The Obsessionist

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Be my baby: The Ronettes, January 11, 1964

OBSESSIVE PEOPLE LOOK FOR REASONS to go on living. Now that I have a house and a wife and a kid I have a lot of motivation. But when I was younger things were different: I had a horrible job (taxi driver), a horrible apartment (cramped, dark, infested), and five-figure dental problems. I needed inspiration. I needed a goal, a quest. I needed to think about something other than how I was losing my teeth.

In the East Village of the Lower East Side of New York, in the '70s and '80s, obsessives fixated on heroin or music. I chose tunes. My technique was simple. Step one: fixate on an artist. Perhaps a friend passes on a compilation cassette. Gee, what was that great cut with the chugging synth line? Main title from " The Never-Ending Story," a German kid-fantasy, huge in Europe, bomb in the States. Artist: Limahl. Of course, Limahl. Every record outlet has a Limahl section, right?

Maybe I'd be rereading a Lester Bangs' essay from "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" — some "Creem" column from perhaps 10 or 12 years before — and decide I had to have the Iggy Pop/James Williamson " I Got A Right," and I had to have it RIGHT NOW. And not the LP version, either (if there was one), or the CD (right, not invented yet) — it had to be the 45, the only version with that raw, hyper-compressed, grooves-carved-in-your-flesh sound.

Or maybe it would come from a movie. At one point in the mid-'70s I went with some friends to see "Mean Streets." After the shock of "Taxi Driver" — which I saw maybe 20 times, leading to my move to NYC — I was looking for anything else by this guy Scorsese. Sitting there in the dark as the typewritten credits flashed on the screen, there was this SOUND. The main title for "Mean Streets" was, of course, "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes, which I had somehow slept through on its first appearance in 1963.

Thus began one of my most satisfying obsessions — a 20-year search of any vinyl archive I could uncover. In collectors' shops, record fairs, flea markets, and Pennysavers, I sought my self-appointed Holy Grail. But more on that in a minute...

SHORTLY AFTER MY EXPOSURE TO THE GENIUS of Phil Spector — the producer of "Be My Baby" — Warner Brothers Records released the double-LP "Phil Spector's Greatest Hits." I picked it up. Great record: the surreal "Wall of Sound," Spector's trademark, meaning maybe three guys playing the same bass line, four or five rhythm guitarists strumming away, two pianists playing the same chords in different registers, percussionists plugging away on maracas and castanets, a full symphony string section, and underneath it all the drums of Hal Blaine ("my five favorite drummers", according to Max Weinberg) piped through the galactic dimensions of the Gold Star Studios echo chamber.

All this sounds like a mess, but it isn't; all of Spector's productions have a solid beat — they swing, in fact — and in each number some distinctive solo instrument rides clearly above the mix, carefully placed, articulating the hooks. (Take a listen to the acoustic guitar in this segment from "Uptown.") One of the most interesting components in the Wall of Sound is the horn section, which modulates through the chords without accent, like a pianist who hits a chord once and then holds down the reverb pedal until the next harmonic shift. Other elements define the beat but the horns provide an invisible wash behind everything.

And those vocals on the top! Ronnie of the Ronettes, of course — later Veronica when Phil was pushing her as a solo artist, and later still, Ronnie Spector when she ended her career by marrying him. (According to Ronnie's book, "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette," she lived as a prisoner in Phil's L.A. mansion, finally escaping in bare feet with only the clothes on her back.)

Ronnie had a weird natural vibrato — almost a tremolo, really — that modulated her little-girl timbre into something that penetrated the Wall of Sound like a nail gun. It is an uncanny instrument. Sitting on a ragged couch in my railroad flat, I could hear her through all the arguments on the street, the car alarms, the sirens. She floated above the sound of New York while also being a part of it — a Bronx-born Latina stomping her foot on the sidewalk and insisting on being heard.

There were other singers as well — Darlene Love later became even more important to me than Ronnie. There were The Crystals on "He's a Rebel" and "Uptown" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," "Ben E. King on "Rose in Spanish Harlem," Sonny Charles and the Checkmates on " Black Pearl." But Ronnie was first.

About the same time as the American release of "Greatest Hits," Spector (who controlled all the rights to his catalog) set up a distribution arrangement with Polydor for a label called Phil Spector International, whose first and only release was a five-LP series called "The Phil Spector Wall of Sound." Featured were greatest hits collections from The Ronettes, The Crystals, Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and Phil himself. (I wasn't interested in the last one since all the tunes on it were drawn from the other three LPs or the Warner Brothers collection.)

What did interest me, however, was LP number 5: "The Phil Spector Wall of Sound Vol. 5: Rare Masters." To an obsessive, of course, the words "rare master" are Pavlovian triggers like "never released", "obscure B-side" and "the Beatles butcher-cover." That it turned out to be a great record was irrelevant — I had no choice. I was Ahab, the white whale was off the starboard. Somehow I got the money (probably around six or seven dollars) and "Rare Masters" was in my hands.

And it is a great record. There is the never-released Ronettes' version of Harry Nilsson's "Paradise," which for years existed only as a rumor. And an unknown April Stevens solo cut — she was usually half of a brother-sister act with sibling Nino Tempo — called "Why Can't a Boy and Girl Just Stay In Love." There is an obscure B-side known as "Torpedo Rock," a deliberately obnoxious instrumental, typical of what Spector sometimes placed on flip sides so the impact of the A-side wouldn't be diluted.

Finally there are two masterpieces, songs as good as "Be My Baby" or "River Deep Mountain High." The first is a Veronica number called "Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love." Phil opens with a seismic riff — a sax line of tectonic dimension, especially on crankin’ speakers — but the song's just starting, and the second time through he adds the backup vocals: "Bop bop bop, bop bop ba-dah-dah dah-dah..." I'm sitting on that couch in the dark, my next-door neighbor is pounding on the wall, and I can't get up to turn it down! I am not prepared for this — I haven't even heard the chorus and I'm like — what? St. Theresa in Ecstasy? Jesse Orosco at the bottom of the pile, end of the '86 World Series?

Then Ronnie's vocal floats in on the top: "Why do they say that / we're too young to go steady / Don't they believe that / I love you already / See the stars are shiny and bright / I wish we could go out tonight / Why don't they let us fall in love? / Why don't they let us fall in love? / Yeah yeah yeah yeah..." My reaction to this kind of lyric, in this kind of setting, is what finally convinces me that — like Brian Wilson — "I just wasn't made for these times". I mean, I'm in tears, I'm a grown man and moved to tears by this teeny-bop concoction, this early '60s equivalent of Britney Spears. (Phil called them "little symphonies for the kids.") But it's not Britney Spears — it's better. It gets to me. It defeats the cynic within, dismantles the censoring mechanism, and bypasses the cool-meter. I achieve the actual, never-articulated goal of the obsessionist: the ecstatic experience.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU REALLY CONNECT with a song like "Why Don't They Let Us Fall In Love"? As in Eliot's definition of poetry, the object communicates before it is understood. Why is it so intense? Maslow called it the "peak experience" — a few seconds of "intense ecstasy... during which the self is transcended." And I am addicted, I live for these ecstatic moments. They are so few; they are never forgotten. I can close my eyes and summon them instantly...

  • Third row seat, right in the middle, the huge Zeigfeld Theater on 54th Street. It's the premiere of the restored "Vertigo" and Kim Novak is sitting about ten seats away. Sonic Youth is there — I talk to Thurston Moore about Bernard Herrmann. The ecstatic moment: Judy walks out of the bathroom, bathed in green light, the French-curl hair style finally in place and Madeline's reincarnation complete. Herrmann's score swells.

  • Sitting on a bar stool in the East Village, circa 1988. It's late; I've come in after my shift in the cab. The bartender has green hair and the place is packed, still wall-to-wall with punks and assorted scumbags at 3 in the morning. Through the fog of cigarette smoke, at deafening volume, "Don't Fear the Reaper" plays on the jukebox. I realize for the first time what the words are.

  • Somehow I have a ticket to the RSC production of "Liaisons Dangereuses" on Broadway. I have a box seat, looking almost straight down on the heads of the players on the stage. I don't know the book — I read a rave review in the Times and wanted to see something "classy." I'm enjoying the Christopher Hampton dialogue very much, very clever, deliciously malicious. Suddenly, Madame de Tourvel collapses at the feet of Allan Rickman's Valmont. A shiver like a drug rush runs down my spine.

  • Or a night out with Dave, who's just out of the Coast Guard and looking for trouble. We start out at the Village Idiot drinking the bar wine — always a mistake. Find ourselves at the Crystal Ballroom, one of the last true bum bars on the Bowery, where a slumming uptown bartender has finagled a cheap P.A. and convinced some downtown bands to play. We switch to the gin I have in a hip flask. Kim, lead singer of Da Willys, throws herself to the floor in the middle of a an uptempo version of "Last Train to Clarksville". She moves out into the audience — still clutching the microphone, still singing — on her hands and knees. I look down and she’s crawling between my legs.

  • The peak experience, the ecstatic moment — whatever it is, "Rare Masters" had it happening all over the place. I'm not even going to begin talking about "He's a Quiet Guy," the other masterpiece, a Darlene Love tune on the B side of the LP. That one's still a little too personal.

    NOW TRY TO IMAGINE THE SCENE maybe six months after I first acquired "Rare Masters." I'm standing in Newberry's, a drugstore blessed with a hipster buyer who controlled the records section, which in those days were all LPs and 45s. I walk over to the Oldies section, or the Girl Groups section, or maybe just S in the alphabetical listing. I flip through the LPs and suddenly I'm holding "The Phil Spector Wall of Sound Vol. 6 — Rare Masters 2"!

    "Rare Masters 2"! The whole series was promoted on the back of each LP, but there was nothing anywhere about a number 2. My God! And I don’t have any cash! Since I am a starving musician I also have no credit card. ATMs are just beginning to appear but that doesn't help — a bank card needs a bank account! I hurry home but I can't get back to Newberry’s till late that afternoon. I am so sure no one else loves this music as much as me that maybe I didn't hustle like I should. In any case, "Rare Masters 2" is gone. I'm in shock, I walk out of Newberry's like a man with a bloody forehead walking away from a car crash.

    And I look for this record for the next twenty years...

    I did find it, finally, one day in Final Vinyl, an LP treasure house in the East Village. It cost me $50, the most I'd ever paid for a record up to that time (I've paid more since). It was an anti-climax, of course — all the really great tunes were on the first one. Maybe I'd changed in the meantime, and was no longer open to the intensity I'd experienced with the original. Somehow Phil Spector had lost the ability to get me there, to put me in the flow, to peak me out. Who knows why? But for 20 years I had an obsession, a comforting, distracting, and consuming passion. The object of the hunt had not been the point, anyway — the hunt is the point. I missed it after I had the object in my hands.

    Fortunately, "Rare Masters 2" was not the only obsession. Others crowded for attention: the bootleg "Marnie" soundtrack, the English-language version of "Spirits of the Dead" (particularly "Toby Dammit," the Fellini episode), and finally, the most consuming obsession of them all — the 4-CD box set, "The Legend of Dusty Springfield." Limited release, U.K. only, 2,000 copies pressed, withdrawn almost immediately after circulation. And I held it in my hands once at the HMV on 86th St. and Lexington.

    But that is a tale for another time.

    Some books you might enjoy:

    "Be My Baby: How I Survived Mascara, Miniskirts, and Madness, or My Life As a Fabulous Ronette," by Ronnie Spector and Vince Waldron, Harper Perennial, NYC, 1991

    "He's a Rebel: The Truth About Phil Spector — Rock and Roll's Legendary Madman," by Mark Ribowsky, E. P. Dutton, NYC, 1989

    "Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew: The Story of the World's Most Recorded Musician," by Hal Blaine and David Goggin, Mix Books, Emeryville, Calif., 1990

    And a last word from the master himself...