old days, and saying he didn't want us to leave," Johnny told me. "After a while we weren't saying anything anymore, trying to maybe give him the hint that we needed to go. But he just kept talking and talking, and then he reaches into his jacket pocket and-–well, he pulls out a gun, puts it on the table right in front of us, and says, 'You guys don't really have to go yet, do you?'"

According to Dee Dee, the next few minutes were pretty tense, as the band tried to figure out just what was going on. "Luckily, Joey was able to convince him that because we were working on the movie, we just couldn't stay any longer. But for a minute or two there, I don't know; it was pretty spooky."

It should be noted that, at Joey's insistence that the whole thing wasn't anything more than Spector just "playing games" with them, the band did wind up letting him produce their next album, End Of The Century. And it's a fact that it was the highest-charting studio album of the group's entire career.

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