Candid friends of Phil Spector will admit that the bodyguards who prowled the night with the famed record producer were really in the business of protecting him from one dangerous person -- himself. So it's telling that five months ago, Spector apparently decided that the wild life was so far behind him that he no longer needed a hired shadow.
He came to that decision at a shining, hopeful moment in his life. His friends say he had been sober for three years and far removed from the days when he was notorious as a raging, erratic genius with a penchant for guns. He also was giddy at a chance to return to the studio and reclaim his legacy after two decades in music industry exile.
His friend, divorce attorney Marvin Mitchelson, now rues the moment Spector, 62, let the bodyguard leave his Alhambra mansion. "I can't help thinking," Mitchelson said, "that if he still had a bodyguard, none of this would have happened."
What has happened is the death of Lana Clarkson, a 40-year-old actress who also worked as a hostess at the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip. Sheriff's investigators say the actress was shot in the face and found in the foyer of Spector's home about 5 a.m. last Monday. A short time later, Spector was arrested and subdued by police (law enforcement sources say a taser-like device was used) and booked on suspicion of first-degree murder. He is now free on $1-million bail. More than one gun was recovered at the scene, these sources say.
The events of that Monday morning remain hazy, but based on two dozen interviews with Spector's friends, authorities and others, it appears that a man who had been hailed for his recovery was in recent weeks in a darker place. A chance to produce a comeback album had fizzled, and he acknowledged he was on medication used to treat schizophrenia. It also appears that he was drinking again, at least in the hours before his arrest.
The owner and staff of Dan Tana's, one of his favorite restaurants, said that Spector had two rum cocktails there after 12:30 a.m. Monday morning. Sources also say he then went to the House of Blues, where he bought a Bacardi 151 rum drink. House of Blues employees have said they saw Clarkson leave with Spector in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes S430 about 2:30 a.m.
Friends grimly greet the news of him drinking again. "I haven't seen him drink in years," said Bob Merlis, a longtime music industry publicist. "The Phil I have known in that time is charming and witty. He's a unique character. I've never met anyone like him. You know how they say you shouldn't meet your heroes because they will disappoint you? Phil didn't disappoint."
In January, though, Mick Brown interviewed Spector for the Sunday Telegraph of London, and his article presents an edgy Spector, one more reminiscent of his state in the 1980s or '90s. "I have not been well," the article said. "I was crippled inside. Emotionally. Insane is a hard word. I wasn't insane, but I wasn't well enough to function as a regular part of society, so I didn't. I chose not to. I have devils inside me."
Spector also was quoted as saying he took medication used to treat schizophrenia, although he "wouldn't say I'm schizophrenic .... I have a bipolar personality, which is strange. I'm my own worst enemy." Still, he stated, he was benefiting from the medication. "I'm a completely different person than I was three months ago, six months ago, nine months ago."
The Telegraph article presents him as a Norma Desmond-type, a show biz eccentric in a shaggy toupee locked behind mansion walls. The piece was published a week ago Sunday, less than 24 hours before his arrest. The producer also had been hearing his name in the press in the days before that with coverage of Paul McCartney's plan to excise all of Spector's contributions to the Beatles' "Let it Be" album and reissue it.
There have been other recent changes in Spector's life. Besides the departure of his bodyguard, former LAPD officer Jay Romaine, another of his familiar circle was gone. The producer divorced Janice Spector more than a decade ago, but she had remained his secretary. That changed in the last few months, Mitchelson said. She could not be reached for comment. She and the producer had twin children, Nicole, 20, and Philip Jr., who died of leukemia at age 10.
Many of Spector's friends have not seen him since the holidays, when they say he was gregarious, sober and stable. Mitchelson even noted that Spector rolled his eyes at one party when the pair encountered a well-known personality who was tipsy.
It was not unusual for Spector's friends to go weeks without seeing him and keep in contact through his many e-mails, most of them jokes or curious snippets of philosophy. A recent one bemoaned the unfairness of old age and imagined a life in reverse, finishing with years of glee, warmth in the womb and climaxing in conception.
Mark Ribowsky, author of the unauthorized Spector biography "He's a Rebel," said an alarming theme ran through much of it. "It's always guns," Ribowsky said. "Guns. Stories about him pointing a gun at somebody. He made it the 'in' thing: guns, dark sunglasses, bodyguards. He was the first mad genius of rock 'n' roll."
Last week, Johnny Ramone recalled how Spector used guns to exert control in the 1980s. "We were prisoners at his house; he wouldn't let us leave," said the member of the former punk rock group the Ramones. "Dee Dee [Ramone] said something, and he pulled out a gun and started waving it around ... he kept saying, 'You're not leaving, nobody's leaving.' "
But much of the lore is hyperbole, said Dan Kessel, a guitarist who appeared on many Spector projects, including ones with Cher and Leonard Cohen. Kessel "practically lived with Phil for seven years" but later saw him mostly at Spector's annual bowling parties in Montrose. Those parties have been a Spector metaphor -- they used to be wild scenes but in recent years have taken on the bonhomie of a company picnic.
"A wild rock guy? Right," Kessel said. "And do you think Alice Cooper goes to sleep with the snakes? A lot of the stuff in the old days was just show biz, theater."
In any case, Kessel and others said, he had walked away from that life, and the most important step was away from liquor. Spector never went into a formal rehab program, Mitchelson said, but he was under psychiatric care and three years ago realized that "the drinking was destroying him, physically and emotionally."
A week ago, at Dan Tana's, the drink order was so out of the ordinary that the bartender left his post to visit Spector's table to check it. "He has been coming here for years, but in the last two or three years, only soda, never alcohol," said a longtime employee of the restaurant. Spector, who often dined there with friend Nancy Sinatra, is well known for his lavish tips, and on this early Monday morning he left $500. He was reportedly joined at Dan Tana's by his caterer, a waitress at the Grill in Beverly Hills.
Investigators are tight-lipped on the details of Clarkson's death, and there are conflicting reports about the nature and duration of any relationship between her and Spector. There is at least one indication their night was not a spontaneous liaison; as news first spread of Spector's arrest, investigators received a call from a Clarkson relative who was aware that the two had planned to be together.
The gloom that now surrounds Spector is in stark contrast to the bubbly time in September when he let go a bodyguard.
The producer had just traveled to London for a gig he was confident would rebuild his reputation. The new group was the British quartet Starsailor, the first rock band that he had guided since the Ramones in 1981.
Spector's career began when he was a Fairfax High student in the late 1950s, and by age 21 he was a millionaire. His signature was a symphonic approach to pop with strings, percussion, horns and guitars creating layered power. His resume includes "Be My Baby," "Da Doo Ron Ron," "You Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " and "Stand By Me."
In 1995, after 14 years of silence, he reemerged. He was going to helm a Celine Dion album and, enthused, he invited friends into the studio to watch. Many who attended hailed the results, but the music remains unreleased. Mitchelson cites a business dispute as the cause.
Spector, a savvy businessman, demanded not only studio control but also ownership of most of his '60s recordings. That led to lawsuits by artists but has also given him a steady revenue stream. In a court decision last year, the Ronettes of "Be My Baby" fame lost a bid to share more in the song's success, which the singers say netted them less than $15,000 in royalties. The Ronettes were led by Ronnie Spector, the producer's second wife.
The Starsailor opportunity was one Spector hoped would add a second act to his career. Starsailor has been praised for songs such as the plaintive "Fever" and uplifting "Good Souls," which showed the influence of Tim Buckley, whose 1970 album gave the band its name. Spector's daughter Nicole introduced the music to her father, and he eagerly told friends he believed he could again spin musical gold.
The sessions were at Abbey Road studios in London, the same site where decades ago Spector toiled on "Let It Be" and George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." His daughter joined him on the trip, as did Mitchelson and his wife.
Spector had hopes of a whole album's worth of work. Instead, he guided four or five tracks and was later told that only one would make it on the album later this year. The band has declined to comment. The band's lead singer, James Walsh, told a British music weekly: "It was like two worlds colliding. He's not done much for a long time. He's learned a lot from us about how studios work these days, and we learned from him about older techniques."
Spector's friend Mitchelson, who has won record divorce judgments in cases with names such as Jagger and Dylan, also has film projects on the side. One is "Wall of Sound," the Phil Spector story. On the last page, the main character returns to Abbey Road in triumph with a new band.
"That was the last scene, the happy ending, the comeback," Mitchelson said. "But now, I just don't know how it's all going to end."
Times staff writers Daniel Hernandez and Richard Cromelin contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times